It was with mixed emotions that I visited Humboldt University in Berlin a few weeks ago to deliver the annual Hildesheimer lecture on Jewish law. Humboldt is Berlin’s oldest university. Marx and Engels studied there and Albert Einstein lectured there. On the other hand, the first Nazi book burning took place just outside the gates of the university. On the road just outside the university, is a plaque in memory of the Jewish students who were deported from the university during the Nazi era. It is a stark reminder of the darkness of the past. And now that same university hosts an annual lecture on the relevance of Torah law in the world today.
Standing in the heart of the university in one of its large lecture halls, speaking to a gathering from across the Jewish community of Berlin, as well as the senior faculty of the university and specifically its department of law, I was struck by the remarkable story of Jewish tenacity and survival despite all odds. A university which once reflected the worst of the Nazi horrors has now become an open platform for the teaching of Jewish law, and for partnership with the Jewish community.
This was, of course, merely one brief incident in the dramatic journey of Jewish history, replete with tenacity and courage, combined with miracles of Divine intervention and guidance. One of the most powerful and breathtaking emblems of this journey of Jewish history is the miracle of the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel only three years after the Holocaust and the subsequent dazzling development of the State of Israel in all spheres of human endeavor.
The Faculty of Law building at Berlin’s Humboldt University.
But that is only part of the story. There is another very important part, and that is the remarkable eternal vibrancy not only of the Jews, but of Judaism. The values and principles of the Torah that God gave us more than 3,300 years ago have guided and remained relevant to our survival every step of the way. And so speaking at the Humboldt University and sharing the relevance of Jewish law for today’s times brought home to me this other crucial dimension of the Jewish story.
In my lecture I dealt with four areas of human rights: political power, a married woman’s rights, the rights of a criminal accused and poverty alleviation. In each one of these areas Jewish law took morally visionary positions which Western law only came around to thousands of years later. I also demonstrated how the Torah often takes an approach which is more subtle and sophisticated in understanding the concept of vulnerability, in terms of which sometimes it is the individual and sometimes society which is considered to be the more vulnerable party.
Furthermore, I pointed out that many of the moral foundations of the modern world come from the Torah itself. This is what the famous (Catholic) historian Paul Johnson writes:
“All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both Divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
Johnson errs in ascribing these insights to the Jewish people, when in fact they were revealed to us by God.
One of the great miracles of world history is the eternal vibrancy and relevance of Torah, and this is an important part of the Jewish story. These values transform our story of survival into something infinitely meaningful and significant. Mere survival doesn’t give meaning or significance to the experience. Why is it that we want to survive and retain our identity as the Jewish people? Why is it that throughout many generations and across the continents we have tenaciously clung to each other and survived despite all odds? Why is it that we are so passionate about maintaining a Jewish state in the midst of a hostile environment of enemies who seek our destruction? The answer to these questions lies within the teachings of Judaism, which have framed our experience of survival with meaning and significance. We seek not merely survival, but also to live by our Torah values and principles which infuse everything we do.
This is how it has been since the very birth of our people. When Moses asked Pharaoh for freedom in the name of God, he said, “Send my people that they may serve me.” It was not only about survival and freedom – it was about a higher cause. It was about the values and the moral vision of being a Jew.
It is these values that infuse with meaning our valiant efforts in building the Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel. It is these values that inform the quest to preserve Jewish identity in the melting pots of modern Western society, where freedom and equality give us access to everything. It is these values that energize the remarkable rebirth of German Jewry. It is these values that make the story of the Jewish people not merely a story of survival, but a story of the triumph of morality and goodness, and the triumph of a profound and inspiring vision of the world.