Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Longish Riff on "What Is It About Judaism?"

Someone asked me recently why Jews were such a big deal -- why they seem to be and to have been so influential in history when compared to their relatively small number, why so often hated, etc.

This is far from a new question, and I'm sure if I had time to read a thousandth of what's been written on the subject, I could come up with a learned answer. I don't have that time, but I do have some ideas. They may be old hat. I haven't seen them before, but you may have. I'll summarize them here, and perhaps you'll find something fresh in them. They may also be wrong. For example, if I say that Jews were the first to develop something, perhaps there are cultural anthropologists who could tell me otherwise. But I think my ignorant opinions are as good as anyone else's ignorant opinions, and, hey, this is a blog.

First let's look at the phenomenon itself:

I remember a paperback I read in college with a title something like "Four Men Who Changed The World", and that all four were Jewish: Jesus, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Not to get into arguments about the many non-Jews who could have been among the four most influential (Buddha? Plato? Beethoven? Lenin? [But not John Lennon, who was part Jewish], Shakespeare?) or the obvious European bias of the book, the point is, given that Jews are 2 or 3 tenths of a per cent of the earth's population, it's surprisingly easy to name four Jewish candidates -- or ten Jewish candidates for high position on "most influential".

(Who else? St. Paul, Moses, David, Soloman, St. Peter, Matthew -- or more recently, Proust, Trotsky, per many scholars -- Christopher Columbus, Bob Dylan...)

Quick, name the world's ten most influential Methodists. Lutherans? (I get as far as Luther and Bach, then go dry. I know there are many others -- but I don't know who they are!)

There's also the fact (or illusion) that many professions (law, math, music, etc.) have a lot more Jews than would be expected from their small portion of the population.

In Hitler's day, there were about 18 million Jews on the planet (by most counts -- and I wish I could say "...but who's counting?" Alas, Hitler's minions were counting, with the help of IBM's German subsidiary, Dehomag, which provided all the Hollerith machines [punch-card sorters, etc.] that made it possible). By the time Hitler and much of Germany were gone, there were only 12,000,000 Jews left. But even at 18,000,000, Jews represented less than one per cent of earth's population. Yet Hitler was able to persuade tens of millions of Germans (and others) that Jews were running and ruining the world.

Of course, Jews did own banks and have high positions in various industries and governments out of proportion to their numbers, but not, typically, positions of crushing predominance. There were more Christians among international bankers than Jews, more wealth among Christians, etc. We tend to forget, when someone generalizes about Jewish bankers, naming, for example, the Rothschild family, that the Rockefellers, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, the Mellon family, the Vanderbilts, etc. were not Jewish. Someone pointed out to me years ago (and it was certainly true at the time - the '60s) that the two main areas most dominated by Jews in the United States were music and mathematics - NOT banking or commerce. I suppose some areas of commerce have long been Jewish or were until recent years: the Amsterdam diamond cutters and Jewish jewelers, the NY garment industry, the big movie studios. But large segments of commerce are NOT primarily Jewish. Tom Watson (of IBM - who supported Hitler logistically), Henry Ford (a noted anti-Semite) and other titans of industry -- not Jewish. Nor, today, is Bill Gates Jewish.

One can go back and forth on this. The point is that enough Jews hold high positions in Western society that it has been easy for demogogues to scape-goat Jews and hold them to be huge hidden influences on society. Freemasons have received similar (though far milder) treatment, and have, similarly, a disproportionate share of high positions in the world (George Washington and others of our Founding Fathers, for example). And, like Jews, Freemasons have a culture that is mysterious to outsiders.

And now 1.2 billion Moslems (or a significant portion of them) are focused on the tiny Jewish state of Israel (whose inhabitants include nearly as many Muslems as Jews) as THE enemy. Bin Laden justifies his attacks on the United States partly by citing U.S. aid to Israel. All the Jews in the world amount to about 1 per cent of the number of Muslems.

So the first obvious question is, how did this relatively tiny group (compared to Chinese or Arabs or Christians or Germans or Japanese or Buddhists or Hindhus, etc.) come to be so damned important? Why do they stick in so many craws? Why do they produce so many people of note?

The second question is, how come they're still around? Back in the days when Joshua was resettling the land of Canaan (Israel), there were lots of other peoples in the area. Where are they now? Can you point me to the Hittite part of town? Where can I hire an Emorite lawyer? In what industries are the Amalekites dominant? And where are the worshipers of Dagon (the Fish God) -- the ones we know as "The Philistines" and from whom "Palestine" takes its name, though the current Palestinians have little to do with the Biblical Philistines. Where are the Pharaohs?

I think there are still about 100 Samaritans in Israel. But Samaritans are a sect that splintered off Judaism (believing in the Five Books of Moses [The Torah], but not the other books of the Old Testament). So they're really Jews, in a way. No wonder they survive yet as a people.

Can you fix me up with an Assyrian? How about lunch with a Babylonian? Raise your hand if you're a Midianite...Chaldean? Are the Iranians the descendents (culturally? genetically?) of the Persians from the days of Cyrus and Darius?

Yes, peoples seem to have vanished. I know that arguments can be made to the contrary. Mussolini tried to persuade Italians that they were the Roman Empire ressurected, and there's a wild and grotesquely funny scene in one of the early episodes of "The Sopranos" where Tony Soprano and his henchmen are beating up the Jewish owner of some motels because he refuses to pay protection. The Jew, though beaten and in danger of being shot, will not submit. He tells them that Jews have out-lived one mighty empire after another, despite attempts by many to destroy the Jews, that Jews are still around, but where are the Babelonians, the Assyrians, the Romans -- gone! Tony Soprano, mafioso, replies (I don't recall the exact words), Oh yeah, I got news for you: WE'RE the Romans.

(Another argument I've seen, but with no documentation, is that the Delphic Oracle was an Assyrian plot to undermine the Greek's Hellenism. Hmmm. And I'm told that those who get very "significant" about Freemasonry or Rosicrucianism consider them cultural descendents of ancient Egyptian lore.)

But I think it's fair to say that it's unusual to find a group of people (even if we limit this only to the more observant Jews) still following the traditions and cherishing the language their ancesters spoke as long as 4,000 years ago (Abraham) and 3,500 years ago (Moses). Keep in mind that the "ancient Greeks" and Romans are relatively recent phenomena. Nor do modern Egyptians understand hieroglyphs (unless they happen to be scholars of Egyptology), worship the gods of the Pharaohs, etc. When Christianity came into existence (if we date it from the point where Paul began to splinter off from Judaism), Judaism was already about 2,100 years old. How many Christians today can speak Aramaic (Christ's language)?

So that's the second question: How come Jews are still around and still being Jewish?

The questions are connected, I think, though when we think of Jews being "Jewish", we are likely to think of observant Jews, whereas, many of the most influential Jews (for example, Jesus, Karl Marx, Freud and Einstein) were not particularly observant - with the possible - and surprising - exception of Jesus, most or all of whose ideas already existed in one or another Jewish sect that preceded him; as I said in an earlier essay, it was not obvious to his own disciples, after his crucifixion, that their group was to be considered other than Jewish; the decision by Paul to take Christ's teachings to the "gentiles" was controversial.

But I think when we look at some of the things that have made Judaism unusual, atypical of peoples on this planet, we'll see that the many prominent people of Jewish descent who were not observant were still greatly influenced by the Jewish culture perpetuated by the observant.

What makes a culture last? Mainly isolation. Language, for example, changes quickly in centers of commerce and development. The accent of educated Englishmen in, say, the 1760s was not much like the accent of educated Englishmen today. It was (according to linguists) more similar to isolated communities of Kentucky hillbillies, descended from English immigrants in the 1760s (or earlier). In these isolated communities, language has changed less than in modern, industrial England, influenced by all the other languages and dialects it came in contact with via trade and war.

But it's hard for a cultural group to remain isolated for thousands of years. Most groups get destroyed or otherwise assimilated into the dominant culture. Judaism and perhaps a few others are anomalies. The Gypsies (whose name refers to an old idea that they are Egyptians, though their language tells us that they hail from the general area of India) manage to be among other cultures without being of them. How? They don't usually settle down, don't usually live on farms or run taverns or run factories -- at least not in the past. They travel. They are always passing through. (And they, too, were targeted by the Nazis.) They were among the nations, but never of them. Thus they kept intact an ancient language and an ancient set of customs, being, often, more like the Gypsies in other nations than like the other citizens of "their own" nation.

Since their methods of surviving are their own and aren't much like the Jewish methods, I won't try to go into them. I know little beyond the stereotypes -- Gypsy roles as traveling fortune tellers, as thieves and con artists, as seasonal labor, etc. As I say, these are stereotypes; I have no idea how accurate they are. But the example of the Gypsies does indicate that for a people to last for thousands of years among other cultures, but separate from them and intact requires some unusual strategy for living.

Now, can you name 4 famous influential Gypsies? I can't name one, and I'll bet most of you can't either. So, though here we find another example of an ancient culture that has survived in and among other cultures, we don't have anything like the Jewish phenomenon. The question remains, how were Jews able to remain so deeply a part of the mainstream cultures as to play large roles in their development, yet keep their own culture largely intact during thousands of years of diaspora (being scattered among "the nations" -- the gentiles)?

The answer, I think, lies in certain oddities about Judaism from nearly the beginning -- and definitely from the time of Moses. When Judaism came into being, it was one among many Semitic peoples. It was a tribal culture. You were a Jew (or a member of Abraham's tribe) because you were desended from Abraham. "[Jew" came later as a name, because the descendents of Jacob's fourth son, Judah, became the dominant tribe of the remnant of Israel after ten tribes got "lost" (after the days of Solomon). Israel is a name given to Jacob, so goes back much earlier than "Jew" and "Judaea".]

A tribe persists by spreading its "seed". You get lots of Jews if Jews have lots of kids. But with small tribes, inbreeding works against survival. The American Indians avoided this by adopting women and children taken prisoner during raids or simply by intermarriages among allied tribes. The Jewish tradition seems to have allowed marriage outside the tribe. Ruth, for example, is a "Moabite" (I don't think I've met a Moabite recently.) Moses had two wives, neither from within Israel's people.

Also, the tradition that anyone born to a Jewish mother is Jewish means that a Jewish woman could marry a man from some other tribe, and the children would be Jewish. (But I think the man was usually required to be circumcized and thus become part of the "Convenant with God" that was said to define a Jew.) I don't know much about this, just enough to know that Judaism was tribal and stressed marriage within the group, but allowed enough exceptions to avoid the genetic dangers of inbreeding among a small group.

[At this point I could dodge the question and say that Judaism survived because Abraham and the other Patriarchs had a special personal relationship with God. Maybe so, but I'll see what I can come up with apart from that.]

There are hints early on that Abraham and his immediate descendants were a bit different from the other tribes. We get a sense, for example, that Abraham is humane when he argues with God, hoping God will be merciful with Sodom and Gemorrah. That's not a tribal view. These weren't Abraham's people (except for his kinsman, Lot, who was already to be saved). The tribal view is, typically, that the tribe's name means "the people" and the other tribes have names that mean things like "the enemy" or "the strangers" in "the people's" language.

We also learn that when the Sodomites tried to attack the angels visiting Lot, they were violating basic laws of hospitality. In other words, we get a sense that these Jews had some ideas about ethics that extended beyond "We're the people, and eveyone else is the enemy."

But where Judaism really begins to look like the Judaism we know today is when Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt and rises to be second only to the Pharaoh on the basis of his wisdom, hard work and honesty (refusing to be seduced by married royalty, for example). In a way, this is a new beginning for Judaism. The earlier patriarchs are either dead or out of the picture. Suddenly it's just Joseph, alone in Egypt, becoming what Hitler would call "cosmopolitan", a man of the world.

But then we are reminded that Joseph, through all this, has remained a Jew. And suddenly he brings his family back into the picture, inviting them to join him in Egypt (and forgiving his brothers for their little prank -- selling him into slavery!).

So how is it that Joseph, basically a shepherd boy from the boondocks, is able to prosper so quickly in Egypt? What did he have going for him? Something, obviously. Good looks? Brains?

No doubt, but I suspect he was already literate when he got to Egypt. Can't prove it, but he certainly knew something about how to learn and what to learn.

More basically, a culture (even if viewed in just a single representative, like Joseph in Egypt) is likely to survive such a contact if it is superior in key ways to the larger culture. I suppose the belief in a single immaterial God (whether a "true" belief or not) confers a certain superiority over people who worship statues. For one thing, God, not being a large statue, can more easily be felt to be with you anywhere. But I'm just guessing. I really don't have an anthropological explanation for Joseph's success. I'm simply stressing that the Jewish story is encapsulated, in miniature, in the story of Joseph -- and in the sad result: Envy, and his family's descendents becoming slaves in Egypt.

I conclude there was something different about Judaism that kept it intact as an extended family, that helped Joseph succeed in Egypt, that led to envy and enslavement. The enslavement itself is one of those things that, if it doesn't kill a people, may strengthen it. In any case, it forbids the mixing of Jews with Egyptians, so leaves the separateness of Jews intact.

We tend to stress "enslavement", but the Egyptian experience was more than the experience of slavery. It was also a bunch of shepherds forced to live for generations in crowded cities. I wonder what this sequence taught Jews: Moving from being roaming sheep herders to being among the foreign elite of a wealthy empire (when they joined Joseph) to being slaves in urban slums?

What I'm seeing dimly is an odd pattern: A people that adheres to ancient tribal forms while developing ethical values that have some universal aspects I don't associate with tribal values -- which is not to say that a tribe (say the Dakota) doesn't hold complex and spiritual values, but simply that certain so-called modern ideas of how different peoples should live among one another are not usually associated with tribal values -- which depend largely on having lots of space for relatively sparse populations. Also, a people that is non-urban is suddenly forced into an urban life, and a people with generations of relatively isolated and insulated traditions and language is plunged into a cosmopolitan life, led there by Joseph, who has become a wise man (who interprets dreams) , a healer, an organizer of production, etc., while keeping intact his sense that he is not an Egyptian, but an Israeli. It's as if a great Apache (Cochise, for example) had been taken prisoner, shipped to NY (remember, Joseph came to Egypt as a slave), and risen to be one of the top officials in the U.S. Government and in U.S. industry, all the while remembering that he was an Apache. (Sounds unlikely. Makes me think all the more that Joseph and his family were already literate.)

Generations later, they move out of Egypt (led by Moses, who was born Jewish, but not raised Jewish! He was raised Egyptian.). Now, the book of Exodus would have us believe, there are 600,000 Jews (still numbered by tribes). That figure may be exaggerated, but one of the effects of being heavily suppressed is, often, lots of children. When there's no future for individuals, they try to put a future there by creating children.

Now here's the point where something arises that seems to me crucial: In the desert (says the Bible) the "Children of Israel" receive the law from God. And it's in writing. (Those "tablets" were not medication.) Every people has its laws, traditions, etc. But few tribes in those days had their laws in writing. Few had writing. At least that's my impression. Yes, in some great civilizations of around that time (China -- and in Hammurabi's Babylon -- around the time of Abraham) there were written systems of law. But those were exceptions, and they weren't among the tribes of a non-urban sheep-herding people (the vinyards of Israel were yet to come).

So that's one point: They had written law. Moreover, this law covered all aspects of life: What could be eaten, how to treat an adulterous wife, what fabrics to combine or not in clothing, what animals to sacrifice at what times of year, how to deal with epidemics, etc. The 613 laws enumerated in the Old Testament deal with religious matters AND secular matters, both civil and criminal. AND ALL OF THESE LAWS ARE SAID TO COME DIRECTLY FROM GOD.

Do you see the various anomalies here? They pop out at me:

Rule by law (rather than by fiat of a ruler who is above the law) is one of the advanced ideas that has made nations like the United States possible. Here it is part of a tribal culture.

Written law that covers all aspects of life and behavior and must be followed exactly because it comes, not from man, but from a God who opens up the earth to swallow up those who do not obey him (which happens immediately after Moses first returns with the tablets of the law, hint hint) - so you have the idea (an ancient one, that seems the antithesis of modern - at least to most of us) that all law is from God, that God is, as it were, a totalitarian God -- this combined with the very advanced idea of written law. And the law is elaborate, yet must be understood so that it can be obeyed. The result? The need for many Jews (if not all) to be literate, the "People of the Book". There are simply too many laws, and it is too vital to obey them, lest one incur God's wrath and God lets one's enemies devour one - too vital not to be able to read and understand these laws. (It's not like Catholicism, for example, where you can break all the rules, then go to the priest, confess and be shriven.) So we get (and I think have had at least from that time, if not earlier -- as with Joseph) the Jewish tradition of literacy.

And with literacy comes another anomaly: If each Jew (or at least most male heads of family) can read the law for himself, he begins to rely on his own understanding. This is something tyrants have always understood: If you want to have slaves, you keep people illiterate. Literate people begin to have opinions. Among Jews, there has long been a tradition of wrangling (even the wrestling with God for which Jacob was named Israel - one who wrestles with God). There has always been the right to reason with others about religion, law, etc. So we get this odd combination of a people, more or less theocratic (God-ruled) - something we Westerners are inclined to consider a backwards quality - that cherishes reasoning and the individuals right to learn for himself and form his own opinions -- qualities we consider advanced.

Also, since the law is presented (by God himself, remember - that's what the Bible says and what Jews appear to have believed) as complete, with everything that's needed, we end up with a nation of lawyers and fine reasoners. Why? Because times and conditions change, and laws must change to fit the new conditions. But these laws CANNOT BE CHANGED because they're from God.

We need to look at this "from God" point, because it's stranger than it may at first seem, at least to Westerners. It may be familiar to Muslims, if their "Sharia" is as comprehensive as the Torah. Imagine if Christians had been given by Christ a complete compendium of all the laws, religious and secular, and told that they were all God's commandments and that they were all the laws we'd ever need? But that didn't occur. In fact, Christians were specifically excused from adhering to all those laws by one of Christ's statements in the Gospels (at least that's the usual explanation of why, though most Christians accept the Old Testament as "God's Word", they consider themselves exempted from, for example, keeping Kosher). Many Jews, too, have tried to reset priorities over the years. Rabbi Hillel (not too distant in time from Jesus) , asked to explain what one must do to be a Jew while standing on one leg, said that the key principles of Judaism were two: "The Lord is God; the Lord is One" and "Love thy neighbor as thyself".

But the main line of Jewish history has involved a massive intellectual effort to interpret the law, because the law is from God and is said to cover everything needed, so it can't be "changed", but must be "interpreted" and "explained" so that it will continue to make sense under changing circumstances.

This law was (says the Bible) given to the Jews 3,500 years ago. Orthodox Jews today aim to follow it totally. You're not supposed to light a fire on the Sabbath. Today we don't need to light a fire. We just turn on the lights or the electric stove. So scholars have to work out whether or not that's allowable on the Sabbath. Changing conditions require new interpretations. Or the Bible gives a broad statement, but there are many particular applications of it to be worked out: Two people each grab hold of something and each says "It is mine". How do you decide who gets it? If there's no other evidence, you give half to each. What if it can't be cut in half? Sell it and divide the money. What if one says "It's mine" and the other says "it's half mine and half his"? Give the first one three fourths of it, the other one fourth. And so on. In the chapter from the Talmud (18 huge volumes of Jewish law and commentary on that law and commentaries on the comentaries, written over a period of far more than 1000 years) that I'm paraphrasing (Baba Meziyah, which means "The Middle Gate" -- and I've forgotten why), the Rabbis having this discussion keep posing scenarios and coming up with the answers, citing evidence from the Bible, but then, suddenly there's a long list of special circumstances (things that make you wonder, "How did they come up with that?" and the chapter ends with the statement (or the initial letters in the words of the statement) that means "These questions will be answered when the Messiah comes."

I say "the Rabbis discuss", but you must understand that when the Talmud (a word derived from the Hebrew word for learning) says "Rabbi Meir says..., but Rabbi Akiva says..." and so forth, the first Rabbi may have said his piece in 300 BC, while the second Rabbi's reply came 800 years later.

Getting back to my point about anomalies: Because it's a "primitive" tribal people with a "primitive" idea that all its laws are absolutes, God-Given, but this is combined with it being a "modern" written law with a literate people encouraged, in a "modern" manner, to reason and discuss and required, by the very fact of it's being a supposedly absolute law that must be applied in changing conditions (a very "primitive" idea) - required to become masters of close reasoning, exegesis (finding evidence in Biblical and earlier scholarly texts for later conclusions), developers of the Talmud, one of the most complex and highly developed legal systems of its time -- though today, I suppose, the laws of most nations fill many more volumes than the Talmud. But when you consider that much of the Talmud was already there 2000 years ago and that it was added to until the 13th Century, you are looking at a remarkable compendium of legal and religious reasoning.

So what we have, just looking at this one phenomenon, 3,500 years ago, is a bunch of anomalies from the viewpoint of most of our ideas of what's primitive and what's modern:

1. The Jews are primitive: Tribal, held together by family lines (whereas a modern nation is held together by language, law, etc., but can rapidly expand beyond genetic boundaries).

2. The Jews are advanced: They support rule by law and include in their laws ethical precepts that include ways of dealing with other peoples that are far more sophisticated than the usual tribal view.

3. The Jews are primitive: A bunch of nomadic shepherds.

4. The Jews are advanced, with experience of both managing and being slaves in sophisticated urban socities.

5. The Jews are primitive. Their laws are all Divine fiat, absolutes, requiring religious adherence in all sorts of everyday matters we moderns consider secular (diet, for example).

6. The Jews are advanced, promoting literacy among most Jews long before this was common -- in fact, long before anyone else, I suspect. China had lots of literate people, but many more who were illiterate. The Jews may be the first people in our history books for whom literacy was, if not universal, at least encouraged for all or most levels of society (male society, I suppose).

7. The Jews are primitive, trying to take a set of detailed laws from 3,500 years ago and apply it to modern times. (Are we really going to stone homosexuals and adultresses to death? But wait - that, too, is interpreted by the Talmud to permit more humane resolutions.)

8. The Jews are advanced, encouraging reasoning and producing what may be the most sophisticated and most closely reasoned legal system of its time. (Actually, TWO such systems, since there are two separate lines of development, the Babyloninan Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, but that's a longer story -- and besides, I've forgotten most of it!)

Aren't these odd combinations of characteristics? I think they are unique among peoples. In a way, the Jews are the perfect BRIDGE from primitive to advanced, being (by current Western ideas of what's primitive and what's advanced) far ahead of others in some ways, far behind in other ways. When a more advanced culture encounters a less advanced culture (for example, England in the 18th or 19th Century encounters African tribes), the less advanced culture is overwhelmed, tends to sicken, perhaps die off (and get assimilated). This may be because the more advanced culture uses military superiority to destroy the less advanced. But that's not necessary. Just the contact, even if friendly, will suffice. How do the village elders handle the kids once they've seen blue jeans and rock and roll?

But what happens when two cultures collide (for example, Roman and Jewish during the decades of bloody rebellion in Judaea preceding 160 AD) where one is clearly superior in many ways (Roman military might and commercial strength and probably finer sculpture -- maybe many other things) and clearly inferior in other ways (I think at that time the Jews had a higher literacy level, more dedicated fighters -- they held off the Empire far longer than the Romans had believed possible, perhaps a more sophisticated legal system, as rich a literary tradition, a religious belief that was superior to Pagan Rome's -- enough so that far more Romans moved toward Judaism and to its offshoot, Christianity, than went the other direction, toward Paganism). (Speaking of literacy, the best Roman history of the rebellion is by an assimilated Roman Jew, Flavius Josephus.)

What happens is, I think, the anomally we call Judaism: A people that survives among the nations, often barely tolerated by them, keeps its culture more or less intact (both by intention and because forced into separateness), yet exerts a powerful influence on that culture, far more than, for example, Gypsies; with a literacy level and tradition of study that enables those who break out of the ghettos to master professions quickly (for example, the great Jewish doctors of the Middle Ages), with a reasoning ability and legalistic mind and attention to fine detail (part of the requirements of Talmudic interpretation) that carries over into commerce.

Nearly always there was this balance of cultures: The Jewish culture was seldom overwhelmed by the cultures it inhabited, because the Jewish culture had strengths, points where it was superior, based on its internal rule by law, some fairly sophisticated ethical ideas, it's tradition of literacy, it's urban background, etc. The Jewish culture seldom (contrary to Hitler's assertions) overwhelmed the host culture, being in some ways inferior to it (no Jewish army, not allowed to farm, constrained by tribal ideas of membership - making it hard for the Jewish community to expand, theocracy, etc.)

Here's where we connect up to the many great names in Western culture that are Jewish: When Jews move out of the ghetto and start to assimilate, they have the best of both cultures: They retain the love of learning, the literacy, the ability to live in cities, the ability to reason, perhaps many of the ethical precepts. They typically move away from the idea that their lives must be constrained by the details of the law or that they must remain part of a tribe that wears odd clothes and speaks with an odd accent. In other words, when they assimilate, they take with them all the points of Judaism that we would tend to think of as advanced.

This leads to envy, persecution, Jews frequently having to flee to other cities, other countries. That leads to a stronger sense of being different, of having to keep the culture intact, so that the success of the more or less assimilated adds to the preservation of Judaism's separateness - ironic.

So now we have a whole culture of people that, unlike Gypsies, are tied to stable communities. They are not nomads. But because of frequent attacks, they must be ready to move at any time. Aha! That's one reason Jews pioneered modern commerce and finance. Here are a few examples:

Because they might be forced to leave a country or city with very short notice, Jews developed ways to transport wealth quickly and secretly. They converted their wealth to forms easy to transport. Thus they became expert jewelers (jewels could be sewed into skirts and underwear and were valuable everywhere). Because a Jewish money lender might be exiled (all property seized) by some king or lord who owed him money, Jews developed international finance to the point where a ruler who reneged on a loan in, say, Vienna, would be pressured to pay up by, say, a ruler in England who hoped to borrow money from the English branch. That was the genius of the Rothchilds: The family created branches in all the major capitals.

Another part of quick transport was the development of credit based on deposits "elsewhere" - somewhere secure, and all the modern modes of wealth (stock, etc.) that consist of paper, not gold or property. Jews developed a great deal of what we think of today as having always been around - modern concepts of credit, banking, etc. - because they had to in order to survive.

(Brief historical digression: In ancient Israel they were mainly farmers. In Europe they were mostly not allowed to own land, because to own land, one had to take an oath of loyalty to the ruler and to Christ - something like that; and Jews couldn't take the "Christ" part of the oath. So Jews were in-keepers, traders and money lenders. Jewish law forbids the taking of interest on loans, calling it "usury". Christians also considered usury a sin. This delayed for centuries the development of a workable banking system, since without collection of interest, banks found it hard to be profitable. The non-Jewish Medici family of Florence rose to wealth and power as a banking family because they figured out tricky ways to make interest on money they loaned that was not "technically" interest. I don't know the details, but this shows how much the economy NEEDED some sort of incentive for bankers.

In most of Europe the solution was to have Jews be money lenders. The idea was that it was sinful for a CHRISTIAN to take interest from another Christian, but not for a Jew. Some Jews disagreed, but others said the Jewish prohibition applied only to fellow Jews. (And of course, many Jews were just a little annoyed with their Christian neighbors after centuries of persecution.) This was popular with the ruling classes, because if they became too indebted to a Jew, the Jews got skimpy protection under the law. It was easy to stir up an anti-Jewish mob or find some excuse to confiscate Jewish property. And, of course, being literate, attentive to details and able to reason (and that includes ability to work with figures), Jews were often good at it.

That's the background that led to Jewish bankers and much hostility to Jews as Shylocks. There were many non-Jewish bankers as well, but it was the Jewish bankers who had the incentive, indeed the necessity to develop the means to make wealth easily transportable and international and who pioneered much of our current financial system.)

In summary: What has allowed Judaism to survive where so many cultures died or disappeared has been its odd combination of weaknesses and strengths that kept it, simultaneously isolated from its host cultures (isolated enough to ensure preservation of its culture) and intermingled with that culture in a unique balance of strengths and weaknesses (or primitive aspects and advanced aspects).

This goes back to the odd phenomenon of a tribal people with a written law that, because it covers all of life and is said to be directly from God and is complex, makes for a literate people, proud of their independent opinions and reasoning, and a need for legal skills to keep that law relevant over centuries.

This also creates the situation where, particularly when Jews become assimilated, they have a likelihood of prospering, doing well in professions, etc. The details I gave about Jews in finance are just one example of this.

How did the Jews come to have their law in writing? I don't know. A literate God? A people who happened to have a genius named Joseph who set something in motion? Or does it go back to Abraham (whom someone will say, was really an exiled Babylonian high priest or something?).

And, of course, some would just say "It's because God chose them." Whether or not that's the case, I think a great deal follows from that odd combination of literacy and theocracy and tribalism.

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