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Chief Rabbi

“How probable is it that a tiny people, the children of Israel, known today as Jews, numbering less than a fifth of a per cent of the population of the world, would outlive every empire that sought its destruction? Or that a small, persecuted sect known as the Christians would one day become the largest movement of any kind in the world?

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a Russian Marxist who broke with the movement after the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. He became an unconventional Christian — he had been charged with blasphemy for criticising the Russian Orthodox Church in 1913 — and went into exile, eventually settling in Paris. In The Meaning of History, he tells us why he abandoned Marxism:

I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of peoples, broke down in the case of the Jews, where destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint… Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by a special predetermination, transcending the processes of adaptation expounded by the materialistic interpretation of history. The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history: all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.

Consider this one fact. The Bible records a series of promises by God to Abraham: that he would become a great nation, as many as the stars of the sky or the sand on the sea shore, culminating in the prophecy that he would become ‘the father of many nations’…

Somehow the prophets of Israel, a small, vulnerable nation surrounded by large empires, were convinced that it would be eternal.

‘This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night… ”Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will Israel ever cease being a nation before me” (Jeremiah 31:35-6).

There was nothing to justify that certainty then, still less after a thousand years of persecution, pogroms and the Final Solution. Yet improbably, Jews and Judaism survived.

King Frederick the Great once asked his physician Zimmermann of Brugg-in-Aargau, ‘Zimmermann, can you name me a single proof of the existence of God?’ The physician replied, ‘Your majesty, the Jews.’”

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The distinguished and unfailingly charismatic Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.

I know nothing about Berdyaev, but in the two minutes I spent looking him up I ran across three quotes of his that are worth filing away in the bank:

“Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.”

“Every single human soul has more meaning and value than the whole of history.”

“There is a tragic clash between truth and the world. Pure undistorted truth burns up the world.”

Not a fool.

Last month, Sacks sat down with David Brooks for a wide-ranging conversation about spirituality and meaning. It’s worth a watch.

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