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Thursday, October 27, 2005

The Timelessness of the Jews

In his sympathetic 1854 poem, 'The Jewish Cemetery at Newport' the poet Longfellow wrote thus;

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime,
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.


Of course as we know the final paragraph has been proven wrong and the nation that was thought long dead rose again with armies and cities and a flag to become one of the most talked about and renowed nations on the earth. This view of the Jews as a tattered odd remnant of history was and is to some extent the conventional one. The historian Tonybee called the Jews, "a fossil people," Longfellow sympathetic as he was could see no future for the Jews except as refugees. And yet the Jews defied time, defied every understanding of history to endure.

In Longfellow's poem, it is the Jews who read backwards and thus look backwards. By contrast Western civilization we assume looks forwards and is marching towards a goal. In Western conception a book must have a beginning and an ending and the goal of reading a book is to come to the ending of it. We who have just celebrated Simchat Torah see that the Torah is without true beginning or ending but is a circle and in our celebration we join the circle and come around it again.

The assimilationist view that has driven so many Jews into secularism is that history is linear and progressive. What has been will no longer be. Once men were primitive and today they are advanced, this conception of history says. Therefore the logical thing is to rush to catch up with western civilization before it's gone.

Yet the Jewish view is that history is in the hands of G-d and proceeds not as a line but as a circle. Shlomo Hamelech, King Solomon said, Ein Hadash Tachat Hashemesh, There Is Nothing New Under the Sun. Such a view is certainly contrary to the idea today of an exploding cascade of knowledge and yet is any of it really. We have accumulated large collections of gadgets that do all sorts of neat things but have they really changed us? Are we different people than men and women once were? Are we something new under the sun? Are we a new age in history or merely a continuation of the old and carrying with us the same arrogance.

At its zenith it seems as if the sun will never set and yet it does. And when it has set and absolute darkness has come over the earth, it seems as if there will never be light again. Each view is credible with information at hand, yet the wise man understands the present by understanding the past to understand that there are times of darkness and light. The progressive view of history discards the past as uninmportant and so when the sun shines it seems as if it will shine forever and when night comes, it seems as if the darkness will be eternally unrelieved.

In such a worldview, it is strange for such people to consider that the Jews should still exist. Has their sun not yet set, they must ask, how can light come after darkness?

But we know there is nothing new under the sun. The sun that has set must rise again and as we read 'backwards' compared to what Western civilization considers forwards, we know that it is the past that is important, rather than the visions of a utopian future that fever the minds of western civilization's ideologies. We believe in a G-d beyond time and space and when we look back at the past we see his mighty works and also the future to come.

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