We owe the Jewish people a debt of gratitude that will forever remain unpaid. Why? Christians can of course immediately point to the gift of life through Jesus Christ, who, to state the painfully obvious, was a Jew. As Jesus himself said: “…for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22).
On this issue, Paul is unequivocal:
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18).
While redemption through Jesus Christ is certainly reason enough to be grateful for the Jewish people, there is something else that is worth considering.
Did you know that about 22 percent of all Nobel prizes given between 1901 and 2023 were awarded to Jewish people? In and of itself, this is remarkable. But what’s even more stunning is that the Jews represent only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population.
Why stop at the Nobel prizes? The Jewish contribution to literature, economics, science, engineering, medicine, etc., both in Israel and in the Jewish diaspora, is spectacular.
When I recently asked a Jewish law professor if he had an explanation for this, he surmised that it could have something to do with the resiliency the Jewish people developed over the centuries as a persecuted minority. To survive, the Jews had to excel wherever they were.
While there is no doubt the Jews are who they are today in great part because of the ferocious adversity they experienced throughout history, perhaps there is an additional factor that should be considered.
Here is something that is often overlooked. The Jewish people was the first to receive one of the most transformative concepts ever to emerge in human history: divine transcendence.
The eminent French historian, Pierre Chaunu, notes that the opening words of the Hebrew Bible: Bereshit bara Elohim (“In the beginning God created”) represent one of the most revolutionary statements ever made. For the first time, the notion of a transcendent God explodes in human history.
Outside of these three Hebrew words, there is only immanence, a drab pantheistic universe where the divine is part and parcel of nature.
As Chaunu aptly points out, where the divine is immanent, everything is sacred. The land is sacred, the oceans are sacred, the heavens are sacred. The very entrails of a sacrificed animal are sacred. In such a universe, the secular is nonexistent. Everything has divine significance.
Where divine immanence is dominant, error becomes sacrilegious, for it encroaches on the divine. One wonders whether the very notion of forgiveness, which is so central to the Judeo-Christian faith, can even emerge in such a system.
Chaunu notes that in an immanent system, there is nearly no possibility of significant progress, for progress assumes a process of trial and error and, therefore, the possibility of failure, an unacceptable outcome in a sacred universe where there can be no accommodation (no “forgiveness”) for “transgression.”
In the first three words of the creation narrative, nature ceases to be Nature, namely the sphere of the sacred. Because of this stunning transformation, the formidable three-pound brain (to borrow Chaunu’s expression) is free to question, experiment, and investigate without fear of encroaching on the domain of the gods.
Bereshit Bara Elohim evokes a creator who is not only distinct from nature, but one who is also personal, self-aware, and free. At the pinpoint origin of the universe, there is reason, not blind chance. During the first millisecond, a universe comes into existence, a universe oozing with intelligence prepared for God’s highest and most glorious creature: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).
Did Moses discover this principle of divine transcendence on his own? According to Chaunu, a most improbable hypothesis. The historian was not the only one to be express such skepticism. To paraphrase the eminent Assyriologist, Jean Bottéro, Moses was either the greatest genius ever to walk on the surface of the earth, a possibility he felt was highly improbable, or something beyond the realm of historical investigation happened. The biblical text leaves no room for debate: “And God said…”
The transcendent God not only creates a world distinct from himself. He creates a creature that would be like him, “in his image,” a creature endowed with free will, able to think, plan, create, and invent. A creature free to determine its own destiny, free to investigate, free to imagine, free to experiment, free to project itself into the future, unencumbered by the crushing demands of despotic deities.
How does this idea of divine transcendence contribute to our understanding of Jewish exceptionalism?
I suspect it has something to do with the fact that God’s chosen people were the first to receive the Bereshit Bara Elohim, earth-shaking words that uniquely and dramatically shaped the cultural DNA of the Jewish people and through them, the entire world.