Let’s start with a particularly long, 850-word quote in itself from Isaiah Berlin:
The history not only of thought, but of consciousness, opinion, action too, of morals, politics, aesthetics, is to a large degree a history of dominant models. Whenever you look at any particular civilization, you will find that its most characteristic writings and other cultural products reflect a particular pattern of life which those who are responsible for these writings – or paint these paintings, or produce these particular pieces of music – are dominated by. And in order to identify a civilization, in order to explain what kind of civilization it is, in order to understand the world in which men of this sort thought and felt and acted, it is important to try, so far as possible, to isolate the dominant pattern which that culture obeys. Consider, for instance, Greek philosophy or Greek literature of the classical age. If you read, say, the philosophy of Plato, you will find that he is dominated by a geometrical or mathematical model. It is clear that his thought operates on lines which are conditioned by the idea that there are certain axiomatic truths, adamantine, unbreakable, from which it is possible by severe logic to deduce certain absolutely infallible wisdom by a special method which he recommends; that there is such a thing as absolute knowledge to be obtained in the world, and if only we can attain to this absolute knowledge, of which geometry, indeed mathematics in general, is the nearest example, this knowledge, in terms of these truths, once and for all, in a static manner, needing no further change; and then all suffering, all doubt, all ignorance, all forms of human vice and folly can be expected to disappear from the earth.
This notion that there is somewhere a perfect vision and that it needs only a certain kind of severe discipline, or a certain kind of method, to attain to this truth, which is analogous, at any rate, to the cold and isolated truths of mathematics – this notion then affects a great many other thinkers in the post-Platonic age: certainly the Renaissance, which had similar ideas, certainly thinkers like Spinoza, thinkers in the eighteenth century, thinkers in the nineteenth century too, who believed it possible to attain some kind of, if not absolute, at any rate nearly absolute knowledge, and in terms of this to tidy the world up, to create some kind of rational order, in which tragedy, vice and stupidity, which have caused so much destruction in the past, can at last be avoided by the use of carefully acquired information and the application to it of universally intelligible reason.
This is one kind of model – I offer it simply as an example. These models invariably begin by liberating people from error, from confusion, from some kind of unintelligible world which they seek to explain to themselves by means of a model; but they almost invariably end by enslaving those very same people, by failing to explain the whole world of experience. They begin as liberators and end in some sort of despotism.
Let us look at another example – a parallel culture, that of the Bible, that of the Jews at a comparable period. You will find a totally different model dominating, a totally different set of ideas, which would have been unintelligible to the Greeks. The notion from which both Judaism and Chrstianity to a large degree sprang is the notion of family life, the relations of father and son, perhaps the relations of members of a tribe to one another. Such fundamental relationships – in terms of which nature and life are explained – as the love of children for their father, the brotherhood of man,, forgiveness, commands issued by a superior to an inferior, the sense of duty, transgression, sin and therefore the need to atone for it – this whole complex of qualities, in terms of which the whole of the universe is explained by those who created the Bible, and by those who were to a large extent influenced by it, would have been totally unintelligible to the Greeks.
Consider a perfectly familiar psalm, where the psalmist says that ‘When Israel went out of Egypt . . . the Sea saw it and fled: Jordan was driven back. The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs’, and the earth is ordered to ‘Tremble . . . at the presence of the Lord.’ This would have been totally unintelligible to Plato or to Aristotle, because the whole notion of a world which reacts personally to the orders of the Lord, the idea that all relationships, both animate and inanimate, must be interpreted in terms of the relations of human beings, or at any rate in terms of the relations of personalities, in one case divine, in the other case human, is very remote from the Greek conception of what God was and what his relations were to mankind. Hence the absence among the Greeks of the notion of obligation, hence the absence of the notion of duty, which it is so difficult for people to grasp who read the Greeks through spectacles partly affected by the Jews.
For seventeen-hundred years, the majority of the Western World has attempted to read Greek through Jewish spectacles. Before Classical Greece, consideration and skepticism were not often considered virtues. And before the Davidic court, the idea of sublimating one’s will a singular godhead was considered far too indirect. In a world before monotheism and scientific inquiry, there could be no explanation grounded in verifiable fact. One civilization had certain gods, its neighbors had others, and since no God was omnipotent, people generally worshipped whatever gods they wished whenever they wished to at whatever moment they wished to – an historical fact on which Christianity would later capitalize by creating patron saints out of local pagan gods.
By establishing science and the accumulation of knowledge as the goal of a society, the Greeks instilled a universal standard for truth. By doing so, they created the foundation stone of all societies which anteceded them. By establishing God (or Yahweh) as a final authority to which all people must answer, the Israelites created the bricks on which all societies could enforce those universal truths the Greeks insisted upon. In our age, the idea of singular universal truths may be considered constricting, perhaps even authoritarian. But the idea that there is a universal truth which must be enforced is precisely what spurred civilizations to greater achievement. It may have created Holy War, but it also created the entire basis for all the verifiable knowledge we hold unto this day.
Athens and Jerusalem are as fundamental to what we perceive as our right and left eyes. The Greek part of us, the scientific self, tells us that knowledge and truth will guide us – and all means which we must employ to arrive at greater reserves of knowledge are necessary and justifiable. When taken to an extreme, it results in a rationalist tyranny of knowledge. It stifles free inquiry with its dogmas and insists upon pseudo-truths that would easily be disproven in a free society. Such is the world one finds under Communism and Fascism. The Hebrew part of us, the irrational (and perhaps creative) self, tells us that knowledge will never suffice to create an understanding of the world, and we therefore must put our trust in the fact that the forces which guide the world will always be beyond our understanding. All that matters, therefore, is the immediate concerns of the world before us, and faith that all authorities from our family patriarchs to our God know what is best for us. When taken to an extreme, this worldview results in an autocracy of the mysterious, in which only a priestly class who swears fealty to the One True God is allowed the privilege of the World’s knowledge and is therefore prohibited from increasing it. Such was the source of Christendom’s Middle Ages, and continues to this day to be the tyranny in place for Radical Islam.
In the world of bestial tyranny, the root of tyrannical belief is irrelevant. It is not the belief itself but the fervor of belief that causes people to act as they do. But when these two sides of contemporary thought are considered together – the rationalist with the romantic, or the stoic and the ecstatic – they represent the divided self that keeps us in check; allowing us both an unquenchable desire to improve our understanding the world, and the humility to realize that our understanding is never good enough. At humanity’s best moments, these two poles of civilization mingle with one another in reasonably consonant harmony. It is in those moments that we fitfully begin the work of reconciling what we believe with what we know. And when we finally turn a belief into a verifiable fact, humanity finally achieves another step toward progress.
The Jewish world is the contemporary world in its original division. It was the first (perhaps the only) civilization to be destroyed by the Roman Empire yet survive. It survived in a manner very different from its previous incarnation, but survive it did. And it survived by being the first civilization to combine the rational and the mysterious as a means of self-improvement. From Talmudic times onward, the Jewish world was maintained by a series of irresolvable contradictions. Among themselves, Jews deferred to rabbinical authority, but no rabbinical authority was ever final. In matters of the larger world, Jews differed to their country’s rule of law, but in matters between Jews they did everything they could to keep their affairs in Jewish courts. In matters of God, they were the first religion to believe in a God whose laws were final and absolute. Yet it was man’s duty, not God’s, to interpret these laws for practical application.
The ability to establish this balance between two irreconcilable worldviews was hard-earned. For three-hundred-fifty years, Judeans raged against the encroaching influence of classical civilization. The Maccabees (or Hasmoneans) waged and won a war to throw out the Seleucids (the Syrian Greek Empire) from Judea. The Seleucids were much like modern imperialists – some of what they tried to achieve for their subjects was quite progressive for its time, but they often went about trying to do it in the most tyrannical way imaginable. Much like 20th century Zionism, the Hasmonean Kingdom began as a movement that combined militancy with idealism – but the idealism with which it achieved its birth quickly soured into the realities of the present. Much like modern Israel, the Judea of the Hasmonean dynasty was a country like any other country, whose good and bad qualities were brought to the forefront by the fact of its existence in a very dangerous neighborhood. Like Israel, its very existence seemed like a miracle, but the reality of government was earned through gumption and blood. The kingdom went through decades of constant threats to their survival, in which towns were continually massacred and soldiers continually ambushed. Throughout their existence the Hasmonean Kingdom required a military apparatus that would equal enemies with far larger population and resources. Just as Israel clung to the leaders of their founding generation, the Hasmoneans went through three brothers from the family that led the Maccabean Revolt – first Judah Maccabee, then his brother Jonathan, then their brother Simon.
I have no idea what the future of Israel holds. But when their enemies declined, the first King of their new generation – John (Yochanan) Hyrcanus, seized the opportunity to conquer much of the Middle East and force his new subjects to convert by the sword. Over the next century, Judea would begin a slouching decay from political intrigue. As the intrigues worsened, the ideological conflicts grew exponentially between two parties: the Pharisees (those who believed in the authority of modern-day prophets to reveal Jewish law to the masses) and Saducees (those who believed in the authority of the High Priest and the priestly class to interpret Jewish law for the masses). Soon thereafter, Judea was torn apart completely by Civil War and the Pompey the Great (Julius Caesar’s rival) invaded the country to restore order. Within twenty years, Hasmoneans were duly replaced with the Herodians, who ruled Judea as a Roman puppet. Many times, Judeans attempted to resurrect the miracle of the Maccabean Revolt by casting off the mantle of Roman (and Herodian) tyranny, only to be crushed by Rome in every attempt. By 70 AD, the Romans considered the Judeans so troublesome that they removed the Herodians, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and installed a Roman authority who had no autonomy from the Roman Emperor. Indeed, the only time the Judeans successfully overthrew Rome was during the Bar-Kokhba Rebellion around 132 AD. For three years, Judea was ruled as an independent Jewish state. But Rome returned, and its slaughter is estimated by some to be roughly 580,000 Judeans, and that does not include those citizens of Judea who were deported to Babylon as slaves.
There was no telling how Judaism was to survive past this apocalyptic ending of life in Israel. There was already a thousand years of religious tradition and scripture, but never were Jews so scattered that they required any interpretation but those which authorities could recite orally to their followers. A new age required a new body of law. By 220 AD, the first book appeared in which a council of Rabbis interpreted law in a binding way for the lay public – called the Mishna (literally meaning: from secondary – as in sources). Much like Supreme Court decisions, each tractate in the Mishna is written about a case that appears in front of a Rabbinical court in which the problem is described and why the Rabbi ruled in the way he did.
The Mishna is a rather terse book, with not much more elaboration than in the Torah. Even at the time of its publication, Rabbis felt the need to issue a second book, the Tosefta, which was a compilation of the oral traditions of Jewish law. However, during the next three-hundred years, many Rabbis from both Judea and Babylon felt that as far as practical application went, the Mishna was incomplete. These Rabbis therefore wrote their own commentaries and clarifications for the book. These commentaries became known as the Gemara. Together, these two books comprise the Talmud – which to this day is the foundation for how Jewish law is interpreted. However, there are two Gemaras, filled with writings separately collected – one from Jerusalem around 400 AD, and the other from Babylon around 500 AD. So there are in fact two Talmuds – the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud – both of which contain much content that is completely different from one another.
And then came seven-hundred more years of Talmudic commentary, Rabbinic homilies, and general Jewish wisdom literature – collected from Rabbis around the Jewish world who consulted and published in Aramaic in much the same way that theologians from around Christendom published in Latin. Around 1170 came the Mishneh Torah of Moses Maimonides, published in Egypt. The Mishneh Torah attempted to tell its readers what the best Rabbinic interpretation was of every theological issue on which Rabbis have ever had to rule. After Maimonides’s achievement, Rabbinic literature was revolutionized; Rabbis thought bigger. A century-and-a-half later came the Four Rows (Arbah Turim) of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher which attempted to trace the entire history of Rabbinic law from the oral tradition down to the present day. Two-hundred years later came the Beth Yosef and Shulkhan Arukh by Rabbi Yosef Karo. For the Beth Yosef, Karo operated like Yaakov-ben-Asher and exhaustively examined all the known Rabbinical literature from antiquity until his own time. For the Shulkhan Arukh, Karo operated as a later-day Maimonides, and codified the best interpretations until his own time. In the late eighteenth century came the ‘Life of Man’ (Chayei Adam) in which Rabbi Avraham Danzig dealt with Jewish conduct on the holidays. And none of this even begins to cover the parallel and controversial world of Jewish mysticism provided in the Zohar and the Kabbalah, or the special commentaries directly about the Torah or Halakhic Law (laws given from the Torah); or the compilations of Rabbinic commentary made throughout the ages, or the entirely separate books Rabbis wrote on Jewish philosophy and ethics; or how the Jewish prayer book (Siddur) was made, or the Responsa literature which comprises more than two-thousand years of Rabbinic debates.
There is no religion which takes theology more seriously than Judaism. In Catholicism, the need to answer theological questions is not particularly paramount, because God commands Catholics through his chosen vicar on Earth in order to have a final interpretation. But in the entire history of Judaism, no Rabbi’s authority has been so central that his ruling holds up as the definitive one against all arguments – even in his own time. Judaism has survived for so long because it never takes anything but the hardest conceivable road. It is much easier to live one’s life through a monist view – in which one explanation suffices to explain the existence of the entire world. It is much, much more difficult to reconcile practical thought with irrational belief. This is the great achievement of the Jewish people. It is also why being Jewish, frankly, sucks.
It is not uncommon to feel as though growing up Jewish is a prison from which there is no escape. When given the chance to assimilate, many Jews throughout history tried so hard to do so that they abandoned their Jewish identities completely – renouncing everything from culture to friends to family. To many Jews, Judaism is a pernicious mixture of a community in which the rules are truly suffocating, and a worldwide community who views Jews as a demonic force hellbent on world destruction that must be stopped by all means necessary. What sane person would not shake off this inheritance if given the chance? How insane would a person have to be in order to convert and take on this inheritance themselves? What lack of conscience must we Jews have in order to bring children into a world with such a terrible inheritance in store for them?
But the irony is that in precisely this way, Jews are like every successful community the world has ever seen, thus far at least. Every functional community is a community of laws that cannot be broken, and every great civilization has people within it – rational and irrational – who view their society as a terrible prison whose walls must come down at all costs. It was true for the Romantics against the 18th century society of the Enlightenment, it was true for liberals and totalitarians alike against the aristocratic rule of the great European powers in the early-20th century, and it was true for the hippies against the liberal American society of the mid-20th century. All great societies enable people to pursue their personal vision of happiness, but none of them guarantee that the vision may come to fruition – and all too often, these non-mainstream personal visions of happiness are viewed by others who live in great societies as threats to their fragile security, however rightly or wrongly. The difference between the 2000-year Rabbinic society of Judaism and the great secular societies is that the great societies of the world are open societies, privy to a great panoply of forces, secular and religious, any one or combination of which can break their fragile social contract all too easily. There is far more latitude allowed within secular society for following one’s bliss, but just as far more latitude is allowed, far more damage can be done by the misunderstandings inherent in a diverse culture. But Jewish societies are closed societies, privy to only as many forces as they allow into their communities. The freedom to follow a personal vision of bliss is far, far narrower for anyone who wants to live as a Jew. It is an unbreakable society in which mystery and rationality have been held in near-equal balance for thousands of years. But it demands a near-total subordination of a person’s free will to its many, many laws. It demands that its people exist at the tolerance of larger societies, and if necessary, endure all taunts, assaults, and murder at the larger society’s hands. To be a Jew is to be the custodian of a long prestigious inheritance, but to do what it takes to uphold that inheritance is more than any person should ever be asked to do in this life.
And still, Judaism will remain.