Stories That Jews Tell (About Ourselves)
We all know the Jewish story. Sort of. It begins with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After them comes the bondage in Egypt and redemption from slavery, which we celebrate at the Passover seder each year. Then for a lot of us, it gets hazier. King David is floating somewhere there, and also King Solomon—the one who divided the baby in half; no wait a minute, he didn’t do that, because he was very wise—and then there were the Maccabees and Hanukkah. After that, we have the rabbis and a lot of religious stuff. Things got bad in the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Eventually we all went to live in Eastern Europe, except for those who didn’t, and then of course there was the Holocaust and the birth of the modern State of Israel.
That seems to sum up the Jewish experience for a lot of Jews. Those more knowledgeable, or more interested in history, will probably know many more things about the Jewish journey, and there are no shortages of good books and videos (often for “Dummies” or “Idiots”) to help the learner.
But as those of us whose eyes glazed over in fifth-grade history class will agree, a timeline of events is not always the best way to tell a story. What’s often more illuminating is the overarching story behind the story, the glue that makes sense of all the separate “Post-its” on the timeline. It’s the view of life that gives meaning to the long lists of people, places and dates.
Sometimes this “big story” is called a metanarrative. But here I will just call it the Big Story. And depending on the kinds of Jews you hang with, there are different Big Stories to choose from. Are any of them the real Big Story? Is there even one real Big Story among the many Big Stories? Let’s check out some of these Big Stories.
1. The Traditional Orthodox Jewish Big Story
If you come from a traditional Jewish family, and particularly an Orthodox one, you’ll recognize this Big Story. In traditional Judaism, God created a good universe, and he created humanity with a good and an evil inclination, called respectively the yezter hatov and the yezter hara. God then chose the nation of Israel, us and our ancestors, and entered into a covenant with us (them) at Mount Sinai. We became God’s own treasured possession, and under the terms of the covenant, we are obligated to observe the 613 commandments (mitzvot) given at Mount Sinai.
In order to observe the mitzvotproperly, God also gave the Oral Torah, the interpretation of the Written Torah which was also given at Sinai and was developed over the centuries through the divinely designated authority of the rabbis. The high point of this Big Story is Sinai; as a famous rabbi once said in a different context, “the rest is commentary.” But it’s commentary we as Jews need to listen to.
At the end of history, the Messiah will arrive to establish peace on earth, return all Jews to the Land of Israel, and rebuild the Temple. Such a Messiah potentially exists in every generation (could your child be the Messiah?), but it devolves onto the Jewish people to be worthy of him through keeping the mitzvot.
So this Big Story tells about the past (creation and redemption), the present (our lifestyle, observing the mitzvot today), and the future (the Messianic Age and the World to Come).
Until the eighteenth century, this was pretty much the Big Story of all Jews. The main exception was a group called the Karaites, who didn’t accept the authority of the rabbis and went with just the Written Law, jettisoning any idea that there was an Oral Law.
2. The Kabbalistic Big Story
Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, and it was in full bloom in the Middle Ages, though in some forms it existed even earlier. Many people today know about kabbalah through its “pop” followers like Madonna or through the Kabbalah Centre, an organization that attempts to disseminate the teachings of kabbalah at a popular level worldwide.
A particular kind of kabbalah was developed in the sixteenth century by Rabbi Isaac Luria. It is his version that has captured the imagination of many in the modern world, perhaps because it brings a kind of “mythological” as well as mystical approach to reality.
In Rabbi Luria’s kabbalah, although Sinai and the place of the Torah may be stressed as much as in traditional Orthodox Judaism, an additional emphasis is put on the beginnings of creation and on the nature of God himself.
Here is Lurianic Kabbalah in sixty seconds: God-in-Himself is known as the Ein Sof, meaning “Without End.” By means of “contraction” into Himself (called tzimtzum), God enabled the creation of the universe. Furthermore, he interacts with his creation via ten emanations or sefirot. The sefirot have a complex relationship to one another and to the world (you may have seen kabbalistic diagrams of the “Ten Sefirot”). When God created the universe, divine sparks were encased in shells or vessels which somehow broke open, causing the sparks to fall to earth. From that moment (known as the shevirat kelim or “breaking of the vessels”), evil has entered the world. It is now incumbent on all Jews to perform the mitzvot in order to raise the sparks and bring about tikkun olam, the restoration of the universe.
So we have a good creation; the falling of the sparks to earth which brings about evil; and the mandate that through mitzvot we raise the sparks back to God. To some this sounds very un-Jewish; to others, it’s a Jewish mythology with a lot of explanatory power. In an age of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for many Jews a mythology seems to be just what the Jewish doctor ordered.
The Traditional Orthodox Jewish Big Story emphasizes the centrality of Sinai and the ongoing importance of observing mitzvot—and so is very centered on the here-and-now. Lurianic Kabbalah emphasizes the centrality of the creation and entrance of evil into the world through the breaking of the vessels, and also emphasizes the ultimate restoration of the universe to what God intended it to be. While the mitzvot also occupy a central role, the arc of this Big Story is more consciously traced from beginning to end.
In contrast, traditional Judaism focuses for all practical purposes more on the present, i.e., the middle. While there is certainly a beginning, the entrance of evil into the world is not emphasized—or even given an entrance at all, since all people are created “neutral,” needing only to choose the good over the evil inclination.
And traditional Judaism certainly talks about the end, when the hoped-for Messianic Age arrives. But it isn’t given the kind of prominence that the Kabbalistic Big Story gives to it.
3. The Classical Liberal Jewish Big Story
Liberal/Reform Judaism is a product of the eighteenth-century Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and its break with religious tradition. Therefore its narrative is a more secular one revolving around ideas of evolutionary progress. In its earliest form it focused strongly around mankind’s own steadily increasing perfection of the world.
In this narrative, the ethics of the prophets and the rabbis are front and center, as compared to Orthodoxy’s emphasis on tradition, ritual, and mitzvot. Classical Liberal Judaism’s upbeat optimism is really the secular narrative of progress in Jewish clothing. Especially in its earlier days, this was the Jewish equivalent of the lyrics to the song from the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.”
4. The Postmodern Liberal and Secular Jewish Story
The Liberal Jewish model is no longer as optimistic as it once was. For many, justice and prophetic ethics are as important as ever (tikkun olam, understood as social action, is on the agenda for many Jews). But this Big Story now shares more in common with postmodernist than modernist trends. What this means is that for many secular Jews, there may no longer be any overarching Big Story at all that is discoverable, just Big Stories that we choose to give us meaning. Nevertheless, the affinity with ideas of progress still shows clearly: liberal and secular Jews are still overwhelmingly Democratic by political affiliation (if they are politically minded at all) and justice-oriented by disposition. “The oftnoted attraction of Jews to liberal and leftwing political causes probably represents a secular attempt to usher in a messianic age,” says Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. In some ways this Big Story is one without a clear beginning or end, just a middle where we do tikkun olam and act Jewishly. Many would say that’s where we came from, why the world is the way it is, and where mankind is heading are unknowns, or at least cannot be known with any final certainty.
5. The Classical Secular Zionist Big Story
This is the Zionism of a previous generation which was built upon national aspirations and idealism. Certainly, there are religious versions of Zionism. But in this variation, there is no interest in questions about creation or a fall into evil; evil is perhaps seen most in the pervasive oppression of the Jewish people throughout history. Although Hanukkah and the Maccabean victory provided some relief, not until 1948 did “redemption” arrive in the establishment of the State of Israel. The horizon is limited, in this classic form of Zionism, by the goal of a Jewish homeland. The homeland having been established in 1948, there followed kibbutzim and moshavim, reclamation of the desert and the spirit of the halutzim (pioneers), all of which contributed to the hope that a utopia could be established in the Land (with not a little ideological impulse from the socialist movements of Europe).
Few today, even among Israel’s ardent supporters, find much in the way of utopia looming on the horizon. But this Big Story has nevertheless been a significant one among American Jews, though now it has been transmuted into a hope more for basic survival than for a future Golden Age.
My final Big Story is held by many Jewish (as well as non-Jewish) believers in Jesus.
6. A Big Story from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament
This Big Story says that God created a good universe (so far agreeing with some of the above Big Stories). But humanity through our own actions brought sin and evil into the world and our nature has become one inclined to sin (so neither neutral as in traditional Orthodoxy nor a byproduct of creation as in Lurianic kabbalah).
God redeemed Israel from Egypt and made a covenant with us (so far like traditional Orthodoxy), so that as a nation we could showcase the nature of God and what a society redeemed from evil and sin could look like. Yet Israel—we—repeatedly failed to live up to God’s covenant. But God promised to make a new covenant and to send a Messiah who would redeem not only Jews but the entire world from sin.
Enter Jesus, who claimed to be this Messiah. His death and resurrection atoned for sin and accomplished redemption, which we experience in a “now yet future” manner, meaning we see some aspects of redemption in the present while other aspects are still future, to take place when he returns, as he said he would.
The high point in this narrative is Jesus himself, especially his death and resurrection. Yet the story of Jesus is not a “bolt out of the blue.” Before Jesus, Israel had a messianic hope still unfulfilled; in and after Jesus, the same hope of Israel finds fulfillment. If the non-Jewish world can also be beneficiaries of Jesus’ redemption, that happens alongside Israel. Jesus remains integral to the story of our own people, the story of Israel.
So which Big Story is true? Are all of them valid—diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks? Are none of them true, and we live in a world without any final, overarching meaning? Or does one truly reflect Reality?
You and I can’t sit down at Starbucks to talk about this (unless you happen to be in the San Francisco area, in which case get in touch and we’ll get coffee). Truth and reality isn’t a two-minute conversation. But what I can say is this: most of us pick a Big Story not because we sit down and compare one with another, but because we bring presuppositions to the table that influence what we believe to be true. We are capable of challenging our own presuppositions, but there is not a single person who doesn’t have them.
And each Big Story has its own presuppositions or working assumptions. Read part two, where I engage with some of the assumptions that those who hold to different Big Stories bring to the table. Of course, you may want to affirm and even defend your working assumptions, as I do mine. But we should always be prepared to have our presuppositions challenged by the realities we encounter in the world. I believe that the Big Story of Jesus the Messiah best matches those realities—both for Jews and for others.
So write, email or leave me a comment, or get coffee with me.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.