The Greeks gave tragedy to the world, the Jews gave it hope

On the late Chief Rabbi’s third Yahrzeit, his wisdom remains an inspiration in these dark times

November 09, 2023 13:50

Why are we here? Why are we Jews? Why does the world need — if indeed it does — a Jewish presence, a Jewish voice?

Jewish identity is not mere ethnicity, habit or nostalgia. These things do not last, certainly not in an age as secular and anti-traditional as ours. Rely on them and we will find increasing numbers of Jews drifting away. Those who remain will turn ever more inward into highly religious enclaves with less and less involvement in the world.

My own view is that Judaism is a faith, and an utterly distinctive one, quite unlike the secular culture of ancient Greece or the contemporary West, the world-denying mysticisms of the East, and even Judaism’s daughter-monotheisms, Christianity and Islam. Judaism really is different, and in this last essay I want to say how. What follows is a personal view, but it comes from a long listening to the voices of our tradition.

One of the most formative moments in the history of Judaism came in the encounter between Moses and God in the burning bush. Moses asks God what name he should use when people ask him who He is. God replies enigmatically, in a phrase that occurs nowhere else in Tanach: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”.

Non-Jewish translations read this to mean, “I am what (or who, or that) I am.” Some render it, “I am: that is who I am”, or “I am the One who is”. These are deeply significant mistranslations.

The phrase means, literally, “I will be what I will be” or, more fundamentally, God’s name belongs to the future tense. His call is to that which is not yet. If we fail to understand this, we will miss the very thing that makes Judaism unique.

Consider the structure of biblical narrative. In literature there are many kinds of narrative but they all have one thing in common, what Frank Kermode called “the sense of an ending”.

They reach closure. Some end with “they all lived happily ever after”. We call these fairy tales. Others end in death and defeat. We call them tragedies. There are other types, but they all have a beginning and an end. That’s what makes them stories.

Now consider Genesis. The Jewish story begins with God’s call to Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house to travel “to the land that I will show you”. Seven times God promises Abraham the land, yet he has to haggle with the Hittites to buy one small plot in which to bury Sarah. Jacob and his family are forced into exile in Egypt. Genesis ends with the promise unfulfilled.

Then Exodus begins. God calls Moses to lead the Israelites back to freedom and the promised land. Now, we feel, the story is about to reach closure. But it doesn’t come.

Instead, a journey that should have taken days lasts 40 years. In the final scene of Deuteronomy, we see Moses, still on the far side of the Jordan, granted only a distant vision of the land. Again, the natural ending is deferred.

I know of no other stories that have the same form, namely a beginning but no end. We would not think of them as stories at all, were it not that we know the ending. It has been there since the beginning: God’s three promises to Abraham, of children, a land, and an influence on humanity such that “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed”.

So there is an ending, but it is always beyond the visible horizon.

The same is true of Jewish belief. Judaism is the only civilisation whose golden age is in the future: the messianic age, the age of peace when “nation will not lift up sword against nation” and “the Lord shall be one and His name One”. This ultimately was the dividing line between Judaism and Christianity.

At the heart of Judaism is a belief so fundamental to Western civilisation that we take it for granted, yet it is anything but self-evident. It has been challenged many times, rarely more so than today. It is the belief in human freedom. We are what we choose to be.

The ancients believed that human destiny lay in the stars, or blind fate, what the Greeks called ananke. Spinoza argued that our lives are governed by natural necessity. Marx claimed that history was determined by economic interests.

Freud held that human behaviour was shaped by unconscious drives. Neo-Darwinians argue that we are governed by genetic codes hardwired into our brains.

This view is challenged in the opening chapters of the Bible. For the first time, God is seen as beyond nature, creating nature by a free, uncoerced act of will. By creating human beings in His image, He bestowed something of that freedom on us. Alone among created life forms, we too are capable of being creative. Biblical narrative is the ongoing drama of human freedom.

Western civilisation is the product of two cultures: ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The Greeks believed in fate: the future is determined by the past. Jews believed in freedom: there is no “evil decree” that cannot be averted.

The Greeks gave the world the concept of tragedy. Jews gave it the idea of hope. The whole of Judaism — though it would take a book to show it — is a set of laws and narratives designed to create in people, families, communities and a nation, habits that defeat despair.

It is no accident that so many Jews are economists fighting poverty, or doctors fighting disease, or lawyers fighting injustice, in all cases refusing to see these things as inevitable. It is no accident that after the Holocaust, Jews turned to the future, building a nation whose national anthem is Hatikvah, “the hope”.

Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation.

In history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.

This abridged piece was written by Rabbi Sacks in 2008, based on a chapter in his book, Future Tense. He passed away on 7 November 2020

November 09, 2023 13:50

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