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The Jewish itch

 What we can call the Jewish itch is the aspiration for better and more. 

 
It is not present in all Jews. We also have those who accept the status quo in the public condition or their personal situation, without question or ambition.
 
The aspiration for better and more is also not exclusive to the Jews. It can be found in all racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural groups.
 
Yet it appears to occur with a higher incidence among Jews.
 
It was apparent in the creation of the Hebrew Bible, the literary beauty apparent in some of its parts, the moral precepts associated with the prophets, and articulated as well by Jesus and those Jews who wrote the New Testament and hived off a competitive religion that turned against its sources. Later examples included Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Benjamin Disraeli, Sigmund Freud, some of whom were not technically Jews, or were shunned by the Jewish establishment, but were not free of their Jewish cultural roots.
 
Involved, too, are the less spectacular examples of Jewish success in commerce, science and academia. Jews score higher than non-Jews in personal wealth and educational achievement, especially where they are free to excel. Well known is the disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes, received by Jews who have worked hard for years, compared to that recent example given for one sparkling speech.
 
Associated with the itch has been the jealousy, hatred, and mass violence of anti-Semitism, culminating in the burnings by Catholic clerics in the Middle Ages, countless pogroms, and the Holocaust of the 20th century. We still encounter Gentile annoyance about "pushy Jews," disproportionate and unjustified condemnations of Israel.
 
Some of those at the height of western civilization have contributed to the view that the Jew is different, exotic, sly and conniving in the pursuit of acquisitions. The Merchant of Venice is a prominent example. Considerably lower in the cultural pecking order, but far from the absolute bottom, are the mystery thrillers of Agatha Christie. Several of her books include a figure labeled Jew, on the fringe of things, different in appearance and character.
 
Argument and its close cousin, self-criticism, are part of Jewish culture. It appears in the screeds of the Prophets and the anti-Rabbinic (i.e., anti-Pharisee) canards of the New Testament, and up to what the Jewish establishment saw as the nastiness of Philip Roth in Goodbye Columbus. Especially prominent is the wedding scene in the movie, with its artful portrayal of the worst in Jewish nouveau riche

Jews are close to the top, if not at the very top of US ethnics in terms of educational and economic achievements. Roughly a half century after Harvard, Columbia, and other prestigious colleges imposed Jewish quotas at the first sign of being flooded with bright but somewhat uncultured children of recent immigrants, those same institutions became heavily staffed with Jewish professors and began accepting Jews as faculty deans and then presidents. If Jews are currently less prominent in Western Europe than in the United States, it has something to do with the Holocaust and the flight of survivors to Israel and North America. Jews managed to do better than others in terms of education and income in the Soviet Union despite restrictions. The Jewish oligarchs, who took quick advantage of the collapse of the Soviet economy, dwarf anything described by Philip Roth

 

There is some accuracy to the claim that Jews are more attached than others to commerce and money. Some of it may be due to the refusal of Diaspora Gentiles to allow Jews to own land or engage in the dominant occupation of agriculture or the most prestigious of the crafts. However, Jewish concern with commerce has older roots. Settlement was heavily urban, and Judeans were heavily engaged in commerce in the ancient homeland. 

 

19th and 20th century Zionists who sought to "return Jews to the land" were defying the people's urban history. Jerusalem was the principle locale, and ascended above competing locales not only as a ritual center but also as the principal hub of population, government, and commerce. 

 

The prominence of commerce in Jewish lives appears in the importance of three key tractates of the Talmud, Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Bathra, which deal with rules of ownership, buying, selling, and economic obligations.

 

One of the chapters in Bava Metzia is "Gold," and discusses the values of gold, silver, and copper coins. Silver coins were the most acceptable, given their middle-range between gold coins unlikely to be available to the mass of the population, and copper coins, which were not valuable enough for many  transactions. The Hebrew for silver (כסף), became the Hebrew word for "money."

 

Associated with the Talmud's concern for money, and rates of exchange between various coins was one of the central clashes between Jesus and the Judaic establishment described in the New Testament, that came to provide a major stimulus for anti-Semitism. 

 

The tables of the money changers in the Temple courtyard that Jesus overthrew in a fit of rage were key elements in the most central of Judaic rituals. 

 

Religious law required Jews to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to eat festive meals, pay an annual tax, and make sacrifices that represented certain percentages of their crops. They were not expected to carry their crops to Jerusalem. Transport would be difficult, and some of the produce would rot in the process. Farmers were instructed to sell their produce close to their fields, and bring silver, copper, or gold coins to Jerusalem, in order to pay their tax, and buy what they would use for their festive meals and sacrifices. 

 

Insofar as Jews came to Jerusalem from all over the known world, the role of money changers was crucial for dealing with the multiple forms of value they would bring with them.

 

When Jesus upset the tables of the money changers in the context of the Passover festival. He threatened a great commotion. According to Josephus, there may have been hundreds of thousands of pilgrims anxious to perform the rites. Upsetting those tables and other challenges to established practice threatened a major disturbance both for the Jewish establishment and the Roman governors concerned to keep order in a restive context.

 

Toward  the end of a lecture visit to Iran in 1976, I asked my hosts where I might change the local currency that I would not need for the last couple of days. "Go to the Jews," they told me. That led me to a main street, where there was a row of men sitting at card tables, with small piles of various currencies indicating their occupation.

 

They all looked Jewish to me, but Israeli friends who came from Iran have told me that non-Jews also worked at those tables. 

 

More recently, I have learned that the Talmudic word for money changers is שלחנים (men who sit at tables).  

 

There may be a connection between Jews' historic concern with commerce and their success in other fields. Commerce required literacy, and Jews (especially men) have had high rates of literacy throughout recorded history. Wealthy Jews have been expected to support the education of bright boys from poor families. According to Rabbinic tales, the custom already existed in Jerusalem during the regime of Solomon. 

 

Israel is presenting a mixed picture relevant to this discussion of the Jewish itch.

 

On the one hand are international plaudits for innovations being pumped out by a dynamic high-tech element working in medical, communications, and security sectors.

 

On the other hand are dismal scores of Israeli school children on tests that rank various nations' learning on math, science, and language. Results vary between high and low income communities, and between Hebrew and Arabic language schools. A growing proportion of Israel's young people isolate themselves from a productive life by studying in the schools of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who forbid the teaching of anything that would distract them from sacred texts.

 

It is widely perceived that salaries and working conditions in primary and secondary education do not attract the brightest Israelis to become  teachers. Reformers and the leaders of teachers' unions demand better conditions, but skeptics wonder what will elevate the quality of those who have been plodding for years from one lesson to another.

 

Research shows the impact of families and friends on the accomplishments of young people, but Israelis worry how long they can rely on bright parents to produce high achieving children while the schools are not making their contributions.

 

Pride in accomplishment has been one of the defense mechanisms helping Jews to survive in the presence of anti-Semitism.

 

Yet from ancient times until this week, religious and political leaders have expressed reservations about the Jewish itch, and have sought to restrain its most extreme expressions.

 

The Book of Proverbs includes this well known concern. "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall"  (16:18). 

 

Along with extensive discussions in the Talmud about the value of money and the rules of commerce are concerns that the rabbis should not demand stricter obedience to law than Jews would accept, and that they should not offend the Gentiles. Modesty, and a small profile emerged early as desirable qualities.

 

Alas, the rabbis were realists. They would not be surprised that some of their colleagues through the ages have not lived or preached according to what they described as ideal.

 

The concerns for modesty and a low profile remain today, both among rabbis and political leaders. 

 

Currently we are in the midst of a Talmud-like dispute touching upon Gentile leaders who may not be wise but must not be offended, the Iranian threat, and the best way of surviving amidst them.

 

 
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