WHERE DO JEWS COME FROM? A Study in Contrast
This week’s Torah portion contains a unique word used only once in the entire Bible. The word is “u’foratzto,” which means “spread out”. In Jacob’s famous dream of the ladder, G-d promises him “your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall – “foratzto” – spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.”
Some have noted the special significance of this year in connection with this word. According to the Hebrew calendar, the current year is 5770, the 770th year in the sixth millennium. 770 is the gematria (the numerical equivalent) of the word “foratzto” – peh (80), resh (200), tzaddik (90), tov (400).
Following the axiom that everything we encounter is meant to serve us with a personal lesson, and that every detail in Torah offers us a relevant message – the focus of this year is to place our energies on “foratzto” – to spread light everywhere we go, to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.
We can derive many powerful directives from “foratzto.” This is the first in an annual series of periodic columns that will address the theme and motto of the year 5770 – Spread Out.
Two written pieces stand out in glaring contrast to each other: This week’s Torah portion and – I know this may sound sacrilegious – an article in this week’s New York Times.
Let’s start with the Times piece. In the November 23rd Arts section Patricia Cohen reviews Shlomo Sand’s book, “The Invention of the Jewish People,” which spent months on the best-seller list in Israel and is now available in English. The book’s aim is (take a gulp) to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past. Cohen accurately dismisses Sand’s expertise on the subject by stating that Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, is a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history. Yet she herself falls into the same trap, by reporting as virtual fact that “despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.”
She goes on to assert that “while these ideas are commonplace among historians, they still manage to provoke controversy each time they surface in public, beyond the scholarly world.” Did you hear that elitism: A professional writer at the venerable NY Times declares for all of us to know that “the scholarly world,” “experts” – whoever that is remains undefined; it’s usually the scholars themselves that have identified themselves as “the scholarly world” – have a monopoly on the truth, while everyone else “beyond” that world simply cannot tolerate scholarly objectivity and stoop to petty politics…
The premise of Cohen’s article is to show how deep-rooted Jewish religious and political myths distort the truth about Jewish history. So despite some of the questionable ideas in Professor Sand’s book, “mixing respected scholarship with dubious theories,” the bigger story is how “the vehement response to these familiar arguments — both the reasonable and the outrageous — highlights the challenge of disentangling historical fact from the sticky web of religious and political myth and memory.”
Ms. Cohen cites in her article how Professor Sand discredits Jews’ historical claims to the territory, by showing that “their ancestry lines do not lead back to ancient Palestine. He resurrects a theory first raised by 19th-century historians, that the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, to whom 90 percent of American Jews trace their roots, are descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people who apparently converted to Judaism and created an empire in the Caucasus in the eighth century. This idea has long intrigued writers and historians.”
To her credit, Cohen corrects the record. “By now, experts who specialize in the subject have repeatedly rejected the theory, concluding that the shards of evidence are inconclusive or misleading.” Genetics also does not support the Khazar theory.
But what concerns Ms. Cohen most is the irrational “grasp that some misconceptions maintain on popular consciousness, or the inability of historical truths to gain acceptance?” Her explanation: “Sometimes myths persist despite clear contradictory evidence because people feel the story embodies a deeper truth than the facts… A mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration similarly envelopes Jewish history, which is, to begin with, based on scarce and confusing archaeological and archival records.”
She continues: “Experts dismiss the popular notion that the Jews were expelled from Palestine in one fell swoop in A.D. 70. Yet while the destruction of Jerusalem and Second Temple by the Romans did not create the Diaspora, it caused a momentous change in the Jews’ sense of themselves and their position in the world. For later generations it encapsulates the essential truth about the Jews being an exiled and persecuted people for much of their history.” Essentially, Jewish history as we know it is a myth.
Ok, so there you have the “scholarly” perspective on Jewish ancestry and the roots of Jewish identity – basically debunking the common view tracing Jews to their Biblical ancestors and their historical connection with the Promised Land.
The Torah has – shall we say – another take on it. As Jacob begins his arduous and painstaking journey to Charan fraught with all types of dangers – he asks G-d to protect him. In Jacob’s famous dream G-d appears to him and promises him: “Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.”
Now if the NY Times, and generally, all our open-minded scientists and scholars were around when this Biblical account was written, they surely would have challenged it as a mythical dream of some wandering soul. However, the interesting thing is that the promise to Jacob was fulfilled: today, thousands of years later, Jacob’s progeny continue to mystify the world with their perpetuation.
Mark Twain put it this way, in his March 1898 Harper’s essay, Concerning the Jews: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people… His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. 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 peoples 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?”
The second American president, John Adams, wrote: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist to the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
And in the words of the classic Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy: “The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He, who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy. He, who neither fire, nor sword, nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He, who was the first to produce the Oracles of God. He, who has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself.”
These are but three quotes, among many others of contemporary history’s writers and leaders – all testifying to the immortal power of “foratzto” promised over three millennia ago to Jacob! And many other times to Isaac, Abraham, Moses and so on.
Even if you are the greatest skeptic about who wrote the words of the Bible, can anyone deny that the words written, according to all opinions, thousands of years ago, were fulfilled to the tee?
Where is a NY Times article – or a scholarly paper – attesting to this phenomenon?!
Maybe we should offer our thanks to the Almighty that the Times and other “scholarly” papers and journals were not around when Jacob had his dream – and for that matter, when the other Biblical events transpired. As a result we now have a document that relates to us what occurred back then – the prices paid, the promises made. With that historical backdrop we have the opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary and astonishing fulfillment of the “foratzo” promise so many ages ago.
Lest anyone be mistaken, I am not suggesting that all religious beliefs are mythless and all scientific research is worthless. That is certainly not the case. One also cannot argue with the fact that some Jewish ancestry can be traced to other nations, through conversion. This article is concerned solely with this one issue of Jewish ancestry, as expressed in Professor Sand’s book and reviewed by Patricia Cohen. Its is absolutely incredulous – and yes, unscientific – to blatantly state that the Jewish people are an invention; that their ancestry is a myth; and that their relationship with the Land of Israel is a convenient distortion of Jewish nationalists!
What is most ironic is that Cohen herself is guilty of doing the same thing she accuses Sand of. Cohen criticizes Professor Sand for accusing “Zionist historians from the 19th century onward — the very same scholars on whose work he bases his case — of hiding the truth and creating a myth of shared roots to strengthen their nationalist agenda. He explains that he has uncovered no new information, but has ‘organized the knowledge differently.’ In other words, he is doing precisely what he accuses the Zionists of — shaping the material to fit a narrative.” As Nicholas Lange notes in The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (Harcourt, 1997), “every generation of Jewish historians has faced the same task: to retell and adapt the story to meet the needs of its own situation.”
Cohen concludes: “Perhaps that is why — on both sides of the argument — some myths stubbornly persist no matter how often they are debunked while other indubitable facts continually fail to gain traction.”
Had Ms. Cohen simply opened up this week’s Torah portion, and read some of the quotes cited above – and then empirically observed the absolute miracle of “foratzto” with Jews thriving across the globe – she may have reversed her descriptions as to what is myth and what is reality. Instead, Cohen herself, without even realizing it, unfortunately falls into the same trap, and shapes her opinions based on the “narrative” of her so-called “experts” and “scholars.”
I wonder whether the scholars of our times and the musings in our contemporary publications will withstand the test of time (no pun intended), and be talked about and remembered in a few thousands years from now. They say that the NY Times publisher predicted that the Times will cease being a print newspaper within five years. The question is how long will it last on the Internet? Let’s see.
So whom to trust regarding the roots of the Jewish people: Jacob’s dream or a Tel Aviv Professor’s lucidity? If I had to choose between trusting contemporary “experts” in our “scholarly world” or the Biblical narrative that has withstood the test of time and history – with the Jewish people still standing as promised – I know who I would place my bets on.
I would wager any day for Jacob’s sleepy dream, which has been fulfilled, over an expert’s scientific analysis, which has yet to be proven, despite his mighty credentials…
As they say: Amateurs built the Ark. Professionals built the Titanic.
Perhaps the venerable New York Times can learn a thing or two about “all the news that’s fit to print” from living with the times in this week’s Torah portion.
I know we aren’t quite there yet. But we’re on our way…