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The gift of the Jews

TOM BURGUM
Staff Columnist
burgum@lbknews.com

I have taken the liberty of repeating this column every year since 2004. I believe it is appropriate for people of all faiths − or no faith − to acknowledge the unique insights of the Jewish people especially as we witness a disturbing increase in anti Semitism in Europe and the Mideast. The concept of the uniqueness of each human being is absolutely at the core of our belief in individual liberty and this concept is first found in Judaism. Ultimately, this uniquely Jewish idea spread throughout the world and became central to what we now call the Judeo−Christian tradition.

It is a truism to say that the vital mentality of the Western world has spread throughout the world and has come to infect every culture on earth.  As Thomas Cahill wrote, “For better or worse, the role of the West in humanity’s history is singular.  Because of this, the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular, there is simply no one else remotely like them; they are unique.”

Paul Johnson in his “History of the Jews,” believes to them, “We owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience, and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience, and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items that constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place. Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown. The result was monotheism.”

Catholic philosopher Michael Novak in connecting Judaism with the spread of liberty added the Christian component. He wrote, “Analogously, as Lord Acton argued in the essays he prepared for his, History of Liberty, liberty is an idea coincident with the spread of Christianity but the idea of individual liberty was originally a Jewish idea. Every story in the Bible is about a drama involving human will. In one chapter, King David is faithful to his Lord; in another unfaithful.  The suspense always lies in what he will choose next. Nonetheless, Judaism is not a missionary religion.  Christianity expanded the notion of liberty and made it universal. The Christian idea of liberty remains rooted in the liberty of the Creator, as in Judaism.  Through Christianity, this Jewish idea becomes the inheritance of all the other peoples on earth.”

Thomas Jefferson located the origin of the inner core of human rights when in the Declaration of Independence he declared all men  are, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  G.K. Chesterton wrote, in the same vein, that in breaking away from England, “America was not thinking so much of her wrongs as a colony, but already of her rights as a republic . . . (The English) did not really drive away the American colonists, nor were they driven.  The (Americans) were led on by a light that went before.”  Historian Benson Bobrick concludes, “That light was a Biblical light, which the English Bible had given them: the idea of the equality of man.  It was the idea of the sacred and equal importance of every man, as made in the image of God.”

The Jewish belief in the sanctity of the individual fortunately mitigates against any of the modern concepts of sameness. These concepts generally tend to be the antithesis of individuality, either in political or artistic freedom.  Thomas Aquinas believed that God is infinite, and so when He creates human beings in His image, He must in fact create an infinite number of them to mirror back his own infinity.  The infinite differences of Thomas Aquinas’ world seem far superior to the gray, sameness of the “world according to Karl Marx.”

It is vitally important we recognize the importance of the Judeo-Christian gifts.  It was just a brief moment ago when Communism, National Socialism, Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism seduced much of the West’s intelligentsia.  “That seduction,” according to talk show host Dennis Prager, “is what led George Orwell to write that some ideas were so stupid only intellectuals could believe them.”  But the collapse of the dictatorial communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has not lessened the ability of some to ignore the obvious.  “Some in Hollywood,” observes Prager, “still idolize Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara is chic among the morally neutered.”

One must be careful when discussing the Judeo-Christian tradition to not reduce Judaism to merely a forerunner to Christianity. The Jews and their faith stand right at the center of the historical effort to give human life the dignity of a purpose.

If, as some believe, it was the role of Christianity to spread the word throughout the world, it is the Jews who claim first rights to the idea of the dignity of man.  Paul Johnson believed the Jewish contribution was singular. “Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights, but we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift.”

To everyone, Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas.

(The author is the back-sliding son of a Methodist minister who loved the Old Testament and often talked about the unique gift the Jewish people bestowed on the world. He was right in this as he was in so many other things.)

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