07/01/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2014

Jews and the Written Word

It has been pointed out many times that all the civilizations that brought the Jews to the brink of annihilation have long since disappeared. The Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, to name the most famous of the Ancients. It is the Jews who survive as a people throughout these individual histories.

What has enabled Jews to sustain themselves against all odds? In his PBS series, The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama theorizes about a distinct, individual identity that was formed in a crucible of words. Unlike other cultures, such as the many different Native American cultures of North America, for whom all that was sacred was found in the land, and who were able to live for millennia in a particular place to express the sacred, the Jews, even before they made the transition from Judean and Israelite to Jew, were ejected from their place and forcibly conditioned to express all that was holy in words, not in anything related to location or rooted object. How fortunate the Jews somehow received a system of writing from (perhaps) the Phoenicians they were able to shape and make their own. Written expression enabled Jews to store the sacred not in mountains or lakes or the sky, which are not so easily transportable, or even in a temple (though they tried that more than once), but in scrolls that they could carry with them wherever they went or recreate in a new destination.

Jews have always been landless cosmopolites it seems, even from the time of their antecedents. They were certainly already a cosmopolitan people when they began the process of giving liturgical shape to their evolving religious beliefs. They had no reliable physical location to which they could return and stay for thousands of years and venerate and consecrate, in the same way Native Americans could return to this mountain or that butte, to this river or that lake. For Native Americans, the Holy lived in the mountain or the river and, so, the Holy was the mountain and the river. Before the European landed in North America, the indigenous people had been able to abide in their holy temple, which was the whole region in which they lived. There had been conflicts between tribes that had caused location shifts within a particular region, but the majority of the great, deracinating migrations did not occur until the colonizer came. Native Americans had been accustomed, for thousands of years, to expressing all things sacred by staying rooted to one spot, which was both the Great Spirit and the temple in which to worship it.

Jews never had the opportunity to develop a similar relationship with a sacred space and never got used to that symbiosis. From the beginning, Jews were compelled to go from place to place and to live in conditions that made it hard to sustain a form of worship. In exile, one does not have the luxury of carrying along worldly possessions, especially big, ungainly sacramental objects. All that Jews could take with them as they were driven from one place to another was words - the words on portable media in which resided all the stories and teachings and traditions and laws that form the way Jews engage with the world, as well as with the world greater than the temporal one. Ironically, that disadvantage has given the Jewish religion a better than even chance at surviving the ages. When the physical expressions of other religions were obliterated - either by the destruction of nations and great temples, or the theft of land, as in the case of Native Americans - it became impossible to worship. The loci of worship disappeared, and so, therefore, did the Holy that was once worshipped. Yet the Jews carried with them the Holy, which lived on in the written word, a more accurate and reliable form of transmission than an oral tradition. Wherever the Jews went, they could be inspired, taught, connected to their God. That unique historic circumstance has certainly played a part in the Jews maintaining a distinct identity and, figuratively (with Jews still residing throughout the world and not only in Israel), a Jewish nation. Pre-literate cultures, like Native Americans, might have had a different destiny had they received the gift of written expression before the brutality against them began (pace Sequoyah).

So many factors besides the written word influence the fate of an oppressed people. Historians examine the quality and quantity of a people's suffering, as well as what happened to them once they got out from under the cudgel. That latter piece is vitally important. Just as in therapy it is not enough to become aware of historic trauma without understanding how to move forward in a healthier way, it is instructive to get a sense of what an oppressed people understood about themselves that informed how they moved on. No one has the market cornered on suffering, and no one people is in competition with another on that account. The inhumanity against Native Americans over hundreds of years is no more or less atrocious than that suffered by Jews over thousands of years. The Russians brutalized millions over the centuries, under Czars both Romanov and Soviet. Asia is the home of Buddhism, which we associate today with a peaceful spiritual path. Yet, look at the litany of bloody conquests on the entire continent in a recorded history longer than the West's. What all slaughtered people have in common is their near annihilation. That is their shared historic trauma. If a people is to survive (and every oppressed people has that hope for themselves), what merits examination are the historic and cultural factors that determine their post-carnage chances. Survival of the fittest does not mean survival of the strongest; rather, it means survival of those best able to adapt to environmental changes. The Jews, from their very beginnings, were engaged in adjusting to environmental changes. That learned ability became a cultural trait honed over thousands of years.

Judging by the marginalization, abuse, and systematic attempts at genocide the Jews have suffered, it is safe to say that people of White European Christian heritage (in the widest sense of that term, including Russians), have held Jews in the same contempt that they have held peoples like African Americans and Native Americans. In other words, Jews are people of color, just with very light pigmentation (that is, those Jews that do have pale skin). Pale skin has given Jews a leg up that has been simply impossible for darker-skinned people. A darker skinned person shows up, and minds and doors immediately close. When not a second is taken to attribute any value to a dark person, that dark person never gets out of the starting gate. The Jew can, on the other hand, when his or her skin resembles that of the White Euro-American Christian, gain entry because, when the Jew has value, the paler skin tone conveniently allows those people to forget that the Jew is less than human, as all people of color are considered to be. White European and American Christians have needed and tolerated Jews until, to speak in Jungian terms, the dark, negative shadow-self has grown so intrusive in the minds of entire societies that it has to be eliminated from the mind and projected somewhere. That somewhere has historically been the "foreign" element in a society. A scapegoat is simply the receptacle of the unwanted parts of a person's or a people's identity. The Jews, as scapegoat, have been repeatedly punished, and they have repeatedly made their way back in because of their value and the pale color of their skin. Because Native Americans never got in and never gained a foothold in the first place, they never got access to critical tools and opportunities, never got to function as an integrated part of a society, and never got to develop a program for living in what became the predominating culture. Not gaining that kind of traction contributed to the breakdown of their cultures as whole entities. (Native Americans are not a single pan-Indian ethnicity. When Europeans first landed in the Western Hemisphere, there were myriad indigenous cultures vastly different one from another. Pan-Indianism is a misperception on the part of White Americans, born of ignorance of pre-colonial history.) The ability to find a way into a culture and remain for a time has given Jews the possibility of further developing their relationship to the written word and to a body of ideas that form a plan for living. So, the Jew can participate in White Euro-American culture, and even be lulled into an illusion of acceptance and safety . . . until, that is, White Europeans or American Christians are reminded, by whatever social or economic or religious imperative, of who the Jew really is. And then it usually becomes even worse than the last time the world came crashing down on the Jews' heads, culminating in the surreally inhumane period of the most organized, sophisticated genocide attempt the Jews had ever known - the Holocaust.

The written word has been a constant in most of Jewish history; it cannot not have had an impact on that history, of which rising from the ashes like a phoenix time and again is a signal achievement. Of course, it is not just the ability to transcribe words onto parchment that supported the Jews in exile. Because the ideas engendered by their formative experiences were documented and carried around, those ideas could be reflected upon, debated, and developed. They remained an evolving organism, as they are to this day, as evidenced every year at Passover when Jews examine how the same events in their past are expressed in their lives today. Perhaps the most potent character trait of traditional Jewish identity is a sense of the other, a respect for the other, an honoring of the other. Regard for the other is the foundation of an abiding advocacy of social justice, which, again, is found in the Seder service. At Passover, Jews say that freedom and justice for them depends on freedom and justice for all. Every generation must earn its claim to liberty, and anyone's enslavement diminishes the joy Jews take at their own freedom. That is why it is a shandeh (shame) for any Jew to scorn a person merely for being what s/he is, because those words are ultimately a wish for harm to come to that person, a harm that enslaves and deprives of justice.

Ideas find expression in words; words can lead to actions. Jews have maintained their tradition of examining and debating the words of Hebrew scripture in order to understand and create their relevance for each age. So, it is not just words that the Jews have carried with them in the Diaspora, but a continual search for meaning, an ability to turn ideas into a dynamic, evolving plan for living in any and all circumstances. The Jewish homeland is embodied in ideas. Israel is a nation that remains not only a parcel of land in the Middle East, but also a body of knowledge and ideation, both spiritual and secular. It is easy to tell when other civilizations cease to be: their borders disappear, their buildings fall to ruins, their people migrate elsewhere or intermarry with their conquerors. Ideas, though, cannot be pulverized or diluted or stolen.

The Jews' desire for a homeland is legitimate and makes sense. There are, however, risks in pinning all the hopes of the Jews -- or any people, for that matter -- on physical nationhood. Bordered land can be taken away or obliterated. It is reasonable to speculate that the Jewish nation might have gone the way of all other lost nations and empires and civilizations had they never moved from their land. It might be argued that the very freedom from a plot of land, and the historic development of the Jews in the context of the Diaspora itself, is what ensured Jewish survival. Without having to speculate, however, it can be stated for certain that the Jewish ethos and identity developed and flourished to a great and particular extent because of its rootless history. The Jewish context was for a very long time landlessness. One must remain mindful that nationhood on a fixed plot of land will also have an inevitable effect on further development and survival.

The State of Israel has faced existential threat since May 14, 1948, its day of independence. Israel may or may not last until the last days of humankind on Earth. Truly fortunately for the Jews, Israel is as much an idea as it is a quantifiable land mass, an idea that has given Jews an identity and nationhood. As long as Jews continue their defining exploration for meaning, they will maintain their distinct identity and remain a nation.