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God in History

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I have just finished writing a history of Carmel College, the school I headed for nearly 14 years, and which my father founded at a time when almost everyone in the UK thought Jewish education was bad and regressive. Great Jewish pioneers working when secular state education was excellent had a far tougher time than when it had collapsed in a shambles. Jewish education is always more popular when states fund it. In many countries no alternatives to state schools are allowed. Who, a hundred years ago, would have imagined that yeshivas around the world would get any kind of state support. So, important as human beings may or may not be in human affairs, I cannot avoid the conviction that what happens in life is really determined more by broader social and historical circumstances. Or to put it another way, by God.

We are hard put to define either God or History. If, as Sam Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, it is also true that everyone claims God (or whatever name you use) is on his side. I am wryly amused when clerics see a disaster as the Divine Hand–but usually only when it strikes others! Have you heard anyone in Pakistan say the floods are Allah’s punishment for extremism?

I feel that a force beyond us has been responsible for the survival of the Jews. But even if God is controlling everything above and beyond time (and Stephen Hawking’s brain), while we wait for God’s timeline and ours to coincide, there seems to be an inordinate amount of suffering. Who can say if it is worth it?

Politicians as well as clerics like to claim credit for advances, changes, and progress which in fact have relatively little to do with them and are the result of the confluence of a series of social and historical events, stages, or if you prefer, coincidences. Al Gore got a ragging for claiming he invented the internet. Everyone wants to claim he had a hand in success stories but conveniently forget his disasters. Individuals might play their parts in history–as Shakespeare says, coming onto the stage for awhile and then disappearing–but usually their role is much overrated and exaggerated. There is “a time and a tide in the affairs of man” that is greater than the sand castles. Who remembers now that Bari and Otranto were the biggest and most learned Jewish centers in Europe a thousand years ago?

In the USA, the once much-vaunted American Jewish Congress has been wound down. The earth still stands. No one cares. The Jewish Agency in Israel still survives in Israel and no one knows why or to what end. A man like Natan Sharansky, whom the whole world took to its heart, has become another bureaucrat trying to sell an unworkable product. He doubtless is the same man. The times are not.

All this is both sobering and important for the vast majority of human beings who wonder what contribution they make to life. This is why the Book of Proverbs tells us to, “Go and learn a lesson from the ant.” Firstly, because it gets on with its own business, working day and night. It is neither lazy nor seeks excuses. But more importantly, insignificant as the individual might be, as part of a group it contributes to the strength and survival of the group. The little man counts. Sometimes more than the big man.

We are, as the Greeks liked to say, the playthings of the gods. God did not choose us because we Israelites were good, or better than anyone else. That’s what the Bible says (Deuteronomy 9:4-5). It was simply that at a moment in time when the Seven Canaanite tribes had reached the point of disintegration, we were available to step into the breach. When we had blown our opportunities the first time, Assyria and Babylon took advantage, for a while. Why did we have to suffer all those years in Egypt? I guess because God was “waiting” for the moment when the Egyptian Empire began to crumble from within or some such factor. One might wonder how come it took 2000 years for a Jewish State to emerge again. Political factors in Eastern Europe amongst the world powers, the power of the British Empire, perhaps even the Holocaust had something to do with it. Whatever, my point is that it is the hour that maketh the man rather than the other way round. You cannot suppose that either the Jews in 1948 merited it more than any other generation or indeed that our leaders loved Zion any more than earlier generations who migrated such as the great Hasidic migration of the eighteenth century.

There is a famous story in the Talmud about Moses being brought back to earth to sit at the back of Rebbi Akiva’s yeshiva and listen to him teaching. He is so impressed he asks God why He did not give the Torah through Akiva. God replies, “That’s just the way I decided” (or as they say in Ivrit and Yiddish, “Stam”). Then he saw Akiva being tortured to death by the Romans and he asked, “Is this the reward for Torah?” To which again God replies, “That’s just the way I do things.” Moses was in the right place at the right time. Akiva was not.

For those of us who are in the wrong places at the wrong time, we can still contribute in however small a way, like little molecules, to the people, the culture, the religion. One simply cannot tell the degree to which one does or does not. It is like novelists–who may be all the rage one moment and forgotten the next. That is the story of how an attractive girl gets a plutocrat to fall in love with her and in that way she saves her people from extermination. That’s a soldier taking out a mass bomber. When one single combatant commits an atrocity or saves a city, we cannot tell what the ramifications will be. Didn’t the builders of empires think they were great civilizers? Didn’t the Crusaders believe they were going on a holy war?

We are indeed all ants, but we have a destiny and that, so to speak, is in the hands of forces or processes that work in other ways. The only thing I know is that I have to do my best, convinced that my little brick helps keep a building standing.

5 thoughts on “God in History

  1. Some lovely thoughts Jeremy – thanks from an even smaller ant. Btw, when you say "my point is that it is the hour that maketh the man rather than the other way round", your thinking is exactly in line with Malcolm Gladwell's in "Outliers", where he takes aim at the American myth of the "self-made man" and puts our achievements, or lack of, into the larger, more multidimensional context of time, place, heritage etc.

    I'm sure your Carmel College book / article will be well-read – can I put in an early request for an e-book or online version ?!

    I have finally got round to reading Chris Hitchens' "God is not Great" and would be interested to know your thoughts on it, especially some of the alarming asides, eg Elijah (?) cursing and killing children who mocked his hair ?!

    I think it is telling that in his debates with characters like Boteach, Hitchens has been much more popular, even (or especially) among Jewish audiences. I think the times we live in are the opposite of when Nachmanides so deftly defated his Chrstian opponent in Barcelona. Too many self-appointed Jewish spokesmen look clownish and intellectually inadequate.

    Chag sameach v shana tova and thanks again for "ministering" to your online audience with such consistently interesting columns.

  2. Like this one a lot if I may say. Massive emphasis on what great men have done in many Jewish versions of history. probably too much in my opinion.

    One can of course see the approach as empowering, and it may be a force for good if it emphasises personal responsibility and highlights how people can make a difference on a big stage. Also there have, it is true, been some very great Jewish men and women and, partly in view of what has been on offer elsewhere, it is easy to see how Jews would want to 'big up' our own heros at times.

    However ultimately the over emphasis on great men is not very attractive and often is desperately short of the context you provide here. Often it is perpetuated by people who carry a personal narrative which includes their own connection to the coterie of great men and it can act as a very deceptive sort of prop to self esteem.

    But if we have anythng worth saying, including anything worth saying to a wider audience, then it will be concerned with the divine and ideas. And, at root, who said what will not be the point.

    So it was great to read this. We need to hear more of it!

    With best wishes
    Tony

  3. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, Jeremy. I have read and re-read it and it tells many truths. Philosophically, we have to believe in something stronger than ourselves because we are still in existence as a people – nothing short of a miracle – more than a turn of Fate.

    Despite this, we are sometimes ingrates and failures in many ways but we are human and as such, subject to and of the distortions of history i.e. time, place and temper.

    Chag sameach to you and all your readers,
    Leila

  4. Rob:

    I have indeed read the current gladiatorial atheists and I completely agree with their demotion of religions as they have functioned, preoccuppied with power, authority, suppression, conformity and 'orthodoxy.' The lofty ideas get lost in the battle for control. But then all human activity works that way, in politics, art, sport you name it, greed and manipulation are everywhere. What the intellectual gladiators miss is the emotional or spiritual grandeur. They are simply 'spiritually challenged.' They remind me of people who dismiss the notion of love as a fantasy and claim its only about sexual gratification. Only someone who has actually loved knows what it is like.

    Similarly one can 'demolish' English society and its texts as being primitive and brutal not so long ago. Any ancient text has elements that seem strange, outdated, cruel and inaccessible. One can relate to them creatively and constructively or negatively and destructively. Homer still has something to teach us despite the stories of incest, rape and murder he tells and he was no spiritual giant. All traditions are built up layer on layer and are reinterpreted at every creative stage in a different way.

    Sadly for their position they cannot point to a better or more successful paradigm.

    My father often used to say that if the Believer is guilty of wishful thinking, the Denier is guilty of wishful doubting!

    Jeremy

  5. Thanks, Tony. (And may I add that I miss our contact!)

    I think virtually all the Biblical talk of reward and punishment, of curses and blessings, is directed towards 'the people' rather than individuals. Individuals are agents. That I am sure is why Moshe is described as being oratorically challenged. Its not that individuals are not subject to such forces but the survival of the nation depends on the common man rather than the uncommon exception.

    It is in the nature of humans to exaggerate their role for better and to underestimate their capacity and responsibility for destruction.

    Warmest regards
    Jeremy

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