When Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin co-authored their popular 1986 Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism they hit upon some of the most relevant contemporary Jewish issues like “Can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew?” and “Why shouldn’t I intermarry?” and “How do I start practicing Judaism?” But the single most fundamental question that underlies all the others is “Why be a Jew at all?” Prager and Telushkin assume that the “people” in the title are Jews and the questions with which they are grappling is how to express their Jewish identity or what is required of them as Jews. In reality, for many Jews today who are doubters and skeptics these questions assume that Jews want to be Jews but that is not the case.
Many Jews see religion, in general, as so much superstition entirely unnecessary in a scientific world and Judaism, in particular, as a threadbare tradition more apt to be at odds with modern values that a source for them. Many Jews are more embarrassed by Judaism than proud of it. Their Jewish identity, as weak as it is, is an accident of birth rather than a chosen path. Were it not for family dinners on Friday nights or Passover or the circumcision of baby boys to mollify the grandparents or exchanging gifts on Hanukkah (practices that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan termed “folkways”), there would be little Jewishness in their lives at all.
But what Jews themselves don’t see (or refuse to note), non-Jews are happy to emphasize. Thomas Cahill, for instance, extols the manifold contributions that Judaism has made to Western civilization in his appropriately named book, The Gift of the Jews. Eminent historian Paul Johnson documents the unique features of Judaism that influence Western culture in his History of the Jews. The celebrated Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy once said: “The Jew is that sacred being, who has brought down from Heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions.” And in 1897 it was Mark Twain who wrote: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.”
These glowing appreciations of Judaism by gentiles find a source in the Bible. Bil’am was a sorcerer hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites but found himself unable to do so. Taking into perspective the Israelites before him, Bil’am could only bless them. Bil’am wishes: “May my fate be like theirs!” (Numbers 23:10). Sometimes it takes an outsider to appreciate what insiders do not realize.