Jeremiah Unterman
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Judaism’s role in history? Major!

Yuval Harari, the popular historian who counseled Jews to be more modest should follow his own advice

Yuval Harari would have us know that “Judaism is Not a Major Player in the History of Humankind.” So went the title of his recent Haaretz op-ed. Harari, a lecturer in Hebrew University’s history department, is famous for his bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Unfortunately, Harari’s Haaretz article on the relative insignificance of Judaism is ill-informed, mistaken, and ignorant. Although I could comment on most of the article’s sentences, I will only focus on two major issues: the revolutionary importance of the Jewish Bible’s ethics, and the contributions of medieval and modern Jews to humanity.

First, though, a general comment: early on, Harari compares Judaism’s relationship to Christianity as that of Newton’s mother to Newton. That is, Newton could not have been born without his mother, and Christianity would not have developed without Judaism to precede it. However, Harari attributes all of Christianity’s influence on the world to its own contributions, not to anything that it got from Judaism. But what if Newton’s mother had taught Newton the principles of mathematics which led to classical mechanics, the laws of motion and universal gravitation, the validity of the heliocentric model of the solar system, how to build the first practical reflecting telescope, etc.? Then surely even Harari would agree that she influenced the world. That is precisely what happened in Judaism’s impact on Christianity – after all, nobody would deny that Christianity started off as a Jewish sect.

In terms of Jewish biblical ethics, Harari generally denigrates the Bible (as he does rabbinic Judaism) and doesn’t mention even one way in which the Tanakh influenced the ethics of humanity or served as an ethical model. But there are many ways in which Jewish biblical ethics have unique significance. The following is not a comprehensive list:

1. Human equality and the sanctity of human life

It is Genesis 1 that first proclaims that humans are created in the image of God (not, as Harari indicates, that human equality before God is a Christian contribution to humanity). This Jewish idea gives rise to the concept of the sanctity of human life (Gen. 9:6) and human stewardship over the Earth (Gen. 1:26-28; Psalm 8:5-9).

2. Shabbat

No ancient nation had a seven-day week, nor any similar regulated period which mandated that people cease from work. In the ancient world, the vast majority of humanity worked continually with only a rare holy or evil day off. Not so in Israel. Not only was all human work forbidden on Shabbat, including that of slaves, but even that of animals! Yes, Christianity adopted this idea and changed it to Sunday, and Islam changed it to Friday. However, the weekly day of rest was invented by the Torah. Today, perhaps every country in the world – even North Korea – has a weekend. Is THAT not a major influence of Judaism on human civilization — that one out of every seven days humankind rests?

3. Enabling the poor to survive

Harari cites the introduction to Hammurabi’s laws in which the gods had instructed him “to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.” True, but if Harari had actually read Hammurabi’s law collection, and all the other law collections from Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and the Hittites (Egypt had no law collections), he would not have found one single law on behalf of the weak or poor (including poor widows and orphans). Indeed, the Torah is the first to legislate on behalf of the poor, including laws: not to harm the poor, not to subvert the justice due the poor, to provide free loans, to return the pledge of clothing by nightfall, to pay the poor laborer promptly, to provide free food, to enable the poor to enjoy holidays, the redemption of the poor person’s property, etc. Eventually, these laws would evolve into the Jewish requirement to give tzedakah. Judaism thus directly influences the concern for the poor in Christianity and Islam.

4. The stranger

Aside from one law (#41 in the Eshnunna collection, 18th Cent. BCE) that states that the woman “tapster shall sell the beer for him [the stranger] at the current rate,” no ancient Near East society had a law on behalf of the stranger – the resident alien who lived in one’s society. Even that so-called bastion of democracy, 4th Cent. BCE Athens, had no laws on their behalf, but only laws making them into second class citizens. Yet, the Torah has some fifty verses on behalf of the stranger, including almost all the laws applicable to the poor. In fact, had humanity followed the dictates of the Torah, xenophobia would have been eliminated. In reality, in Roman times, Judaism, followed by Christianity, encouraged converts, which is why historians estimate that 2000 years ago, ten percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish. Harari interprets “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) as referring only to Jews, which bolsters his argument that Judaism cares little for gentiles. It’s a shame that he didn’t bother to read sixteen verses on – Lev. 19:34 – which states, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I the Lord am your God.” This law is further emphasized in Deuteronomy 10:19, “You, too [like God does], must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” So, either Harari is ignorant or he purposely ignores material that demolish his ideas.

5. Monotheism

All of these trailblazing concepts and more are dependent on the Jewish Bible’s unique concept of ethical monotheism – one, supernatural, ethical Deity. Not only is the Jewish Bible the first to come up with that idea, it is also the first and only to posit the revelation of a god to an entire people. Further, it is the first time that a people receives its law from its god (later copied by Islam), and the first time that a god makes a covenant (brit in biblical Hebrew is the primary word for “treaty”) with a people. Thus, biblical law assumes an importance not existent in any other society, for the people’s laws are the stipulations of the covenant with God, and the people’s destiny is now dependent upon its obedience to those laws/stipulations.

6. Prophetic morality

That is why the prophets (Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah) claim the primacy of morality over ritual. For if people pray and offer sacrifices, but are immoral, then God will not accept their ritual. That’s why Jews have to ask forgiveness from any person they have harmed before they begin the fast and prayers of Yom Kippur. The prophets, therefore, also claim that such continued immorality, including abuse of the poor and the stranger, will lead to the destruction of Jewish society and to exile. Liberal Christianity, and therefore left-wing Western politics, comes directly from this prophetic idea – if somewhat reinterpreted. Indeed, any Western religious claim that God cares mainly about ethical behavior comes directly from Israel’s prophets.

7. Redemption

The prophetic promise of the future restoration of the people in their land, along with world peace (see, for example, Isaiah 2 and Micah 4) is also a Jewish biblical concept. The Western concept that humankind is ultimately going towards an ideal future derives solely from this prophetic promise. Hope is a Jewish gift, as is the idea of working for a better world for all of humanity.

8. The Jewish Bible’s document impact

On the huge influence of the Jewish Bible and rabbinic sources upon Grotius, Cunaeus, Selden, Harrington, Hobbes, and Locke – almost all the great political thinkers of the 17th Cent., see Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought and other subsequent studies.

This last point is a segue to the contributions of Jews to the medieval and modern worlds. Harari states that Jews “did not play a key role … in the early modern voyages of discovery” among other things. Nonsense. Jews are credited with inventing improved navigational instruments (including the astrolabe and the quadrant), astronomical tables, and were essential mapmakers. Harari should look up Abraham and Yehuda Cresques, and Abraham Zacuto, among others.

Finally, Harari discounts the contributions to modern science and medicine by Jews on the basis that these Jews were primarily secular and this has nothing to do with Judaism. Really? So the fact the Jews make up about 0.2 percent of the world’s population and yet 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish – that’s just a coincidence that has nothing to do with Jewish civilization? As if education, higher level thinking, the search for truth, and the ethic of improving the world had nothing do with Judaism.

Other aspects of the article are simply silly: Harari spends three paragraphs describing a recent experiment with two capuchin monkeys and concludes that “equality and social justice were central values in capuchin monkey society hundreds of thousands of years” before the prophets. Give me a break. This is an example of reflective thought? This is how Harari understands equality and social justice? THAT’s scholarship?

At the very end of his article, based upon his demeaning of Jewish civilization, Harari makes a plea for Jews to take to heart the Jewish value of modesty. Indeed, we should. And people who know next to nothing about Jewish civilization should be more modest about their abilities and not write about it. Of course, if this is an example of Harari’s scholarship, I don’t think I’ll be reading any of his books any time soon.

Jeremiah Unterman, a Resident Scholar at the Herzl Institute, has been a Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and elsewhere, and was Director of the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools in North America. He is the author of the forthcoming “Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics” to be published in early 2017 by the Jewish Publication Society.

About the Author
Jeremiah Unterman is the Academic Editor of the new series, the Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel, and a Resident Scholar at the Herzl Institute. He has been a Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and elsewhere and is the author of Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, published in 2017 by the Jewish Publication Society.
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