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The better one gets to know the Jews, the more peculiar they appear. “Remember us unto life, O King who delights in life,” they pray on the solemn occasion of their New Year, which this year fell on September 13. Unfeigned and spontaneous delight in life is uniquely Jewish; the standard Jewish toast states, “To life!” while the most characteristic Jewish gibe admonishes, “Get a life!” We are not dealing here with so-called lust for life that involves a pile of broken dishes and a hangover the next morning. Instead, the Jews evince a liking for life as such. That is not only unusual; it is almost unnatural.
Life as such is not that likable. As Mephistopheles taunted Faust in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragedy, life in its totality was fit only for a god, too hard a cracker for ordinary humans to digest. That seems to be the prevalent opinion across epochs and cultures. Socrates told us to despise life and instead to view death as the highest good. Buddhism teaches us to regard it as an illusion to inure ourselves from its attendant pain. From the Spartans to the Vikings, the martial cultures of the pagan world showed contempt for life, for they often fought to the death. Pagans aspired to a glorious death; I can think of not a single instance in the history of the Jews, whose wars of antiquity were frequent and ferocious, of the mention of a “glorious death.” The very notion is repulsive to Jewish sensibilities.
Christians die to this world to attain the Kingdom of Heaven; they aspire, that is, to a life that is abstracted from our travail in this vale of tears. Sigmund Freud warned that psychoanalysis offered no consolation, and at best could proceed from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness. The ubiquity of self-destructiveness led him to posit a death-wish as a fundamental human drive.
On the strength of the evidence, we would have to say that life at best seems an acquired taste. Most people dislike life, at least their own lives, judging from the cult of celebrity and the universal passion for spectator sports. The average man or woman rather would live vicariously through the glamour of actors or athletes than dwell upon the failure and humiliation of their own lives.
Even in their most abject moments of celebrity adulation, though, ordinary folk well know that the lives of the rich and famous are just as miserable as their own. That accounts for the universal fascination with the feckless Diana Spencer, who combined in one person the attraction of a fantasy princess with the repulsion of a horrible example. Goethe’s Mephisto knew all about this, of course. Unlike the biblical Satan of the Book of Job, who took from ancient man what he required, the up-to-date devil offers modern man what he desires – with just as deadly effect. The fantasy life of ordinary folk does not evince a liking for life as such, for even the life of celebrities is tainted.
What we observe about the mass of individuals applies a fortiori to the vast majority of peoples, who dislike their national existence as much as individuals dislike their own lives. Between half and nine-tenths of the 6,000-7,000 languages now spoken on this planet will disappear during the next century, linguists believe, and with them the sentience of the peoples who formerly spoke them. Given that none of these peoples faces the threat of physical destruction, their imminent extinction must be due to distaste for their ethnic life. They do not like their national life, in short, sufficiently to continue living it. Extreme cases include the Innu of Labrador Bay in Canada, who in 2001 asked the government to take away their children because the adults were too debilitated by alcoholism to care for them; today’s Europeans represent a less extreme case, of auto-extinction by attrition.
Are Jews the only ethnicity that delights in life? Professor David Layman of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, observes that the Jewish outlook is not quite unique. In correspondence with this writer, he notes, “There is one prima facie exception: China. The stereotypical vision of popular religion (the ‘folk’ customs and traditions that underlay all Chinese practice) is summarized as ‘prosperity, progeny, and longevity’: wealth, descendants, and long life. But I am not sure that exception carries the full weight of the Jewish formula. In my reading of Chinese religious development, the primal Chinese formula is no different from the Deuteronomic dictum in 30:19: ‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.'”
Professor Layman adds, “However, at that point [the] Chinese and the Jewish traditions diverge. Deuteronomy 30:20 continues, ‘and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ What intervenes, of course, is the supernatural event of the Covenant.”
It’s easy for the Jews to talk about delighting in life. They are quite sure that they are eternal, while other peoples tremble at the prospect impending extinction. It is not their individual lives that the Jews find so pleasant, but rather the notion of a covenantal life that proceeds uninterrupted through the generations. Mephistopheles is right: life as such, the run-of-the-mill business of being born, having children, growing old and dying, is not an attractive proposition. The desire of all nations is eternal life, to be exalted above this muddy vesture of decay. A people that clearly foresees its own end will crawl into a hole and die like a sick animal, as we observe so tragically among aboriginal populations forced into communication with the modern world.
What makes the Jews different is their unique belief that the Covenant gives them eternal life, a belief grounded, to be sure, by thousands of years of history, and survival against all odds against the depredations of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Alexandrine and Roman empires, not to mention more recent unpleasantness. It is not changing the baby’s diapers or changing grandma’s bedpan to which the Jews refer when they speak of delight in life, but rather the idealized, perpetual life of a kinship community.
As for the ordinary sort of life, the Jews tell nastier jokes about it than anyone else. But even in the banal sort of jokes that they tell to one another, the Jews take the perpetuity of their existence to be self-evident. One joke that circulates in many versions involves two elderly Jews deep in conversation. One says, “Life is so painful, joy is so short, pain is so long, that we would be better off dead than alive!” The second Jew says, “You are right.” The first adds, “Even better than to be dead would never to be born!” To which the second responds, “But who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand!” Here is an existential version of Parmenides’ paradox, which states that everything must be part of a giant unity (because non-being cannot exist: the moment you say the word “non-being,” you refer to a something, and something must have being, etc). So self-evident is existence to the Jews that even the wish for oblivion implies existence.
Even Jewish humor expresses a faith in Jewish eternity so vivid that the opposite is unimaginable. That is the sort of faith that moves not only mountains, but continents. The enormous influence of this tiny people, which now comprises barely 15 million individuals, stems entirely from this unshakable belief in its own eternity. Paradoxically, Jewish existence exercises a great gravitational pull on Christian faith. As the great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote:
That Christ is more than idea – no Christian can know this. But that Israel is more than an idea, the Christian knows, because he sees it. For we live. We are eternal, not in the way that an idea might be eternal, but we are eternal in full reality, if eternal we be at all. And thus we are the one thing that Christians cannot doubt. The parson argued conclusively in response to Frederick the Great’s question about the proofs for Christianity: “Your Majesty, the Jews.” The Christians can have no doubt about us. Our presence stands surety for their truth … The continuing life of Judaism through all time, the Judaism witnessed in the Old Testament, to which it also bears living witness, is the unique kernel, whose glow invisibly nourishes the rays [of Christianity], which through Christianity breaks visibly and multiply-refracted into the night of the pagan world.
The success of the State of Israel, for that matter, provides one of the most powerful arguments for Christian evangelization in the global South. If God fulfilled his pledge to this tiny and apparently insignificant nation, restoring them to their ancient and promised homeland and its capital Jerusalem, then why should others doubt the same promise of eternal life to all the nations who come to him? Given the competition between Islam and Christianity for converts in Africa, the humiliation the Muslim world feels at the presence of a Jewish enclave in what for some centuries was Muslim territory also constitutes a powerful argument for Christianity, by attenuating the claim of Islam to be a final revelation. The more the Muslims rail at Israel, the more Africans will admire the potency and faithfulness of the Jewish god.
As Philip Jenkins, the world’s authority on the subject, reported in his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, the newest Christians identify profoundly with the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible. I reviewed Jenkins’ book on December 12, 2006 (see A new Jerusalem in sub-Saharan Africa).