A non-Jewish friend of mine recently asked me to look at Yuval Harari’s comments on our (and his) people in his book, 21 Questions for the 21st Century. Harari has gotten a reputation as a savant, someone with new insights about history and civilization. I think skepticism should be a response to his views in general and on Jews in particular.
Harari enjoys being something of a contrarian. I found a lot in Sapiens to be overstated. He treated Jefferson”s Declaration preamble as just another unproven myth. Also, he says one cannot demonstrate that government created under the Declaration created more happiness so it is not better than other forms of government. I do not find that reasoning persuasive. Who knows if Muscovites under Stalin smiled more than New Yorkers during the Depression. Is that really the test we want to apply.
Now, I think he takes liberties in Chapter 12 of 21 Questions where he discusses the role of Jews in history. Leaving aside the rabbinic chavinists, no serious person claims Jews invented yoga or had a discernible impact anywhere but in the West. Or that no one knew anything about morality before Abraham came along. So about half the chapter is really rather silly to begin with. Chimps? Maybe they have some moral sense but does that make the insights of Abraham and Moses historically insignificsnt?
As to the West, I think Harari downplays our influence. This past summer, I organized an interfaith bible class near our island home in Maine. We studied the creation Chapter in B’reshit. In preparing, I read the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish. It was easy to find online. It has no moral content, men were created to do work the gods were tired of doing. Compare that to the notion In Genesis that people were created in God’s image. The Greek creation myths were worse, if anything.
The tie in between morality and a higher power does qualify as a Jewish insight. I think Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of the Jews got that right. And I think that moral insight dId become a critical component of Christianity and Islam. More than just the role of Freud”s mother, an example Harari gives of mere parentage not equating to influence.
His case for Jewish particularism is likewise exaggerated. There is bad stuff in the bible. No doubt. But what makes the Jewish bible so fascinating and so human is the diversity and growth contained in it. Leviticus lays out the sacrificial code in excruciating detail. Also, Jews only. But then Isaiah and Amos ask, what is all this ritual worth if not accompanied by simple justice. And both Isaiah and Micah lay out visions of peace and harmony among all peoples. No war between all nations. And Micah tells man, not just Jews, that God only requires people to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before God. Further, the passage about love thy neighbor as thyself has been interpreted in Jewish tradition broadly as well as narrowly. And Job, who may not even be Jewish, openly questions Divine justice while Ecclesiastes counsels acceptance of your lot in life. So for Harari to credit Christianity with broadening a message only meant for Jews overlooks a lot.
It was Jewish practices, not Jewish ideology, that were more particularistic. I think Jesus and Paul deserve credit for the insight that Jewish practice did not have to be observed by gentiles, that the core of Judaism lay in its values, not kashrut. My boyhood Rabbi, Harold Saperstein, used to say Jesus would have been a good Reform Jew. To be blunt, that’s why I consider myself a follower of Judaism while eating lobster, bacon and shrimp and mixing milk and meat.
Finally,, Harari’s attack on monotheism as practiced by Jews makes no sense. Jews never tried forcibly converting other people, except for a brief time around 100 BCE. Nor have we ever practiced genocide, stoned recalcitrant children, laid waste to cities or done some of the other awful stuff in the Bible. Our moral sense rebelled at those portions of Torah.
We deserve more from our Israeli brother, Yuval Harari.