What We Owe to the Jewish People

The season for the giving of gifts is almost on us again and whether we love Christmas or loathe it, few of us are able to escape it. Some Christians like to remind us of the pagan roots of the midwinter festival and point out that although we are commanded to remember the death of the Saviour, nowhere does the Word of God instruct us to remember his birth. It’s a fair point, of course, but we might be wise to exercise caution before condemning all non-biblical celebrations. We discover from John 10:22f that Jesus took part in at least one festival that had not been commanded in Scripture
John records that Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of the “Feast of Dedication”, or Hanukkah, the commemoration of Judah Maccabee’s victory over the Syrians. There is no record in the Gospels of Jesus celebrating the festival of Purim but it is reasonable to assume that, as a Jew among Jews, he kept Purim just as the British remember 5th November. If the Jewish people were justified in celebrating great historic deliverances, why should Christians not have a season for rejoicing in the coming of God’s Son into the world? I write as one who dislikes Christmas but “let each be fully convinced in his own mind” if he will keep the feast. Even if we don’t get the actual date right, 2,000 years ago the greatest gift the world has ever known was born to a young Jewish woman in a Jewish village in the land of Israel.

Should we not feel a sense of gratitude to the Jewish people for Jesus? It could be argued of course that we should be grateful to God, not to the nation of Israel, for the Saviour. But do not the great figures of history enhance our admiration and respect for the people from whom they come? No historical figure, not even Jesus, was the product of a cultural vacuum.

So much from so few

The Jewish people have produced great men and women out of all proportion to their number. In the year 2000, there were some 13 million Jews world-wide, a total of less than one quarter of one percent of the world’s population. It was not an unusual year in that regard, the Jews have always constituted a small fraction of the population of the planet; they account for one in every 500 people in the world. Extrapolating from those statistics we might expect Jews, therefore, to comprise about a quarter of one percent of the world’s scientists, artists, musicians, writers, entertainers and so on. But such is not the case.

Steve Maltz, in his forthcoming book The People of Many Names, points out that in the period since the mid nineteenth century approximately 25% of the world’s scientists have been Jews. In 1978, over half the Nobel Prize winners were Jewish, which means that over 50% of the main contributors to the progress of mankind that year were produced from 0.21% of the population of the world!

I have been surprised to discover the influence Jewish people had on me in the formative years of my life, and I suspect I am not unusual. The soundtrack of the first two decades of my life was predominantly Jewish. I grew up listening to Neil Sedaka, Helen Shapiro, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel and Carol King. I admired Albert Einstein and Harry Houdini; I was excited by the movies of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis; I grew up laughing at Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Mad magazine. My favourite American comics were those written and illustrated by Jews, and the dynamic art of Jack Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzberg) inspired me to want to be a comic book artist. Even the staple diet of my childhood in the North of England – fish and chips – was introduced to this country by Portuguese Jews!

Not everyone of my generation may have shared my cultural and gastronomic predilections but whatever one’s taste in music, art, literature or food it would be virtually impossible for anyone to draw up a list of favourite authors, composers and performers that did not include a fair smattering of Jewish names.

Conspiracy Theory

It is not only in the realm of the arts that the Jewish people have enriched our lives; they also dominate the fields of physics, chemistry and medicine. As Steve Maltz points out, “They seem to be at the forefront of everything, whether it’s science, the media, fashion, the arts, the literary world, politics or whatever. Just look at the Times Obituary columns and see how many Jews figure among the great and the good in our society. No wonder some paranoid malcontents look around and think conspiracy!”

In the light of the good that has come to the world through the Jewish people, it is bizarre that conspiracy theorists live in fear of shadowy Jewish secret societies which they believe control world governments. The comedian Sam Levinson once observed that if the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists who call for the boycott of all things Jewish want to be consistent, they should refuse to use Jewish-discovered medicines. These would include the hepatitis vaccine, which was discovered by Baruch Blumberg; the Schick Test for diphtheria devised by Béla Schick; Vitamin C, first used as a cure for scurvy, and discovered by Alfred Hess; Vitamin B1, a treatment for Beriberi, discovered by Casimir Funk; Streptomycin, which was first isolated by Selman A. Waksman and Albert Schatz; and the polio vaccine, which was discovered by Jonas Salk. “Go on, boycott!” said Levinson, “You want to be mad? Be mad! But I’m telling you, you ain’t going to feel so good!”

Body, mind and spirit

But we owe more to the Jewish people than improvements to our physical wellbeing and the enrichment of our culture. Christians should also be grateful to the Jewish people for the spiritual benefits that have accrued to us through them. Although recent governments have appeared intent on dismantling the Ten Commandments, the legal system of the Western world was founded on the moral principles of the Torah, which was preserved for us by the Jews.

The Hebrew Scriptures were preserved by highly disciplined Jewish scribes who, with the utmost seriousness and fear of God, made copies of God’s Word. Jewish tradition demanded a precise method for the copying process: each letter was holy and none was allowed to touch another; each letter and word was counted; each column of text permitted only 48-60 lines; each word was read aloud from an authentic copy before it was written, and when the word GOD was encountered, the scribe’s pen had to be wiped clean; before the name of God – YHWH – could be written, the scribe had to wash his body.

So rigorous was the scribal procedure that each new copy of a scroll was virtually a photocopy of the original, so much so that when a copy of the book of Isaiah was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, 1,000 years older than the previous oldest copy, it was found that the two scrolls were almost identical.

Jesus grew up in a Jewish culture, worshipped as a Jew, kept the Jewish festivals, adhered to the Mosaic dietary regulations, spoke like a Jew, thought like a Jew and read the scrolls that had been preserved so punctiliously by Jewish scribes. As we give thanks to God for sending his Son, should we not also give thanks for the people to whom he came and pray they may not only be the channel of so many blessings but also the receivers of the greatest gift of all.

Mike Moore

This article first appeared in the December 2004 edition of the Herald

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