The Dread of the Jews

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by David P. Goldman

“There shall no man be able to stand before you: for the Lord your God shall lay the fear of you and the dread of you upon all the land that ye shall tread upon, as he hath said unto you,” Parsha Eikev concludes (Devarim 11). The Hebrew word that the King James Version translates as “fear,” pachad, is more akin in Biblical Hebrew to “dread” or “horror” – existential fear, rather than fear of a particular thing. Jacob refers to Hashem (Bereishit 31:53) as the “dread [or ‘horror’] of Isaac,” who was bound on the altar at God’s command. In Job 4:12-15, Eliphaz declares, “His word came to me in stealth/My ear caught a whisper of it. In thought-filled visions of the night,/When deep sleep falls on men/Dread [pachad] and trembling came upon me,/Causing all my bones to quake with fright.” 

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik comments on Bereishit 31:53, “Man has never regained complete peace with God after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Even the greatest personalities could not free themselves from that sinister feeling of tremor and terror. God claims the entirety of the human being. God gave a son to his chosen one, Abraham—and demanded him back. God is called Pachad Yitzhak, the horror of Isaac, for the latter’s destiny was interwoven with that of Divine ‘animosity’ at the Akeidah [Binding].”

Only in Devarim (and in Esther 8:17), though, does pachad qualify anything else other than God. Here the dread of God transfers to his people, Israel. Humankind stands in dread of God’s holiness, and God’s holiness as embodied in Israel inspires pachad as well. What is the source of this dread? Man is mortal and condemned to die; God is eternal. But God has invested the people Israel with his eternity. Israel’s eternity confronts the peoples of the world with their mortality. We horrify the Gentiles, not because of what we do, but because of who we are. 

This pachad which God has laid upon us is the inexhaustible source of anti-Semitism. We are the last living connection to the prehistoric world, a portent of mortality to the peoples of the world. “The love of the peoples for their own nationhood,” said Franz Rosenzweig, “is sweet and grave with the presentiment of death.” It is also the inspiration for Christian philo-Semitism. 

I first felt this pachad in January 1988. I had business in Venice, then one of the important listening-posts of the Cold War. My interlocutor had an insider’s reading of Soviet thinking. I had a free morning, and visited an exhibition of Soviet archaeology at the Ducal Palace in Venice. It was a dreary display of the sad remnants of civilizations that had disappeared into the sands of Central Asia millennia ago and left behind nothing but a few fragments, a crumbled statue, a bronze figure, a sandal-strap or a pottery shard. Of their hymns, war chants, lullabies and love songs, we know nothing; their heroic stands and impassioned loves, their jokes and boasts, have vanished into the ether of time. For every culture of which we know anything of substance, there are a thousand who have left not even a memory.

Standing before a glass case showing a forlorn relic half-buried in sand, I was overcome by pachad while contemplating the forever-lost hopes of unknown peoples that had been swallowed by the sands of Central Asia.

That moment of pachad was a conversion experience. In all of human history, I began to grasp,  there was one and only one hard fact that incontrovertibly attested to the intervention of the Maker of Heaven in the affairs of humankind. That was the four-thousand-year history of Israel. It isn’t a matter of revelation, but ordinary understanding. As Franz Rosenzweig wrote, the Jew doesn’t have to believe; he simply is. The Jew is tasked not with belief in the sense of imagination, for example, the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The Hebrew word emunah connotes “faithfulness” or “loyalty” more than imaginative belief.

I have heard Pat Robertson and any number of other evangelicals quote the apocryphal tale about Frederick the Great of Prussia, who asked his court clergyman for a proof of the existence of God. “Your Majesty, the Jews,” the preacher supposedly said.

There is no way to palliate the utter strangeness of Israel. That explains, I believe, the remarkable success of the Chabad movement. Only 12% of American Jewish attend services at least weekly, a 2013 Pew survey reported, but 37% of all American Jews have attended Chabad functions of some kind, and 16% do so frequently. The Reform and Conservative wings of Judaism tried to make the synagogue look more like Gentile institutions; Chabad members wear full beards, tzitzit and fedoras, and silk gaberdines on Shabbat, and observe Jewish law strictly without demanding that secular Jews who attend their services or meals do the same. Their proud display of a separatist lifestyle conveys the message that the Jews are a people apart. Secular Jews who will not yet accept the yoke of Torah go to Chabad for the experience of what it means to be Jewish, and ignore the guitar-strumming social justice warriors of the liberal Jewish denominations I have deep differences with Chabad, but one would have to blind to ignore its contribution to Jewish peoplehood. We should also keep in mind the late Rebbe’s answer to the question of whether another Holocaust is possible: Morgen in der Fruehe (“First thing in the morning”).

The vocation of the Jews is not to fix the world’s problems by translating the Torah into political prescriptions: It is to stand witness to the intervention of the Maker of Heaven in human history. When secular Jews try to translate Judaism into secular concepts, what is lost in translation is Judaism itself.

Israel’s appearance as a nation brought ruin to Egypt, then the world’s most populous and powerful empire, and pachad to the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, as in Shemot 15: “The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; terror and dread [אֵימָ֙תָה֙ וָפַ֔חַד] will fall on them.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil, an apostate from Judaism who refused the rites of the Catholic Church because it adhered to the Hebrew Bible, thought the biblical God a mass murderer because he killed the first-born of Egypt. Secularizing Jewish universalists apologize for this by emphasizing the benefits that Judaism brought to civilization, but that is antithetical to the spirit as well as the letter of Judaism. It is forbidden to sacrifice the individual for the collective; a city under siege may not buy its survival by handing over specified individuals to the enemy. Every life has the value of the whole of humanity. All the constitutions of all of the world’s democracies may not be bought with the tears of a single Egyptian mother weeping over her dead baby. Weil’s indictment of the Maker of Heaven is terrible, and as far as it goes, compelling. Years later, as an editor of the religious monthly First Things, I reviewed a biography of Simone Weil and offered a response, if not a defense, for the judgments of the Lord require no justification:

“Jews are required to recall the slaughter of the first-born Egypt in fear and awe each weekday morning. Binding of tefillin is our most ancient act of daily worship, commanded in Exodus 13. The two small leather boxes enclose parchments with four biblical verses, including this one:

“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem. And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.”

As it happens, I am a firstborn son, and my late father, a secular Jew, never redeemed me by the ancient ritual. After writing the above  lines, I bought the requisite five silver coins and gave them to a Kohane after morning prayers at my synagogue, and redeemed myself. “The ceremonial of redemption of the first born son re-enacts the drama of Abraham offering Isaac to the Lord,” Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote. The daily binding of tefillin is a reminder that the Maker of Heaven also is the pachad Yitzhak.  

This dread which is visited upon us every morning is not mystical but existential: The Jewish people merit eternity because they have offered themselves unreservedly to Hashem.  I had just published my reflection on history, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). We are in the midst of a Great Extinction of Peoples, in which many minor and some major European languages may become extinct in a century or two, along with a couple of thousand languages spoken by small groups of people at the fringe of the industrial world. 

The peoples of the world who can envision their own extinction lose interest in life. We saw this first among the Hellenistic Greeks after the Alexandrine conquests. Plutarch’s story of King Midas’ capture of the demigod Silenus, who knew the secret of wisdom, stands as an epigraph for this brilliant but doomed civilization. The secret is better not to have been born. Nietzsche two thousand years later adopted Silenus’ taunt as his watchword and ridiculed the Apollonian pretense at beauty as a distraction from the horror of death. The exemplary case for a self-doomed people today is the Persians, who before the Islamic revolution of 1979 had an average of seven children but today have fewer than two.

Freud averred, “We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.” Far worse,  though, is the fear of a living death: Imagine that you are the last speaker of a dead language, living among people with whom you have no possibility of communication. When you die all the past generations of your kindred will die with you. That explains why Hollywood scriptwriters like to locate their haunted houses on Native American burial grounds. To belong to a dying culture is to haunt rather than to live.

That is not fear, but the existential dislodgement that makes men shout, “You love life but we love death!” We do not live in the present; our consciousness of the present is a composite of memory and expectation. Destroy the living connection to the past and crush our hope that something of our life will persist after death, and the present becomes a zombie’s waking nightmare. 

The Jews stand as a reproach to the nations’ propensity to choose death. They will never forgive us for living. They never will regard us with equanimity. Among our friends we inspire awe; in our enemies we must evoke dread. Often we will inspire both. Hungary is one of the most anti-Semitic European nations, according to the 2019 global survey of the Anti-Defamation League, which found that 42% of Hungarians hold anti-Semitic views (others are Greece at 67%, Ukraine at 46%, and Serbia at 42%). Yet Hungary’s government has stood alone to support Israel in the European Community on many occasions.

At a government-sponsored conference in Budapest in 2018, I said:

The restoration of the actual, physical Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people, should be a sign of hope for all the nations. Israel’s mission is to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 49:6), an “exemplar and paragon” (Rosenzweig) that incorporates the sacred—the eternal—into the quotidian life of a people. The nations of Europe will rise up from the valley of dry bones when they are able to grasp what is sacred in their own character, and encourage the efforts of their neighbors to do the same. 

Through Christianity, Israel came to embody the desire of the nations. It should be a beacon for nations that are struggling to maintain their identity and cohesion against a demographic ebb-tide and against the pressures of globalization.

The Hungarian audience gave me a standing ovation.


David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is a former senior editor at First Things magazine, and a regular contributor to Hakirah, where he published a series of studies of the hashkafa of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. He is the author of several books, including How Civilizations Die (2011) and You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World (2020). He is also a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine, where he serves as classical music critic.


About David P Goldman

David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He is a former senior editor at First Things magazine, and a regular contributor to Hakirah, where he published a series of studies of the hashkafa of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. He is the author of several books, including How Civilizations Die (2011) and You Will Be Assimilated: China's Plan to Sino-Form the World (2020). He is also a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine, where he serves as classical music critic.

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