Philip Goodman’s Shavuot Anthology, like all of his holiday anthologies, is worth its weight in twenty dollar bills. It is, unfortunately, out of print and available only used online.
The reading I selected today is from a more modern writer, Ludwig Lewisohn (1882-1955), professor of comparative literature at Brandeis.
What I like about this short essay is the clear way it presents the value of revealed Torah commandments for the progress of human history. It is not uncommon at our synagogue for us to reflect on the question, “Where would we be without Torah and the rest of the Bible?” What if God had left us orphans in this strange universe with no hope of ever seeing a better world?
Well, Lewisohn develops it in his own way. It is a fitting reading for this second day of Israel’s consecration before the revelation at Sinai. Tomorrow is the anniversary of that great speaking which changed Israel and the world forever:
The Jewish people made its historic appearance in quite a normal fashion. Yet the pattern of history is violently abnormal. It never flourished greatly in terms of power. It knew defeat and desperate catastrophe over and over again. Yet from each historic grave it re-arose; it survived; it lived to reaffirm its changeless character and historic function.
What was the source within history of that power of survival and renewal which has taken place from age to age down to that birth of the state of Israel from the ashes of the six million martyrs, an event which from the memory of the youngest Jew now living and seeking to interpret his destiny and its meaning? So far as human insight extends, the source of that perpetual life and perpetual power of rebirth must be, cannot but be, in that transcendent experience at the foot of Sinai which welded a group of rude clans and fugitives from oppression into a people whose fundamental character was stamped and molded then.
Petulant men with minds frozen thirty years ago will call this explanation “mystical” in the illiterate usage of that word as anything beyond the grasp of the most mechanical and empty understanding. Mature and unbiased reflection will show that this explanation and this alone, precisely this, like any respectable hypothesis in the sciences, serves to account for the historic phenomena which no one denies. This hypothesis alone works. It alone explains the character, the history, the ever-recurrent fate of the Jewish people.
-From Philip Goodman, Shavuot Anthology, p.113. Originally from What Is This Jewish Heritage?, B’nai B’rith, 1954.