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1 1 | Out of Ur Why did the Jewish people need to exist in the first place? It’s an odd question, mostly because Jews are the only ethnic group who would actually have the audacity to ask it about themselves. It is difficult to imagine Swedes, Bosnians, or Italians sitting around and pondering that question. Jews have never been able to afford the luxury of that lack of introspection. The German liberal rabbi and theologian Leo Baeck put it this way: “The Jews have always been a minority. But a minority is compelled to think, and that is the blessing of being a minority .” So, why does there need to be a Jewish people? It’s quite simple : the Jews were God’s last resort. The Book of God’s Disappointments For a supposedly “Jewish” book, the TANAKH (the Hebrew Bible) certainly takes its time in getting to the Jews. The first eleven chapters of the Bible have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism. There are no Jews. It is all mythical “prehistory” that tells the story of undifferentiated, pre-national, universal humanity. These first stories are on the tip of everyone’s tongue, largely because contemporary fundamentalists, by mistaking them for scientific truth, have helped make them controversial. We know the stories well: Creation, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. Ten generations later we get to Noah, and it takes another ten generations before we get to Abraham, the first Jew. The first chapters of Genesis are filled with people like Seth, Enoch, and Methuselah, tedious lists of “begats,” characters whose names 2 OUT OF UR occasionally appear in crossword puzzles and whose greatest achievements were living outrageously long (though curiously empty) lives of hundreds of years. We can blame those long genealogical lists for the fact that many smart and well-intentioned would-be readers of the Bible give up right around Genesis, chapter four. The reader who looks beyond the literary tedium and mythology will detect a pattern of divine disappointment with a constantly erring humanity. God gave Adam and Eve one simple commandment : not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:16). Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and they ate from the tree. God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The gates of Eden had barely slammed shut behind them when an insanely jealous Cain murdered his brother, Abel, and thereby introduced homicide into the world. Then the wandering Cain had a son and (paradoxically, for a wanderer) founded a city (Gen. 4:17). Cain’s descendants invented the rudimentary arts of civilization, such as metallurgy and the building of musical instruments. Several generations later, Lamech, overdosing on testosterone, boasted about the two wives that he had taken and the man that he had killed for the “crime” of simply wounding him (Gen. 4:23). So we see that the introduction of the rudiments of civilization and technology did not lead to a utopia, but, rather, only accentuated the slide of humanity into greater debauchery. We are the inheritors of a world in which technology and science have utterly failed to guarantee morality and are, in fact, utterly value-free. This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he noted that “philosophy cannot be the same since Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Certain assumptions about humanity have proved to be specious, have been smashed.”1 We might debate the strategic or ethical wisdom of the bombing of Hiroshima, but Heschel’s point is that Auschwitz and Hiroshima were the bitter fruits of “industry-ism”: creating, in the words of Holocaust scholar Franklin Littell, “technically competent barbarians.”2 OUT OF UR 3 What about musical instruments? Aren’t the arts, particularly the performing arts, weapons in the battles against barbarism? We would have hoped so, but that is not how history unfolded. Consider the scene in the film Schindler’s List when, in the midst of the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto, a Nazi soldier finds a piano that had belonged to a Jewish family. He sits down and starts playing it. A fellow soldier tries to identify the melody that he is playing , and in the midst of the mayhem they get into a small debate on the identity of the composer. The piano melody emerges from fingers that had, moments before, participated in human history’s greatest act of mass state-sponsored violence. Ever since the Enlightenment, modern...


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