Originally at: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/01/on-creative-minorities
by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Almost exactly twenty-six centuries ago, a man not otherwise known for his positive psychology sat down to write a letter to his coreligionists in a foreign land. The man was Jeremiah. The people to whom he wrote were the Jews who had been taken captive to Babylon after their defeat at its hands, a defeat that included the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the central symbol of their nation and the sign that God was in their midst.
We know exactly what the feeling of those exiles was. A psalm has recorded it in the most powerful way: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1, 4)
This was, of course, what Jeremiah had predicted. But there is no air of triumphalism in his letter, no “I told you so.” What he wrote was massively counterintuitive. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that it changed the course of Jewish history, perhaps even, in an indirect way, that of Western civilization as a whole. This is what he wrote:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:5–7)
What Jeremiah was saying was that it is possible to survive in exile with your identity intact, your appetite for life undiminished, while contributing to the wider society and praying to God on its behalf. Jeremiah was introducing into history a highly consequential idea: the idea of a creative minority.
At this distance of time, it can be hard for us to realize how revolutionary this was. Religions until then were inextricably linked to geographically, politically, culturally, and linguistically defined spaces. That is what the exiles meant when they said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” If your nation was defeated, it meant your god had been defeated, and you accepted that defeat, graciously or otherwise. If you went into exile, as the Northern Kingdom had done a century and a half earlier, then you assimilated into the majority culture and became one—or, in that case, ten—of history’s lost tribes.
Only a unique configuration of ideas made Jeremiah’s vision possible. The first idea was monotheism. If God was everywhere, then he could be accessed anywhere, even by the waters of Babylon.
The second was belief in the sovereignty of the God of history over all other powers. Until then, if a people were conquered, it meant the defeat of a nation and its god. For the first time, in Jeremiah’s telling of the Babylonian conquest of Israel, the defeat of a nation is understood as being accomplished by its God. God was still supreme. Babylon was merely the instrument of his wrath. A people could suffer defeat and keep its faith intact.
The third was the belief that God kept his faith intact. He would not break his word, his covenant with Israel, however many times Israel broke its covenant with God. He could be relied on to honor his promise, just as he had when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In the future, as in the past, he would bring his people back to their land.
So Jeremiah, like all the prophets, was ultimately a voice of hope. The prophetic message is always: If the people return to God, then God will return to the people, and the people will return to their land. Only hope can sustain a minority in exile, and only a transcendent God, above all principalities and powers, can guarantee that hope, even if it takes centuries or millennia to be fulfilled.
Jeremiah’s letter became the basis of Jewish hope for survival in the Diaspora for twenty-six centuries until today—a fraught, risk-laden, and tenuous survival, to be sure, but a remarkable one nonetheless.
Jews were creative in three distinct ways. The first was internal. It was in Babylon, for example, that the Torah was renewed as the heart of Jewish life. We see this clearly in the pioneering work of national education undertaken by Ezra and Nehemiah when they returned to Israel. And it was in Babylon again, a thousand years later, that the masterwork of rabbinical Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud, was compiled. The encounter with Christianity in the Middle Ages led to the flowering of Jewish Bible commentary. The meeting with medieval Islam begat Jewish philosophy. Every exile led to some new form of religious expression.
Second, Jews were cultural mediators between their host society and other civilizations. Through trade, for example, they brought to the West many of the inventions of China during the Middle Ages. Maimonides occupied an important role in bringing the Islamic rediscovery of Plato and Aristotle to the Christian world, becoming the bridge between Averroes and Aquinas.
Third, when in the modern age Jews were admitted for the first time to the cultural mainstream of the West, they gave rise to a remarkable number of architects of the modern mind. Among those of Jewish descent, if not of religious affiliation, were Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, and many others.
So you can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said. It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.
Fast forward twenty-six centuries from Jeremiah to May 13, 2004, to a lecture on the Christian roots of Europe by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI. There he confronted the phenomenon of a deeply secularized Europe, more so perhaps than at any time since the conversion of Constantine in the third century.
That loss of faith, Ratzinger argued, had brought with it three other kinds of loss: a loss of European identity, a loss of moral foundations, and a loss of faith in posterity, evident in the falling birthrates that he described as “a strange lack of desire for the future.” The closest analogue to today’s Europe, he said, was the Roman Empire on the brink of its decline and fall. Though he did not use these words, he implied that when a civilization loses faith in God, it ultimately loses faith in itself.
Is this inevitable? Or reversible? Can a civilization that has begun to decline recover and revive? The cardinal suggested that this was the issue at stake between two historians, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. For Spengler, civilizations are like organisms. They are born, they grow, they reach maturity, and then they age and decline and die. There are no exceptions.
For Toynbee, there is a difference between the material and spiritual dimensions of a civilization. Precisely because they have a spiritual dimension they are open to the human ability to recover. That gift, said Toynbee, belonged to what he called creative minorities, history’s great problem solvers. Therefore, concluded Ratzinger, “Christian believers should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority, and help Europe to reclaim what is best in its heritage and to therefore place itself at the service of all humankind.”
This too was an unexpected response. For the Catholic Church, numbering 1.2 billion adherents, to define itself as a minority, especially in Europe, is a surprising proposition. Nor is this the only way a group can respond to the discovery that it has become a minority. There are three other ways. First, it can accommodate to secularization: the way of religious liberalism. Second, it can resist it, sometimes violently, as religiously extremist groups are doing in many parts of the world today. Third, it can withdraw into protected enclaves, much as we see happening in certain groups within Orthodox Judaism. This is a powerful strategy, and it has strengthened Jewish Orthodoxy immensely, but at the price of segregation from—and thus loss of influence on—the world outside.
The fourth possibility, to become a creative minority, is not easy, because it involves maintaining strong links with the outside world while staying true to your faith, seeking not merely to keep the sacred flame burning but also to transform the larger society of which you are a part. This is, as Jews can testify, a demanding and risk-laden choice.
Yet the future pope was speaking at a challenging moment in the history of the West. There had been a time, only fifteen years before the lecture, when the West seemed to be triumphant. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War was at an end, and it seemed as if liberal democracy and the market economy—two of the West’s greatest achievements—were about to sweep the world.
Since then, however, we have seen two great civilizations, India and China, revive and begin to challenge the economic supremacy of the West. A third, Islam, is undergoing great turbulence. Meanwhile the financial collapse of 2008 revealed a whole series of economies, among them the United States and much of Europe, living beyond their means, borrowing more, manufacturing less, and sinking deep into personal and collective debt. From the inside, the West may look still strong, which technically and scientifically it is, but from the outside it has seemed to many to be already past its peak. So the cardinal’s comparison with the Roman Empire on the brink of its decline deserved to be taken seriously.
Civilizations do not last forever. Not only did Spengler and Toynbee say so. So, in the fourteenth century, did the great Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, and in the eighteenth Giambattista Vico. So indeed has every student of long-term history. Perhaps the judgment that most resonates with where we are today is contained in the first volume of Will Durant’s epic history, The Story of Civilization: A “certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization,” Durant wrote. Religion begins “fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past” and “priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a ‘conflict between science and religion.’”
The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.
Can the decline of a civilization be resisted? That was the issue raised, in their different ways, by Jeremiah in his day and Cardinal Ratzinger in ours. To understand what this might involve, it is worth revisiting the work of Toynbee’s that brought the phrase “creative minorities” into the conversation.
I had not read A Study of History until recently. I knew that it had upset many Jews because of its statement that Jews and Judaism were “an extinct society which only survives as a fossil.” They were even more upset by his later statement, in volume 8, published in 1954, that Israel’s treatment of the Arabs in 1948, when it was fighting for survival against the armies of five neighboring states, was morally equivalent to the Nazi treatment of the Jews—a statement he did not retract but repeated in his 1961 debate with Israel’s then-ambassador to Canada, the late Jacob Herzog.
What I did not fully appreciate was that the description of Judaism as a fossil is not a stray sentence in this ten-volume work but close to the core of his argument. A Study of History is, as many have noted, less a study of history than applied theology of a distinctly supersessionist kind. For Toynbee, Western Christianity is not a development of Judaism but rather a continuation of Hellenistic society, emerging out of the disintegration first of Greece, then Rome. Judaism, for Toynbee, was not a fallen or defeated civilization. It had never become a civilization at all. Its very existence is an anomaly and an anachronism.
Reading these volumes, the first of which was published in 1934, I felt a great chill as I read a distinguished historian repeating a sentiment that had been responsible for so many persecutions over the centuries and was about to reach its tragic denouement in the Holocaust. When I realized that afterward he was prepared to consign even the State of Israel to the trash heap of history, I realized how deeply a certain attitude is embedded in the Western mind, and I want to challenge it, not because of the past but for the sake of the future, and not just because of Christian–Jewish relations but for the sake of those between the West and the world.
There is a failure of imagination at the heart of Toynbee’s study of history, and it shapes not only his attitude toward Jews and Israel but much else besides.
His argument in brief is this: Civilizations are provoked by challenge. They never emerge automatically as a result of biology or geography. What happens is that a group or nation faces a problem—economic, military, or climatic—that threatens its continued existence. An individual or small group then comes up with an innovative solution, the inspiration or discovery that opens the way to prosperity or victory. This is the birth of the creative minority.
The majority, recognizing that the minority has opened the gate to success, proceeds to imitate it. The nation, now at an advantage relative to others, flourishes, eventually expanding to become an empire, or what Toynbee calls a “universal state.” But this never lasts forever.
Eventually the minority, having enjoyed success and power, ceases to be creative. It then becomes a dominant minority, in power not because of what it is doing now but because of what it did in the past. At this point, social breakdown begins. Since the minority can no longer justify its position, it alienates the majority, or what Toynbee calls the proletariat. There is schism. The internal majority may then find solace in religion by creating a universal church. The external proletariat, outsiders who were once in awe of the established power, now lose their fear of it and engage in acts of violence and terror, giving rise, in Toynbee’s phrase, to “a bevy of barbarian war-bands.” Time, says Toynbee, “works on the side of the barbarians.” When this happens, breakdown has become disintegration.
And so it goes. In Toynbee’s judgment, “of the twenty-one civilizations that have been born alive and have proceeded to grow, thirteen are dead and buried; . . . seven of the remaining eight are apparently in decline; and . . . the eighth, which is our own, may also have passed its zenith.”
There is, however, one possibility Toynbee does not consider. What if at least one creative minority had long ago seen what Toynbee and other historians would eventually realize? What if they had witnessed the decline and fall of the first great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria? What if they had seen how dominant minorities treat the masses, the proletariat, turning them into forced labor and conscripted armies so that rulers could be heroes in expansionist wars, immortalized in monumental buildings? What if they saw all of this as a profound insult to human dignity and a betrayal of the human condition?
What if they saw religion time and again enlisted to give heavenly sanction to purely human hierarchies? What if they knew that truth and power have nothing to do with one another and that you do not need to rule the world to bring truth into the world? What if they had realized that once you seek to create a universal state you have already begun down a road from which there is no escape, a process that ends in disintegration and decline? What if they were convinced that in the long run, the real battle is spiritual, not political or military, and that in this battle influence matters more than power?
What if they believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church? What if they believed that God is universal but that love—all love, even God’s love—is irreducibly particular? What if they were convinced that the God who created biodiversity cares for human diversity? What if they had seen the great empires conquer smaller nations, and impose their culture on them, and had been profoundly disturbed by this, as we today are disturbed when an animal species is driven to extinction by human exploitation and carelessness?
What if these insights led a figure like Jeremiah to reconceptualize the entire phenomenon of defeat and exile? The Israelites had betrayed their mission by becoming obsessed with politics at the cost of moral and spiritual integrity. So taught all the prophets from Moses to Malachi. Every time you try to be like your neighbors, they said, you will be defeated by your neighbors. Every time you worship power, you will be defeated by power. Every time you seek to dominate, you will be dominated. For you, says God, are my witnesses to the world that there is nothing sacred about power or holy about empires and imperialism.
Anation will always need power to survive, but only as a means, not an end. In its land, Israel was, is, and will be a tiny nation surrounded by great empires that seek its destruction. Its very survival will always be testimony to something profound: the ability of a small people to outlast great powers by the sheer force of its commitment to justice, compassion, and human dignity. Whether as a nation in the Middle East or as a dispersed people in exile, it will always be a creative minority that declines the invitation to become a dominant minority. It will manifest by its very being the difficult, counterintuitive truth that it is possible to worship the universal God without attempting to found a universal state or a universal church.
Such has been the mission of Jews throughout the ages. So it is no accident that Toynbee cannot understand them except as an anomaly and an anachronism, because they stand outside his structure and fail to fit his categories. Indeed, they challenge those very categories. So there is all the difference in the world between Jeremiah’s concept of a creative minority and Toynbee’s. Jeremiah calls on his minority to pray for the city and work for its prosperity. He does not ask them to convert the city by persuading its inhabitants to become Jewish any more than God asks Jonah to convert the people of Nineveh. He wants them to repent, not convert.
Within any great religious tradition, there is more than one voice. In Judaism there are the distinctive voices of the priest, the prophet, and the sage, and they generate different kinds of literature. Within Christianity likewise, because of the circumstances of its early history, there is a Hellenistic voice and a Hebraic one. The Hellenistic voice speaks about universal truths. The Hebraic voice speaks about the particularity of love and forgiveness and about the differences that make each of us unique and that make human life itself holy.
The Hellenistic strand, of which Arnold Toynbee was an extreme example, leads in the direction of a universal church and a universal state. After all, Hellenism had already before the birth of Christianity given rise to two of the greatest empires the world has ever known. The Hebraic strand leads to the recognition that a small nation can play the role of a creative minority within the human arena, seeking influence, not power, hoping to inspire but not to conquer or convert.
Despite its claim to tolerance, Hellenism largely dismissed the non-Hellenistic world as barbarian and could not begin to understand why Jews might want to stay loyal to their seemingly parochial identity. The only explanation Hellenistic writers could give was that Jews were misanthropes who hated humankind. Under both the Seleucids and the Romans, there were attempts to suppress Judaism altogether, with tragic consequences. Any attempt to found a universal state or a universal church will always collide with Judaism’s principled particularity, and that, more than any other factor, explains the persistence of anti-Semitism throughout the ages. Jews lived and sometimes died for the right to be different, and for the belief that unity in heaven creates diversity on earth.
There are moments in history, and we are living through one now, when something new is taking shape but we do not know precisely what, when we are caught, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” There have been many warning voices, from Alasdair MacIntyre to Niall Ferguson, suggesting that the West that dominated the world from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is in decline. Certainly it no longer commands the respect it once did. It no longer even respects itself as it once did. In his lecture Cardinal Ratzinger referred sharply to what he called Europe’s “pathological self-hatred.”
What has come to be called the Judeo-Christian ethic is under sustained assault from two quite different directions: from those who would eliminate religion altogether, and from those who seek to create a universal theocratic state that is neither Christian nor Jewish.
Three phenomena cry out for attention. First is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing currently being carried out against Christians throughout much of the Middle East and parts of Africa. I think of the Christians who have fled Syria, and of the eight million Copts in Egypt who live in fear; of the destruction of the last church in Afghanistan and of the million Christians who have left Iraq since the 1990s. Until recently, Christians represented 20 percent of the population of the Middle East; today, 4 percent. This is one of the great crimes of our time, but it has gone almost unreported and unprotested.
Second is the return of anti-Semitism to many parts of the world today, a complex anti-Semitism that includes Holocaust denial, the demonization of Jews, the return in modern guises of the blood libel and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the attempt in Europe to ban circumcision and shechitah, in effect making the practice of Judaism impossible—not to mention the anti-Zionism that leads otherwise good and decent people to call into question Israel’s right to exist, much as Toynbee did in his day. That this should have happened within living memory of the Holocaust is almost unbelievable.
The third concerns the West itself, which has already gone far down the road of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles of the sanctity of life and the sacred covenant of marriage. Instead, it places its faith in a series of institutions, none of which can bear the weight of moral guidance: science, technology, the state, the market, and evolutionary biology. Science tells us what is, not what ought to be. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The liberal democratic state, as a matter of principle, does not make moral judgments. The market gives us choices but does not tell us which choices to make. Evolutionary biology tells us why we have certain desires, but not which desires we should seek to satisfy and which not. It does not explain the unique human ability to make second-order evaluations.
The results lie all around us: the collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the failure of a shared morality to lift us out of the morass of individualism, hedonism, consumerism, and relativism. We know these things, yet we seem collectively powerless to move beyond them. We have reached the stage described by Livy, in his description of ancient Rome, where we can bear neither our vices nor their cure.
So the fateful question returns. Can civilizational decline be arrested? To which the great prophetic answer is “Yes.” For the prophets taught us that after every exile there is a return, after every destruction the ruins can be rebuilt, after every crisis there can be a rebirth, if—if we have faith in God’s faith in us.
But the Judeo-Christian ethic will not return until the fracture at its heart is healed, the fracture that is the long estrangement between Christians and Jews and that has caused so many persecutions and cost so many lives. I have hinted at the way this healing can happen—namely, if together we recover the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic voice, Jeremiah’s rather than Toynbee’s view of a creative minority. This means a willingness to be true to our tradition without seeking to impose it on others or judging others harshly because their way is not ours; a loyalty combined with humility that allows us to stay true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That is what it meant to seek the peace of the city and what it now means to seek the peace of the world.
European history has had three supreme Hellenistic moments: first Athens, then Rome, and then the Italian Renaissance, and we are living through the fourth. These were moments of supreme creativity, but each ended in decline and fall. Through it all, despite many tragedies, Jews and Judaism survived. Somehow, in a way I still find mysterious, the Hebraic presence found a way of defeating the law of entropy that causes civilizations to break down and eventually disintegrate.
I believe Jews and Christians can and should work together to promote the values that we share and that we believe truly are universal: the sanctity of life as the gift of God, the dignity of the human person as the image of God, the covenantal virtues of tzedek, umishpat, chesed, ve-rachamim; fairness, justice, love, and compassion. Let us stand together in defence of the ecology of human freedom: the loving, stable family uniting parents and children in a bond of loyalty and care and supportive communities built on the principle of chesed, or caritas.
The time has come for a new meeting of Christians and Jews, based simply on the fact that a church that sees itself as a creative minority in the Jeremiah sense has made space for the existence of Jews and Judaism in a way that was not fully articulated before.
One reason I feel empowered to say this is the courage the Catholic Church has shown in the wake of the Holocaust to seek a new way in Jewish–Christian relations, begun by Pope John XXIII, continued through Vatican II and particularly in Nostra Aetate, sustained by the healing visit of Pope John Paul II to Jerusalem, and given new impetus by Pope Benedict XVI’s use of the phrase “creative minority.”
The second reason is Pope Francis, whom I have not yet met but whose words I have followed closely. I was in Buenos Aires on the day he was elected pope, and I was struck by the high regard in which he was held by the Jewish community in Argentina, a community that has felt very vulnerable since the terrorist attacks it suffered in the 1990s. I was equally struck by the warmth of his dialogue—published as a book, On Heaven and Earth—with a local rabbi.
What moved me especially were the words he used in his open letter of September 11, 2013, to Eugenio Scalfari, editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. There he wrote: “God never abandoned his covenant with Israel, and notwithstanding their terrible suffering over the centuries, the Jewish people have kept their faith. For this, we will never be sufficiently grateful to them as a Church, but also as human beings.” This is language we have rarely heard from a pope before, and it embodies a truth we all too often forget: that if you are deeply loyal to your faith, you can respect the loyalty with which others stay loyal to theirs.
If we read the Book of Genesis carefully, we see that the great threat to humanity is sibling rivalry and what René Girard calls “mimesis,” the desire to have what your brother has rather than rest content with your own. There are four such scenes in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. A superficial reading suggests that sibling rivalry is inevitable, part of the human condition. Biologists tell us it exists in other species as well. But a deeper reading emerges if we focus simply on the last scene in each story in which we see the brothers together. In the case of Cain and Abel, Abel lies dead. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, they are standing together at their father’s grave. In the case of Jacob and Esau, they meet, embrace and go their separate ways. In the case of Joseph there is forgiveness and reconciliation, the first recorded instance of forgiveness in literature.
That last scene was memorably evoked by Pope John XXIII at the very beginning of this new chapter in Jewish–Catholic relations. Meeting a delegation of Jews in 1960, he said, in the words of the Bible itself, “I am Joseph your brother.” That, both in the biblical original and its recent reenactment, was an extraordinary scene of reconciliation. But there is in the Bible a second scene, several years later, when Joseph goes further and says to his brothers “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” What Joseph means is that by our acts in the present we can redeem the past. We can rescue fragments of light from deep darkness when we take our pain and use it to sensitize us to the pain of others—when we “save many lives.”
That second reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was the essential prelude to the drama of redemption that took place in the Book of Exodus and forever changed the history of the world. Might it not be that Jews and Catholics are being called to their own second reconciliation as they stand side by side, two creative minorities, seeking to save many lives, including those who, like the Egyptians in Joseph’s day and the Babylonians in Jeremiah’s, are not of our faith but are nonetheless made in the image of our God? Such a reconciliation might give new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, bringing us a little closer to Isaiah’s vision of a world in which “they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
True creative minorities fight the battles of tomorrow, not those of yesterday. The Judeo-Christian ethic will, in my view, be reborn the moment there is a feeling that something new and momentous has occurred to heal the oldest injured relationship in the history of the West. When that day comes, Jews and Christians will stand together in their fight against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East; in defence of the legitimacy of the State of Israel as the place where the Jewish nation was born in ancient times, and reborn in ours; and as joint witnesses to the power of an ethic of love, forgiveness, and the sanctity of human life, to offer a more compelling ground of human hope than the new barbarisms, secular and religious. Nothing less than the future of the West is at stake.