Ask 10 Jews what Jewish values are and you will get 20 responses. Most will list predictable items – education, philanthropy, family. But these are values that any civilized society embraces. Our inability to articulate values that are uniquely Jewish is the principal reason why so many Jews are assimilating. In the opinion of the unaffiliated, Judaism has done its job. It has communicated important ideas to the world. Now, like a midwife after a child is born, it can disappear into obscurity.
This fact was born out powerfully in the recent and much discussed Pew study on the state of the American Jewish community. “When we asked Jews about what is and is not essential to their own sense of Jewishness, 73% say remembering the Holocaust is essential (including 76% of Jews by religion and 60% of Jews of no religion). Almost as many Jews, 69%, say leading an ethical and moral life is essential, and 56% cite working for social justice and equality; only 19% say observing Jewish law is essential.” If Judaism is principally about honoring our victimhood and being a good person, then many believe that the Jewish religion is not necessary. Yad Vashem and good parenting will do the job.
In truth, the Jewish people represent essential values that the world has yet to embrace and that, were they to be mainstreamed, would make the world a much better place. Foremost among them is the idea of choice and destiny.
The Greek world believed in fate. Before someone was born his life already was scripted. There was no escape. Astrology and zodiacal signs advanced the idea that a person’s choices were of no consequence. Life was governed by higher, celestial spheres.
Christianity embraced this idea in the form of original sin. Whatever someone’s virtue, he is born damned, condemned to the eternal fire of hell because of the sin of someone who preceded him. Christianity maintains that humans are conceived in sin and must be redeemed by grace. No ethical action in your lifetime could rescue you. Only faith in Christ as your redeemer, a power outside you, can bring salvation.
Judaism was a radical departure from this view and contributed to the world the most empowering idea it has ever known – that each of us possesses the freedom to choose to be whatever we wish. In every circumstance, in every predicament, we can make the moral choice to be good or the immoral choice to be evil. Everything else is just an excuse.
In short, the Hebrew Bible rejected Christian fate in favor of Jewish destiny.
But this most fundamental of all Jewish values is under constant threat. Science has been moving away from a belief in choice for more than a century. It began with Freud, who posited that we are all far less of masters in our own mental households than we would otherwise suppose. Freud emphasized the uncontrollable nature of the id, which will always subvert the more cultured mores of the ego or superego.
Science upped the ante with biological determinism, with authors like Robert Wright arguing that adultery should no longer be regarded as a sin given the genetic propensity to multiple sexual partners and the widespread dissemination of one’s genes. Evolution – whatever its scientific merits – teaches that we are far more animal than human.
Social anthropologists also assail the idea of destiny created by free choice. How many times have we heard that poverty breeds crime? It is an argument that has been especially tragic for the Palestinians who Middle East experts think are forced to embrace suicide bombings because of the humiliation of Israeli checkpoints. But even if such degradation were true – and nonstop terror against civilians is what has necessitated military checkpoints – what is the connection with blowing up innocent civilians and children?
As Alan Dershowitz points out, the Jews of Europe experienced the most brutal assault in history during the Holocaust. But that did not compel them to vent their fury on German kindergartens and buses.
In “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl gave the definitive rebuttal to the belief that we are nothing but creatures of our environment. Frankl’s moving depiction of concentration camp inmates sharing their last morsels of bread and moving about the disease-ravaged barracks comforting the dying is proof that there is no such thing as fate. The Nazis may have wanted all inmates to become animals. But no one can force us to forfeit our humanity. We all have choice, in every time, in every place, and under all circumstances. We all can choose how we will respond to what is being done to us.
As Frankl put it, when he was an inmate in Auschwitz the Nazis could rob him of his humanity, his freedom, even his family. But the one thing they could never take from him was his ability to choose how he would respond to them. If they forced him to defecate in a bucket, he did not have to surrender his dignity. And if they murdered his loved ones, he did not have to surrender his hope. And if it left him a bag of bones, he did not have to surrender his desire to share his last crumbs of food with those even hungrier than he.
There is always a choice.