Sunday 1 September 2013

The Story of the Jews

The historian Simon Schama whose new book tells the story of the Jews

This evening, after preaching about why Christians should love the Jewish people, I arrived home just in time to catch the first episode of Simon Schama’s new BBC 2 series The Story of the Jews, based on his book of the same name. It was everything I expected from a collaboration between the finest television company in the world and a sophisticated, urbane, Reform Jewish historian.

Setting aside minor errors such as the ‘Israelites’ becoming ‘Jews’ at the Exodus from Egypt, the programme was sumptuously filmed and packed full of fascinating information. Much of the details about the Jewish community at Elephantine in Upper Egypt, for example, were new to me.

The two major focuses in the programme were Freud and Moses. Starting with Sigmund Freud and surveying the tragic history of the Jews, Simon Schama ended with Freud as he considered how and why the Jewish people have survived while their oppressors have turned to dust. Schama suggested that the answer lies in the fact that Judaism has the written Torah, the purported words of God mediated through Moses.
It was interesting to see Schama as a religious Jew – albeit not Orthodox – worshipping in synagogue and celebrating Passover with family and friends. But while it is true that the written Torah has played a part in Jewish survival, that is only part of the answer to his question.

I vividly recall the first radio broadcast by Jonathan Sacks, who retired today as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. On Radio 4’s Thought for the Day spot on the Today programme, Rabbi Sacks asked the same question as Simon Schama asked tonight: What accounts for the survival of the Jews? Jonathan Sacks’ answer was that the Jews have survived because ‘the final chapter has not yet been written.’ He was wrong: the Jewish people have survived and will survive because the last chapter has been written. It was written in eternity, before the universe came into being.

Although Simon Schama’s explanation is closer to the truth, he expressed doubts about the total reliability of the Bible, as did a Jewish archaeologist he interviewed. The archaeologist (whose name escapes me) felt that the historical reliability of Scripture – for example, whether David and Goliath were real personages or whether David defeated the Philistine in battle – were of little concern, it was the metaphorical lessons that were important. But a book of unreliable metaphors, however inspiring, cannot guarantee the survival of a nation and a people.

In the end, the Jewish people survive because ‘He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121:4).  

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