A Philosopher’s Take on Jewish History — For Teenagers

Mitchell Silver spends a good portion of his waking time teaching symbolic logic, social and political philosophy, ethical theory, health care ethics, and the philosophy of religion at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts/Boston. He also ruminates about metaethics. (In contrast with “normative ethics” — that looks at “what is the right thing to do” — metaethics asks, among other things, what it means when we call something “right.”)  But amidst these heady ponderings, and even inspired by them, he found himself compelled to write a three-hundred-plus page teenager’s guide to the Jewish story, “The Veterans of History: A Young Person’s History of the Jews,” published by Boston Workmen’s Circle and available on Amazon. Why?

I interviewed him in a park near his home in Newton, Massachusetts, to get some answers.

Silver began this project several years ago when he was the Education Director of the Boston Workmen’s Circle Shule (Sunday School). He saw the need for the new text for two reasons. The first was practical. In addressing parents’ question “What are you teaching our kids,” he realized that he didn’t have at his disposal a good tool, suitable for a non-religious, progressive, cultural Jewish community. He needed a didactic vehicle that didn’t presume religious belief; that viewed the diaspora as much more than a hiatus characterized primarily by disaster; that identified with Israel as part of the story of the Jewish people, but was also prepared to examine openly the many issues Zionism presents; and that focused on the core ideological commitment to social justice, examining how that foundational premise evolved, or was obstructed, or took the forms it did, throughout Jewish history.

Second, Silver was motivated by an impetus that he discusses in two earlier works, Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education, and A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology. A self-described atheist, Silver acknowledges there are things a belief in God provide that meet a real human need. He’s thought long and hard about what that need is, and, most importantly, whether it can be met absent theistic belief.

Silver believes the need is for rootedness — to feel connected to something beyond oneself. He thinks that for humans life has meaning because it’s experienced as playing a role in a much larger story. There’s no better project than being part of God’s plan—this certainly gives life meaning. But if you don’t believe in God, you can’t play a role in that plan. For such individuals, Silver asks, how is anything meaningful?

Jewish religious tradition, more even than most other religions, sees God – and God’s plan — as mostly working through history. But Silver believes that for Jews a meaning-giving kind of historical spirituality can exist without God. The spirituality – and meaningfulness — he speaks of involves seeing oneself as connected to a historical project, specifically as part of the Jewish story. But, it’s not enough simply to be part of the story; as Silver sees it, the story has to have some moral dimension: the meaning of life has to include “good.” So, he says, “as a non-believer, one road to transcendence, making your life more important than your immediate happiness and that of your family and friends is to be able to interpret Jewish history as a story about trying to create justice in the world.” Through Veterans of History, he hopes his young readers – especially those raised non-theistically — will be encouraged to think, and to say: “I feel part of something bigger than me. I can be part of that story.”

Regarding the story itself, Silver posits that one thing good historians – and philosophers — do is to try to not make statements that aren’t justified by the evidence. Hence, in Veterans, he wanted to be as precise as was needed so as not to distort the facts. At the same time, as a philosopher, he’s inclined to try to find plausible explanations of what transpired. In the book, his goal is to make sense of what were claimed to be the facts of Jewish history: why were Jews disliked, why did they make the choices they did, what were the forces, the motives, the circumstances that created the motives. He particularly wants the reader to understand why “in those circumstances those people would have done those things.”

A few illustrations from Veterans: Discussing the Pharisees’ introduction of the idea that a person’s soul keeps living after he or she dies, and that when the Messiah comes, pious Jews will be resurrected, he explains: “These ideas appeal to poor people who don’t have good lives, and to people who believe God is just, but who don’t see much justice in the world around them.   They think, or hope, that something will happen after death or in the future that will make up for all the unfairness. These ideas also help explain why God is letting bad things happen now.” Or, Silver notes that even after the mystic Sabbatai Zevi died in 1676, some Jews continued to believe that he was the Messiah, “in much the same way that some Jews continued to believe Jesus was the Messiah after his death.” He continues: “When things don’t work out the way people expect and want them to, they will often come up with new ideas to keep their hopes alive. It is less painful than admitting a big mistake and accepting a deep disappointment.”

In his introductory “Note to Young Readers,” Silver acknowledges that “what people find interesting and important depends on who they are and what they care about.” He talks a bit about his personal background and his core values. And then he cautions his young readers:

“Everyone writes history with some prejudices, that is, some attitudes        they start out with. Now you know mine. I hope that in spite of these        biases I have not changed any facts to make them be the way I              would have liked them to be instead of the way they actually were,          and I hope I don’t ignore any really important parts of the story                because I am too biased to see that they are important. But it is              good for readers of history to always be at least a little suspicious            that the author may be shaping the facts to fit his or her own                    opinions.”

Solving puzzles is what philosophers do. And that’s one of Silver’s primary objectives with this book: to help young readers solve some of the puzzles of Jewish history. To further that endeavor, he took “a lot of mosaic tiles and put them together in a way that made sense to me.” He didn’t want a book that turns Jews into just victims or just heroes, one that was written by a Gentile, “who might feel constrained, almost as an act of contrition.” Silver feels confident enough in his identification as a Jew, in his genuine affection for Jews, in his desire to see Jews flourish and be happy, that he’s also comfortable “talking about the way Jews screw up.” Jewish culture, Silver observes, “has created some wonderful things and not so wonderful things…we’re like the rest of humanity.”

As viewed by its author, Veterans’ message is that being Jewish is one way of being human — and one way of understanding being Jewish is that you’re part of a people who have a lot of experience with the vicissitudes of human history. Traditionally, for Jews, memory is really important. For Silver, memory enables us to move forward purposefully and maybe, hopefully, with some degree of wisdom in creating a better world. Summing up his book’s purpose: “You can’t become a veteran of history if you forget your past.”

Hoping to speak truth as best he can, in Veterans Silver guides readers on a down-to-earth journey that examines not only “what, where, and when,” but also “why.” Along the way, he elicits both empathy and admiration for the quintessentially human story that is the Jewish story. By journey’s end, the travelers this philosopher-teacher takes along – both the young and the not-so-young – are that much closer to becoming the veterans of history he so cherishes.

About the Author
Michael Felsen's op-eds on Israel/Palestine, American Jewish-Muslim relations, and secular humanism have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Globe, The Forward, Common Ground News Service, and elsewhere around the world. He is an attorney who recently retired after four decades in government, and is a past president of the Boston chapter of Workmen’s Circle, an almost 120-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.