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September 13, 1985 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-09-13

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14 Friday, September 13, 1985 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS


Jews are a singular confusion — difficult
to define, awkward to describe, impossible
to understand. All the virtues, all the vices,
every pleasure, every pain — nothing is
spared 'them. They do not constitute a
nationality, nor are they united by a com-
mon language or culture or ideology, or by
residence in a given territory. Jews have
been called a peoplehood, as well as a
spiritual nation, but these are evasions,
not descriptions. Since Judaism admits
converts to Jewish faith, Jews are hardly
a race. And though religion may once have
united them about a single belief, that
unity has long since been shat-
tered by the fervor of conflict-
ing interpretations and out-
right rejections. Religion has set
them at odds with one another:
varieties of orthodoxy and shades
of skepticism, implacable faith and
no faith at all. On grounds of obser-
vance, a number of prime ministers of
Israel, to say nothing of the founder of
Zionism, would be excluded from the elect,
while the founder of Christianity might
claim full membership.
In a world that worshiped many
Gods, Judaism set itself on the road
to monotheism; Jews entrusted their
faith to God, and argued that faith
with him. One could claim member-
ship, assert fidelity, and yet dis-
pute virtually every particle of
belief. From the race that was
not a race and the nation with-
out nationality, no tenet barred, no object-
ion disqualified, no practice excluded.
Maimonides, a great medieval philosopher
of Judaism, sought to elaborate a formal
creed, outlining thirteen beliefs he held
fundamental. Should there be a creed?
Even that point was in dispute. Philo-
sopher Hasdai Crescas, at the end of the
Middle Ages, reduced the creed to eight ar-
ticles, and a pupil brought them down to
three — belief in monotheism, in revela-
tion, in justice. But what modern Jew
mindful of Jewish history could not have
predicted the appearance of atheist Jews
who reduced revelation to human artifice
and who saw in the world not the work of
divine justice but the reign of chance?
The Old Testament appeared to consti-
tute the basis for allegiance; Jews were
taken as those who accepted the Bible as
their reason for being, and for being dif-
ferent. "That one book is to the Jews their
country," the apostate German-Jewish
poet Heinrich Heine maintained. "Within
the well-fenced boundaries of that book

Excerpted from the book Coat of Many Col-
ors by Israel Shenker. Copyright © 1985 by
Israel Shenker, published by Doubleday &
Co., Inc.

• Singular

Art By Scott Roberts

Difficult to define, awkward
to describe, impossible to
understand. Every pleasure,
every pain — nothing is
spared them.


they live and have their being; they enjoy
their inalienable citizenship, are strong to
admiration; thence none can dislodge
them. Absorbed in the perusal of their
sacred book, they little heeded the changes
that were wrought in the real world around
them. Nations rose and vanished, states
flourished and decayed, throughout the
earth revolutions raged, but they, the
Jews, sat poring over this book, uncon-
scious of the wild chase of time above their
Moses Hess, the nineteenth-century
spiritual father of Zionism, wrote of the
' Jewish religion that for two
thousand years it had been,
"as Heine and with him all the
intellectual Jews rightly felt, more
of a misfortune than a religion."
The suggestion that Jews were
selected from among all the nations
of the earth to be God's chosen people
suggested a kind of group arrogance,
especially when the good news was first
reported by Jews. However, the choice
was interpreted not as tribute to superior
virtue but as divine challenge. This view-
point suggested that Jews were chosen
to be a light unto others, a people
singled out for the peculiar
burden of exemplifying a life of
ethical devotion, "a community
of destiny as willed by God,"
in the words of historian Salo
W. Baron. In their sacred books
they were enjoined to obey
613 commands, observance of which pro-
mised blessings in heaven and a life of trial
and error on earth. But to describe Jews
as people of the book fails to give skep-
ticism and empty ritualism their due.
"Why choose me?" was a wry rejoinder to
the assurance that they were God's elect.
"A choosing people," suggested author
Israel Zangwill, who understood the rites
of irreverence.
"A God we have, that's all we need, and
a people he has, that's all he needs" — thus
went a superficially loyalist summary that
Yiddish transformed into wry protest by
tone of voice or shift of words: "A God we
have — who needs him? And a people he
has — who needs them?"
Some made personal choice the criterion,
as though Judaism were the name oppo-
site a lever in a polling booth, and Jews
voted themselves into powerlessness. But
even those who pulled another lever and
chose not .to be Jews remained apostate
Jews. Baron proposed consensus as the
criterion of Jewishness, admitting as Jews
those who by "conscious will adopted
Judaism and joined the community. He
suggested that even Jews of faint persua-
sion usually underwent three clearly Jew-

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