Since time immemorial the Jews have been trying to tear themselves loose from their racial origin but they have never brought this divorcement to its logical conclusion. I do not know whether it is possible to call this one of the divine miracles. At any rate, the phenomenon of Jewish survival remains completely incomprehensible and no historian has yet arisen who can adequately explain why under the hammerblows of its long and extraordinary history, the Jewish people has not been shattered.
Every page in Jewish history offers as evidence the tendency of the Jew to wrench himself loose from his past. At all times the individual Jew as well as entire groups of Jews were anxious to become assimilated into their environment.
We do not have to go for proof of this as far back as the time of the First Temple, when the Jewish national idea had not yet become crystallized, when the amalgam which held the people together was the coercive force of a strong ruling dynasty such as King David’s.
Shortly after the death of King Solomon, the Jewish nation split in two. To frighten them against worshiping alien gods, the Prophet was obliged to fling his curses and his threats alike at both of these groups. And not always were his efforts successful. Already at the time of the Second Temple, when the Jews were passing through the fiery ordeal of exile, when they were being made ripe for union by means of a sanctified tradition, a strictly monotheistic worship and a purified personal lifeâ€”even then, when the genius of the Jew was beginning to crystallize into its unique character, the upper classes of the nation were corrupt and degenerated. In their hearts they practiced deceit. Like the assimilationists of our own time, they were possessed but by one desire: to cast off as soon as possible the burden of their Jewishness and to immerse themselves in the dazzling illumination of Greek culture.
To this section of Jewish society belonged not only the kings, the petty tyrants of the Hasmonean dynasty and of the House of Herod, who had been educated in Rome and were retainers of Caesar, but also the highest Jewish ecclesiastical authorities. With but rare exceptions, the High Priest was little more than a Roman official who had bought his office from the Roman governor of Judea. The office of the High Priesthood thus became an object for barter and trade. The one who made the highest bid procured it. It continued to pass incessantly from hand to hand. Many of its incumbents were wholly uneducated men.
And it is this people, that had erected idols upon all the high places, that had offered sacrifices upon every altar, that had been unfaithful a thousand times a day to their own God and Law, when they were finally led into captivity by a mighty, victorious enemy, sat “by the waters of Babylon” and refused to sing the song of God on foreign soil.
This people swore by its soul never to forget Jerusalem, wrote the most moving words of consolation, the most beautiful psalms which have brought comfort and peace to mankind everlastingly. It is this people that gave rise to Messianism, which has played such an important part in the world’s history and which simultaneously laid the foundation for our present day morality. It is this people which nurtured in its soul the mightiest hope that the human soul is capable of conceiving: faith in a better and more beautiful future.
And the time soon came when this people accomplished the miracle of emerging purified from its bondage, united by an inextinguishable faith that has proven itself completely vindicated to this very day.
This is the same people, the same priests, the same kings, the same aristocracy that had shown so many symptoms of national decay; also the same people of zealots, of passionate partisans who had fought against the enemy until the hour when the flames began to burst from the Temple. There was no danger from without great enough to weld them together, to consiliate them, and at times it appears that all that would have been necessary for Titus to do in order to capture Jerusalem was to wait patiently outside the walls of the city until the Jews had exterminated one another by their mutual hatred.
And furthermore, not only did this people achieve the miracle of being able to resist for years the greatest power in the world, but it succeeded in creating a unified national life notwithstanding that it consisted of disparate elements which by all tokens were altogether incapable of achieving such an end. It succeeded in doing this although driven into exile, although dispersed throughout the world, and inhumanly tormented and persecuted everywhere.
And all this was achieved by the means of a religious law which determines Jewish, life down to the most minute detail, which penetrates into the depths of all character into the life of all times, and of all countries wherever the Jews is to be found. It operates within any physical force or external necessity.
This people has no means of force at its command, yet it exercises supreme authority and this authority alone has proven effective down to our own times and in the very midst of European civilization. By these very means a dispersed and dismembered nation has preserved itself although remaining without any of the distinguishing marks that characterize other peoples, without the advantage of a land of its own, without a common language and common economic interests, and without any natural tie to bind its various members. And all this despite the vengeance that encircles it, that threatens to devour it despite all humiliation and goading.
It is also wrong to suppose that the Jews led a completely isolated existence while in the ghettos, or that no ray of light from the outside world ever penetrated their dark ghetto-wallse. The Jew was at all times a highly volatile and nervous creature who suckled sustenance from the breasts of his environment with a hundred hungry mouths, who was full of the joy of life, and who was always ready to adopt the customs of the people in whose midst he lived.
In the days of the Goths the Jew was as mercilessly harsh in his attitude towards himself and his surroundings as was his Christian neighbor. At the time of the Crusades the Jews committed upon themselves the incredible self-flagellation of massacring their own women and children out of fear that they might submit to Christian conversion.
Jewish life flowed with the stream in every country and in every age, from the very first day of its inception. It is indeed true that the Torah, the Law and its commentaries, the countless commandments and prohibitions, the religious traditions which were sanctified through an incomparable martyrdom, gave added support to the Ghetto walls.
But there were no external or internal Ghetto walls strong enough to cut the Jews off completely from the life of the world surrounding them. Without any let-up, the Jew, like any wild animal which longs for the forest after it is confined in a cage, strained to merge himself with his environment. One may well say, that assimilation is as old as the Jewish people and that it has found an outlet in every age. But notwithstanding the tendencies in the Jewish organism working for national dissolution and despite the temptations of a better existence held out as bait to the Jews by the nations of the world as reward for their abandonment of Judaism, they not only have not fallen apart as a people, but by an unprecedented spirit of self-sacrifice never equalled in the annals of history, have succeeded in remaining united although solitary and dispersed throughout the world.
The causes of this still remain a mystery. Every rational explanation offered on the basis of historical events proves contradictory. But the believers among us fervently wish to regard this as the greatest of miracles.