The Whispers of Democracy in Ancient Judaism
The prayers of the High Holidays rest on personal responsibility—the basis of self-government.
WSJ 24 Sept 2012 (Europe edition, p. 17)
It's striking how much this most important period on the Jewish calendar shares with that most essential exercise in American democracy. Walt Whitman wrote in the late 1800s that "a well-contested American national election" was "the triumphant result of faith in human kind." This country's unique sense of optimism—the view that the future is unwritten and full of possibility, that anything can be achieved—is also the sensibility underpinning the Days of Awe.
On a cosmic level, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the birth of the world. On an individual level, it marks the rebirth of the soul as Jews examine their faults and ask forgiveness from those they have wronged. At heart, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are deeply optimistic events. A major theme in the prayers Jews recite on the High Holidays is the striving to be a better person, with the understanding that we are in control of our future.
As moderns, we take for granted how fundamentally revolutionary the Jews were in arriving at this novel concept about time, destiny and personal responsibility. Until their call to monotheism nearly four millennia ago, the worldview in the Levant was very different. Life was an endless cycle devoted to agrarian pursuits and appeasing warring gods in aid of those pursuits.
Thomas Cahill, in his riveting book "The Gifts of the Jews," underscores the point: "For the ancients, nothing new ever did happen, except for the occasional monstrosity. Life on Earth followed the course of the stars. And what had been would, in due course, come around again. . . . The future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens."
Perhaps the most profound gift of the Jews is that they broke down this fatalistic notion of the world, in which people were trapped on a great spinning wheel, with no future or past. In this way, the ancient Jews invented the concept of history in which the future was not an endless cycle but could be steered by our actions in the present. They inserted the individual, and individual responsibility and justice, into the equation.
This ancient Jewish view was a massive shift in how people viewed mankind's relationship to a deity—and it put responsibility squarely on the shoulders of men and women for their own destiny. This was the end of predetermination and the beginning of personal choice, justice and the quest for liberty. These themes, prevalent in the Jewish liturgy, are on display among the candidates competing for the White House, whatever the political party.
Democracy, Mr. Cahill says, "grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals—subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny."
Similarly, the University of Chicago historian William F. Irwin lectured in the 1940s that it was the ancient Jewish prophets and their advocacy of freedom that would find an early expression in the Magna Carta and later in the American Bill of Rights. Perhaps that is partly because the ancient Jews had such terrible experiences with monarchs.
Before the Jews swapped their political system—one of a collection of judges—for a monarchy, to be like other Near Eastern governments, the prophet Samuel warned of the predilection of kings for tyranny and over-taxation. A people will buckle under a king, Samuel warned to no avail. "He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will tithe your crops and grape harvests to give to his officials and his servants. He will take your male and female slaves. . . . As for you, you will become his slaves."
One can hear, without too much strain, the distant echoes of Samuel's admonitions in Thomas Jefferson's catalog against King George in the Declaration of Independence.
Mr. Rosenberg, a former national correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, is a vice president for Ogilvy Washington.
A version of this article appeared September 21, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Whispers of Democracy in Ancient Judaism.http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444273704577637590423922760.html