“How odd of God to choose the Jews!” ran an epigram composed when I was a youngster. I was inclined to agree with it. I didn’t think we were so special. In fact, when I thought about it at all, which was rarely, to me it seemed a most burdensome religion, full of negatives and prohibitions.
Now I do think about it, especially since I came to live in Jerusalem and am watching my 30+ Sabra grandchildren grow up in Eretz Israel. I have also been thinking how different my life would have been had my well-meaning teachers in Australia, where I was born, attempted to explain to me what it really means to be Jewish.
Even today, talking to many young people who visit Israel from abroad, things seem not to have changed much despite all Western countries having thriving Jewish day schools, which didn’t exist when I was a child. Some of these schools are just euphemisms for schools for Jews; and “Sunday Schools” valiantly try to teach some ritual, which is meaningless to the vast body of children who come from secular homes.
But even in the limited once-a-week classes I used to be forcibly sent to on Sunday mornings, I cannot believe that I was not taught ANYTHING about what it means to be Jewish. I am not an educator, but if I could talk to Jewish children abroad, I would tell them the things I learned painfully, slowly, on my own since coming to Israel. Things I believe would have changed my life had someone told me all those years ago.
First, I would tell them Judaism is not merely a religion of pots and pans, where salvation depends on not mixing the meat dishes with the dairy. Nor is it a crutch for the weak – “the opiate of the masses,” as religion has derisively been defined – just as atheism or agnosticism is NOT a crutch for the immoral and ill-read.
In four years of attending “Sunday School” at my local synagogue hall as a child, all I learned was to recite, parrot-fashion, the names of the Hebrew months; one verse of the Shema; the blessing over wine and bread, and a few Bible stories. About being Jewish, I learned – nothing!
The belief in one God, the basis of Judaism, is a formidable intellectual position with which most of the first-class minds of the human race have agreed. The Jewish people have survived for millennia, a fact that no longer needs to be taken on faith, because archaeology verifies it with new discoveries every day. How did a people, a religion and a culture survive through thousands of years of almost impossible historical conditions? What was the secret?
The mystic event which changed the history of the world occurred at Mount Sinai, in the desert, where Moses was leading his people to the Promised Land. When the Israelites left Horeb to continue their journey, they were no longer a tribe held together by faith, but a nation living under a law – the Torah – the word of God, given at the hand of Moses.
This Torah also contained a prophecy: after a brilliant period of rule in the Holy Land, the Jews would succumb to materialism and slide into idolatry like their neighbors, with the resultant military defeat and national destruction. Only a remnant of the people would survive in a long agony of exile – wandering and persecuted. But they would survive, to eventually return to Israel to live by the Mosaic law and to be a light unto the nations. Most of this vast drama has already passed from prophecy into history, and today Jews have returned to live in and to rebuild their historic homeland.
This is part of a miracle.
We are the only nation that came into existence before it had a land (apart from the Palestinians, who are trying to establish a state). Jews are peculiarly a nation in time, descending from Abraham, a wanderer. This is the key to our survival: Israel is our historic fulfillment, not our origin.
What does the term “the chosen people” mean? It means we were given the task of bearing witness to God’s moral law on earth – and these laws have been Judaism’s greatest gift to the human race. Our history is full of our own failures and the resultant catastrophes that befell us, but the mission remains, and we live on because of it. It is clearly stated many times in the Bible, e.g. Exodus 19: “Now, therefore, if you will truly obey My voice, and keep my covenant, then you will be a peculiar treasure to Me... and you shall be for Me a nation of priests and a holy people”; and Isaiah 49: “And I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation shall reach to the end of the earth.”
“And I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation shall reach to the end of the earth.”Isaiah 49
It took many years for me to learn that there is an answer to the verse I quoted at the beginning. It is: “Not so odd - the Jews chose God!”
This, then, is what I would teach Jewish children in every Sunday school around the world. We are a unique people who by the ordinary laws of humanity and history, should have vanished centuries ago. Yet here we are, fulfilling biblical prophecy and living again in our homeland.
And I would tell them: come and join us in this great adventure. You have your own people, your own faith, your own land. Here, in Israel, you will truly understand what it means to be Jewish. ■
Dvora Waysman is the author of 14 published books. Her latest novel is ‘Searching for Sarah.’ She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org