The Gifts of Judaism

Judaism’s great gift to the world, according to essayist John Evans, was the idea of a single, omnipotent, omniscient and righteous God, with whom one could have a personal relationship. Such a concept—circa 2100 BCE, when Jews made their entry in history as a small nomadic tribe in the region called Ur in modern Iraq—was radical, to say the least. This set Jews apart from the other ancients whose concepts of divinity were a range of amoral gods, who were (either as household icons or as lofty super-beings dwelling on high) largely indifferent or worse, sadistic, toward the affairs of humans.

As Huston Smith writes, in The Religions of Man, “Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watches over widows and orphans. While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were going their aloof ways, Yahweh is speaking the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery… God is a God of righteousness whose loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are all over his works.”

The Jews, then, were set apart in the ancient world, a factor that worked both for them—preserving a unique and imperishable identity—and against them, making them stand out as “different,” and hence a people to be watched closely and suspiciously.

And so it went, century upon century, scapegoat upon scapegoat, lie upon lie, until we come to our own time—with the living memory of the Holocaust persisting among that generation, antisemitic hate crimes on the rise on virtually every continent on Earth.

How have the Jewish people responded?  The way they always have: with endurance. The Jewish people are the ultimate allegory of endurance. They have rewarded scorn with excellence in virtually every field of endeavor—from science to scholarship to entertainment. They’ve answered derision with charity, with 4,421 charities and nonprofit organizations in the U.S. alone.  They’ve rebutted abuse by feeding the hungry, with 18 organizations devoted 24/7 to heeding the Biblical command, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

It’s difficult to quantify the gifts of Judaism to our culture in general and to each of us in particular. Just go through an average day and count your blessings. Do you get your morning coffee at Starbucks? Thank its CEO, Howard Schultz. Do you have something to tell the world on Facebook? Thank its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. On your way to work, do you play the music to West Side Story? Thank Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. If you’re school-age, do you sing “God Bless America” at the start of the day? Thank Irving Berlin. Need to Google something online? Thank Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Want to unwind tonight with an action-packed Marvel movie? Thank Marvel’s creator, Stan Lee. The list goes on and on.

Just as Jews were set apart in the ancient world, so too are they set apart in the modern world—but this time as pace-setters, innovators, ground-breakers.  The modern gifts of Judaism then, are just that: gifts, and the example set by giving …and giving…and giving some more.