Is Judaism a race or a mission? Last week when I began writing this blog, my Beliefnet editor advised me about some recent trends in Jewish-related web searches. After all, we’re trying to keep things relevant here.
It turns out that there’s a great volume of web queries going on around the theme of identifying unlikely Jewish celebrities and other famous or notorious figures. Google searchers earnestly wish to know if Jimmy Kimmel is Jewish? Sandra Bullock? Donald Rumsfeld? Don Imus? Tina Fey? Adolf Hitler?
The last of these comes out of rumors before and during World War II, which still persist, that Hitler had a Jewish grandfather. Ron Rosenbaum goes into the matter in his fascinating book Hitler Explained
. Factually, it seems unlikely he did — though the idea obsessed and appalled Hitler himself. And no wonder. Hitler viewed Judaism as predominantly a racial identity. So, I think, do those web searchers interested in the possible Jewish bona fides of Jimmy Kimmel et al. Tina Fey’s being Jewish, if she were — she isn’t — would only be meaningful and interesting if being Jewish were primarily a feature of physical ancestry.
What a depressing idea that is. And by contrast, how uplifting is the authentically Jewish conception that being Jewish may have a racial element but that it is primarily a matter of mission, of purpose in life, and that this mission has universalist implications. Truth, not Tribe, is the heart of the matter.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch finds this mission alluded to very early on in the Hebrew Bible, before there were even Jews per se on the scene. It is in the otherwise mysterious verse in Genesis that describes how unto Seth, Adam’s son, “to him also there was born a son, and he called his name Enosh; then men began to proclaim the name of God” (4:26).
Hirsch explains that before the time of Enosh, there was no need to proclaim God’s name, just as there will be no need to do so in the Messianic era (Jeremiah 31:34). Knowing God then was, and will be again, automatic. There was then, and will be, no need to teach anyone about God as if knowledge of Him were like a foreign language, previously unknown.
By the time of Enosh, humanity was already in the process of spiritual decline. The note that Enosh’s contemporaries “began to proclaim the name of God” was a sign that, in a sense, our own modern secular times had already begun to take root.
Hirsch explains that summoning people in God’s name “is more than mere preaching.” He continues:
It involves coming to a clear understanding of the relationship of Man to God and the demands which this relation makes.
It is with this requirement…that the history of Jewish nation is introduced. For with it, the necessity arises for an arrangement to have men in the midst of mankind who are to preserve and awaken the consciousness and knowledge of the true calling of Man, and of his true relation to God. Hence the nation of Israel was born whose mission is none other than [to proclaim the name of God].
Notice that the content of Jewish teaching is supposed to be ethical (God’s “demands”) but also broadly philosophical (“the relationship of Man to God”). The latter would include working in the world to clarify among other men and women how exactly God relates to man — as creator and source of day-to-day providential care.
As Hirsch explains, Abraham, the first Jew, established his ministry (to adopt a curiously appropriate Christian term) on this basis: “And he planted a tree in Beer-sheba, and there proclaimed the name of God” (Genesis 21:33). Maimonides in his brief narration of these events in his Mishneh Torah depicts Abraham as gathering tens of thousands of converts to a religion of primordial monotheism.
A reader, Richard H., asks: “Though you are not the only one to think that being a ‘kingdom of priests’ is central to God’s calling to Jews, how widespread is the belief today? Is there any particular tradition within contemporary Judaism that is characterized by this position?”
Of course the answer is that the ideal of Jewish priesthood is not talked about in any contemporary Jewish denomination or movement. It’s in the sources — Hirsch’s writing is central to Modern Orthodoxy thinking — but politely ignored. Hence the need for this blog!