On 18 May our organization, This World: The Values Network, will host our second annual International Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala. This year’s honorees, hosts, and guests include Governor Chris Christie, Governor Rick Perry, Sean Penn, Senator Cory Booker, Ambassador Ron Dermer, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Judy and Michael Steinhardt, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and John Prendergast.
But why does America need Jewish values?
Thomas Jefferson is the intellectual father of American liberty, having put pen to paper and expressed our yearning for freedom in this nation’s founding document. In The Declaration of Independence he famously says that America was founded for ‘the pursuit of happiness.’ Yet, for all the wealth this country has generated it has not found the contentment it seeks. America has some of the highest rates of depression in the world.
You can’t pursue happiness. You can’t chase it like it a rabbit. You can’t run after it like a kite. Rather, happiness is the natural by-product of a purpose-lived existence. If your life’s plate is filled with meaning and you feel directional and other-person-focused, then the organic outgrowth of that experience is happiness. But trying to pursue happiness is like trying to fall asleep. The harder you try the more elusive it is.
The Jewish people were entrusted by God with awesome purpose. No nation in the history of the world has had a more significant and positive impact on human development than the Jews.
While the globe was still polytheistic, worshipping many Gods, the Jews offered that from the many there could be only One. Disseminating the belief in the single, indivisible, unified God–what we declare thrice daily in our holiest prayer, the Shema–meant that men and women don’t stem from Zeus and Hera, Jupiter and Juno. Rather, since both genders come from one source there exists the possibility that male and female might love each other, build a family, and raise children who feel cherished. Because there is only One God there exists the probability that nations will one day live together in harmony in peace rather than forever battle each other for dominion and conquest. Because there is only One God there exists the hope that even within ourselves we will find inner peace in the reconciliation of intelligence and emotion, conviction and compromise, reason and instinct.
The Jews gave the world the Ten Commandments, the most important moral code of all time. In a debate I had with the late Christopher Hitchens at the 92nd St. Y I was told, in essence, that the Jews were simplistic. They had to hear from God not to murder or steal? Didn’t they know these things on their own?
And yet, we have practiced righteousness throughout our history precisely because we live by a divinely ordained, rather than man-made, morality. Other peoples also have laws against murder. But they are human creations and are thus subject to human interpretation and application.
The Nazis believed that you could not murder human beings. But they said the Jews were vermin and could thus be exterminated with poison gas. But our laws against murder come from God himself. They are not ours to manipulate. Hence, Israel, the Jewish state, behaves morally, risking the lives of its soldiers on a daily basis to minimize civilian casualties, because every Jewish soldier is taught that a Palestinian child’s life is created equally in the image of God as a Jewish child’s life. Our blood is no redder than theirs and we must do our utmost to protect all life while justifiably insisting on our right to self-defense.
We also bequeathed the world unique values, and I don’t just mean a love for learning, charity, and community. I also mean our insistence on destiny over the Greek emphasis on fate. The latter is a disempowering belief which implies that our future is scripted in the stars. We have no choice. The former, however, insists that God’s promise of a glorious future that can be captured with righteous action is always within our reach.
We gave the world the idea of redemption over the Christian emphasis on salvation. The latter emphasizes an individual soul’s quest to enter heaven. But the former insists that where we personally go does not much matter. It’s rather our contribution to the lives of others that is all-important.
And we gave the world the idea of marriage as a holy sacrament, captured in the Bible’s first story of God bringing together Adam and Eve as husband and wife. Other nations celebrate brute masculine aggressiveness, which is why the Greeks taught of Achilles, the Spartans King Leonidas, and the Romans Caesar and Augustus. But the Jews gave the world Abraham who is told by God to listen to his wife Sara. We believe that masculine aggression must be tempered by feminine nurturing. Blind masculine ambition must be softened by feminine warmth. Hence, the Jews are a gentle nation, renowned for their compassion and philanthropy.
Jews are, thank God, prosperous in America, but not because we are smarter or better than anyone else. We are not. The Bible is clear in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” It is not intelligence that leads to prosperity but values. Jewish values emphasize the power of choice and thus personal accountability, a curiosity for life and thus a love of learning, the sanctity of the Sabbath and thus the prioritization of family and community over possessions and wealth.
With such glorious teachings allied to such a powerful willingness to sacrifice in the name of these cherished values, it is no wonder that the Jews have had such positive and lasting impact.
John Adams, our second President, expressed it eloquently:
I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation….They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.
America’s greatest writer, Mark Twain, added this:
The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Winston Churchill, the twentieth century’s greatest statesman, said, “Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.”
And Paul Johnson, the noted British historian, wrote:
To [the Jews] 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 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 the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Values Network, which seeks to promote universal Jewish values in the media and culture. He is the international best-selling author of 30 books including Kosher Lust, which is being published on 1 May. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.