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WORLD PERFECT: The Jewish Impact on Civilization

WORLD PERFECT: The Jewish Impact on Civilization

Where did the values and principles of the modern world come from?

by

An excerpt from Rabbi Ken Spiro's recently published book, "World Perfect."

While developing an idea for a lecture program, I conducted a series of surveys over a period of two years, asking people to list the fundamental values and principles which they felt we needed to uphold in order to make our world as perfect as is humanly possible. In total, some 1,500 individuals were questioned. Overwhelmingly, my respondents – predominantly Westerners, from the United States, Canada, South America, England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy, etc – came up with remarkably similar answers, which could be grouped into these six categories:

  1. Respect for Human Life. In a perfect world, all people would be guaranteed certain basic human rights, paramount among which must be the right to life. They should be able to live that life without constant fear of its loss and with certain basic dignity. 
  2. Peace and Harmony. On all levels – whether communal or global – people and nations should co-exist in peace and harmony with respect for each other. 
  3. Justice and Equality. All people, regardless of race, sex, or social status should be treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law. 
  4. Education. Everyone should receive a basic education that would guarantee functional literacy within society. 
  5. Family. A strong, stable family structure needs to exist to serve as the moral foundation for society and as the most important institution for socializing/educating children. 
  6. Social Responsibility. On an individual, community, national and global level, people must take responsibility for the world. This should include an organized social network to address basic concerns such as disease, poverty, famine, crime, drug-related problems, as well as environmental and animal protection issues.

The respondents to my survey came from all walks of life, yet regardless of their backgrounds, they were in agreement. Indeed, they, and I venture to say most human beings the world over, deeply believe that a perfect world must include these universal values.

The question is: Why?

Are these six basic ideas intrinsic to human nature? Have people always felt this way? And if not, where did we get these values? What is the source of this utopian world vision?

My search for answers to these questions has produced this book. Where did the values and principles of the modern world come from? The answer I found will surprise, perhaps even shock, the reader.

As the respondents to my survey were predominantly residents of democratic countries, they naturally assumed that the values they hold dear have originated – as did democracy – with the Greeks and, to a lesser extent, with disseminators of Hellenistic, i.e. Greek ideas, the Romans.

Indeed, this issue is subject to much debate in academic circles these days. Traditionalists continue to insist that the values of ancient Greece and Rome underlie all our learning, philosophy, art, and ethics, while their opponents accuse them that their idealization of Greco-Roman standards of virtue, wisdom, and beauty is sentimental if not downright unreal.

Reporting on this bitter controversy, the New York Times (March 7, 1998) asked in a headline:

"THE ANCIENTS WERE: A) BELLICOSE ELITISTS OR B) THE SOURCE OF WESTERN VALUES?"

It would be pointless to negate that Greece and Rome, besides being the most advanced civilizations of antiquity, have also been the most influential of civilizations on Western Europe and by extension, the Americas. Without a doubt, much of our ideas about art, beauty, philosophy, government, and modern empirical science do come from classical Greek thought. Western law, government, administration, and engineering were also powerfully shaped by Rome. Indeed, we do overwhelmingly get the lion's share of our culture from these civilizations.

But can the same be said about our values, ethics, and principles?

Let me hasten to say that this is not a trick question; I am not hinting here at some far-fetched notion that we really got our values from the Far East. Although, with the recent interest in Eastern philosophies a few voices have been raised advocating this view, the undisputed historical fact is that only within the last few hundred years did the West have any significant interaction with the East.

So the question remains: How did we come to order our moral values in this particular way?

To answer this question we shall begin our examination by taking a look just how those civilizations – which, without a doubt, shaped our political and social systems – related to the values we hold dear today.

A SOCIETY WITHOUT MERCY

As we begin to trace the history of the values of our world, we shall, first of all, take a look at how the ancients – who bequeathed to us so many of our ideas – regarded the values we cherish today. Did they consider them essential to the making of an ideal world? Or was their worldview considerably different than ours?

Of all the principles we might list, the basic right to life seems certainly the most fundamental. We all want to live without fear of being arbitrarily deprived of life. We all want to live with a certain minimal amount of human dignity. We all want certain protection in the law against oppression by tyrants who might consider certain segments of society expendable simply because they are too weak or too poor to protect themselves.

As obvious and important as this concept seems to us today, it was not so obvious or important in the world of antiquity.

To begin with, Greeks and Romans – as well as virtually every ancient culture we know of – practiced infanticide.

By infanticide, I mean the killing of newborn children as a way of population control, sex selection (generally, boys were desirable, girls undesirable), and as a way of ridding society of potentially burdensome or deformed members.

A baby that appeared weak or sickly at birth, or had even a minor birth defect such a cleft pallet, hair lip, or cleft foot, or was in some other way imperfect was killed. This was not done by some Nazi-like baby removal squad. This was done by an immediate member of the family, usually the mother or father, and usually within three days after birth.

The method of "disposal" varied, but generally we know that, in antiquity, babies were taken out to the forest and left to die of exposure, dropped down wells to drown, or thrown into sewers or onto manure piles.

The horror of a parent being capable of killing his or her child is shocking enough. But that this parent should have so little regard for the child, as to unmercifully dump it where it might die slowly and painfully, or be picked up by someone to be reared into slavery or prostitution (as sometimes happened), suggests a level of cruelty beyond our modern imagination. Lloyd DeMause in his essay "The Evolution of Childhood" (pp. 25-26) reports:

"Infanticide during antiquity has usually been played down despite literally hundreds of clear references by ancient writers that it was an accepted, everyday occurrence. Children were thrown into rivers, flung into dung-heaps and cess trenches, 'potted' in jars to starve to death, and exposed in every hill and roadside, 'a prey for birds, food for wild beasts to rend.' (Euripides, Ion, 504)"

 Gruesome evidence of this practice has been found in various archeological excavations. Most notably, in the Athenian Agora, a well was uncovered containing the remains of 175 babies thrown there to drown.

Lest we assume that was the practice of the poor and ignorant, one of the most influential thinkers in Western intellectual history – none other than Aristotle – argued in his Politics that killing children was essential to the functioning of society. He wrote:

"There must be a law that no imperfect or maimed child shall be brought up. And to avoid an excess in population, some children must be exposed. For a limit must be fixed to the population of the state." (Politics VII.16)

Note the tone of his statement. Aristotle isn't saying "I like killing babies," but he is making a cold, rational calculation: over-population is dangerous, and this is the most expedient way to keep it in check.

Four hundred years after Aristotle, the practice of killing babies was a firmly entrenched practice in the Roman Empire. This is an excerpt from a famous and much-quoted letter from a Roman citizen named Hilarion to his pregnant wife, Alis, dated June 17th, circa 1 CE:

"Know that I am still in Alexandria. And do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I will send it up to you. If you deliver a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it..."

Hilarion, as we see, is very much concerned about his baby son, his heir. Indeed a typical Roman family might be made up of two or three sons – to insure succession should one son die – but seldom more than one daughter, who was considered a burdensome responsibility and was all too expendable.

Of course, it could be argued that on other fronts the Greeks and the Romans were capable of refined thinking and an elevated approach to behavior. Seneca, the famed Roman philosopher and writer, developed a lengthy treatise on the control and consequences of anger. In it, he draws the distinction between anger and wisdom, using the following example: "Children also, if weak and deformed, we drown, not through anger, but through the wisdom of preferring the sound to the useless." (Concerning Anger, I.XV)

EXPLOITATION OF THE INNOCENTS

The whole attitude toward the weak and helpless was totally skewed in ancient societies. Apart from thinking nothing of killing infants when they saw fit, the Romans engaged in the practice of mutilating unwanted children to make them at least "useful" for begging. (Incidentally, this horrifying practice is still seen today in India.)

Our morally-minded friend Seneca, who was so concerned with the issue of useful vs. useless, also came up with a tortured justification for this abomination:

"Look on the blind wandering about the streets leaning on their sticks, and those with crushed feet, and still again look on those with broken limbs. This one is without arms, that one has had his shoulder pulled down out of shape in order that his grotesqueries may excite laughter ... Let us go to the origin of those ills – a laboratory for the manufacture of human wrecks – a cavern filled with the limbs torn from living children ... What wrong has been done to the Republic? On the contrary, have not these children been done a service inasmuch as their parents had cast them out?"

Today, we would view the killing of newborn babies because they were unwanted or mutilating of tiny infants for profit as probably the most heinous acts a person could commit. What is the weakest, most defenseless, most innocent member of society? A little child. Therefore, we believe that a child, a baby, deserves the protection of society even more than an adult. But in Greek and Roman thinking, rather than being accorded the most protection, children were given the least; this happened simply because, as totally powerless, they were the easiest people to trample on or get rid of.

Points out Harvard Professor and former President of the American Historical Association, William L. Langer (in his foreword to The History of Childhood):

"Children, being physically unable to resist aggression, were the victims of forces over which they had no control, and they were abused in many imaginable and some almost unimaginable ways..."

So we see how very different the attitude of antiquity was to ours. The most basic right – to life (never mind, to life with dignity) – was by no means guaranteed.

HORROR SHOW

Surely, there can't be a better example of a total disregard for the value of human life than killing people for entertainment. And here the Romans take first prize. No civilization before or since was so bloodthirsty in this regard. Throughout the empire, more than 200 stadiums were specifically erected for the exhibition of this particular "sport," which required that people and animals be housed and displayed in such a way that they couldn't escape before being murdered in front of a cheering and jeering audience.

The practice was extremely popular, and Emperor Augustus in his Acts brags that during his reign (29 BC to 14 CE) he staged games where 10,000 men fought and 3,500 wild beasts were slain. While savage fights to the death between gladiators – who were usually slaves trained for the purpose – were the highlight, to keep up the novelty of death, Nero and Domitian sent in even women, children, blind people and dwarfs to fight each other. Anything went just so the crowds were happy.

This form of entertainment reached its pinnacle with the inauguration, in the year 80 CE of the Coliseum, the ruins of which are today a big tourist attraction in Rome.

The Romans were justly proud of the engineering feat that the construction of the Coliseum represented. The giant 600-by-500-foot arena, built by Vespasian and completed by Titus, seated 50,000 people. It had a removable roof and a floor that could be raised or lowered, depending on what the day's atmosphere demanded. Sometimes the Coliseum was transformed into a desert or into a jungle, and it could also be filled with water and turned into a lake so boats could sail in it.

Why was this incredible place built? To feature death as an elaborate form of amusement for the masses.

On a typical day when the Coliseum was playing to a full house, the place was crowded with men, women and children – yes, the Romans thought nothing wrong with exposing children to this kind of grotesquerie. Admission was free, and a pillow for your seat, meat and wine were provided, also for free. The opening act to start off the morning was an exhibition of wild animals. The Romans went all over the empire to find wild, exotic beasts to astonish the crowds. Next, the arena was lowered to feature combat between them – Romans cheered as lions tore apart tigers, tigers went up against bears, leopards against wolves. It goes without saying that the Romans had never heard of animal rights.

Then came the bullfights, except that the toreadors, being slaves or convicts, had been given no chance to practice, so the bull usually gored them to death. The crowd roared. This is what they came to see.

You'd think that would be enough carnage for anyone. That was only the warm-up act. Next came feeding people to the animals. Keep in mind that Rome was a very law-and-order-minded society and everything had to be done legally – you couldn't just throw anyone to the lions, only people convicted of a capitol offense. But if they didn't have enough victims for a good day's fun, the Romans would conveniently condemn even minor criminals to death and replenish the supply. (Christianity, being a capital offense in Rome ever since the great fire of 64 CE, for which its adherents were blamed, provided a steady supply of victims.)

During intermissions, giant fountains sprayed perfume in the air to reduce the stench of death. Entertainment did not stop, however. In between the spectacular killings were held run-of-the-mill executions by burning, beheading, and flaying (that is, skinning people alive).

The main event was saved for the afternoon, and this was what the crowd was really waiting for – gladiatorial combat. The gladiators fought to the death, although the lives of particularly brave fighters could be spared by the emperor or the vote of the crowd.

In the year 107 CE, during a four-month celebration of his conquest of Dacia, Trajan – who was perhaps trying to match Augustus' record – held a major tournament in which 10,000 gladiators and 3,000 animals fought. This meant that whoever sat through that spectacle watched at least 5,000 people die. Trajan was so fond of this kind of massacre – and he had a large supply of Dacian prisoners of war for the purpose – that he apparently sent 23,000 people to their slaughter between 106 and 118 CE.

It was all horrible and perverse, and if you thought it couldn't get worse, consider that Commodus (emperor from 180 to 192 CE) organized fights between crippled people and finished them off himself.

Of the Roman philosophers and great thinkers, only Seneca saw anything wrong with death as entertainment ... Other Roman greats were not as soft as Seneca. Cicero, for example, thought that gladiatorial contests promoted courage and endurance, although he was of the opinion that they were not all that entertaining. Juvenal, who criticized everything, loved the games. And Pliny found that watching people be massacred toughened the audience and therefore had educational value.

That about sums up the ancient world attitude toward the value of life. The key thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Greeks or Romans did think that law and order were essential to the efficient functioning of society, and laws under both empires were many and strictly enforced. But the idea that along with your status as a human being came the right to life (forget about life with dignity) was not a given by any means.

AGAINST THE GRAIN: THE JEWISH VIEW

"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation ... fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations." (John Adams, 2nd president of the United States)

"Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place." (Paul Johnson, Christian historian, author of A History of the Jews and A History of Christianity)

Could that be true?

Is it really possible that our moral values do not originate in one of the great civilizations but have been bequeathed to us by a small, otherwise insignificant nation inhabiting a tiny piece of real estate in the Middle East?

I venture to say that the ancient Hebrews (who later came to be known as the Israelites and still later as the Jews) would have disagreed with the statements of Adams and of Johnson above. They would have insisted that they had nothing personally to do with inventing the values which ran against the grain of the world around them, and indeed were totally unknown to other peoples. They would have insisted that these values came from God, and they were merely the people chosen to disseminate them worldwide.

This was the story they told from the time they appeared on the world scene around 1300 BCE, hundreds of years before the ascent of the Greek civilization. Back then, they were still a newly emerging nation that functioned more like a large extended family, all family members tracing their ancestry to a man named Abraham who had lived somewhere around 1,800 BCE. They were a strange people with an even stranger religion:

  • They believed in only one God – all-powerful, infinite, and invisible – who had created everything known to man, a notion totally foreign to every ancient people that preceded them.
  • They claimed that all of them – some 600,000 men and untold number of women and children – had miraculously escaped from slavery in Egypt, then the mightiest empire on earth, through the miraculous intervention of their God.
  • They claimed that after their great escape, they reached a mountain in the wilderness, Mt. Sinai, where they all had an encounter with God; during that encounter, and through the person of their leader Moses, they supposedly received a code of behavior – compiled in a holy book known as the "Torah" – which they scrupulously followed.

A STRANGE PEOPLE

It was a story bound to raise more than a few eyebrows in the ancient world. Of course, the ancient people believed all sorts of wild things about divine relationships with human beings, so the Jews' story was not in itself all that outlandish. Nor was a society governed by laws so strange, after all, previous law codes, the Code of Hammurabi being the most famous, set forth rules governing property rights and the like. What the ancient world couldn't fathom was this particular code. Indeed, it was a code that to the ancient mind seemed irrational.

"The Jews are distinguished from the rest of mankind in practically every detail of life," wrote Roman philosopher Deo Cassius, expressing his disapproval. "In particular ... they do not honor any of the usual gods, but show extreme reverence to only one God."

Part of that "extreme" reverence translated into following that God's law, a law which could not be altered as was convenient. It was an absolute, God-given standard, and by that fact alone it stood apart from any law of any other society.

But there was more about the Jews that was strange, besides their God and their law. The Torah – or the Biblos as the Greeks would call it – was like no holy book of any people before or since, in yet another way. It made the Jews look bad. In it, they are shown as shirkers and complainers, often sinning against their own God and His law. And yet they insisted that they needed to carry around with them the history of their failures as well as their successes in order never to lose sight of their mission to elevate humanity.

We shall now take a look at how the ancient Jews related to the basic human right to life and see how close they came to our standard...


[A note to the reader: This is the just the beginning of one of the most fascinating dramas in human history. Despite all odds, the tiny Jewish people not only outlasted the great Empires of Greece and Rome – the unique ideology of Judaism ultimately triumphed over the paganism of the West.

Directly and indirectly – through the Bible, Christianity, Islam and modern democracy – the vast majority of humanity has been profoundly impacted by Judaism and the monumental quest of the Jewish people to perfect the world.]

Click here to order WorldPerfect

Published: September 28, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 20

(15) Yaakov Novograd, September 11, 2012 5:28 PM

Social action "stemming" from Torah (continued from previous)

If indeed there are more non-religious Jews reaching out globally, it may actually “stem” from Torah traditions, as sociologists compare this phenomenon to cut flowers which live on for a while even after they are removed from water. This is explained by Professor Haag (of Harvard, Yale, et al.) in “The Jewish Mystique” (N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1983) p. 55, as follows: Such a long period of following the precepts laid down in the series of commentaries that shaped Jewish life and governed behavior and attitudes toward the outside world, could not but be internalized. As it was transmitted from generation to generation, it left profound traces in individuals formed in these communities and resulted in characteristics which form a character — a character which remains in the modern secularized Jew who has abandoned the precept of which it is the precipitate. (See also “Permission to Receive” (Israel: Targum Press, 1996) p.125-170). By the way, in the above essay, Rabbi Spiro quoted President John Adams as saying, “ . . . the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation . . .” Now, Mr. Adams lived years before the establishment of secular Jewish cultures. So, the “Hebrews/Jews” he referred to, were “observant!”

(14) Yaakov Novograd, September 11, 2012 5:21 PM

Social action "stemming" from Torah values

A few thoughts in response to several of the comments, but — first — I’m uncomfortable with generalizations about groups of good people in which there are many members with various needs, abilities, and accomplishments. It’s probably impossible to assess just how many of them are, or are not, properly and sufficiently involved in important causes. Nevertheless, there are many worthy causes about which Jews of all types are passionate. This discussion, though, reminds me of the drive many have for first attending to the needs that concern their families and immediate surroundings. It must be noted that in the mid-1900’s there were, and today there still are, very significant needs of the Jewish “family” which would not be addressed by anyone but ourselves. Therefore our resources are often limited to our own communities. The following paraphrased quote from Rabbi Yisroel Salanter z”l takes this even further: “In my youth, I was determined to fix the world. As I grew older, I progressively narrowed my focus to better address the needs of only my country . . . then only my city . . . my neighborhood . . . and finally I realized that if I accomplish improving myself — that too would be of great significance!” (please see the next comment, for 2 more thoughts)

(13) Bernie Russell, August 8, 2012 8:47 PM

Ironic to me

As one who is outside the orbit of Rabbi Spiro, I ask this question: Seems to me that the Jews who present as most religious are the ones who least value openness and love of others. On the other hand, I remember the two young Jews who were killed with African-American James Chaney in Mississippi, during the civil rights days of 1964. I have read that those Jews were not religious or, I think you'd say, observant. The Freedom Riders were overwhelmingly Jewish (despite the fact that you are a small percentage of the population). I always thought they were religious Jews, for the reasons that Rabbi Spiro talks about. But now I have learned that Jewish social activists usually are the least religious. And I wonder about the humane values of some of the most religious. I fully admire the Jewish people. But II think I'm confused. Who can enlighten me?

Rivvy Mushkah, August 9, 2012 3:53 PM

Someone answer Bernie please

Bernie raises a question that ought to be answered. Hopefully the Rabbi himself could tell us? When I heard that Yitzchak Rabin and ben-Gurion never went to shul I was floored. I must be naive. Here in America, who WERE the Torah scholars who marched with Martin Luther King? There was a Conservative rabbi; and a Reformed rabbi named Prinz or Prince. Were there frum rabbis? What I learned in yeshiva is that all people are equal and black people too. haven't read about roshei yeshiva who supported civil rights but so many non-frum Jews did it.

(12) De Cock, August 6, 2012 6:40 AM

Dear Rabbi, With interest I read your exerpt on Aish.com about where our modern values came from. Without doubt judaism had also a great impact on the west. You are mentioning the old greec and romans. But why is it is accepted by most modern Western societies in Europe and in the USA? May it also be that christianity also played a role in distributing those judaic views? Like the church father Augustine who told people should reject a king if he fails to make rightious laws? Or a Thomas of Aquino? They too were the source that certain ideas found soil in the Western world. And if I may say so but not all values in Greece were bad either. So their ideas about democracy or equality (within a certain context). Too me it seems that every one in this world and in history plays a role in the plan of G'd. Yours sincerely,

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