Do They Admire Us?
Almost hidden in the long speech by Moses in this week’s parsha, are two sentences that I have great difficulty reading because even though they are magnificent, they fall short of reality.
The first verse (Deuteronomy 4:6 ) says, “Keep this law because that is what will make the nations of the world think of you as wise and understanding, and when they hear about these laws, they will say that surely this must be a wise understanding nation to have them.”
And the second verse (Deuteronomy 4:8) says, “And they will say what other nation has such righteous laws and statutes as this Torah which I am giving you this day.”
I feel uncomfortable whenever I read this because the reality is that the world does not see it that way. Those who do admire Jews tend not to do so for religious reasons. If anything, they think our religion is quaint or crazy, old-fashioned, narrow-minded, and behind the times. And frankly so do many Jews!
If some people admire us, it is usually because of our tenacity, our ability to survive against all odds, and our success. We have marched forward as we have recovered from each catastrophe and murderous assault, where every major Western civilization has tried at some stage to expel us or suppress us, if not to destroy us.
Not only do we survive, but we thrive, and achieve great things in the world. Today, there is a higher proportion per capita of Jewish Nobel Prize winners than any other people. The Bible is still regarded as the foundation document of Western religions. Its poetry, literature, and moral messages have underpinned and inspired most of the world.
We live in a time when it is almost impossible to hide anything. Every religion is subjected to detailed scrutiny, and none has escaped ignominy. Abuse, hypocrisy, and a failure of leadership are everywhere. If we look around us, we see pockets of good, improvements in science, medicine, welfare — but we also see cruelty, excessive materialism, abuse of bodies and health, and a betrayal of everything we would consider good or holy.
I am deeply depressed by the failures of our religion. Of course, it touches me more deeply than the failure of others. We have experienced intolerance, abuse, violence, sexism, bureaucracy, putting religious authority above the needs of individuals, failing to hear the voices of the oppressed. Yes, of course, we have much to be proud of. But the media does not shout about virtue, only vice.
I do not think the world at large thinks we are such a good religious example. I don’t think anyone on the outside would look at many of our laws of divorce, to give just one example, and say “Oh what a wise nation, what great laws.”
Despite the days of introspection in our calendar, whether the Ninth of Av, Rosh Hodesh, or Yom Kippur, it hurts that nothing seems to change. All good intentions are swallowed up by zealotry and ambition and the pursuit of money. Even so, I thank God for my religion. I love it passionately and in no way regret that I have dedicated my life to it. I look at Torah and am inspired. If only we could do a better job keeping it.
Moses was right about our failings. His criticisms far outweigh the compliments. But then as Proverbs says, “Better the wounds of a friend than the praise of an enemy.”
The author is a rabbi and writer based in New York.