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Wen Geron Jacobon Debaed
Are Jews a Culture or a Civilization?
By Yehoshua S. Hecht

I wish to share with you a fascinating story about the late Gershon Jacobson, editor of the Algemeiner Journal, who died on May 29.

The noted British historian Arnold Toynbee best known for his 12-volume series A Study of History (1934-1961) wrote an article in the spring of 1946 that conjectured that the Jewish people are a culture and not a civilization. Toynbee's article was translated and subsequently appeared in a widely read Yiddish periodical that served the culturally starved community of Holocaust survivors who were in Paris. Many of theses people were themselves accomplished writers, thinkers and artists who came together for book discussions and intellectual conversation even as they tried to normalize their shattered lives.

At the time, a young man with the name of Gershon Jacobson who had escaped the advancing German army was studying Talmud at a Yeshiva in a suburb of Paris. Upon reading Professor Toynbee's opinion that the Jews are a culture but not necessarily a civilization, he wrote a letter to the editor disavowing Toynbee's premise. The editor of the Yiddish Literary Review was impressed by the correspondence. Three months later he extended an invitation to the erudite and learned Jacobson to a debate that the Dr. Toynbee had agreed to participate in. To the surprise of all, the evening for the debate arrived with Toynbee present and the mysterious Gershon Jacobson nowhere to be found.

Moments later as the young beret clad Gershon Jacobson introduced himself, the venerable organizer of the debate realized that the letter to the editor dissenter was only a twenty-year-old student of Talmud who spoke French, Russian, Yiddish, and some English. He also realized that the young man was self-assured, intelligent and well read. With no other choice with Toynbee having already arrived into the packed hall, he relented and introduced the distinguished panelists to the assembled.

Toynbee sizing up the young Gershon Jacobson and offered to have Jacobson speak first. Jacobson asked Toynbee to define the difference between a culture and a civilization. After a measured pause, the noted historian asked what Jacobson thought on the subject.

For forty-five minutes, Jacobson captivated his listeners with an overview of world and Jewish history. Jacobson conceded that the origins of Judaism and its genesis with Abraham and Sarah were indeed humble. However, it was Abraham and Sarah who introduced the concept of a moral and infinite Creator amongst the pagan idolaters of their day. Is this not the foundation of all civilization?  

Nineteenth-century American president, John Adams, put it well:

"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist to the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization."

The Sinai wilderness, the location where The Ten Commandments were given to the world, young Gershon Jacobson argued, might not be the most cultured location, but it certainly established a solid and immutable foundation for modern day civilization. The commandments of do not murder and do not steal as well as the belief in an all knowing G-d gave the ancient Israelites a code of conduct way more progressive and meaningful than anything that existed amongst the surrounding nations who were making human sacrifice to their various cult deities.

Jewish culture, Jacobson said, perhaps could not compare to the culture of other countries and empires. Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem was indeed a most beautiful edifice which served as the central point of the first Jewish commonwealth that lasted almost 900 years, yet as a whole, Israel's culture did not compete with the later technological advances of the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires. Their philosophy, science, music, art and literature, as well as their aqueducts and especially their stadiums were colossal works of culture.

However, their way of life was lacking in the most basic rudiment of civilization. The huge crowds gathered in the coliseums lusting to witness first hand the blood of both gladiator and beast is legendary in the history of Rome. The fetishes of body worship violence and brutality were well represented in the cultures of Persia, Greece and Rome. Yet as far back as the days of Abraham and throughout the history of both the first and second Jewish commonwealth the lust for blood and human degradation was for the most part considered anathema to the Jews.

If anything -- the young impassioned speaker concluded -- the Jewish people are the guardians of civilization, not of culture.  They carried the beacon of enlightenment and human dignity to the world.

The upshot of the debate was Toynbee's response. "Young man you are correct and I stand corrected." The Jewish people not only a culture but also a civilization."

The land of the free and civilized

This distinction has a powerful contemporary message: Our great United States of America was fortunate to have founding fathers that looked to the Bible for direction and insight as to how best assure liberty and personal dignity to every one of its inhabitants. They believed in the words of Leviticus (25:10) "Proclaim liberty throughout your land for all its inhabitants." America is not only a land of culture but more importantly it is a society based upon Biblical principles that uphold our entire modern civilization.

We ought to remember that the beauty of America is not its MTV or Hollywood culture alone -- but more importantly it is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution inspired by the values of Torah and human dignity that assures that we will uphold the pillars of civilized conduct.  


Rabbi Hecht is the Spiritual Leader of Beth Israel Synagogue of Westport/Norwalk and President of the Rabbinical Council of Connecticut. He can be emailed at: Rabbihecht@bethisraelct.org

Posted on June 16, 2005
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