Sunday, November 15, 2009

Salute to the Jews

One figure that has a strong claim to be the most important religious figure ever is Jesus, a Jew.  Many other important figures in Western history were also Jewish, including Marx, Freud and Einstein.  The book “The Gifts of the Jews” by Thomas Cahill is a good one to see something of their contributions to human life and thought.
Some Jews have felt that a Middle Eastern tribe that comes to believe it has a special agreement with the lord of the universe showed lots of chutzpah or gall.  The Jews fought for their ideas and tried to free themselves of Roman rule but their tiny land was no match for the Roman Empire, the same group we studied in my Latin class.  There we read about the legions showing up, armed and experienced in killing and conquest, all over such lands as modern day Spain, France, Britain, and Germany demanding tribute on an annual basis and holding children hostage to get it.  To my 10th grade ears, that sounded very much like a mob protection racket, although it can be argued that life improved in many ways under Roman rule.
The Romans got tired of the pesky Jews and routed them from their homeland in the most famous diaspora.  That action was preceded hundreds of years before by the Babylonians doing the same thing.  In the Christian era, Jews were all over.  Most of the countries of Europe have a mixed history of tolerating Jewish presence some of the time and making them leave at other times. 
About 1492, yes. the same year as Columbus, Spain and then Portugal exiled them.  At the time, the small but powerful nation of the Netherlands accepted many of them and there, they lived as other citizens of that country.  The original idea of the covenant was a mixture of what we would call public health, military and political aspirations and religion.  The idea was that the Jewish god would protect and deliver Israel from troubles if the people kept the agreement to worship and live as told to do so.  As centuries went on, many good thinkers in the group began to review their history and ideas.  Jews have not lacked for good thinkers and good arguers.  In the middle of the 1600’s, one of their best, Baruch Spinoza, wrote a treatise claiming there was no special protection for Jews or anyone else and all had to live and think as best they could.  He was only in his 20’s and his ideas were not welcomed by the rabbis and others.  He urged his people to abandon the complex code of dietary and other regulations and live as they wanted.  However, many had grown up with their way of life and felt comfortable with it and saw no reason to abandon it. Of course, many felt that a young upstart had no grasp of the truth and shunned him.  He continued to live and think and earn his income as a lens grinder, dying at age 44 of lung disease from inhaling the glass dust.
His ideas, challenges and questions continue to this day to be important in religious and philosophical studies.
Spinoza is just one of hundreds of important thinkers, writers, scientists, physicians, musicians, artists, businessmen, and politicians in all walks of life and in many countries and centuries that have come from the Jews.

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