Why have Jews been able to survive for several thousand years when virtually all other civilizations, nations and cultures disappear after about five hundred years? Does its existence depend on the observance of traditional Jewish practices? Do assimilated Jews who have abandoned these practices, many of whom are Nobel prize winners, contribute in any way to the endurance of Judaism? Does the overrepresentation of Jews in colleges, among professors, among the leaders of culture and art contribute to its continuance?
David Ben Moshe, a psychiatrist, addresses these questions in The Secret of the Jews by means of sixteen imaginary letters to the non-Jewish philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Many people today think of Nietzsche as an anti-Semite, as a man that Adolph Hitler admired, but Ben Moshe shows that this is not true. Indeed, our author shows that Nietzsche despised Christianity and the New Testament and its concept of how life should be lived because he felt that Christian morality weakened the humanity in men and women. However, he extolled the heroic human figures he found portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. He also liked many Jews, albeit assimilated Jews, and respected their religion. It was not he who hated Jews, but his sister, a bigoted woman who Nietzsche disowned. Unfortunately while Nietzsche made his mother his literary heir, his sister wrenched control over his writings from their mother when she was ill and distorted Nietzsche's writings to reflect her obnoxious understanding of life.
Nietzsche's hatred of Christian morality was violent. In Ecce Homo, he writes that the Christian is "more absurd, more mendacious, vain, frivolous, and harmful to himself than even the greatest despiser of mankind could have allowed himself to dream." Nietzsche's greatest wish was to see the death of the Christian god.
But, Ben Moshe states, Nietzsche only knew assimilated Jews and had little knowledge of the Hebrew Bible beyond its stories. If he would have known observant Jews and knew more about Torah laws and Jewish ceremonies, Nietzsche's admiration for Jewry would have increased. For Ben Moshe contends Judaism has survived because of observant Jews, Jews who never attempt to modernize, whose only desire is to observe the words of God contained in the Written and Oral Torahs.
Ben Moshe has a keen understanding of Nietzsche. In his letters, he informs the dead philosopher of his, Ben Moshe's, understanding of Jewish history and Jewish thought; he quotes Nietzsche's writings frequently and compares them to the writings of Jewish sages, whom he quotes, both modern and ancient, showing that Nietzsche's opinions and Judaism mesh well.
Nietzsche criticized parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially its laws concerning priests. Ben Moshe offers an explanation of these laws that he feels Nietzsche could accept. He explains that contrary to the notions of Julius Wellhausen who derided Judaism as "priestly Judaism," that no priest ever exercised "a significant influence upon the development of his community by virtue of his priestly office." Jews, he repeats, survived, not because they followed the dictates of priests, but because some of them strictly observed Jewish practices.
One of Nietzsche's ideas is that of the ubermensch, commonly translated "the superman," the ultimate human being. This is the mentally and physically strong individual who is not dispirited and bogged down by Christian morality, who is able to live life based on his or her intelligence. Ben Moshe lists a long line of rabbis and tells Nietzsche that he is certain that Nietzsche would surely consider them as ubermenschen. Readers can make up their own mind whether they agree that a scholar or pious person is an ubermensch.
Ben Moshe writes in an unusual manner. He calls observant Orthodox Jews, whom he admires, Bayt Meedrash Jews, referring to what is generally spelt Beit Midrash, the study hall in synagogues and schools where Jewish texts are studied. He prefers his own spelling to transliterate Hebrew words, as seen above, and as seen in Yohm Keepoor for Yom Kippur, M'zoozah for Mezuzah, Pehsakh for Pesach, Pooreem for Purim, and Shahbaht for Shabbat. He is certainly not wrong, but he has decided not to follow the accepted transliteration of these and other words because he feels that his spelling captures the correct sound of the Hebrew better than the accepted usage. Some readers will find this style very enlightening, others may be put off by it, and still other may find it simply curious. But agree or not, this methodology aside, Ben Moshe's interpretation of Judaism is certainly provocative and interesting.
His understanding of Judaism is reflected in his rejection of the term religion. He feels that it tends to denigrate his view of Judaism. "The term 'religion' lends itself to comparison with other 'religions,' whereas there is no culture comparable to that of the Bayt Meedrahsh. Nor does the lifestyle of assimilating Jews compare to that of Jews of the culture of the Bayt Meedrahsh."
Ben Moshe's primary purpose in writing his book is to present his opinion of Judaism, a culture devoted to "something higher… committed to ethical and moral values … values it has upheld for millennia." He has succeeded in doing this in a thought provoking manner.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on email@example.com. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.
The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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