Monday, August 6, 2007

Remembering: a life-perpetuating act

from History News Network ( The Miracle of Jewish HistoryBy Benjamin Blech (Rabbi Blech is Associate Professor of the Talmud at Yeshiva University and the author of Eyewitness to Jewish History)

Over three hundred years ago King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the great French philosopher of his day, to give him proof of the existence of miracles. Without a moment's hesitation, Pascal answered, "Why, the Jews, your Majesty-the Jews."

We don't have to speculate what Pascal meant when he gave this answer, because he took the trouble to spell it out. In his masterwork, Pensees, he explained that the fact that the Jewish people had survived until the seventeenth century-the time period in which he lived-was nothing short of a supernatural phenomenon.

Pascal is but one of many scholars and students of Jewish history who have been awed by a story that seems inexplicable by the ordinary rules of logic. When Arnold Toynbee completed his classic ten-volume analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations, A Study of History, he was troubled by only one seeming refutation of his universal rules governing the inexorable decline of every people on earth. Only the Jews had survived, in defiance of Toynbee's carefully reasoned analysis. So Toynbee proclaimed the Jews nothing more than "a vestigial remnant," a people destined soon to perish.

But somehow, in spite of the most brutal attempts throughout history to destroy the children of Israel-from crusades, inquisitions, and pogroms to the "Final Solution" of the Holocaust-Jews have defied all predictions of their demise. Like Mark Twain, who read his own obituary in the newspaper, Jews can thankfully respond that the report of their death "is highly exaggerated." With a smile we can remind ourselves of the famous 1964 Look magazine cover story that confidently predicted "The Vanishing American Jew" and reflect on the irony that it is Look magazine itself that no longer survives.

Jewish history, simply put, defies explanation.

Mark Twain was an agnostic and a self-acknowledged skeptic, yet he could not help but be overwhelmed by this remarkable truth. This is what he wrote in 1899:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

The writer Leo Nikolaivitch Tolstoy, best known for War and Peace, was not an agnostic. He was a very religious Russian Orthodox Christian. In an 1891 article entitled "What Is a Jew?" he wrote:

The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy, he who neither fire, nor sword, nor Inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He who was the first to produce the Oracles of God. He who has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself.

Perhaps David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, summed it up best when he said, "A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist."

And that's why this book, Eyewitness to Jewish History, had to be written. Miracles need to be told. Incredible events have to be publicized. The story of a people that begins with the Bible and continues to be the focus of world attention to this day requires study and understanding.

After all, among the many gifts of the Jews to the world is the very concept of history. Ancients had no appreciation for studying the past. Herodotus, a Greek who lived in the fifth century before the Common Era, is commonly considered the first historian; he is given the title "the father of history." But as Columbia University historian Joseph Yerushalmi has pointed out, "If Herodotus was the father of history, the father of meaning in history was the Jews."

It is the Jewish Bible that introduced the commandment to remember: "Remember the Lord who took you out of Egypt, the house of bondage." "Remember the days of old; understand the years of generation to generation." Remember Amalek and all those who sought to destroy you. Remember what your ancestors taught you. Remembering will make you a better people. Remembering will make you smarter. Remembering will enable you to survive. And remembering will transform you from a people of history to a nation of destiny.

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