Continuing our discussion with Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald, who recently completed his monumental work ‘Rise and Decline of Civilizations: Lessons for the Jewish People,’ we now delve into the internal composition of a successful – and an unsuccessful – civilization.
More critical to our readership, the focus is the internal workings of Jewish civilization as we have known it and the role Hebrew has played in creating it. In our previous installment, we focused on the subject of Jewish survival. In our third and final installment, we will hear about the matter of Jewish demography.
Hand in hand with survival is expression: cultural expression. It has strategic implications as much as it does gauging the vibrancy of a society. One of those strategic tools the last century and a half, as employed by the Zionist movement with unprecedented success, is the reinvigoration of Hebrew. By utilizing a common thread across the Jewish world and fighting off suggestions to make German or Yiddish the founding language of a new Jewish state, the state’s future became far more accessible to the wider Jewish civilization spread throughout its multilingual Diaspora. Hence, Israel was able to grow.
“Without Hebrew, it wouldn’t have been possible to accomplish kibbutz galuyyot (ingathering of the exiles),” says Wald.
“Having a holy language was very important. Having a language spoken only by Jews – if Hebrew, nice – but for 500 years there were two Jewish languages – Yiddish and Ladino – were very important for preserving Judaism. Anyone who spoke Yiddish in Eastern Europe or Ladino in the Ottoman Empire was immediately identifiable as a Jew.”
That identification likely aided keeping the community together outside the Holy Land. Beyond that, it allowed a relatively ‘pure’ contribution of Jewish culture by Jews alone. Even in exile, Jews created pockets of their dispersed civilization. Despite Yiddish, Ladino and other Jewish dialects of languages, Hebrew remained became a Jewish language of communication between countries.
“Hebrew’s function was absolutely essential from the 18th century on. Hebrew never died like Old Irish was a dead language. There were always people who understood and communicated in Hebrew. I have a card of my late grandfather who wrote to his son who was soldier in Austro-Hungarian empire wrote to him in Hebrew because didn’t want the military censorship to read it.”
Hebrew should still serve that function, says Wald. That attention has not been paid seriously to it is a perilous failure of the Jewish world. He cites the example of Hellenized Jews throughout the ancient, formerly Greek-speaking parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East where Jewish communities eventually died out or moved elsewhere as an example of the failure to maintain a culturally distinct form of communication.
“I do have a problem with the weakness of Hebrew outside of Israel. Not that I expect all Jews to know it fluently, but to create an emotional bond to it and have some knowledge of it. Mordechai Kaplan wrote the disappearance of Hellenistic Judaism could not be explained only by persecution, but for such a proud and productive cultural center to leave totally, he attributes it to the absence of the Hebrew language.”
“Historians debated if Philo of Alexandria knew Hebrew, and the consensus today is that he did not. His Judaism and commitment was not challenged and was totally clear. But this is not the situation that could go on generation after generation. Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria finally disappeared after 200 years.”
But the function of Modern Hebrew is changing. Wald reminds readers that there are about 1.7 million non-Jewish Hebrew-speaking citizens of Israel. As time goes by, Hebrew could lose its main distinguishing mark as something ‘Jewish’ and also, again, become recognized as a long-embedded language in the region.
As mentioned above, since Eliezer Ben-Yehudah’s ‘revival’ of the language in the 19th century, Hebrew has become a distinguishing element to Jewish culture around the world. This was not always the case however, as the Torah does not emphasize the language’s importance outside of obviously using it. It became an important distinction much later in the Second Temple Period. As some people often overlook, languages like Moabite and Ammonite, from what remnants and records are in the possession of historians, highly resemble Hebrew in grammar, vocabulary and structure. Wald estimates that they were in all likelihood either dialects of the same language or as close as modern day Spanish and Sicilian Italian.
“It was the content, not the language, of the Jewish scriptures that shaped a distinct Jewish fate and instilled awareness of it,” Wald writes in his book. The Torah was the distinguishing factor for God in the Bible. Language became an addendum to that later alongside Aramaic (that also became identified with Jews as the number of its speakers fell across the ancient world).”
Israel’s Underappreciated Modern Golden Age
Hebrew’s explosion back in Israel allowed immigrants to flock in from around the world. The speed with which 600,000 Jews moved to Israel by May 15, 1948 when the country declared independence is a testament to the unifying element language had. Today, it is a rising language of science and development. Its role as a language of religious scholarship is now being witnessed in the modern dialect. It is the communicative means for Israel’s sudden Golden Age.
“There is in ancient cultures the ‘Golden Age’ myth,” says Wald, who does not mean to suggest Golden Ages do not actually exist, but that we often mistake their existence in retrospect and miss them as they are happening in the present. “I think it was a reality for many civilizations, but Greek mythology speaks of a Golden Age.”
Greece itself, was reputed to have experienced a cultural and philosophical Golden Age prior to its wars with the Persian Empire (that eventually led to Alexander’s conquest of Jerusalem). But the history of that era shows a fractured Greece and multiple brutal wars between Greek city-states.
In contrast, Israel today - despite existential threats and enormous pressure over certain political issues - is the most powerful expression of Jewish independence since Joshua.
“The period of the artists in the 5th century in Athens now seen as the GA of Greece, was a period of misery for Greeks, right before the Peloponnesian War.”
“I say that today we live in a Golden Age that we’ve never had. Never have we had the most powerful economic and military state in the Middle East, as well as being an important presence in the capitals of all the world’s great superpowers. Even when we (the Jews) are not physically present, the Chinese know well about Jews and Judaism.”
“Never in history did we have so many assets at the same time. I speak of the world. No Golden Age can last forever. They then to last 50, 100 or 150 years and then they fall. This doesn’t mean that ours has to go away, but we have to think about how to maintain our Golden Age.”
Maintaining Israel’s ‘Golden’ Edge
Retaining that gold is a major forward concern for Wald in his book, as the goal is to consider where Israel is lacking in the long term and has plenty for the same period, then improving on all fronts.
“I drew 12 drivers of rise and decline [of Golden Ages],” says Wald. “I believe the single most important driver right now for us is governance and leadership. We are a chaotic, dysfunctional state with bad governance that might be getting worse.”
Wald emphasizes he is not talking about the current Prime Minister as an individual or individual policies. It could be that the system more than the potential that Israeli heads of state might exercise.
“I am a bit pessimistic. The issue isn’t the availability of great leadership. It is difficult to analyze this. We know from Ottoman history, Roman and even American that many civilizations have many outstanding leaders at the beginning with outstanding committed visionaries. Then comes a period where leaders are corrupt or inept. But Israel’s history is too short to say things like that” just yet.
“The second most important factor is education; particularly, our excellence in science and technology. ‘He who controls the progress of science and technology controls the future of the world’,” says Wald, paraphrasing and adapting a quote by Arthur C. Clarke.
“Jews had a competitive advantage, including in economic sphere because their education was better. Definite from the late 2nd Temple period on there was a high level of education. There was a trickling down into many other endeavors of life: travel, business, even in war educated soldiers are better than uneducated.
“Those who fall behind will not flourish even if they have all the oil in the world in their ground. We wouldn’t be sitting here without that exceptional edge that we have. We need to keep it and increase it.”
Scientific prowess is something for which Israel is gaining a disproportionate notoriety. Israel’s issue with governance notwithstanding, it is a democracy with strong debate and tremendous accomplishments in economics.
In Part III, we will further explore the anatomy of a civilization, where a civilization’s culture factors in as a long-term indicator of survival as well as the issue of quality versus quantity in the composite of Jewish civilization’s ‘citizens.’