Commentary Magazine

Therefore Choose Life


Almost everybody who is interested in Jews at all sometimes asks the question, “Are Jews a people or a sect?” Is Judaism an identity masquerading as a religion—a national identity (“the Hebrews”) or a cultural identity (“Jewishness”)? Valid Judaism invalidates the question. Judaism, a religion, is embodied in nation and culture. These are intrinsic and essential. In the medium is the message. Judaism has an almost Confucian feeling for the “oneness of knowledge and action.”

Many people call Judaism a religion, but a “lower religion,” ethnocentric and tribal. At best they see it as abortively universal, missing out on its own implications, which were yielded to the Church. Ezra Pound, putting it at the worst, gives the Hebrew Bible the same standing as tales of the Choctaw. Many observers, though milder than Pound, agree that Jews may travel but Judaism doesn’t: for all the fact of Gentile conversions to Judaism, in Hellenistic times and after, Judaism still looks like just a derivative of “the religion of the Semites,” part of a larger cultural repertoire. The religion is anthropologically interesting, not the other way around—the anthropology, or the community anthropologized, is not religiously interesting. How should it be, if the religion is just a department of a single people’s (though a complex people’s) life? What is this people’s kinship structure, what are its taboos . . .?

If Judaism is just cultural baggage, cultures, as everyone knows, change, and never so fast as in modern times. Modern liberal values, in fact say that cultures ought to change. A rationalistic ethic proclaims freedom, release from the authority of tradition. Certain traditions may appeal to modern taste—the very idea of tradition may appeal—but then taste, not tradition, has authority. A credo (runs the liberal imperative) should not be imposed by birth. The liberal imperative is Kant’s: so act—and, by implication, so believe—that you can conceive your governing principle as a universal principle. This has seemed subversive of Judaism. Kant thought so, and so have many Jews, for Judaism seems hopelessly particular.

Some Jews may resent being identified as Jews, identified with a cultic commitment they never made. If they happen to agree, for example, with historically Jewish demurrals about cardinal points of Christian doctrine, shouldn’t they be able to make it clear that it is they who demur? Unitarianism or Ethical Culture or disaffiliation (“religion: none”) would be their proper platform. This, presumably, universalizes their doctrine, making them free and respectable intellectually. Many Jewish parents, not out of sloth or unconcern, but in all conscience, object to any Jewish education for their children. Let them grow up, become intellectually responsible, and then decide. What do these parents imply?—that it is biased, unfair, to foist on children a pre-rational, a particularistic, association. Must they be children of Israel?

Of course one could make debating points against this point of view. No one reaches maturity with a tabula rasa mind, antiseptically rational; and so bias (in this case, anti-Jewish bias) may be assured, not removed, by an early parental default. But it is the ground of the debate, not one of the sides, that has to be challenged. For Judaism as an abstract, intellectual, universal proposition—indeed, a subject for modern choice or rejection—subsumes under itself concrete, non-intellectual, particular existence, a people, a historical quantity. General truth-seekers, Jews among them, ask why Jews have to remain visible. What has this to do with rational acceptance of whatever spiritual quality a religion may possess? The answer—a tautology—is that Jews are a people that has to remain visible. It is not just that history made them visible (and may yet close over them). They are not just a people available for anthropologizing, religion and all. They live as a people that has to live: and that is their definition. Of course their values are facts, their norms can be described. But the descriptions pertain to prescriptions. To be is not to be, but to will to be—and to be willed. Thou (not “one”), thou (so there are others), thou shalt have (not thou wilt have) no other god before Me.

A Jew always reaffirms that his people, from which he is not separate himself, must stay visible, historically surviving in all its generations. This is a religious position, not a social preference. A taste for “cultural pluralism” has nothing to do with it; not defeatism about anti-Semitism, nor even a sense of honor in the face of anti-Semitism; nor vicarious thrills in chess championships or the special and general theories of relativity. In spite of the Nazi experience, maybe partly because of it, the assumptions most Jews make today, their hopes or fears, are plausible. One can get lost in America or England, even in Russia, quite easily. Cultural eclecticism, a general modern trend, lets anyone get anyone’s “ethnic” foods at the market, anyone (exit Russia here, if not before) hear Israeli folksongs in his favorite boîte, anyone read the Bible as “living literature,” or even as spiritual refreshment. Brave people in Mississippi can try to do justice and love mercy without reading Micah, or without reading him as Jews, or with only a passing pleasure but no stab of command at finding lofty thoughts in a book of Jewish provenance. One can read Confucius and nod one’s head (for a number of reasons) at his sage dicta, without being Chinese. Who needs to be a Jew in order to have some Jewish spices in the cosmopolitan recipe?

A Jew needs to be a Jew—Judaism is compelling—for reasons other than Jewish “contributions” to civilization. That is a futile defense, anyway, against Jewish dissolution; simply as an eclectic modern, a Jew could take, or make, these contributions. But more seriously, the trouble is that men who “place” Judaism in this fashion, as just an early contributor to our catholic modern culture, have missed the meaning of Jewish experience. For Judaism is not a drop dissolved in a synthesis, not a spice of life, a motif in history. It is a choice of life. History is a motif in Judaism, and the latter’s very particularism—such a scandal to so many open minds with large views, impatient with closed communities and petty selves—does not, in fact, constitute parochialism, but converts it. The Jewish people, by its very existence, and only in its existence, its historical visibility, states a general proposition. Judaism does not fall short of the “truth” of universalism. It stands against that spurious universalism which is so often invoked against it.




Deuteronomy 4, 15-20:

And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go over to possess it. Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves . . . lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, thou be drawn away and worship them, and serve them which the Lord thy God hath allotted unto all the peoples under the whole heaven. But you hath the Lord taken and brought forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be unto Him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.

Here is the God of nature and the God of history, one God, with two realms of creation. Nature is universal (“allotted unto all the peoples”). It is not to be worshipped. History is the particular. Non-biblical thinkers like Aristotle (setting poetry as the realm of eternity against history as the realm of ephemera) and anti-biblical thinkers like Voltaire (setting essentialist, all-pervading deism against the accidental, petty history of Jewish revelation) confirm it. And history is essential to the Jews.

Not that God gave history only to Jews. “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O Children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (from Amos, in one of the weekly chantings from the Prophets and Writings in the cycle of the Jewish year). Rather, Jews see man’s relation to God—until the days of the Messiah—in history, in particularity. Jewish particularity stems from a positive definition of a vessel of meaningful life. It does not have—as the exclusiveness of the “white race” does have—the spuriousness, the lack of inner self-existence, of mere negation.

The Sabbath, after the sixth day, when “the Heavens and the earth were finished, and all their host,” commemorates the creation of universal nature. It also commemorates the creation of particular history—creation of the Jews as a people, a vessel of history, ready to start out from slavery as an inchoate mass in the “iron furnace,” on to the commitment at Sinai, and on and on to the brink of the land of promise, where the scroll of the Torah ends. This is The Land, Eretz, the small earthy plot that confirms the creation of a people by rooting them in a finite patch of soil. The Sabbath Kiddush, the sanctification on the eve, the ceremony that recalls the creation of the world, also calls the Sabbath “a memorial to the departure from Egypt.” Nature and history, the universal and the particular, are brought together.

If God is one, nature and history must be brought together. Nature without history invites cyclical thinking, no sense of process but the cycle, in magical sympathy with the cycle of the seasons, with no “in the beginning.” And this means no sense of individuation: one seeks accommodation with nature (involving a mystical loss of self-consciousness), harmony, not creative change. To deny this is to deny the importance of God as creator (“in the beginning,” with a straight extension of time), and the importance of the related Jewish injunction to imitatio Dei. God starts history. Jews make history.

When Israel hears, or is commanded to hear, that the Lord their God is One, this historical people must accept the combination of nature and history as the issue of one Creator. History is not meant to deny nature, but it must not be denied itself. Cycles figure in Jewish thinking, the cycle of ritual observances and the cycle of reading the Torah, so that the death of Moses and the creation of heaven and earth meet in sequence at Simchat Torah, the festival of rejoicing in the Law. And throughout the year, historical and natural events combine to inform the festivals, such as the Feast of Weeks—Shavuot—relating to the epiphany at Sinai and the gathering of the sheaves. But in each of the basic holiday seasons, Passover and the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur), there is a careful disjunction of nature and history. Not a denial of one or the other, but a singleness of emphasis.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish “New Year,” the special celebration of the creation of the world, falls in the seventh month, not on the natural new year. The transcendental creation of nature (linked with the Jews’ reaffirmations of their ethical imperatives, their commitments to act, as the act of creation suggests) is deliberately separated from involvement in the cyclical renewal of nature. Nissan, the first month of the natural year, in the spring, is the month that is marked for Exodus, the historically Jewish, not the natural or universal, point of departure. The spring-festival character of Passover is overlaid with history. When it gets down to commemorating the two realms of creation, Jewish practice links them in the Sabbath, but preserves a creative tension by keeping them individual in the year, so that the particular is not just subsumed, swallowed, in the universal. Until history ends, history must be savored and respected, newly fashioned in action, in memory of the Creation.




“There shall be neither Jews nor Greeks.” How does a Jewish sense of history, a transcendentalist conception, relate to a Greek universalism, with its immanentist character? Usually, in the conventional comparison of “Hellenism” and “Hebraism,” Christianity is filed under Hebraism, with all the appropriate clichés—somber, brooding, and so on, as against the life-enchancing Greek light.

Many scholars, like Moses Hadas in Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion (1959), have taken the starkness out of this confrontation. Hellenic light, they show, was not dimmed by the dark from the East in some Manichean struggle. Rather a Hellenistic fusion, a mingling of colors (powerfully furthered by the conquests of Alexander), created an ecumenical culture; the Hellenistic age gave later Europe the configuration of its culture. In Hadas’s synthesis, Isocrates emerges as the great spokesman for the diffusion of Hellenism from the Greek center, and Plato as the thinker most influential in the areas of diffusion. And Hadas sees the process affirmatively, as making the Europe we know, not negatively, as breaking the classic ideal.

It is the Jewish experience with Hellenism which provides the most complex test of the latter’s quality, and of Judaism’s too.

“Hellenic” as a term pertains to a specific historical people—the Greeks; the “Hellenistic,” on the other hand, transnational and universalist, does not require Greeks to embody it. But Judaism requires Jews, a requirement of particularity which has exasperated universalists both ancient and modern, Boris Pasternak no less than the Emperor Hadrian. Hadas notes this requirement, as he juxtaposes Plutarch with the talmudist, Yohanan ben Zakkai. For both, he suggests, a way of life was made into a cult which could command loyalty even when sovereignty was lost—but “the great difference was that whereas Plutarch’s was only metaphorically a cult, Yohanan’s was one in fact.” That is, the Jews gained continuity as a community; the Greeks continued in their intellectual legacy, informing a civilization that followed and transcended the Greek.

Yet, while Hadas keeps this distinction very much in mind, his book suggests that Jewish history is rescued from meaninglessness by its disembodied intellectual influence on the central stream of political theory which Rome transmitted to Europe (from Isaiah through the Sybilline Oracles, Vergil, and the Roman imperial ideology), on basic Christianity (from the Septuagint through the Apocrypha), on scholastic theology (from the Bible through Posidonius of Apamea to Seneca and, ultimately, Aquinas), etc. Just as the Hellenic can become Hellenistic and, by being encapsulated in a universal history, leave the Greeks behind, so the Jewish can be encapsulated in the Hellenistic, the Christian, the European, and by shaking off the material body, claim a triumph of the spirit or the soul.

However, the ultimate Jewish dissociation from Hellenism was a calculated rejection of just such a typically Hellenistic dichotomy of matter and spirit. Hadas observes that the Jews’ willing subjection to the law was the means of their survival after territory and sovereignty were lost. But the law cannot be vindicated that way, as a means, to those who would devalue the end, ethnic survival, according to Hellenistic or Christian criteria. What needs to be seen is that the Jewish will to survival was a religious will, a reaffirmation of the biblical injunction to “choose life,” an acceptance of history and the consequent commitment to action, and thus a rejection of Platonic and neo-Platonic indifference to history and of antinomian (because anti-historical) Pauline otherworldliness.

Whatever Hellenistic, post-biblical elements may be found in rabbinical Judaism, it still kept “the world, universe” and “eternity” together in the Hebrew word “olam,” not rent apart in Hellenistic fission. The decision to stay in the world and continue a history was not only a sociological act of resistance to the Hellenistic solvent but an intellectual denial of what that would imply. And the denial was contained in the act. Or, the thought demanded the survival of the thinker, as a judgment on a universalism so ethereal that bodies, lives, the material world—all particulars in a history stubbornly persisting—were consigned to evanescence and in the deepest sense left untouched. Nietzsche was right (and, perhaps, paradoxically, Jewish) when he claimed vitality for the particular: “and to the eunuch one woman is the same as another, merely a woman, ‘woman in herself,’ the ever-unapproachable.” If the bequeather must vanish in the flesh, the bequest (from Judaism via Hellenism to the “Judeo-Christian tradition”) will become so transmuted as to belie its own name.




The adjective “Judeo-Christian” is coin of the realm of interfaith relations. It has an irenic ring, and many Jews accept the combination. Instead of contempt for Jewish values, it seems to promise respect, and a ticket of admission to Western culture. Unfortunately, it is a children’s ticket, not an adult’s; and admission under these terms dismisses the authenticity of Judaism.

Somehow, the Christian component assimilates, it seems, all the Judaism anyone needs, so that Judaism tout court is superfluous. And Jewish identity is watered down so that Jewish survival seems irrelevant. Why not relax with a happy sigh into the great continuum? But the meaning of Jewish survival, Jewish life, is to testify to life—”to life!,” “l’hayyim,” is the Jewish toast—and the Hebrew Bible, not the Greek (for all its resurrections), is the testament of life. Whenever Jews complacently echo, with hands across the hyphen, that Christians honor the “Old Testament,” they accept themselves as outgrown (and outworn: the “fossil” according to Toynbee). “Old Testament” implies “New Testament,” onward and upward—all this and Heaven too—in spurious continuity. But “Old Testament,” pre-empted by Christians to paste it together with “New,” is a different book from the Hebrew Bible in solitary splendor (and not merely because of the flaws in the Greek translation from Hebrew). Jews should know the value of the One. It should not be for Jews, of all people, to mix the meat with the milk and water.

Over the centuries, Jewish apologetics have changed their tone. For normative Christianity, Marcionism (the contention that New Testament and Old Testament stand for good and evil, respectively) is heresy. Therefore, in the officially orthodox Middle Ages, Christians stressed, as a matter of faith, that the Old Testament flowed into the New. The Synagogue was a broken image (vide the famous figure in the Strasbourg cathedral), but the Jewish Bible was not broken off. The great set theme of all those Christian-Jewish disputations, convened under Christian auspices, was the theme of continuity. Christians purported to show, from the Jewish scriptures themselves, that a Christian culmination was expected. It was the Jews who held to the thesis of a radical discontinuity. Christians, they said, were welcome to their New Testament, but should see it for what it was: a radical new departure.

In modern times, when so many liberties began to be taken with Christian orthodoxy, the terms of the argument changed. Liberal Christians tended to convert their New Testament into an edifying document, not a transcendental witness. The Gospels were sublime but not divine, except in a metaphorical sense. And then, so much of the Old Testament was not sublime. So many pages of smite, smote, smitten: over how many liberal pulpits have the Amalekites been littered, and the wretched Israelites, with their tribal Jehovah, shredded! Jews rose to the occasion (in a manner of speaking) with an effort to close the breach. Their Bible (well, maybe not Judges . . .) was edifying, too, and rabbinical midrash, the Jews’ extension of biblical teaching, had all the sweetness that Christians could claim for their extension. If only Christians would stop preening themselves for standing on a higher plane, and realize that the Rabbis matched the Apostles and Fathers in largeness of spirit, we could all be Judeo-Christian together.

This was all very well. Liberal Christians might admit Hillel into the club. But he had to be sponsored, patronized. The Hebrew will turn Christian, “he grows kind.” Darwinism, progressive evolutionary theory, could shape religious conviction as well as shake it. Christianity remained on a higher plane. Jews, even still as Jews, could be helped aboard, for liberal theology usually had some psychological link with liberality of spirit, but Judaism in the last analysis was pre-Christian and sub-Christian, fossilized and fixed. It was lower than Christianity, really a different and dead species of religion, not just (unrecognized by Jews) the proto-Christian praeparatio evangelica.

What had happened in Christianity, essentially, with a Jewish reaction to match, was something ineffably suburban. It was the banishment of revelation (whereby an objective God speaks to the subject) in favor of narcissism (aren’t we nice to make such a nice God-idea for ourselves?). One of the nice things was a God of love distinctly more spiritual than the God of retributive justice (or even injustice). This sentimental separation has a great deal to do with what Nietzsche saw as the blandness of the New Testament. In contrast, the strength, the life, of the Old Testament is partly in its tension, in its straining correlation of justice and mercy. How can mercy exist unless the normal course of justice exists, perhaps (in mercy) to be set aside? As the liturgy for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, has it: “If man is judged with perfect justice, who shall stand?” Jonah, the prophetic portion that follows the second and last of the Torah readings on Yom Kippur, tells the quintessential story. Justice for Nineveh would be its destruction; but Jonah fears (with justice) that t’shuvah, “turning,” atonement, would engage God’s mercy, and make Jonah’s prophecy of justice abortive. God, who has to be God of justice to be God of mercy, chides Jonah. Jews, in choosing this as the central prophetic reading of the Jewish year, embrace the principle of the chiding—as though mercy were justice’s confutation instead of its correlative.

Mercy exists because man can change, and his fate, too, can change. Where there is one God, fate is not a goddess, man’s fate is not inexorably determined. That is why the Hebrew prophets were hortatory, not deterministic. The prophets (at least the prophets of the Books) were moralists, not seers—which is why partisans of the New Testament, with their commitment to a fanciful exegesis that makes Old Testament prophecy seem literally “realized,” appear to Jews as partisans of the letter, not of the spirit. Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh was not realized. A truly omnipotent God is not bound by a text, so history is not bound to a textual exegesis, as man (“in the image of God”), a creator who can break and refashion the conditions that seem to bind him, is not bound to a fate allegedly prophesied. Prophecy, in the Hebrew Bible, is not so mechanistic.

One might say that the New Testament has this correlation: justice (for the fall) making possible mercy (through atonement). But here, truly, is legalism, the abstract weighing of pleasures and pains. God here seems Roman-bureaucratic, limited. He provides a channel for redemption and then must go through channels Himself, for He can redeem only through the machinery, the apparatus of the cross. Christian trinitarian-ism seems to impugn monotheism here, and not just in the literal sense that three is, simply, three, not three-in-one or one-in-three, the famous holy mystery. The crucial damage to monotheism is in the implication that God’s power, His flexibility, is impugned. Once God has set up the treasury of grace (filled enough for all men forever, through the totally undeserved suffering of the vicarious sufferer), all who deserve the suffering of divine punishment can draw on the treasury to pay their debts. The divine books balance, since the crucifixion supplies infinite recompense for the infinite accumulation of human guilt. Men can draw on the treasury; they must draw, to be saved. That is the law of salvation.



It is for Christians, not Jews, then, that law seems really a yoke that no one can throw off—not man, not God. For God is not free to save when He has to be paid in one specific coin, whether drawn on by faith or paid in the individual destiny of the faith-less individual. Once He has set it up, even God cannot interfere with the abstract, legal balance. Far from being the sole Lord, the untrammeled executive of justice and mercy, He seems, with a holy book of this sort, an inexorable, impersonal bookkeeper. Paul put God in this situation when he bequeathed to Christianity his idiosyncratic interpretation of man’s first disobedience. The fruit was guilt, and its consequence, damnation. The way out was the transfer of debt to Corporation Christi, where there was ample credit with which to pay. In terms of the Hebrew Bible, this is not a biblical faith; this reading of Genesis is Christian, not “Judeo-Christian.”

For to Jews, with biblical warranty, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge meant, not the impressment into hell, but the expulsion from Eden. That is, man became man, in his actual, historical, human situation—pain, travail, sweat of the brow. “Knowledge” means individuation, discrimination, the break in Edenic continuum of ego and object, the awareness of life which is the awareness of passion (suffering), and of passing time, and death. The fatal flaw in man becomes for Paul the basis of damnation. But for Jews, for a Saul but not a Paul, it becomes the grounds for mercy, since man is not bound to be more than man, and as such his nature must be flawed, which God knows and excuses. “Never again [after Noah and the Flood] will I doom the world because of man, since the inclinations of man’s heart are evil from his youth.”

It is the Jewish inference that man cannot identify with God in substance, but can imitate God (within limits) in action. The Christian inference, for all the variations on imitatio Christi which Christian literature affords, is that the imitation of Christ is not only ultimately impossible, but undesired. Christ is as he is, sinless, not really to inspire men to the same condition, but to compensate for the impossibility of such an inspiration. He cannot remove man’s original sin, he can only pay for it. Therefore, the Christian emphasis is on communion, assimilation, oneness in essence—not action. To Judaism, man can (and must) remain man, not flee to absorption in God out of the conviction that man, if only man, is doomed.

Man is not condemned for what is of his essence. To have that essence, to be man in the world beyond the Garden, is its own condemnation, and the sole condemnation (to life, not to hell) which that essence implies for man. And this condemnation is not condign, since in life, in history, man can be redeemed. Plunged by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (of good and evil) into the midst of life, man may work his way back from time to eternity by way of the (metaphorical) Tree of Life, from the Sinai of revelation and burning bush. “For I give you good doctrine, foresake ye not My law. It is a Tree of Life to them who grasp it. . . . Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” If knowledge of good and evil made man the man he is, in life, in history, action, the heeding of commandments (not the assent to propositions), redeems life and assures life by making it good, not evil. The condition of life, the condition of choice, is not a curse. To choose well in life is nothing less than to choose life itself. “Therefore choose life.” This choice is good and sufficient.


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