The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World
(A rather poorly-edited version of this article appears in today's edition of The Jerusalem Post.)
Since ancient times, cultures have perceived significance in the number seven. In antiquity, a list was compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the nineteenth century, lists were compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages and the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind. Mohandas Gandhi made a list of the Seven Blunders of the World. And disappointment reigned amongst many supporters of Israel this week, when the Dead Sea did not win enough votes to make the new list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Meanwhile, the Israel Tourism Ministry is arranging a vote for the Seven Wonders of Israel. But I would like to propose a different list: The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World, with “world” not being a geographical location, but rather the full realm of the Jewish experience.
There is an old ditty which says, “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.” One of the many rejoinders is “It’s not so odd; the Jews chose God.” Yet it is that very choosing of God which is odd and remarkable! As Henri Frankfort, archeologist and Egyptologist, wrote: “The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God. God is not in nature. Neither earth nor sun nor heaven is divine; even the most potent natural phenomena are but reflections of God’s greatness… it needs an effort of the imagination to realize the shattering boldness of a contempt for imagery at the time, and in the particular historical setting, of the Hebrews.” Aside from its role in shaping religion, monotheism also laid the foundation for the rise of science; as several historians of science have noted, the idea that disparate phenomena all follow fundamental “laws” flowed from monotheism. And the billions of adherents of Christianity and Islam are all adopting a monotheism initiated by the Jewish People.
2. The Land of Israel
The land of Israel, promised to Abraham, is small. It does not host the greatest waterfalls or the tallest mountains. But it is nevertheless remarkable within the natural world. Geographically, the land of Israel is at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Within its tiny area, it houses an incredible diversity of landscapes: snowy slopes, tropical beaches, arid deserts and green forests. As a result of all this, the land of Israel is home to an astonishingly diverse range of flora and fauna. It is the southernmost range of many northern species, the westernmost range of eastern species, and the northernmost range of southern species. As the Midrash states, Israel is the center of the world.
Literally meaning “teaching,” the word Torah is often used in the narrow sense of referring to the Five Books of Moses. But in its broadest sense, it refers to the entire gamut of Jewish teachings. This marvelous body of literature chronicles a nation’s efforts over millennia to connect with the Divine, to improve the individual, to regulate society and to stretch the mind. Scripture, Talmud, midrash, philosophy, mysticism, law, ethics—it encompasses every intellectual taste and every aspect of our lives.
4. The Calendar
The wonder of the Jewish calendar is not limited to the way in which it manages to synchronize three entirely unrelated natural phenomena: the rotation of the earth on its axis, the revolution of the moon around the earth, and the revolution of the earth around the sun. The very contents of the Jewish calendar are so much richer than in the joke which describes it as consisting of two types of events: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” and “They tried to kill us, we didn’t win, let’s not eat.” We celebrate national salvation and religious freedom; we observe days of solemnity, repentance and introspection; and we mourn the loss of people and precious elements of our heritage. Most wonderful of all is Shabbat, during which, miraculously, I am able to resist checking my e-mail for a full twenty-four hours.
5. Jewish Survival
The Jewish People, never large in number, have been faced with hatred for over three thousand years. We have been exiled from our home and forced into servitude and exile amongst hostile nations. We have suffered persecution in every one of the numerous countries in which we have lived. Nations faced with far fewer existential threats have disappeared, and yet we have survived. Mark Twain famously asked, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then... passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts… What is the secret of his immortality?” And we made it back to our homeland after two thousand years of exile, an event completely unparalleled in world history.
6. The State of Israel
Like every citizen of Israel, and especially like every oleh, I could rant endlessly about the shortcomings of the State of Israel (though unlike the citizens of our neighboring countries, I could do so without fear of being thrown in prison). But this would be a small-minded perspective that does not take into account the incredible challenges that the state overcomes. Despite having to absorb an enormous number of immigrants in a short span of time, and having to devote a ridiculously large amount of resources to national defense, Israel has managed to create a vibrant democracy, an oasis of prosperity, producing astonishing accomplishments in every field, all while successfully repelling repeated attempts at annihilation.
7. Global Significance
Although numbering only 0.2% of the total world population today, and never having numbered much more than that, the Jewish People have always had an inexplicably large impact upon the world. The spread of monotheism is the most significant example, but we have also made disproportionate contributions in every sphere of knowledge and endeavor. Meanwhile, the United Nations are obsessed with Israel, condemning it more than every other country put together (!). If anything, we are too significant for our own good.
Those are the Seven Wonders of the Jewish World as I see them, which I think are much more wonderful than the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Colossus, schmolossus.