Jewish History as a Mixture of the Natural and the Supernatural
Twenty years ago, standing on the wet, beautifully tended grass at the Babi Yar ravine, I imagined that I understood Jewish history. I believed it was a story driven by dual mechanisms—one natural and another Divine.
I believed that the Holocaust and other dark times in Jewish history were just products of a natural mechanism—what I dubbed, “the Law of Evolution of Nations.” This law read: Any nation survives only until its fitness is successfully challenged by its neighbors, and then it passes out of existence. Eventually, every nation experiences a moment of weakness, and then it disappears. As evidence that holocausts are normal, I adduced the respective downfalls of Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Persia and other fallen civilizations right through the Soviet Union. All these nations experienced their respective sunsets—their holocausts. The Jewish Holocaust was also the result of a natural mechanism that Jewry shared with the rest of the world. This view is shared by respectable Jewish scholars to this day.
However, simultaneous with this natural mechanism, a supernatural mechanism was operative which ensured Jewish survival. This mechanism helped explain the unusual circumstances that invariably allowed the Jews to escape total annihilation—like 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dropping dead the night before their planned conquest of Jerusalem in 701 bce, or the mighty Greek army’s irrational retreat in the face of a handful of Maccabees in 164 bce or the 1948 ce defeat of the five most powerful mechanized armies in the Middle East by a ragged band of Holocaust survivors, only about half of whom actually had guns.
My theory was that God made a covenant with Jewry, measure for measure: To the extent that we cling to supernatural law and lift ourselves beyond the realm of natural instinct, God promises that He will hold us above the natural mill grinding nations out of existence. Jewish survival is thus quid pro quo. Secularism is natural, but every Torah commandment conflicts with human nature. It is natural to partake of whatever we want whenever we want it; it is natural to live selfishly; and it is natural to express anger when someone does not behave as we wish. When we, as a nation, climb above human nature by allowing the Torah to guide our choices, we reach escape velocity and soar beyond nature, hovering above the universe’s natural, destructive forces. This is how I understood the verse promising that the “Torah is a tree of life for those who cling to it.” The Torah is a rope from heaven. When the Jewish nation grasps it, our feet dangle just above the maelstrom.
Jewish History as Purely Supernatural
The idea that holocausts are natural sounds very reasonable when all you have is a university education behind you and a beautifully tended ravine in front of you. Neither conveys the unique fury in an anti-Semite’s face, or the absolute apathy of our “supportive” neighbors, or the humiliation, the degradation or the terror. The peaceful, picturesque boardwalk at Babi Yar does not assist us in conjuring up visions of what it sounded and looked like sixty years ago when, in only forty-eight hours, 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were stripped, beaten, driven into the ravine, forced to lie face down and machine-gunned to death. The classroom and the history books also have a way of dulling the picture’s resolution. There is something sobering about the reality—about staring at the meat hooks on which live Jews were hung at Mauthausen, watching Palestinians dancing through the streets of Ramallah waving the entrails of Israeli reserve officers and witnessing the slow and deliberate decapitations of Jewish boys like Daniel Pearl and Nicholas Berg. Not that only Jews have been tortured, disemboweled and decapitated, but there is something unique about the way the world relates to Jews that one detects only when witnessing anti-Semitism in real-time, something subtle that is absent from most academic discussions of the phenomenon.
In our generation we have seen innocent Gentiles slaughtered around the world, from Sudan to Indonesia and from Chechnya to the Congo. But we—who read about these events not just in history books, but also in the morning paper—know that these non-Jewish victims were invariably killed only because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were not hunted down from country to country and sent to international extermination centers; neither were they made into soap and lampshades. Jews are treated differently.
The world’s feelings toward the Jewish State are significant in this regard. In modern times, Israel is “The Jew,” and the world now relates to the Jewish State the way it has always related to individual members of our people. The European Union recently called Israel the “greatest threat to world peace on the planet.” Not North Korea, despite its explicit nuclear threats to the West and wholesale export of Uranium to Libya et al. Not Russia, who has been providing nuclear technology to Iran and other rogue states. Not Iran or Syria who sponsor terror organizations on three continents. Israel. The United Nations General Assembly, a microcosm of mankind, has issued more condemnations of the only democracy in the Middle East than it has against any other nation on the planet. The General Assembly has not yet critiqued Sudan for punishing shoplifters with cross-amputation, China for harvesting organs from political prisoners or Saudi Arabia for banning the practice of any religion besides Islam, but it has devoted 60 percent of its emergency sessions to the purported misdeeds of Israel—including crimes like Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt in 1956 and its recent construction of a fence to keep suicide bombers out of Jewish population centers.
Strangely, the General Assembly has never passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. When, in 1964-65, the American delegation tried to include a reference to anti-Semitism in the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the effort failed because of widespread protests at the UN that anti-Semitism was a question not of race but of religion; and in 2003, when the UN drafted its Resolution on Religious Intolerance, the term anti-Semitism was left out because, as the Irish delegate explained with a straight face, “It is more properly considered under the rubric of race.” When Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to England, at a London dinner party criticized Israel for its continuing presence in Gaza and the West Bank, calling the Jewish State “a ____ little country,” the Zionist philosopher Hillel Halkin reacted with shock, “Who at London dinner parties makes nasty remarks about Hindus because India has militarily occupied Muslim Kashmir for half a century? Would a French diplomat call China a ‘big, ____ country’ because of its occupation of Tibet?”
Halkin, a man who put all his faith in Theodore Hertzl’s promise that having our own state would restore the Jews to the family of man, recently confessed publicly that Zionism’s failure “is a bitter reality to accept.” The State has not normalized Jewish existence. If anything, it has just become a convenient and visible target for a destructive force that throughout history has defied rational explanation.
The theory I relied upon for so long—that anti-Semitism is just a natural phenomenon, another ordinary hatred—rings hollow when The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The Passion of the Christ are your generation’s form of entertainment. At some point I had to accept that just as there is nothing natural about the details of Jewish survival, there is nothing natural about the details of Jewish destruction. I needed a new explanation of Jewish history, and I found it in a book written nearly 2,000 years ago.
Jewish Tradition on Survival and Destruction
The Talmud (Ketubot 66b) provides an eyewitness account of Jerusalem just after the Romans destroyed the city. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students were wandering amidst the rubble when they saw a starving Jewish woman picking undigested barley grains out of donkey dung. The woman, the daughter of one of Jerusalem’s wealthiest Jews before the destruction, told Rabbi Yochanan that her family had lost its fortune because of the failure to properly tithe its wealth. Rabbi Yochanan burst into tears and exclaimed:
How fortunate are the Jews! When they do the will of the Omnipresent One, no nation or tongue rules them; and when they fail to do the will of the Omnipresent One, He places them into the care of . . . the animals of a degraded nation.
Instead of caring for other people, or even other animals, we survive by animals “caring for us,” by providing us with their feces. Our God-given role is to care for the world, and we do this by mastering the Torah and observing its mitzvot.
When we reject the giving role—the role of caring for others—we suddenly find ourselves needing to take, needing others to care for us. It is degrading to sink from donor to recipient. It is even more degrading to sink so low that our sponsors are not human at all—to fall to a spiritual status in which our survival is only facilitated by the generous donations of donkeys.
Rabbi Yochanan understood that both conditions reflect Jewry’s good fortune. Every other nation has been handed over to an intermediary, to nature. There are natural limits on how high a nation can soar and for how long, and there are natural limits on how low they can sink and how much they can be tortured. The fortune of every other nation has a floor and a ceiling. Not so for the Jews. Our relationship with the Almighty is too intimate, and real intimacy cannot flourish through an intermediary. We are God’s beloved, and He is our bashert. When our nation clings to God—when we study His Torah as if it were a love-letter and observe His mitzvot lishmah (for their own sake)—we find ourselves dancing with Him high above the world of mazal. If chas vechalilah (God forbid) Jewry lets go of God, if we view His Torah as nothing more than a text for semichah-degree programs and His mitzvot as 613 problems that we must “be yotzei,” there is no natural safety net; there is no limit to how far we can fall. Then we experience horrors that would be impossible within the natural realm.
Rabbi Yochanan was able to see our good fortune, our shidduch, even in the midst of the maelstrom. He understood that just as nature does not constitute a ceiling for the Jews, so too it provides no floor. When you are betrothed to the Almighty, there are no natural rules. In this regard, we are His personal treasure, His am segulah.
Rabbi Kelemen is a professor of education at Neve Yerushalayim College in Jerusalem where he also lectures in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy. He is a frequent scholar-in-residence at events sponsored by the Orthodox Union. He is the author of Permission to Believe (Jerusalem, 1990), Permission to Receive (Jerusalem, 1994) and To Kindle a Soul (Jerusalem, 2001).