Why You’re Not Very Good at Knowing How Jewish Things Are
"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation."
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One of the tricks our brains use when interpreting the world is to conflate the ease with which we can recall something.
In psychology, this is known as “availability bias,” the human tendency to rely on information that comes readily to mind when evaluating situations or making decisions.
So much of the world we know today is Jewish, or derives from Jewish origins, yet too many people don’t have this information readily available.
Part of the problem is, we Jews aren’t very adept at explaining and portraying Judaism.
Whereas many people try to simplify Judaism — some call it a religion; others a culture and lifestyle; still others a nationality and ethnicity — Judaism is all of them, and so much more.
Judaism is the reason we have a weekend, a clear separation between the week that was and the one ahead. In Judaism, we call it Shabbat, lighting the Havdalah candle — which in Hebrew literally means “differentiation” or “separation” — on Saturday evenings at sundown to mark the Sabbath’s end and usher in the new week.
Having a fixed day of rest was most likely first practiced in Judaism, dating back to the sixth century BC.1 In 1908, the first five-day workweek in the United States was instituted by a New England cotton mill, so that Jewish workers didn’t need to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.2
Judaism also contributed to schools and scholarships as we know them. Elementary school learning was regarded as compulsory by Simeon ben Shetah as early as 75 BCE and Joshua ben Gamla in 64 CE. The education of older boys and men in a beit midrash (study hall) goes back to the Second Temple period.3
And the Talmud stresses the importance of education, stating that children should begin school at age six. Rabbis added that they should not be beaten with a stick or cane, that older students should help younger ones, and that children should not be kept from their lessons by other duties.
Furthermore, Judaism honors wisdom, which is why Jewish sages used to ask:
Why was the Torah presented to Jews in a desert? Because deserts are empty, a metaphor that we can only accept wisdom when we create space for it.
Another interpretation of why the Torah was given in a desert:
Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like a desert, cannot acquire wisdom.
Judaism also promotes friendship, love, healthy relationships, shared humanity, and collaboration.
According to one famous story in the Talmud, a potential Jewish convert approached Rabbi Hillel, saying: “I’ll convert to Judaism if you can share the entire Torah standing on one foot.” Without missing a beat, Hillel replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Now go learn them.”
In another Talmudic tale, Honi the Circle Maker saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him how long it takes to bear fruit. “70 years,” the man replied, to which Honi wondered aloud, “Are you certain that you will live another 70 years?” The man pondered Honi’s question, and then said, “I found carob trees in this world planted for me by my ancestors, so I am planting these for my descendants.”
Judaism also takes a comprehensive and unique approach to self-development, grounded in one place where many people would be dumbfounded to find it: ancient Jewish texts. For example:
All spiritual growth depends on improving character traits. (Vilna Gaon, Even Shleimah 1)
The liar’s punishment is that even when he speaks the truth, no one believes him. (Sanhedrin 89b)
The world is a dark place for one who looks to the table of others. (Rav, Beitza 32b)
Sadness is due to conceit. (The Tanya, Chapter 32)
Do not trust yourself until the day you die, and do not judge your fellow until you reach his place. (Hillel the Elder)
Judaism also created the concept of universalism that so many people cherish today. Rabbi Ken Spiro, author of WorldPerfect – The Jewish Impact on Civilization, asserts that the Jewish People are “history’s most universal particularists,” saying:
“The Jewish People have always pushed a universal worldview, an idea of the whole human race united … [We are] particularists in that the Jewish People are supposed to do this, not at the expense of their identity, but by preserving their Jewish identity as a role model.”
This is where it gets interesting.
While developing an idea for a lecture program, Rabbi Spiro prompted some 1,500 people to list the fundamental values and principles which they felt we needed to uphold in order to make our world as perfect as humanly possible.4
Overwhelmingly, respondents — predominantly Westerners from the United States, Canada, South America, England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Italy — came up with remarkably similar answers, which could be grouped into these six categories: respect for human life, peace and harmony, justice and equality, education, family, and social responsibility.
“The respondents to my survey came from all walks of life, yet regardless of their backgrounds, they were in agreement,” Spiro wrote. “Indeed, they and I venture to say most human beings the world over, deeply believe that a perfect world must include these universal values.”
The question is: Why? Are these six values intrinsic to human nature? Have people always felt this way? And if not, from where did we get these values? What is the source of this utopian world vision?