Sinai is real

Arguing that non-Jews are inherently different to Jews is not a popular thesis, but intellectual rigor has led me to posit that view. Op-ed.

Rafael Castro ,

Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai

During the last twenty-five years I have sought to decipher the Jewish spirit and understand the differences between Jews and Gentiles. Life experience, logical rigor and intellectual honesty have led me, a Gentile, to the conclusion that Jews and non-Jews are fundamentally different.

Our Zeitgeist is highly allergic to differences. To argue that Gentiles are inherently different to Jews is even less tolerated than highlighting the fundamental differences between males and females or between fathers and mothers in our woke progressive times. Nowadays, even innocuous statements in these spheres can ruin careers and reputations.

Nevertheless, I cannot keep quiet. Too much is at stake if we disregard reality. Too much self-respect is lost if we blind ourselves to the truth. The Tanya claims – correctly in my view – that most of humanity is not spiritually inclined. This does not mean that Gentiles cannot be religious or that they cannot be sincere in their religiosity. It does however mean that the conditions under which religiosity thrives in the Gentile world are different to those in which it thrives among Jews.

In the non-Jewish world, improvement of material and social conditions has gone hand in hand with a rapid secularization of society. In the Jewish state, improvement of material and social conditions has gone hand in hand with a rapid strengthening of individual religious life. This is a stark contrast and reveals a fundamental difference between Gentiles and Jews.

The average Gentile seeks in faith a flight from harsh physical or material conditions. Love for God in this regard is the proverbial opium to cope with life’s hardships. In this context, God represents the benevolent heavenly master to be preferred over the cruel and exploitative earthly master. As soon as an improvement in material and social conditions has taken place and the earthly master vanishes, the need for faith evaporates among large swathes of Gentile society.

Jews are drawn to their ancestral traditions when they are strong and self-empowered. This difference explains the surge in religious observance in Israel and the Baal Teshuva movement in the Diaspora coinciding with a peak in Jewish achievements. This dynamic takes place, even though teshuva in Judaism demands far more sacrifices than the performance of religious duties in almost all other religions.

The difference is highlighted rather than rebutted by the spiritual and ethical choices of non-observant Jews. I have long been intrigued by the fact that non-observant Jews disproportionately engage in the commandments of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Non-observant Jews embrace humanitarian values with a zeal seldom found among non-religious Gentiles. This phenomenon is mirrored in the disproportionate contribution of secular Jews to humanitarian initiatives that among Gentiles mainly draw religious individuals.

Yet there is not just a quantitative difference in thirst for God and Godliness; there is also a qualitative difference in this thirst.

The average Gentile does not and cannot understand Jewish devotion at the Western Wall. It does not appear worthy of a credible God to be worshipped at a ruin. Monumentality is what Gentiles project onto God. That is the reason our religious buildings – be they cathedrals, mosques or mandalas – strive to be huge. This impressiveness helps us feel the power of God, which otherwise would be removed from reality.

Among Jews the temptation to celebrate God with monumental buildings is almost entirely absent. When religious Jews returned to their homeland, the last of their priorities was building monumental synagogues. I have also yet to hear a rabbi praise the Second Temple for its monumental measures! On the contrary, I would argue that it is not a coincidence that this monumental temple was built by Herod, who himself descended from Idumeans.

It is true that in Budapest, Berlin and Paris and many other Diaspora cities, Jews also built monumental houses of worship. Those synagogues were nevertheless built prior to the Holocaust with the goal of persuading non-Jewish neighbors that Judaism also deserved respect. Building monumental synagogues was how many Jews hoped to earn the social acceptance which following the moral laws of Judaism had obviously failed to accomplish.

What accounts for these underlying differences: Why do Jews –all else equal – seem more drawn to God and Godliness? Why do they eschew monumentality in religious worship?

An innate collective experience must have seared the spirit of the Jewish nation. A seminal experience must have marked the Jewish collective consciousness making God a vivid reality in the Jewish soul.

It is this reality that explains why Jews generally do not need an earthly master to feel the presence of a heavenly master; it is this reality that explains why Jews do not need monumental synagogues to feel the power and presence of God. Masters and monuments seek to make slaves out of men, whereas Judaism and Jews seek to turn God and men into partners.

Sinai is real.

Rafael Castro is a Noahide Italian who graduated from Yale and Hebrew University prior to settling in Berlin, where he teaches English and Civic Studies.