Get over it

3369942388Judaism is not a major player in the history of humankind

By , Jul 31, 2016


Though many Israelis are convinced that the history of the human race revolves around Judaism and the Jewish people, in truth, Judaism has played a relatively minor role in the annals of our species. Unlike such universal religions as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, Judaism is a tribal creed. It focuses on the fate of one small nation and one tiny land, and has little interest in the fate of all other people and all other countries. For example, it cares little about events in China or about the people of New Guinea. It is no wonder, therefore, that its historical role was limited.

It is certainly true that Judaism begot Christianity, and influenced the birth of Islam – two of the most important religions in history. However, the credit for the global achievements of Christianity and Islam, as well as the guilt for their many crimes, belongs to the Christians and Muslims themselves, rather than to the Jews. Just as it would be unfair to blame Judaism for the mass killings of the Crusades (Christianity is 100 percent culpable), so also there is no reason to credit Judaism with the critical Christian idea that all human beings are equal before God (an idea that stands in direct contradiction to Jewish orthodoxy).

The role of Judaism in the history of humankind is a bit like the role of Newton’s mother in the history of science. It is true that without Newton’s mother, we wouldn’t have had Newton, and that Newton’s personality, ambitions and opinions were likely shaped to a significant extent by his relations with his mother. But when writing the history of science, nobody expects an entire chapter on Newton’s mother. Similarly, without Judaism you would not have had Christianity, but that doesn’t merit giving much importance to Judaism when writing the history of the world. The crucial issue is what Christianity did with its Jewish legacy.

This idea may shock and annoy many Israelis, who are educated to think that Judaism is the central hero of human history. Israeli children usually finish 12 years of school without receiving any clear picture of global historical processes. Though they learn about the Roman Empire, the French Revolution and World War II, these isolated jigsaw pieces do not add up to any overarching narrative. Instead, the only coherent story offered by the Israeli school system begins with the Hebrew Bible, continuous to the Second Temple era, skips to various Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and culminates with the rise of Zionism, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel. Most students leave school convinced that this must be the main plotline of the entire human story. For even when pupils hear about the Roman Empire or the French Revolution, the discussion in class focuses on the way the Roman Empire treated the Jews or on the legal and political status of Jews in the French Republic. People fed on such a historical diet have a very hard time digesting the idea that Judaism in fact had relatively little impact on the world as a whole.

It goes without saying that the Jewish people is a unique people with an astonishing history (though this is true of most peoples). It similarly goes without saying that the Jewish tradition is full of deep insights and noble values (though it is also full of some questionable ideas and of racist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes). It is further true that, relative to its size, the Jewish people has had a disproportional impact on the history of the last 2,000 years. But when you look at the big picture of our history as a species, since the emergence of Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago, it is obvious that the Jewish contribution to history was very limited. Humans settled the entire planet, adopted agriculture, built the first cities, and invented writing and money thousands of years before the appearance of Judaism.

Even in the last two millennia, if you look at history from the perspective of the Chinese or of the Native American Indians, it is hard to see any major Jewish contribution except through the mediation of Christians or Muslims. Thus the Hebrew Bible eventually became a cornerstone of global human culture because it was warmly embraced by Christianity. In contrast, the Talmud – whose importance to Jewish culture surpasses that of the Bible – was rejected by Christianity, and consequently remained an esoteric text hardly known to the Arabs, Poles or Dutch, not to mention the Chinese and the Maya. Though Jewish communities that studied the Talmud spread over large parts of the world, they did not play a key role in the building of the Chinese empires, in the early modern voyages of discovery, in the establishment of the democratic system, or in the Industrial Revolution. The coin, the university, the parliament, the bank, the compass, the printing press and the steam engine were all invented by gentiles.

Ethics before the Bible

Israelis often use the term “the three great religions,” thinking that these religions are Christianity (2 billion believers), Islam (1.5 billion) and Judaism (15 million). Hinduism, with its billion believers, and Buddhism, with its 500 million followers – not to mention the Shinto religion (50 million) and the Sikh religion (25 million) – don’t make the cut. This warped concept of “the three great religions” often implies in the mind of Israelis that all major religious and ethical traditions emerged out of the womb of Judaism, which was the first religion to preach universal ethical rules. As if humans prior to the days of Abraham and Moses lived in a Hobbesian state of nature without any moral commitments, and as if all of contemporary morality derives from the Ten Commandments. This is a baseless and somewhat racist idea, which ignores many of the world’s most important ethical traditions.

Stone Age hunter-gatherer tribes had moral codes tens of thousands of years before Abraham. When the first European settlers reached Australia in the late 18th century, they encountered aboriginal tribes that had a well-developed ethical worldview despite being totally ignorant of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Indeed, scientists nowadays point out that morality has evolutionary roots, and that it is present among most social mammals, such as wolves, dolphins and monkeys. For example, when wolf cubs play with one another, they have “fair game” rules. If a cub bites too hard, or continues to bite an opponent that has rolled on his back and surrendered, the other cubs will stop playing with him.

In one hilarious experiment, the primatologist Frans de Waal placed two capuchin monkeys in two adjacent cages, so that each could see everything the other was doing. De Waal and his colleagues placed small stones inside each cage, and trained the monkeys to give them these stones. Whenever a monkey handed over a stone, he received food in exchange. At first the reward was a piece of cucumber. Both monkeys were very pleased with that, and happily ate their cucumber.

After a few rounds, de Waal moved to the next stage of the experiment. This time, when the first monkey surrendered a stone, he got a grape. Grapes are much more tasty than cucumbers. However, when the second monkey turned over a stone, he still received only a piece of cucumber.

The second monkey, who had previously been very happy with his cucumber, became incensed. He took the cucumber, looked at it for a moment in disbelief, and then threw it at the scientists in anger, jumping and screeching. He’s no sucker. Equality and social justice were central values in capuchin monkey society hundreds of thousands of years before the prophet Amos complained about social elites “who oppress the poor and crush the needy” (Amos 4:1), and before the prophet Jeremiah preached, “do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow” (Jeremiah 7:6).

Even among Homo sapiens living in the ancient Middle East, the biblical prophets were not unprecedented. “Thou shall not kill” and “thou shall not steal” were well-known in the legal and ethical codes of Sumerian city states, pharaonic Egypt and the Babylonian Empire. A thousand years before Amos and Jeremiah, the Babylonian king Hammurabi explained that the great gods instructed him “to make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak.”

Meanwhile in Egypt – centuries before the birth of Moses – scribes wrote down “the story of the eloquent peasant,” which tells of a poor peasant whose property was stolen by a greedy landowner. The peasant came before Pharaoh’s corrupt officials, and when they failed to protect him, he began explaining to them why they must provide justice and in particular defend the poor from the rich. In one colorful allegory, this Egyptian peasant explained that the meager possessions of the poor are like their very breath, and official corruption suffocates them by plugging the passage through their nostrils.

Many biblical laws copy rules that were accepted in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Canaan centuries and even millennia prior to the establishment of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. If biblical Judaism gave these laws any unique twist, it was by turning them from universal rulings into tribal codes aimed primarily at the Jewish people.

Jewish morality was initially shaped as an exclusive tribal affair, and remained so to some extent until the 21st century. The Bible, the Talmud and many though not all rabbis maintained that the life of a Jew is more valuable than the life of a gentile, which is why, for example, Jews are allowed to desecrate the Shabbat in order to save a Jew from death, but are forbidden to do so if it is merely to save a gentile (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 84:2).

Some Jewish sages argued that even the famous commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” refers only to Jews, and there is no commandment to love gentiles. Indeed, the original text from Leviticus says: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), which raises the suspicion that “your neighbor” refers only to members of “your people.”

It was only the Christians who selected some choice morsels of the Jewish moral code, turned them into universal commandments, and spread them throughout the world. Indeed, Christianity split from Judaism precisely on that account. While many Jews to this day believe that the so-called “Chosen People” are closer to God than other nations are, the founder of Christianity – Saint Paul the Apostle – stipulated in his famous Epistle to the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

And we must again emphasize that despite the enormous impact of Christianity, this was definitely not the first time a human preached a universal ethic. The Bible is far from being the exclusive font of human morality (and luckily so, given the many racist, misogynist and homophobic attitudes it contains). Confucius, Laozi, Buddha and Mahavira established universal ethical codes long before Paul and Jesus, without knowing anything about the land of Canaan or the prophets of Israel. Confucius taught that every person must love others as he loves himself about 500 years before Rabbi Hillel the Elder. And at a time when Judaism still mandated the sacrifice of animals and the systematic extermination of entire human populations (the Amalekites and Canaanites), Buddha and Mahavira already instructed their followers to avoid harming not only all human beings, but any sentient beings whatsoever, including insects.

Jewish physics, Christian biology

Only in the 19th and 20th centuries do we see a truly extraordinary Jewish contribution to humankind as a whole – namely, the role of Jews in modern science. In addition to such well-known names as Einstein and Freud, about 20 percent of all Nobel Prize winners in science have been Jews, though Jews constitute less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population. But it should be stressed that this has been a contribution of individual Jews rather than of Judaism as a religion or a culture. Most of the important Jewish scientists of the past 200 years acted outside the Jewish religious sphere. Indeed, Jews began to make their remarkable contribution to science only once they had abandoned the yeshivas in favor of the laboratories.

Prior to 1800, the Jewish impact on science was limited. Naturally enough, Jews played no significant role in the progress of science in China, in India or in the Maya civilization. In Europe and the Middle East, some Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides had a significant influence on their gentile colleagues, but the overall Jewish impact was more or less proportional to their demographic weight. During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Judaism was hardly instrumental to the outbreak of the Scientific Revolution. Except for Spinoza (who was excommunicated for his trouble by the Jewish community), you can hardly name a single Jew who was critical to the birth of modern physics, chemistry, biology or the social sciences. We don’t know what Einstein’s ancestors were doing in the days of Galileo and Newton, but in all likelihood they were far more interested in studying the Talmud than in studying light and gravity.

The great change occurred only in the 19th and 20th centuries, when secularization and the Jewish Enlightenment movement caused many Jews to adopt the worldview and lifestyle of their gentile neighbors. Jews then began to join the universities and research centers of countries such as Germany, France and the United States. Jewish scholars brought from the ghettos and shtetls important cultural legacies. The central value of education in Jewish culture was one of the main reasons for the extraordinary success of Jewish scientists. Other factors included the desire of a persecuted minority to prove its worth, and the barriers that prevented talented Jews from advancement in more anti-Semitic institutions such as the army and the state administration.

Yet while Jewish scientists brought with them from the yeshivas excellent discipline and a deep faith in the value of knowledge, it is hard to say that they also brought a helpful baggage of concrete ideas and insights. Einstein was Jewish, but the theory of relativity wasn’t “Jewish physics.” What does faith in the sacredness of the Torah have to do with the insight that energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared? For the sake of comparison, Darwin was a Christian and even began his studies at Cambridge intending to become an Anglican priest. Does it imply that the theory of evolution is a Christian theory? It would be ridiculous to list the theory of relativity as a Jewish contribution to humankind, just as it would be ridiculous to credit Christianity with the theory of evolution.

Similarly, it is hard to see anything particularly Jewish about the invention of the process for synthesizing ammonia by Fritz Haber (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1918); about the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin by Selman Waksman (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 1952); or about the discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shechtman (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 2011). In the case of scholars from the humanities and social sciences – such as Sigmund Freud – their Jewish heritage perhaps had a deeper impact on their insights. Yet even in these cases, the discontinuities are more apparent than the surviving links. Freud’s views about the human psyche were very different from those of Rabbi Joseph Caro or Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, and he did not discover the Oedipus complex by carefully perusing the Shulhan Arukh (the code of Jewish law), or the Mishnah.

To summarize, the Jewish emphasis on education and learning probably made an important contribution to the exceptional success of Jewish scientists. However, it was gentile thinkers who laid the groundwork for the achievements of Einstein, Haber and Freud. The Scientific Revolution wasn’t a Jewish project, and Jews found their place in it only when they moved from the yeshivas to the universities. Indeed, the Jewish habit of seeking the answers to all questions by reading ancient texts was a very significant obstacle to Jewish integration into the world of modern science, where answers come from observations and experiments. If there was anything about the Jewish religion itself that necessarily leads to scientific breakthroughs, why is it that between 1905 and 1933, 10 secular German Jews won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics, but during the same period not a single ultra-Orthodox Jew or a single Bulgarian or Yemenite Jew won any Nobel Prize?

Lest I be suspected of being a “self-hating Jew” or an anti-Semite, I would like to emphasize that I am not saying Judaism was a particularly evil or benighted religion. All I am saying is that it wasn’t particularly important to the history of humankind. For many centuries, Judaism was the humble religion of a small persecuted minority that preferred to read and contemplate rather than to build empires and burn heretics at the stake. Anti-Semites usually think that Jews are very important. Anti-Semites imagine that the Jews control the world, or the banking system, or at least the media, and that they are to blame for everything from global warming to the September 11 attacks.

I would say to the anti-Semites: Get over it. Jews may be a very interesting people, but when you look at the big picture, you must realize that they have had a very limited impact on the world. Throughout history, humans have created hundreds of different religions and sects. A handful of them – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism – influenced billions of people (not always for the best). The vast majority of creeds – such as the Bon religion, the Yoruba religion and the Jewish religion – had a far smaller impact. One of the central and most beautiful values of Judaism is modesty. We would do well to take this value to heart.

Prof. Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” and of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (forthcoming in English). His website:

Photograph is of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as he writes some of the last words in a Torah scroll before it is taken from the Western Wall into the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem, Sunday, March 14, 2010, by Dan Balilty, AP.

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1 comment

  1. Before anyone starts slinging the fully anticipated “Anti-Semite!” slur (always the opening volley when Israel’s legitimacy is even remotely questioned), please note that this article came to my attention via a friend, an Australian Jew, who posted a link on social media, on July 30, 2016.

    — Monsieur d’Nalgar

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