A Letter in the Scroll : Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion
For too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?
Written originally as a wedding gift to his son and daughter-in-law, A Letter in the Scroll is Rabbi Sacks's personal answer to that question, a testimony to the enduring strength of his religion. Tracing the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created -- from covenant to sabbath to formal education -- and showing us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time, Sacks portrays Jewish identity as an honor as well as a duty.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century rabbi and founder of the Hasidic movement, famously noted that the Jewish people are like a living Torah scroll, and every individual Jew is a letter within it. If a single letter is damaged or missing or incorrectly drawn, a Torah scroll is considered invalid. So too, in Judaism, each individual is considered a crucial part of the people, without whom the entire religion would suffer. Rabbi Sacks uses this metaphor to make a passionate argument in favor of affiliation and practice in our secular times, and invites us to engage in our dynamic and inclusive tradition. Never has a book more eloquently expressed the joys of being a Jew.
This is the story of one man's hope for the future -- a future in which the next generation, his children and ours, will happily embrace the beauty of the world's oldest religion.
At least half of young Jews today are turning their backs on their Jewish heritage, notes Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and author of Faith in the Future and a number of other books. Tracing some of the milestones in Jewish history, he poses questions for these Jews: "What are the claims that Jewish identity makes upon me " "What is the nature of the collective Jewish journey that I am asked to continue " "How did we lose the way " He is proud to be a Jew because of Judaism's moral purpose, commitment to the poor and oppressed, faith in freedom, belief in the Torah, and continuing tradition. He urges young Jews to continue the journey, to pass it on to their children, to be a "letter in the scroll" of the eternal people. A most profound and eloquently expressed meditation, this is highly recommended for all Jews as well as for non-Jews looking to better understand the Jewish legacy and commitment.DMarcia Welsh, formerly with Guilford Free Lib., CT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 15, 2004
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Excerpt from A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
One belief, more than any other (to quote a phrase of Isaiah Berlin's) is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith -- or my race or my ideology -- do not share my humanity. At best they are second-class citizens. At worst they forfeit the sanctity of life itself. They are the unsaved, the unbelievers, the infidel, the unredeemed; they stand outside the circle of salvation. If faith is what makes us human, then those who do not share my faith are less than fully human. From this equation flowed the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the jihads, the pogroms, the blood of human sacrifice through the ages. From it -- substituting race for faith -- ultimately came the Holocaust.
One people risked its very existence on the proposition that our common humanity exists in and through our differences; that the human person itself, regardless of faith, independent of race, is in the image of God; and that the unity of God expresses itself in the diversity of creation and human culture. With this we come to one of the most controversial of Jewish beliefs, one that has cost the children of Abraham much anguish and suffering: the idea of a chosen people.
What lies behind the idea of a chosen people? The answer is given by the Bible itself in the two stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. Imperialism, the desire to place all peoples under a single rule, ends either in a "world filled with violence" (the Flood) or in a civilization that arrogates to itself godlike powers (Babel). Doubtless Israel's historical experience played a large part in this critique of empires.
Most simply, chosenness follows from the sheer logic of the monotheistic idea. If God is the reality of the personal, then God loves the way a person loves, each one separately, for their differences, not their sameness. God is not a Platonist, loving the abstract form of things. Nor is God an imperialist, ruling the world through power and forcing mankind into a single image. God, creator of diversity, loves difference. That is why, though there is One God, there are different ways of finding Him. Every relationship between persons is unique.