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Jewish Contributions to Civilization: An Estimate

by Joseph Jacobs

Bibliographic information

TitleJewish Contributions to Civilization: An Estimate
AuthorJoseph Jacobs
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2002


Joseph Jacobs was a thinker and writer of unusual breadth and versatility. Among the subjects to which he gave his attention as early as 1886 was the comparative distribution of Jewish ability, as the result of researches he had undertaken in association with Sir Francis Galton. The present work was the natural outcome of these studies which appeared in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute and were afterwards republished as Studies in Jewish Statistics, 1891.

Dr. Jacobs at the time intended to write a comprehensive work, entitled “The Jewish Race—A Study in National Character,” in sixty-seven chapters, the outline of which was printed privately in London, 1889. Unfortunately he never went any further with this plan. Similarly his idea of an even more ambitious work, “European Ideals—A Study in Origins,” did not go beyond the outline which appeared in 1911. It was perhaps his occupation with this general subject which again turned his thought to Jewish contributions to European civilization. This subject engaged the attention of Dr. Jacobs during his last years, and, while he did not live to complete the work, it is fortunate that he at least left the first of the three books he had in mind in such form that it can be published without change. One of its chapters appeared in the first volume of the Menorah Journal, December, 1915 (pp. 298–308), under the title “Liberalism and the Jews.”

The careful reader will notice that the Introduction and various parts of the book show the polished style of the master, while here and there the absence of his revising hand is keenly felt. Nevertheless, the brilliant mind, the wide reading, and the broad information of the author are manifest everywhere, and his calmness and objectivity of judgment will make this, his last work, a valuable contribution, not only to Jewish literature, but to the history of modern civilization.

Joseph Jacobs was not an apologete—his wish was to point out the share of the Jews in the world’s progress. His occupation with the general subject had convinced him that the part played by the Jews had never been adequately acknowledged. On the other hand, he was careful to bring forward no claims which could not be substantiated by solid facts. It is a matter of deepest regret that he was not to finish his task and to bring the later chapters to the high level of the Introduction. Let us be sincerely thankful for what we have.

As stated in his Introduction, Dr. Jacobs had planned to divide this work, dealing with Jewish contributions to European civilization, into three books. In the first book, entitled “Jews of the Past,” he intended to dwell upon Jewish achievement in the various fields of research during the past two thousand years and to show that the Jews have made themselves a constituent element of that civilization to which they are heirs equally with other nations, creeds, and peoples. The second book was to be devoted to the evaluation of the contributions of individual Jews to modern European culture in the immediate past and present. The third book was to determine the value of Jews in the modern cultural State and thus meet the question raised by the modern higher anti-Semites who, in consonance with their medieval ideals, are opposed to Jewish influence in the Church-State which they would like to see revived.

When, in January, 1916, Dr. Jacobs died, this task had been but partially accomplished. Book I was practically ready for publication, though, had the author lived, he would undoubtedly have subjected many parts to a thorough revision. Of Book II he left notes, which would have served him as an outline. These notes show the masterly fashion and the thoroughness with which he had intended to treat this important subject. Nothing has been found of Book III.

Book I, being complete in itself, is herewith offered to the public, with the express statement that it has not been altered in word or fact. The author embodied in it a wealth of knowledge and information, accumulated during a busy and energetic life, and the arguments are marshaled with the brilliancy characteristic of Dr. Jacobs. It may indeed be said that the question raised by the higher anti-Semites, which was to be dealt with in the last book, has been adequately answered in the present volume.

About the Author 

Joseph Jacobs ---

Although Joseph Jacobs was a prominent scholar, literary critic, and folklorist during his lifetime, he is perhaps best remembered today for his collections of traditional legends and fairy tales. His 1890 book English Fairy Tales introduced children to such old favorites as "Jack and the Beanstalk," "The Story of the Three Little Pigs," and "The History of Tom Thumb" as well as lesser-known stories and poems. Containing romantic legends such as "Childe Rowland," heroic tales such as `st. George and the Dragon," and impishly humorous stories such as "Tom Tit Tot," Jacobs`s English Fairy Tales is "one of the richest and most varied single volumes in English folk literature," Mary E. Shaner commented in Writers for Children. Jacobs went on to compile five more volumes of English, Celtic, Indian, and European folktales and stories, as well as a version of The Fables of Aesop. Not only have these retellings remained popular with children over the last century, but writers and illustrators today use Jacobs`s texts as foundations for their own versions.

Jacobs was the first writer to prepare folktales specifically for an audience of children. As a result, Zena Sutherland and May Hill Arbuthnot recounted in Children and Books, "Jacobs omitted incidents that were unduly coarse or brutal, adapted the language somewhat, especially dialect, and even deleted or changed an occasional episode." As a member of Britain`s Folk-Lore Society, however, Jacobs "was scrupulous in recording these alterations," so that scholars could check the sources of each tale and what changes were made from the original. Each of these "Notes and References" sections were prefaced by amusing illustrations that cautioned children against reading them: "Man or woman, boy or girl, that reads what follows three times shall fall asleep an hundred years."

Although he considered himself merely a compiler of tales, Jacobs brought considerable skill to his retellings. Shaner noted that in choosing which stories to tell and what language to use, Jacobs had plenty of "opportunity to display real literary and creative talent." In Celtic Fairy Tales, for instance, Jacobs "manages to give the language of the characters regional flavor without slipping into parody or stereotype, even in the comic tales." And almost a century after English Fairy Tales first appeared, a Bulletin of the Center for Children`s Books critic like

















IN the preceding chapter we have seen that the fundamental conceptions of European civilization —the notion of social progress through righteousness and the solemnization of life through the idea of personal communion with the divine—have been derived both by Jews and Gentiles from the Old Testament, which thus becomes a spiritual bond between them. But it is not alone merely the outlines of this civilization which are common to Jew and Gentile; many of the details are identical, and for the same reason, because derived from the folkways of ancient Israel. During the first fifteen Christian centuries the culture of Christendom was, in large measure, created by the Church, and both in creed and ritual the undivided Western Church, in its beginnings and largely throughout its career, was Jewish in form and tone.

This is seen both in ritual and in institutions, as well as in doctrine. The Common Prayer, both of Church and Synagogue, is based upon the Psalter, “the hymn-book of the Second Temple.” When one speaks of a Te Deum or a Magnificat, a Miserere, or In exitu Israel, the reference is to the Psalms of the Vulgate as used in the Roman Church. The Trisagion of the Greek Church is merely the Kedushah of the Jewish service, itself derived from the angelic respond of Is. 6, 3. The central function of the Church service, the mass (or in Protestant churches the communion), derives its “elements,” in the last resort, from the wine and unleavened bread used at the home service of the Passover, and Bickell has shown that the original ritual of the mass is derived from that of the Seder service in Jewish homes on the first night of the Passover. The First and Second Lessons of the Church, derived respectively from the Old and New Testaments, are simply an imitation of the practice of the Synagogue to read sections from the Law and the Prophets every sabbath. There are even indications that at an early stage the same passages were read in both places of worship at the same period of the year.

Churches are “oriented” because synagogues had their holy ark against the eastern walls so that worshippers might face towards Jerusalem. The eastern position of the priest, over which such violent controversies have arisen in the Church, is due to the same cause. The vestments of priests and bishops can be traced back to those of the Israelite priests. The font of baptism is immediately derived from the Mikweh, or ritual bath of Jewish practice, though now only used in the Church for new-born infants. The Church altar represents, in position and significance, the holy of holies of the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple. The position of the pulpit recalls that of the “Bemah,” from which the Jewish homilist of talmudic times used to utter his expository or consoling words. Anointing was a Jewish custom long before it was a Christian one; indeed, the word “Messiah” simply means “anointed,” as does its Greek equivalent “Christ.” The notion of church asylum is clearly derived from that of the cities of refuge in the Levitical scheme.

The Church owes nearly as much of its institutions to Jewish example as of ritual and ceremonial. Thus Hatch has shown that, in all probability, the bishop derives from the gabbai or treasurer or “overseer” (hence the name “Episcopus”) of the synagogue. One may even conjecture that the peculiar form of the episcopal blessing with two erect fingers is merely a modification of the priestly blessing with hand uplifted and the fingers separated in pairs. The elders of the Church are but a duplicate of the elders of the Synagogue. Visiting the sick was one of the recognized modes of Jewish corporal charity long before it became a characteristic of Christian philanthropy. It is still a matter of dispute whether hospitals did not originate among Jews. But there can be little doubt that the charity boxes of churches came from the same practice in the synagogues. Simon ben Shetah established religious schools among Jews long before there is any trace of Sunday-schools among Christians. The whole method of ordination of priests is a direct descendant of the Semikah or laying on of hands of Jewish practice, which gave the power to “bind and loose” just as in the Christian Church. The missionary character of early Christianity was only a repetition of the missionary spirit of the Judaism of the time which Harnack grants was a preparation for the Christian mission. Even the Canon Law of the Church has not been without influence from Jewish sources. To quote but one example: The tables of forbidden relations are, in the main, derived from the Levitical laws about incest, and it is well known that the objection to marrying a deceased wife’s sister was based upon Leviticus 19.

But it is not alone in the externalities of ritual and institutions that this dependence of Christianity on Judaism can be traced; the fundamental ideas of the theologies of both religions are practically identical. “The Kingdom of Heaven” is so essentially a Jewish conception that few outsiders, who use the expression, are aware of its exact meaning. So scrupulous were Jews in avoiding the use of the word “God” that they utilized various euphemisms in its stead, among which the favorite expression was “Heaven”; the “Kingdom of Heaven” is, therefore, merely the Jewish equivalent for the Kingdom of God. It has been well said that the chief ideas that ruled the Middle Ages can be traced back to Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, which is only a Latin form of the Jewish conception of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Dr. Tennant has developed several interesting treatises showing that the Christian notion of Original Sin is almost entirely derived from Jewish conceptions, though it must be allowed that it has received much more elaborate development in Church doctrine. This is probably due to the fact that in Judaism this rather harsh and onesided conception was modified by the parallel doctrine of what the Rev. S. Levy has aptly termed Original Virtue, by which the offspring of virtuous parents have a kind of super-added merit; the special Hebrew term is “the merit of the fathers.” As a counterpart to these notions which are, after all, only the theological counterpart of the biological notion of heredity, Jewish theology, even in Bible times, has developed the idea of God’s Grace as vouchsafed to his special favorites, though here again it must be allowed that Christian theologians have expanded the notion into innumerable side-channels which come to a head, not alone in Calvinism, but in the Jansenism of Port Royal. But the original germ is there in the Synagogue. The Fatherhood of God is a commonplace of Hebrew thought, nor is the analogous conception of the Son of God altogether alien to Jewish notions. The idea of a Chosen People, so obnoxious to many Christians, was taken over bodily by early Christians, who, as Harnack has shown, regarded the world as created for their sakes, just as Jews had previously done.

The close connection of Church and Synagogue in matter of belief is nowhere more strikingly shown than in their eschatology. As was mentioned in the last chapter, the Old Testament shows little interest in the life after death, but between the two Testaments the Jews acquired from the Persians a deep interest in the future of the soul, as well as a whole system of angelology and demonology connected with this conception. The vague conception of Sheol as the abode of the dim ghosts of the dead became intensified into the notion of Gehenna (itself a Jerusalem locality where garbage was burned) which, in contrast to the Persian Paradise, was regarded as the abode of sinful souls. The resurrection of the dead at the day of last judgment thus became added to Jewish hopes and fears; the Angel of Death became a prominent feature of Jewish mythology. All this was taken over by the Church, which even improved the occasion by emphasizing the terrors of Hell. The deepened sense of the consequences of sin, which was thus brought about led to further developments of the doctrine of Atonement, already conspicuous in Old Testament theology. Mr. Montefiore has pointed out that the notion of Repentance, as the necessary preliminary to Atonement, is characteristically Jewish and that in this regard Jesus was more Jewish than “Christian.” Confession of sin as a proof of Repentance is again a Jewish practice which was developed by the Church into one of its most characteristic institutions. At the same time was developed a notion of mental diseases being produced by demons which could be exorcised by powerful personalities and their disciples, a notion which was taken up in its entirety in the New Testament. The use of charms and amulets developed from this notion both among Jews and Christians.

It is needless to remark that the whole notion of a Messiah is Jewish in origin, as the name indeed indicates. The main question between the two creeds was whether the often discordant elements, which could be discerned in the biblical utterances about the Messiah, were “fulfilled” in Jesus; but there was never any doubt about the origin of the idea itself. Jews, for the most part, laid stress upon the victorious aspects of the Redeemer; Christians, for obvious reasons, emphasized his identity with the Suffering Servant of the Lord. As it turned out, the latter “prophecy” was destined to be more literally fulfilled by the people of Israel than by the Man Jesus.

In considering the claims of the Man of Nazareth, Christian theologians find more and more difficulty in distinguishing the doctrines he puts forth from those to be deduced from the Old Testament or from its Apocrypha. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Fatherhood of God are, as we have seen, commonplaces of older Hebrew thought. Jesus himself bases his whole system on the Shema‘,and the command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, taken from Leviticus 19, 18, or in so many words, on ethical monotheism which is the fundamental Jewish position. The Golden Rule, it is well known, had been put forth, though in a negative and more practical form, before the time of Jesus by Hillel in the mere enunciation of the principle; and it may be here remarked that both had been anticipated by Confucius. The Sermon on the Mount has been shown to be a rechaûffée of current Pharisaic doctrine, while the Lord’s Prayer is a cento from the Jewish ‘Amidah, being a shortened form of five of the original six of the “Eighteen Blessings,” and one of its phrases, “deliver us from the evil one,” is only comprehensible by reference to the special Jewish conception of the Yezer ha-Ra‘, or Evil Inclination. The notion that Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath was not original with Jesus, and his whole attitude toward the Law was by no means unusual at his time. He risked and earned death in order to fulfil the commands of the Torah, to keep the Passover in Jerusalem. No wonder that he himself declared that he had come not to annul but to fulfil the Law, and modern theologians can only point vaguely to his personality as the sole differentia of primitive Christianity from developed Judaism.

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