If you were born a Jew, you are descended from heroes and heroines who, at various points in history, chose to relinquish their property, their homes, and sometimes their lives, for the sake of their religious principles. Masses of other Jews -- sometimes the majority -- chose to forfeit their core identity as Jews in order to assimilate into the prevailing religious milieu. You are not descended from them.
Your ancestors were the brave idealists who were willing to sacrifice all for their Jewish convictions. Allow me to introduce you to them.
THE UNLOST TRIBES
If you were born Jewish, you are descended from the scant one-quarter of the Israelite people who remained loyal to God, the Davidic Dynasty, and the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (where God caused His Divine Presence to dwell).
A mere two generations after God promised His beloved servant King David that his progeny would be the eternal monarchy of the Jewish people, Yeravam ben Navat rebelled against the rule of David's grandson and set up a rival kingdom in the North of Israel. Ten of the 12 tribes followed Yeravam. To ensure that his subjects would cease making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, Yeravam set up guard posts on the border and built as an alternative two temples, in Dan and Beit El, in each of which he ensconced a golden calf.
The Northern Kingdom, called the Kingdom of Israel, was ruled by one evil, idol-worshipping monarch after another. (King Ahab and his wife Jezebel are only two examples.) The people of the Northern Kingdom continued to worship the God of Israel in combination with the Baal and other pagan deities, despite the prohibitions of the Torah and the fiery admonitions of the Prophets. Their Kingdom became large, powerful, and prosperous.
The Southern Kingdom, called the Kingdom of Judea, comprised only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, plus many of the tribe of Levi who ministered in the Temple. This tiny kingdom was weak and impoverished. Despite repeated backsliding, these Jews always returned to their covenant with God. You are descended from this struggling minority, the Jews of the Southern Kingdom.
As for the mighty Northern Kingdom, it was conquered in the 6th century B.C.E. by the powerful empire of Assyria. The ten northern tribes were exiled and scattered among the Assyrian empire. Lacking a fealty to God and His Torah, they had nothing to distinguish themselves from the surrounding population. They became "the ten lost tribes."
Greece and its culture swept through the ancient world, including Judea. By the 2nd century B.C.E. virtually Jerusalem's entire elite, plus the priests who officiated in the Temple, had become Hellenists -- aficionados of Greek philosophy, sports, art, and religion. A gymnasium, where young priests participated in sports naked, was built to the south of the Temple, and on a hill towered the Acra, a massive citadel where Seleucid Greek troops were garrisoned. In the Temple itself, an idol was installed and served by the sacrifice of pigs.
The choice of the cosmopolitan residents of Judea's cities to become Hellenists was simply conforming to a world trend. Greek culture, after all, was modern, enlightened, scientific, and universalistic, while Judaism was widely regarded as old-fashioned, tribal, and restrictive. In that era, adopting the Greek lifestyle was a prerequisite to becoming materially successful and culturally sophisticated. As historian Paul Johnson wrote: "Acquiring Greek culture was a passport to first-class citizenship, as later would be baptism." [A History of the Jews, p. 99]
The gradual Hellenization of the Jews might have become total had the Seleucid Greek King Antiochus not issued a decree in 167 B.C.E. outlawing the practice and study of the Torah, on pain of death. Faced with the prospect of totally abandoning God and Torah, a small band of Jews rose up under the leadership of a single Hasmonean family and rebelled against the Greek Empire. Some 6,000 guerilla fighters waged war against 40,000 trained Greek warriors equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and elephants.
These 6,000 Jews were the first people in history to risk their lives to defend their religious convictions.
It was the first time in history that a war was fought over ideas. All previous wars had been fought for the sake of conquest -- land and power. These 6,000 Jews were the first people in history to risk their lives to defend their religious convictions. They were the first people in history to be willing to sacrifice all for their faith. You are descended from one of these 6,000 Jews or their supporters.
The war of the traditional Jews against the Greek empire and its Hellenist collaborators was a wildly quixotic endeavor. It would take two and a half decades and the violent death of all five Maccabee brothers before the traditionalists could claim complete victory. Everyone acquainted with the Chanukah story knows that eventually the traditional Jews won. But those Jews of 167 B.C.E., without benefit of the foreknowledge of history, knew only that they had nothing going for them but God. Their faith, their bravery, their willingness to die rather than assimilate, is breathtaking. They were your ancestors.
As for the Hellenists, when Judah Maccabee's army invaded Jerusalem, they took refuge in the Acra, the giant citadel overlooking the Temple. They remained there for years, until they surrendered to the Hasmoneans, who expelled them from Jerusalem and Judea. Most likely they migrated to Greece, where nothing prevented them from becoming full Greeks in every way.
FAITHFUL TO THE ORAL TORAH
Traditional, mainstream Judaism believes that in addition to the written Torah God gave at Sinai, God also taught Moses the Oral Law, which was handed down from generation to generation. In fact, no one can seriously follow the injunctions of the written Torah without its oral explication. (For example, no one would know what tefillin are or how to properly observe the laws of keeping kosher, which are not detailed in the written Law.) In the 3rd century B.C.E., however, a Jew named Zadok began to preach a new strain of Judaism. It denied the validity of the Oral Torah and the authority of the Rabbis, as well as certain theological tenets such as the immortality of the soul and the existence of an afterlife.
Zadok's new version of Judaism appealed to the wealthy and powerful, as well as to the priestly class, who were usually at odds with the Rabbis. His followers, called Sadducees, comprised about 20% of the Jewish population throughout the Second Temple period. As historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes:
Though not pagan, as were the Hellenists, the Sadducees nevertheless inherited the Hellenists' disdain for Torah, tradition, and other, less "sophisticated" Jews. They encouraged a life of hedonism and the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, to the exclusion of the traditional Jewish life-style and value system. [Echoes of Glory, p. 85]
At various times, such as during the rule of Alexander Yannai, the Sadducees were the dominant sect in Judea, holding all the important positions in the government and the Sanhedrin (the religious authority). During the Roman period the Sadducees, who comprised the aristocracy and the Temple priests, became allies of Rome.
After Rome destroyed the Holy Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and sent its Jews into exile, the once-powerful Sadducees simply disappeared. If you were born Jewish, you are not descended from the Sadducees, but rather from those Jews who remained loyal to Rabbinic authority and the Oral Law.
BAPTISM OR THE SWORD
According to historian Irving A. Agus, the ancestors of all Ashkenazi Jews number somewhere between 5,000 to at most 10,000 Jews who lived in Italy, Germany, and France at the end of the 8th century. By the end of the 11th century, the Jewish community of the Rhineland was thriving, with distinguished yeshivas and brilliant rabbis. Then in 1096, the First Crusade, marching from Germany on its way to liberate the Holy Land, passed through the Rhineland. In less than a month, the Crusaders brutally massacred thousands of Jewish men, women, and children.
The Crusaders offered their Jewish victims the chance to escape through baptism. (Until the Nazis, Jews could almost always escape persecution and death by consenting to convert to Christianity.) According to historian Rabbi Berel Wein:
The Jewish reaction to this destruction was flight, monetary payments for protection and preparedness for martyrdom. There are many recorded incidents of suicides and mercy killings of children and relatives performed in order to spare them the pain of torture and the heresy of forced conversion. With almost no exception, the victims of the Crusade would not resort even to pro-forma conversion. To the masses of the Ashkenazim, conversion was traitorous, unforgivable and always anathema. [Herald of Destiny, pp. 145-6]
That the entire spectrum of Jews -- from the saintly to the ordinary -- chose spiritual fidelity over physical survival is a historical fact of awesome proportions.
Make no mistake: The choice of these Ashkenazi Jews to die rather than convert was not motivated by an ethos of, "Give me liberty or give me death." They were not choosing between a horrendous life and death. They were choosing between betraying the lifestyle God had commanded them to live (through the mitzvot) and death, between spiritual apostasy and physical survival. That the entire spectrum of Jews -- from the learned and the saintly to the unlearned and the ordinary -- chose spiritual fidelity over physical survival, chose a heroic death over a compromised life, is a historical fact of awesome proportions.
The history of Ashkenazi Jewry is a history of banishments (from virtually every country in Europe), discrimination, persecution, humiliation, and massacre. If you were born an Ashkenazi Jew, you are descended from those heroes and heroines whose commitment to their faith was utterly unbreakable.
The Jews flourished in Spain for seven centuries. They were the most affluent and influential Jewish community the Diaspora has ever known until contemporary America. Then, on June 6, 1391, a Spanish Churchman named Ferran Martinez whipped up the Christians of Seville to attack the city's Jews. The pogroms spread through Spain and Portugal, murdering some 50,000 Jews.
Over the next two decades vicious violence plagued the once-secure Jews of Spain. Fear coupled with the royal promise that Jews who converted would be granted immediate equality with "Old Christians" persuaded tens of thousands (some historians says hundreds of thousands) of Jews to convert to Christianity in a single year. Unlike previous defections that had affected only the upper classes, the "New Christians" of Spain came from every class of Jewish society, including even many rabbis and communal leaders. By the middle of the 15th century (decades before the expulsion of 1492), the majority of Spain's Jews had converted to Christianity.
In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella issued the Edict of Expulsion. All remaining Spanish Jews had to leave, convert, or be burned at the stake. Only 200,000 Jews were still living in Spain. Thousands of them, including the senior rabbi and many of the leading families, submitted to baptism.
Over 180,000 Jews choose to give up everything and leave Spain. A Catholic priest provided a moving eye-witness account:
The Jews sold and disposed of their property for a mere nothing; they went about asking Christians to buy and found no buyers; fine houses and estates were sold for trifles; a house was exchanged for a mule; and a vineyard given for a little cloth... In the first week of July, they took the hardship of the road upon themselves and left the land of their birth... They went along the roads and through the fields with great travail and misfortune, some falling, others rising, some dying, others being born, others falling ill... and always, through wherever they passed, the Jews were invited to be baptized. And some, because of the hardship, converted and remained, but those were very few. [Quoted by Berel Wein, in Herald of Destiny, p. 208]
From where did these 180,000 Jews derive the courage to face death rather than convert?
Some 50,000 Jews undertook the perilous sea voyage to North Africa, Turkey, or Italy. Thousands of these perished from shipwrecks, pirates, and unscrupulous Spanish captions who charged them exorbitant fares and then threw them overboard.
From where did these 180,000 Jews derive the fortitude to resist the blandishments of conversion to which most of their fellow Jews had succumbed? From where did they derive the courage to face death rather than convert? From where did they derive the spiritual fidelity to relinquish all their worldly possessions rather than relinquish their faith?
If you were born a Sephardi Jew, you are descended from these awesome, valiant spiritual heroes and heroines.
WEATHERING THE 19TH CENTURY
Heinrich Heine, generally acknowledged as the greatest German man of letters since Goethe, had himself baptized in 1825. Explaining his conversion to Christianity, he called baptism "the Jew's entrance ticket to European society."
In Europe in the 19th century at least 250,000 Jews bought their entrance ticket through conversion. Karl Heinrich Marx, the father of Karl Marx, was baptized in 1824. He lived in Trier in Prussia, where Jews were permitted to learn law but not practice it as a profession. After his conversion, Heinrich Marx not only practiced law but eventually was elevated to the position of the Dean of the Trier bar. Other famous converts who rose to political or artistic prominence after their conversion include Benjamin Disraeli, Felix Mendelssohn, and Gustav Mahler. Fully 35-40% of German Jews converted to Christianity in the 19th century.
The Ashkenazi Jews of yore had lived devout, Torah-based lives, which they were unwilling to forfeit for the advantages or privileges of the Christian majority. In the wake of the Enlightenment, however, the vast majority of Germany's Jews had forsaken Jewish observance. They dressed, ate, and lived like their Christian compatriots. So what kept the 60% from buying their "entrance ticket to European society"? What deep inner promptings, what fidelity of soul, kept them from relinquishing their Jewish identity?
If you are a Jew of Western European extraction, what have you inherited from the stubborn fidelity of your recent ancestors?
The staggering assimilation rate in the world today dwarfs all previous phenomena of defection from Judaism. Demographic experts predict that non-Orthodox American Jewry will be extinct by the end of the century.
Many assimilated Jews say, "My ancestors' self-sacrifice is not a sufficient reason for me to not intermarry for the sake of a religion that plays no real part in my life."
They're right. But if you were informed that you had inherited a treasure from your great-grandparents, wouldn't you at least bother to visit the old family homestead, climb up to the attic (even if you have to search for a ladder), open the antique trunk, and check out its contents?
Barring a real commitment to living as a Jew, you are likely to join the ranks of the lost tribes, the Hellenists, the Sadducees, the "New Christians" of Spain, and other Jews who have no Jewish descendents.
But if you do connect to your inherited trait of unswerving loyalty to your remarkable heritage, you are likely to have Jewish descendents who will proclaim proudly, "My ancestor was a Jewish hero."