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How Judaism Changed the World


This week, we once again begin reading about the life and times of Judaism’s founding father – Avraham Avinu. This can understandably lead us to the question - what is Judaism? A religion? A faith? A way of life? A set of beliefs? A collection of commands? A culture? A civilization? In the following excerpts from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ new book, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, we find out that Judaism is all these and something much more. The book explores how Judaism is more than just a religion. It is a way of thinking about life, a constellation of ideas that has proven to be life-changing, not just for individuals at a personal level, but on a global scale as well.

Blog #1:

Judaism is a way of thinking, a constellation of ideas: a way of understanding the world and our place within it. Judaism contains life-changing ideas.

Too few people think about faith in these terms. We know the Torah contains 613 Commands. We know that Judaism has beliefs. Maimonides formulated them as the thirteen principles of Jewish faith. But these are not all that Judaism is, nor are they what is most distinctive about it.

Judaism was and remains a dazzlingly original way of thinking about life. Take one of my favorite examples: the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and its most important sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'’. This is arguably the most important sentence in the history of modern politics. It was what Abraham Lincoln was referring to in the opening of the Gettysburg Address when he said: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The irony of this sentence, as I have often noted, is that “these truths” are very far indeed from being “self-evident'’ They would have sounded absurd to Plato and Aristotle, both of whom believed that not all men are created equal and therefore they do not have equal rights. They were only self-evident to someone brought up in a culture that had deeply internalized the Hebrew Bible and the revolutionary idea set out in its first chapter, that we are each, regardless of color, culture, class, or creed, in the image and likeness of God. This was one of Judaism’s world-changing ideas.

We also see from this example that you can have an idea, formulate it in words, and declare it to the world, but you may still struggle to internalize it and you may have to fight to make it real. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner. Evidently, he did not include black people or slaves in his phrase “all men'’ Eighty-seven years later, when Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, America was fighting a civil war over just this issue.

However long it takes, though, ideas change the world. Some do so by leading to inventions. Think of some of the great ideas of recent times: the computer, the internet, search engines, social networking software, and smartphones. They all had to be thought before they could be made. As we say (talking about Shabbat and Creation): Sof maaseh, bemahshava tehila, which roughly means, first there needs to be the thought; only then can the idea be turned into reality by the deed. Shabbat itself, incidentally, is another one of Judaism’s world-changing ideas. But sometimes ideas change the world because they change us.

Ideas that Changed My Life

My own life has been changed by ideas, not always exclusively Jewish ones but ideas nonetheless. Here are three examples.

More than twenty years ago I started an organization, Jewish Continuity, whose aim was to transform the Jewish community by intensifying education at all levels and ages. It was successful, but it proved to be intensely controversial. The lay leader of the organization, Dr Michael Sinclair, was an extraordinary man who poured his money, energy, and time into the project, and was always thinking outside the box. At the height of the controversy I invited him to meet the rabbis of our community, so that they could express some of their concerns. The meeting did not go well. The rabbis were very candid but throughout it all, Dr Sinclair stayed beatifically calm. When the session was over I walked with him to his car, and apologized for the way he had been treated. He smiled at me, told me not to worry, and said, “This is a character-forming experience'’.

For me, at that moment, the impact of his response was electrifying, and it changed my life. Here was a man who had voluntarily given so much to our community, and all he had received in return was criticism. It reminded me of the famous remark, “No good deed goes unpunished'’. Throughout it all, though, he had remained serene because he had been able to step back from the immediacy of the moment and reframe it as an ordeal he had to go through to reach his destination, one that would ultimately make him stronger. Ever since, whenever I faced controversy or crisis, I said to myself, “That was a character-forming experience'’. And because I thought it, it was.

The second example: Like all too many people nowadays I have problems sleeping. I suffer from insomnia. I once mentioned this to my teacher, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, of blessed memory. His immediate response was: Could I teach him how to have insomnia? He would love, he told me, to be able not to sleep, and quoted to me the rabbinic dictum, “Moonlight was made only for the purpose of study” (Eiruvin 65a). What I saw as an affliction, he saw as an opportunity. By sleeping less, I could study more. It did not stop me suffering from sleeplessness (though I found it helped me relate better to the line from Psalms, “The guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps”), but it did allow me to reframe it. I was able better to use the sleepless hours.

For me, the most personally transformative of all beliefs has been the idea of hashgaha peratit, divine providence. Whenever something unexpected has happened in my life, I have always asked, “What is Heaven trying to tell me? How does it want me to respond? Given that this has happened, how shall I turn this moment into a blessing?”

I learned this through my early encounters with Chabad and with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I learned it a second time, from a different starting point, through my study of the work of Viktor Frankl, the man who survived Auschwitz and turned his experiences there into a new form of psychotherapy based on what he called “man’s search for meaning'’. His view was that we should never ask, “What do I want from life?” but always, “What does life want from me?”. It was with surprise and delight that I discovered that the Rebbe was himself an admirer of Viktor Frankl’s work. The result of that strong belief in providence, or as I sometimes put it, living-as-listening, has been to flood my life with meaning. For me, nothing just happens. It always comes with a call to respond in a particular kind of way. Ideas change lives.

Jewish Ideas

Jews contributed to the world some of its most transformative ideas. It’s worth listening to the testimony of non-Jewish writers on this subject.

The Catholic historian Paul Johnson wrote:

“To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption, of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind'’1

Another Catholic historian, Thomas Cahill, wrote:

“The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside – our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews'’2

The late William Rees-Mogg, also a Catholic, once wrote, “One of the gifts of Jewish culture to Christianity is that it has taught Christians to think like Jews,” adding, “Any modern man who has not learned to think as though he were a Jew can hardly be said to have learned to think at all'’3

By far the most fascinating judgment, though, comes from one of Judaism’s sharpest critics, Friedrich Nietzsche:

Consider Jewish scholars in this light: All of them have a high regard for logic, that is for compelling agreement by force of reasons; they know with that they are bound to win, even where they encounter race and class prejudices. Incidentally, Europe owes the Jews no small thanks for making people think more logically and for establishing cleanlier intellectual habits – nobody more so than the Germans, who are a lamentably déraisonnable race who to this day are still in need of having their “heads washed” first. Wherever Jews have won influence they have taught men to make finer distinctions, more rigorous inferences, and to write in a more luminous and cleanly fashion; their task was ever to bring a people “to listen to raison'’ 4

This is a remarkable tribute from what in British politics they call “the leader of the Opposition."

One might think that the ideas Judaism introduced into the world have become part of the common intellectual heritage of humankind, at least of the West, and that they are by now, as Jefferson said, “self-evident.” Yet this is not the case. Some of them have been lost over time; others the West never fully understood. That is what I hope to explore in these studies, for two reasons.

The first was suggested by Nietzsche himself. He wanted the West to abandon the Judaeo-Christian ethic in favor of what he called “the will to power'’ This was a disastrous mistake. There is nothing original in the will to power. It has existed since the days of Cain, and its price is perennial bloodshed. But Nietzsche was right in one respect: the great alternative is Judaism. The choice humankind faces in every age is between the idea of power and the power of ideas. Judaism has always believed in the power of ideas, and it remains the only non-violent way to change the world.

The second is neither political nor philosophical but personal. Some ideas really are life-changing. If we change the way we think, we can change the way we feel, which changes the way we act, which changes the person we become. Ideas change lives, and great ideas help us to courage, to happiness, and to lives filled with blessing.

  1. History of the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), 585.
  2. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Talese/Anchor Books, 1998), 240-41.
  3. The Reigning Error: The Crisis Of World Inflation (London: Hamilton, 974), 11.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated with commentary by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 974). 291

Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, along with many more titles by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, is published by Maggid Books and is available from

Blog #2:

Now for a totally totally different topic. In case you missed it, news that Israeli actress Gal Gadot will play Cleopatra in a new film has ignited a storm of protests. Critics accuse Gadot of perpetrating “genocide” and cultural appropriation by planning to play the ancient Egyptian queen. A prominent Pakistani journalist blasted, “Your country steals Arab land and now you're stealing their movie roles…” Some are claiming that a Jew cannot play Cleopatra, and the role should go to an African or Arab actress instead.

All I can say about that is - nonsense.

However, this brouhaha has led Dr. Yvette Alt Miller to bridge the relationship between Cleopatra and the Jews of her time. In doing so, she has come up with seven little known facts about Cleopatra and the Jewish communities she ruled. I thought you might find it interesting.  

Cleopatra was a complex figure. Cleopatra VII (there were many Queen Cleopatras in Egypt – the final queen is the most famous) lived 69-30 BCE and reigned during a tumultuous time in Egyptian history. Her political life touched on many regions, including far away Israel and Rome. Cleopatra didn’t rule in a vacuum – she was a real woman, who played a central role in Middle Eastern politics. 

Civil War – and Jewish Allies

Cleopatra VII was born into the Macedonian Greek family that ruled Egypt in 69 BCE. (Cleopatra wasn’t African – though she did distinguish herself by becoming the only monarch to bother learning the Egyptian language.) She became queen at age 18, reigning with her brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she later married.

Egypt at the time was riven by intrigue and nearly bankrupt after years of civil wars. Under Cleopatra’s rule, Egypt also became embroiled in Rome’s civil wars, openly siding with the Roman dictator Julius Caesar against his enemy Pompey. In the year 48 BCE, Cleopatra’s brother exiled her: Cleopatra formed a military alliance (and a storied romance) with Julius Caesar, who helped restore her to Egypt’s throne.

Egypt at the time had a thriving Jewish community, and many of Cleopatra VII’s most ardent supporters were Egyptian Jews. 

Historian Stacy Schiff, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her masterful biography Cleopatra: A Life (Little Brown and Company, New York: 2010) notes that in First Century BCE Egypt, Jews “were river guards, police officers, army commanders, and high-ranking officials” and ardent supporters of Cleopatra’s line of succession. Egyptian Jews “numbered among Cleopatra’s supporters in the desert in 48. And they had fought for her during the Alexandrian War (in 47 BCE), at the end of which Caesar had granted them citizenship.”

Hoping to Rule Over the Land of Israel

Once Julius Caesar assured Cleopatra’s position on the throne of Egypt, Cleopatra tried to restore her kingdom to encompass the larger territories that her ancestors had formerly ruled. Cleopatra also needed help to fill the nation’s empty coffers. She asked Julius Caesar to help her secure the port city of Joppa (today Jaffa, a beautiful neighborhood in the southern part of Tel Aviv) as part of Egypt. Julius Caesar refused, instead granting Cleopatra the island of Cyprus.

In 47 BCE, after visiting Egypt, Julius Caesar left three Roman legions in the Egyptian city of Alexandria to help ensure Cleopatra’s security on the throne and made his way back to Rome. Historian Dr. Joann Fletcher notes that at the time relations with the region's Jewish communities were uppermost in Caesar’s mind.

“Sailing out of Alexandria’s Great Harbor past the palaces, the Pharos and the colossus of Isis,” Dr. Fletcher describes; “Caesar did not go straight back to Rome. Needing to shore up Jewish support for his forthcoming struggles against Pompeius’ sons, he sailed along the coast to Acre (in present day Israel’s north) to reward Pompeius’ former supporters Antipatros and Hyrcanus for their valuable help… As Rome’s representative, he confirmed their regime, excused them all tribute, allowed them to rebuild Jerusalem and gave them the port of Joppa (Jaffa) which Cleopatra had wanted herself as part of her plans to regain the Ptolemies’ former territories.” (Quoted in Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend by Dr.Joann Fletcher, Harper Collins, New York: 2008). The empires and kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean were incredibly diverse and complex, and the region’s Jewish communities were key players in maintaining support for local rulers.

Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and a Golden Age for Jews

Cleopatra was with Julius Caesar in Rome when he was murdered there on March 15, 44 BCE, by a group of senators who objected to his tyrannical rule. The line of succession following Julius Caesar’s death was exceedingly complicated. His great nephew (and adopted son) Octavian emerged as his most likely heir. (Indeed, he would eventually reign – considered a living god by his followers – as Rome’s first emperor, from 27 BCE to 14 CE). In the year after Julius Caesar’s death, however, the Roman General Mark Antony vied for power, and reigned alongside Octavian as part of Rome’s Second Triumvirate for a time, until he broke with Octavian and started a civil war in 31 BCE.

Seeking access to Egypt’s fabulous wealth, Antony turned to Cleopatra – they formed an alliance as well as a storied romance together. Antony and Cleopatra travelled to Egypt, and united in fighting Octavian’s forces in Rome. During this period Cleopatra used to dress like the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Antony called himself and dressed up as the Greek god Dionysus. The image of these two monarchs haunts western literature and imagination: “Eternity was in our lips and eyes,” Cleopatra famously utters in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. The pair was a larger than life couple.

This didn’t occur in fiction: Antony and Cleopatra were real life rulers, and their actions had consequences for real people – including the sizable Jewish community in Egypt at the time. “The Jews linked Cleopatra’s rule with a golden age,” notes historian Stacy Schiff. The Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, a museum dedicated to Jewish Diaspora communities, estimates that in the First Century of the Common Era – just a hundred years after Cleopatra's Rule – up to a million Jews lived in Egypt; it was one of the largest concentrations of Jewish life in the world, and one that was relatively secure, open and free.

Hosting King Herod

In the year 39 BCE, Cleopatra VII would host another distinguished visitor: one of the Roman Tetrarchs, or governors, of the province of Judea – present day Israel – named Herod. Three years later, Herod would be promoted to King of Judea by the Roman empire and would terrorize his Jewish subjects. He was a paranoid, brutal ruler who murdered many of the leading Jewish religious figures and rabbis of the day. Yet in 39 BCE, that was still a long way off and Herod entered Egypt as a harried refugee.

Nomadic Parthian fighters had entered the land of Israel, harrying Herod and his allies. Herod escaped Jerusalem and fled with his family to the fortress he’d built on top of a mountain called Masada, which still stands today. With few friends, Herod had no place to go nearby, and travelled to Egypt, where he threw himself on the hospitality of Cleopatra, a fellow client ruler of the Roman empire. Both Herod and Cleopatra had formerly been loyal to Pompey, and Herod's father had been an ally of Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic royal family.

“Herod entertaining companion, glib and keen, fanatical in his loyalties, expert in his displays of deference,” notes historian Stacy Schiff. Cleopatra asked Herod to take part in an invasion of Ethiopia with her, but the Roman Tetrarch declined. After a lengthy visit, Cleopatra evidently wished Herod to leave, and gave him a galley ship to convey him back to Judea. It was winter, however, and the Mediterranean seas were rough. Herod shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus, only arriving back in Judea later on.

Visiting – and Fleeing – Jerusalem

In the year 36 BCE, Cleopatra was at the height of her power. She’d successfully restored much of her father’s empire and decided to take a trip to her newly acquired territories. Cleopatra travelled in a grand procession with many attendants. With her love of luxury and flair for the dramatic, it must have been a sight to behold. She travelled through modern day Syria, south into present day Lebanon, then into the land of Israel to visit King Herod, her erstwhile friend and ally. Herod was now the Roman Empire’s client “King” of Judea and was letting his bloodthirsty nature have free reign. Cleopatra barely escaped with her life.

Cleopatra’s territory extended all the way to the Israeli city of Jericho, where Mark Antony had succeeded in seizing territory for her. Cleopatra now owned lush groves of balsam trees, which once had belonged to Herod. She leased the land back to him for an annual rent of 200 talents. Now, on her visit, she collected cuttings, ordering them to be taken back to Egypt and planted there, so that she could have her own supply of incense with which to supply Egypt’s pagan sun-worshipping temples.

Taking the cuttings seems to have aroused Herod’s anger, but it was Cleopatra’s open alliance with Herod’s brother-in-law that truly enraged the brutal king. Herod was born into an Idumean Arab family: he wanted to serve as the Cohen Gadol, or High Priest, in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, but was not able to do so because of his non-Jewish birth. Cleopatra called for Herod to appoint his brother-in-law Aristobulus, a descendent of the Jewish Hasmonean royal family, as High Priest instead.

Herod feared that Cleopatra was plotting against him and began to plan her assassination. (Herod also planned the murder of his own wife and children, which he carried out – effectively ending the Hasmonean bloodline and ensuring his own continuation as king.) Cleopatra got wind of Herod’s plans, and fled back to Egypt with her entourage. Instead, Herod tried to destroy her reputation, spreading the rumor that she’d tried to seduce him and seize the kingdom of Judea.

Cleopatra in the Talmud

Cleopatra is mentioned twice in the Talmud. (While there were several Queen Cleopatras in Egyptian history, Cleopatra VII lived closest in time to the age of the Talmud’s sages, and seems to be the Cleopatra who is referenced.). One of the Talmud’s passages seems to fit very well with what historians already know about Cleopatra’s casual cruelty, and the spirit of scientific inquiry for which she was also known.

The passage involves gruesome medical experiments that “Cleopatra, Queen of Alexandria” carried out on condemned prisoners. “Since her maidservants were sentenced to death by the government, she took advantage of the opportunity and experimented on them…” (Talmud Niddah 30b). “Given the preponderance of medical professionals at court,” historian Stacy Schiff notes, the Talmud’s description of Cleopatra’s medical experimentation rings true. Yet the sages of the Talmud rejected Cleopatra’s gruesome experiments. After hearing about the Egyptian queen’s medical hypotheses, the Talmud recounts that Rabbi Yishmael called her a “fool”.

Cleopatra’s Death and Legacy

In 31 BCE, Cleopatra and Mark Antony joined forces to engage Ocatvian’s navy in a sea battle at Actium, off the coast of Greece. Cleopatra’s and Mark Antony’s ships were defeated, and the royal couple retreated to Egypt. Octavian followed them, waging war on them in Egypt. Octavian conquered Alexandria in the year 30 BCE and turned Egypt into a province in Rome’s vast Empire.

Facing utter ruin, legend has it that Antony and Cleopatra ended their own lives, Antony by stabbing himself and Cleopatra by embracing a poisonous snake. Cambridge University Professor Mary Beard doubts their ending matched the legends that soon sprung up. “Suicide by snake bite is a hard feat to pull off,” Prof. Beard notes in her history of the Roman Empire SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Liveright Publishing, New York: 2015). She believes it's more likely that Octavian killed Cleopatra.

“The luxury of Cleopatra’s court was wildly exaggerated” after Cleopatra’s death, Dr. Beard explains, “and relatively innocent occasions in Alexandria were twisted out of all recognition.” Much of what we know about Cleopatra and Mark Antony was written by the Roman poet Plutarch, who exaggerated Cleopatra’s Eastern exoticism for the benefit of Roman readers.

This is the legacy that’s come down to us: Cleopatra as an Eastern potentate, mysterious and sensual. Yet dismissing Cleopatra as some sort of cartoonish exotic Middle Eastern princess diminishes her real life historical role. Cleopatra VII was a remarkable woman living in a consequential, complicated era. She was the product of her times and played a vital role in the ancient Middle East. She engaged with Jewish communities and ensured that Egypt’s Jewish population became one of the ancient world’s most free and secure.

Instead of sparking arguments over who should depict her in a movie, it would be wonderful if the forthcoming blockbuster about Cleopatra’s life led us to learn more about this remarkable queen – and the complicated, real times she and her contemporaries inhabited.