By Dovid Z. Schwarz
In his personal letters the writer Mark Twain once wrote, “The Jews… are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.”
The fact that Mark Twain was one of the most beloved writers in American literature, often eclipses the fact that he was also one of the world’s fiercest critics. More than just the folksy storyteller of popular legend, Twain was a biting satirist and a cynic, intimately aware and courageously vocal about the shortcomings of the human race.
So we might glimpse from the praise from Twain a deeper insight into how the Jews are seen by the world at large, an in that perspective, understand something about the destiny of Yisroel.
As clear as Twain’s perception might have been and as blunt his manner, he wasn’t exactly the paragon of altruism. He viewed the Jews in practical terms, which gives his insights of what he saw across the ocean in Europe particular force. In a famous article for Harper’s Magazine called “Concerning the Jews”, Twain wrote in March 1898, “Dr. Herzl has a clear insight into the value of that [Jewish unity]. Have you heard of his plan? He wishes to gather the Jews of the world together in Palestine, with a government of their own – under the suzerainty of the Sultan, I suppose. At the Convention of Berne, last year, there were delegates from everywhere, and the proposal was received with decided favor. I am not the Sultan, and I am not objecting; but if that concentration of the cunningest brains in the world were going to be made in a free country (bar Scotland), I think it would be politic to stop it. It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride any more.”
A contemporary of Twain’s also saw in the Jews in a manner different from many of his countrymen. The philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche wrote that “[t]he Jews are beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest and purest race now living in Europe, they know how to prevail even under the worst conditions (even better than under favorable conditions).”
Even though Neitzsche is popularly regarded as the forerunner of Nazism, contrary to Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” in his writings Neitzsche proposed, a strange new role for the Jews in a new European empire. According to Professor Daniel W. Conway, Neitzsche “not only recruited them to participate in the founding of the new empire, but also reserved for them an honored place in his new European order. The Jews were central to his designs on empire, for he counted on them to supply the enervated nation-states of Europe with a transfusion of spirit and strength. In light of the decadence that gripped Europe, he simply could not proceed without the cooperation of the Jews.”
Neitzsche’s plan to harness the spirit of the Jews to build a European empire might easily be describing the work of the Spanish Inquisition or the Greeks in the days of the Chashmonaim. This attempt to “re-appropriate” the Jewish spirit is at work today, and unfortunately, even some of our own people have been charmed into counseling that we sign on board.
Dozens of the leading Torah scholars of this generation have repeatedly ruled that it would be a scandalous embarrassment (a chilul Hashem) for our people to support political candidates who espouse the public acceptance of behaviors that are against the Torah. Nevertheless, there are some members of our community with ties to the Democratic party who warn that it is shortsighted and impractical to use support for Torah values as a litmus test for candidates for political office.
There are a number of reasons why it’s not proper for the Jewish people to content themselves with the “practical” road of avoiding conflict in hopes of receiving greater material support or favors. First and foremost, the ends do not justify the means. Our reputation is worth more than all the money in the world. We have far more to lose than to gain in terms of the popular respect for Orthodox Jewry. If the public were to see us lend approval to officials who are working to undermine the respect for Torah values in city, state and national policies, it sends a clear and definite message that, G-d forbid, we don’t expect the world to respect our values either.
More in line with the Jewish character is the Torah’s description of us as an “Am k’shey oref,” a stiff-necked people. Far from being a fatal flaw, Ha Kadosh boruch Hu chose us for this faculty, as our Sages tell us, because He needed us to stand strong against Nebuchadnetzer, against Haman and against the countless enemies of the Torah who would undoubtedly arise through history. The particularly Jewish trait of being bold and inflexible to uphold a cherished principle makes us stand out in places where our gentile neighbors would abandon their principles in favor of material benefit or security. This is far more than a liability – it’s a resource of precious spiritual energy that is unbounded by the limits of the fixed allotment of the material world.
Every one of us knows that Ha Kadosh boruch Hu runs the world, and that all power and glory is given from Him to carry out what He wants to accomplish with the world. As the chosen people, we all know that we have an important role to play in G-d’s master plan. It seems that some of us are content to view our role as being simply “diplomats” for the Heavenly Government. We are the representatives, spokesman, and proxies for Ha Kadosh boruch Hu, but serve mainly as messengers with little authority of our own.
It might be prudent, instead, to see the role of Yisroel as being more akin to the heads of the administration of the Empire of Heaven. The power of the Jewish soul was meant to be employed in our mission to be officials to the Administration of Heaven, dispensing fear of Heaven from the Treasury of the King Who rules over kings. While its true that the angels might be the workers of Ha Kadosh boruch Hu, we know from the example of Yaakov our father that with our Torah, mitzvos and kind deeds, Yisroel has the power to command the angels.
A little closer to home, the view of the Jews as the force of resistance and counterbalance to the dominant culture was not lost on New York Times columnist David Brooks earlier this year. In an article titled “The Orthodox Surge”, Brooks wrote about a visit to Pomegranate supermarket, noting, “Pomegranate looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.
“Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker. For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation.
“They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order. The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.”
That’s not to say that being fearless and strong to defend Torah values is not without its risks. As Professor Conway notes, the resistance of the Jewish people to assimilation has been the thorn in the side of empires since time immemorial. The Jews are “exemplary practitioners of the kind of non-negotiable tribalism that bedevils the architects of empire… [Neitzsche] feared the Jews because he believed that they had historically (and successfully) resisted the trends toward assimilation that are involved in any consolidation of imperial power. He feared the Jewish people as the rock upon which entire empires had foundered and crumbled.”
Twain elaborated further on the unique role of the Jews in the world. “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.
“He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
David Brooks might suggest an answer to Twain’s wonderment. “The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.”
Dovid Z. Schwartz is an attorney living in Kew Gardens Hills and Director of the Community Guardians Group, a non-partisan, independent and privately funded organization that seeks to represent Torah values in the public forum. Visit www.zehjournal.com for more information. Neither Mr. Schwartz nor the CGG were paid by any candidate or organization.