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Why have the Jews Survived?

Why have the Jews Survived?

One of the great miracles of world history is the eternal vibrancy and relevance of Torah.


It was with mixed emotions that I visited Humboldt University in Berlin a few weeks ago to deliver the annual Hildesheimer lecture on Jewish law. Humboldt is Berlin’s oldest university. Marx and Engels studied there and Albert Einstein lectured there. On the other hand, the first Nazi book burning took place just outside the gates of the university. On the road just outside the university, is a plaque in memory of the Jewish students who were deported from the university during the Nazi era. It is a stark reminder of the darkness of the past. And now that same university hosts an annual lecture on the relevance of Torah law in the world today.

Standing in the heart of the university in one of its large lecture halls, speaking to a gathering from across the Jewish community of Berlin, as well as the senior faculty of the university and specifically its department of law, I was struck by the remarkable story of Jewish tenacity and survival despite all odds. A university which once reflected the worst of the Nazi horrors has now become an open platform for the teaching of Jewish law, and for partnership with the Jewish community.

This was, of course, merely one brief incident in the dramatic journey of Jewish history, replete with tenacity and courage, combined with miracles of Divine intervention and guidance. One of the most powerful and breathtaking emblems of this journey of Jewish history is the miracle of the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel only three years after the Holocaust and the subsequent dazzling development of the State of Israel in all spheres of human endeavor.

The Faculty of Law building at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

But that is only part of the story. There is another very important part, and that is the remarkable eternal vibrancy not only of the Jews, but of Judaism. The values and principles of the Torah that God gave us more than 3,300 years ago have guided and remained relevant to our survival every step of the way. And so speaking at the Humboldt University and sharing the relevance of Jewish law for today’s times brought home to me this other crucial dimension of the Jewish story.

Jewish law took morally visionary positions which Western law only came around to thousands of years later.

In my lecture I dealt with four areas of human rights: political power, a married woman’s rights, the rights of a criminal accused and poverty alleviation. In each one of these areas Jewish law took morally visionary positions which Western law only came around to thousands of years later. I also demonstrated how the Torah often takes an approach which is more subtle and sophisticated in understanding the concept of vulnerability, in terms of which sometimes it is the individual and sometimes society which is considered to be the more vulnerable party.

Furthermore, I pointed out that many of the moral foundations of the modern world come from the Torah itself. This is what the famous (Catholic) historian Paul Johnson writes:

“All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have 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 the human person; of the individual conscience and 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 the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”

Johnson errs in ascribing these insights to the Jewish people, when in fact they were revealed to us by God.

One of the great miracles of world history is the eternal vibrancy and relevance of Torah, and this is an important part of the Jewish story. These values transform our story of survival into something infinitely meaningful and significant. Mere survival doesn’t give meaning or significance to the experience. Why is it that we want to survive and retain our identity as the Jewish people? Why is it that throughout many generations and across the continents we have tenaciously clung to each other and survived despite all odds? Why is it that we are so passionate about maintaining a Jewish state in the midst of a hostile environment of enemies who seek our destruction? The answer to these questions lies within the teachings of Judaism, which have framed our experience of survival with meaning and significance. We seek not merely survival, but also to live by our Torah values and principles which infuse everything we do.

The story of the Jewish people is the story of the triumph of morality and goodness.

This is how it has been since the very birth of our people. When Moses asked Pharaoh for freedom in the name of God, he said, “Send my people that they may serve me.” It was not only about survival and freedom – it was about a higher cause. It was about the values and the moral vision of being a Jew.

It is these values that infuse with meaning our valiant efforts in building the Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel. It is these values that inform the quest to preserve Jewish identity in the melting pots of modern Western society, where freedom and equality give us access to everything. It is these values that energize the remarkable rebirth of German Jewry. It is these values that make the story of the Jewish people not merely a story of survival, but a story of the triumph of morality and goodness, and the triumph of a profound and inspiring vision of the world.

February 11, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 5

(4) Yael, February 17, 2017 12:24 PM


I would love to read an article of your speech regarding the rights of those four groups of people. It sounds fascinating.

(3) scott, February 15, 2017 1:27 PM

Dont like the answer to the question.

Its interesting. The article asks"Why have the Jews survived?"

Then it talks about how cool we jews are. How our values and culture have resulted in our survival and contributed so much to the world.

As a person that believes in an omniscient and omnipotent G*d, I think the answer is simpler. We survive as a people because G*d promised we would. Anything other explanation seems to me as people taking credit for G*ds work.

We are to be a light unto the word. Kinda like a lamp. You use a lamp to see other things. Read a book or find the bathroom. Past the point where there is enough light to see you don't focus on the lamp.

So we are to be a light illuminating what? Ourselves? As I just said that would be stupid.

We're supposed to be a light illuminating Hashem. Why have we survived? Because the miraculous survival of his people as a people of our G*d should bear testimony to his power to do things like this.

Find an actuary and ask him to calculate the odds of the descendants of a group of seventy people entering a foreign land thirty five hundred years ago still tracing their lineage and living culture back to those seventy people despite every other people assimilating and disappearing, Then ask him to predict the odds of that people being a focal point of the western world for the intervening three and a half millinea. Then lay odds that the religion of the descendants of these seventy people gave birth to two other religions to which almost half the humans on the planet belong.

There is no rational reason for us to be here. There is nothing in our own doing that has kept our people alive.

The only jewish answer to the question "Why have the Jews survived" is because Hashem willed it to be so. To use our existence to shine a light on his power to make it so.

(2) jim, February 13, 2017 11:23 PM

great article, you did great indeed.

especially the history, seldom heard aspects in berlin/germany w/pics, wonderful, brings it home...of course the credit, even for the stubborn persistence of the jewish constitution, credit to HaShem and Torah. really enjoyed your talk! thanks!

(1) Rhon, February 12, 2017 9:07 PM

Not only the Jews, but everyone alive today has survived until now.

Dvirah, February 16, 2017 8:19 PM

A Question of Identity

That is true in a sense, but very few of those have keep their original identities. Most modern affiliations go back a few hundred years at most. Today's France, for example, has not the same culture or values as the Gaul of Roman times.While Judaism still holds its original essence,its prinicples and values as enshrined in the commenadments. Customs have changed somewhat, more has been added, but the Jewish identity remains the same now as in the days of Joshua.

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