Jews and the Invention of Ethical Consciousness

by Moshe Dann (September 2012)

When does civilization begin? Technically, one can cite the origins of city-states, the development of writing, and the use of sophisticated tools. Tribal monarchies in Mesopotamia, Egyptian dynasties, Hittites and Hurrians all contributed to the development of early cultures – and all disappeared, leaving little trace of what they accomplished. There was, however, a single exception, a group of people who created a spiritual civilization, based on the belief in a divine covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a book (five books, actually), Torah, and an extensive library thereafter, Tanach (prophesy and history), Talmud (discussions of the Oral Law, halacha) and vast libraries of interpretations.

Having defied their Egyptian masters, survived hardship and devastating plagues, the Jewish people-to-be marched out of slavery, passed through the Red Sea and watched the pursuing army drown before their eyes. They had accomplished the impossible; they had escaped while the army of their oppressors was destroyed.   

Led by Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the elders, they embarked on a treacherous journey across the desert towards Eretz Yisrael, the land that God had promised to them and their forefathers. Bearers of a new civilization, a moral imperative, Torah, they got lost, and found.

Former slaves, they were designated “a nation of priests,” a “holy people,” a moral emblem “chosen” to transmit Torah and conquer Eretz Yisrael where they were to build a society dedicated to God. At least, that was the plan. This could not have been done without a unifying source, a structure that was transmitted from generation to generation – Torah, the unique mechanism for spiritual transformation.

Written first on stone tablets and then scrolls of parchment, preached and witnessed, Torah introduced a new and unique concept: ethical consciousness, awareness.* This radical, revolutionary innovation demanded critical self-inquiry and the assumption of individual (and sometimes collective) responsibility. Unprecedented, it did not evolve; it did not emanate from reason or popular will. It was the basis for Man's encounter with God.

Jews were the first, and, for a long time, the only people and civilization to postulate such a belief – that Man has a purpose, that all life is sacred and significant, that the definition of human existence is the search for Truth and transcendence. Others also asked fundamental questions of human existence, but Jews alone insisted on ethical monotheism – One God, the source of existence – as a holistic, organic way of life. Embedded in a system of laws and practices – halacha — every action expressed one's relationship with God, a dedication to transforming self and society, tikkun olam (repairing the world).

This message, expressed in Torah, demanded radical creative thinking, consciousness as the source of ethical behavior – not primarily because it was “right,” but because it represented one's relationship to God, the transformation of material things into their spiritual essences. Consciousness – fully focused attention – the desire to achieve one's spiritual potential – defined the interaction between human and divine. **

Jews, uniquely and persistently set forth an ideal – kedusha (holiness)not as an abstraction, but as conscious acts of human kindness and moral behavior infused in daily life which defined the essence and nature of being human. In the language of Kabbalachochma, bina and da'at. This became the basis of Jewish civilization, the Empire of Mind.

Empires come and go, often destroying as much as they contribute in their quests for power and wealth.  Jewish empire was different. It valued the cognitive rather than the material; its focus was consciousness and intention. Rooted in this world, it was dedicated to transcend it. Not what you owned, but what you thought was important. Passed down through generations, based on texts and traditions, it wove practice (Halacha) and prophesy.

Yet another expression of brachot might be swearing oaths; commitment to them, their importance and their annulment — the central theme of the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur – intensifies the notion of relationship and kavenah (intention).

And it survived exile, dispersion and trauma because it had a central core — Torah, accompanied by interpretations, historical encounters, homilies and discussions of law and ethics. This literature provided the structure that maintained a sense of cohesion and continuity for Jews wherever they lived – the common thread of survival. 

Following the downfall of the Second Commonwealth, humbled and helpless, Jews created a world-view that transcended pogroms and persecution, expulsion and destruction. Expelled from one country to another, they understood the fragility of protection and existence, and the importance of learning and text.   

Instead of territorial empire, Jews created an Empire of Inquiry, a reverence for the question, even in the absence of answers, a devotion to scholarship, intellectual curiosity, homage to curiosity – to Mind.

Restricted from participating in the physical world defined by landed wealth and power, Jews relied on the dominance of Thought, the intricacies of problem-making and problem-solving that postulated the Mind of God and the Mind of Man in divine communion.

Wherever they were driven, despite suffering, dislocation and destruction, Jews survived as a People because they were citizens of a nationality greater than any that existed, or will exist, one that has no boundaries in space or time, yet, is rooted in everyday life, the ultimate creative process, the Monarchy of Mind.

Jews saw themselves as different, not because of what they were, as a distinct group, but who they were, what they thought about. More than achievements in the non-Jewish world, Jews created a culture of learning, the sovereignty of spirit – and that set them apart.

No matter how well they integrated and adapted, Jews were always considered aliens, because they treasured the ability to read and write, the desire to know. Unlike most other groups, it would be impossible to imagine a Jewish home, even that of a peasant, without books. Reverence for learning, even by those who were semi-literate, was a fundamental Jewish trait.      

This culture of learning provides a descriptive map of Jewish development and an explanation for the geography of innovation, speculation and intuition – a kind of inherent genetic disposition to raise the most fundamental questions of mankind and civilization: who we are, where are we going, and why.

Magnificent mosques and churches, Buddhist and Hindu shrines, meditation/retreat centers flourish throughout the world; all of them, by virtue of those who pray there, share sacredness in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society; holiness is not exclusive. Does it matter to whom one prays? Is one faith purer than another, its adherents more righteous, and its practices more beneficial? What then makes Judaism different?

Walk into a church, mosque or shrine and what do you see? The symbols of that faith, beautiful architecture, clean floors, prayer rugs, a sense of reverence and order.

When entering a Beit Midrash/shul, what do you see? Books, lots of them and, when not praying, men engrossed in studying a text; often little or no aesthetics to distract, a culture of learning. There were impressive synagogues throughout Jewish history, and, of course, the magnificent First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, but architecture wasn't the point. The 'Holy of Holies' was empty. More than anything else, discipline, reverence for study and inquiry marks Jews as different. Questions, not only answers are important.

For three millennia Jews were known as 'people with a Book' — Torah; for a thousand years, they were the only people with a portable, accessible sacred text open to all. Later, Mohammed called Jews and Christians “people of The Book,” to distinguish them from bookless pagans. Books are at the core of what it means to be Jewish. They provide the historical link between generations, the continuity of a people, the basis of halacha, the laws of everyday life for Jews. ***   

Other religions have holy books, Bibles, philosophies, and pathways of morality — the basis of religious life is faith. Judaism demands commitment to intellectual curiosity, an intense if unsettled relationship with God, the sanctification of daily life in a world of good and evil, and dedication to the idea of human dignity. That is the essence of the Jewish soul.

A note on texts: The earliest renditions of Jewish sacred writings are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include all the books of the Tanach, except Esther, some in multiple copies. Dating from the mid-second Temple period (many during the Hasmonean reign) it is unlikely that they were written without precedents. They would have been rejected by the Jews of Israel and Babylon – especially the centers of learning, yeshivot (academies) and institutions like religious courts and Sanhedrin. Logically, this pushes back textual origins at least to the time of Ezra (the Scribe) and the Babylonian Exile, in the early 6th century BCE, when (apparently) the dominant form of Hebrew script changed from Ivrit to Ashurit.    

Although relatively few Jews may have been able to read and write prior to the Exile, it seems reasonable that Jewish sacred writings, especially Torah existed in some form that was accepted by all Jewish scholars and scribes, at least since the early monarchical period, since it would have been nearly impossible to introduce and impose an innovation on the entire Jewish people that would be accepted without debate, comment and dispute.

Although no Jewish literature has been found from the First Temple period, there are archeological confirmations of Tanach and Jewish history during this era.  

The Books of Joshua and Judges may also be considered authentic historical records, since they include specifics that seem to be verifiable and they include problematic stories, like those of Samson and the rape/murder of “the pilegesh of Givah,” which a sensible editor would have omitted.  

Although the existence of Moses, Aaron and Miriam has not been confirmed, the escape of “Hebrews” from Egypt appears in Egyptian documents. Repeated so often in Jewish literature and prayers, it seems unlikely that references to such mass public events are mythological. Was Moses an Egyptian “prince,” and did he stand before God at the “Burning Bush”? Impossible to document. When the entire Jewish people, however, stood at Mt Sinai and received Torah, it was an event witnessed by millions of people, Jews and others. When Jews carried the revered Ark of Covenant with them for 40 years, lost it in battle, regained and placed it in the Temple in Jerusalem, there were no dissenting voices, none, ever, from anyone (that we know of), until recently. Thus, Torah and its origins and history assume the status of veracity.

Arguably, Oral Torah, rabbinic discourse and interpretation that accompanied Torah, written in Mishnah and Gemarah (Talmud), commented upon by great sages and thousands of scholars has been disputed since the late Second Temple period (e.g. by Sadducees and Essenes) and during the late Gaonic period (by the Karaites). The existence and survival of a tradition of authenticity and authorization, the world of Jewish Law, Halacha, has been the mechanism for transmitting and inculcating the written word, reverence for learning, the search for Truth. That is the basis of what it means to be a Jew; to paraphrase Hillel, not only to believe, but to do, and, in order to do, learn.

All religions that followed the inception of Judaism included sacred texts and a tradition of study and learning. Jews and Jewish tradition, however, placed universal education and study at the core of a religious life. One can be a good Christian, Moslem, Hindu, or Buddhist without knowing and studying texts; for Jews that is impossible. ****               

     That all spiritual movements focus on ethics and morality, making life meaningful, is a triumph of the human spirit. A path laid out thousands of years ago, its origins are in Torah. Judaism does not claim that it is the only way to God. It says, however, that there must be one – and without it life is not worth living. The unique and enduring legacy of Torah and the Jewish people is to create in the womb of consciousness a new concept of holiness embedded in everyone and everything, the idea of a holy people chosen for a specific spiritual mission, a potential that could be revealed, a connection to Infinite and Eternal, an ever-evolving awareness that has defined the dimensions of humanity and the human condition. 


* I use the term consciousness as the highest value. Non-ethical consciousness, the belief, for example, that “evil” does not exist, or that murder is permitted would be contradictory. An ideal, a potential, it is rarely fulfilled. Biblical references offer several examples of fully developed consciousness: Jacob and especially Moses, King David in the post-Biblical period, and perhaps the Baal Shem Tov and his students in the modern period. 

** One of the most vivid and intense forms of consciousness is contained in giving brachot (blessings) to others. Although God blesses humans (Noah, for example) [Gen .9:1], the first reference to a bracha between humans in Torah appears when Malki-Zedek, high priest of Shalem (Jerusalem) blesses Abraham (Gen.14:19). Not a uniquely Jewish innovation, it became a central life experience for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and is a basic concept in Judaism. That Laban, Jacob's father-in-law, blesses his daughters (Gen 32:1) could reflect a family tradition, or one that he learned from Jacob.

*** Halacha ( Oral Law) is best understood as a rather open and flexible attempt to establish a structure for living intended to ask a simple question — what does God want of me? – and offer a path towards an answer. Transmitted by qualified, authoritative scholars over millennia, containing debates and disputes, it is interpretative and adaptive to contemporary circumstances; it also sets boundaries. For example, the laws of kashrut (kosher), derived from Biblical injunctions do not permit eating certain animals, birds and fish. But forbidding milk products to be eaten with meat is not in Torah. It is derived from the prohibition of “boiling a young goat in it's mother's milk.” Through its structure and restrictions, halacha attempts to enhance consciousness, to focus attention, to demand awareness.

**** This may explain why no other ancient myth-making culture survived, produced a corpus of systematic thought, or theology.

The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.


Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers – Pre-Socratics and Plato, especially Stoics, Cynics, Skeptics and Epicureans — valued ataraxia, freedom from anxiety and confusion.  Dedicated to inquiry, they represented sophisticated elites, but their ideas did not crystallize into a popular culture or religion. Although the Stoics did have ethics and a form of monotheism, or pantheism, they primarily sought detachment as a defense against the vagaries of fortune and misfortune, the transience of attachments – as opposed to Judaism which offers a clear, developed and integrated system of thought and action.  

Eastern religions, Taoism, Buddhism etc propose detachment from the world as a way of dealing with pain and suffering.

All have made important contributions in the development of Consciousness (or Conscience) – this essay is not a critique of other religions – including nominally secular philosophers and philosophies (especially Existentialists).

Moreover, why were Jews (as Prophets and poet/philosopher Kings, David and Solomon), and later Greeks and Romans the only civilizations in the entire ancient world that produced philosophers who asked moral/ethical questions? What was in their concept of the world and its relationship to a deity (or in the case of non-Jews, deities) that led them towards these speculations? 

Why, for example, didn't the Law Code of Hammurabi, promulgated four thousand years ago around the time of Abraham, produce an ethical/moral dimension, a systematic belief – a Bible? Why didn't this Code (and others) become a basis for a new Mesopotamian religion? And, more importantly, why wasn't it widely adopted?

Why did it take an Avraham and his family to create the basis of Judaism? If Judaism “evolved,” a sort of amalgam of already existing ideas and cultures, why didn't those ideas and cultures form the nucellae of new religious movements?

One might argue that Judaism is nothing more than layers of rabbinic thought and illusion. But how does one explain the origins and adoption of an extremely complicated intercalated (Jewish) calendar? Or laws of kashrut which may seem arbitrary, but are consistent with laws of nature and good health? Or sexual prohibitions that have sound medical basis?  

Thinking about God

According to Walter Burkert, (Greek Religion, p.182) the defining characteristic of Greek anthropomorphism is that “the Greek gods are persons, not abstractions, ideas or concepts.”

In contrast, Jews proposed a totally abstract God, a deity that was in nature, but beyond it, a Oneness that comprised the totality of all existence, past, present and future, and that could not be comprehended, or represented in figures – indeed, this was emphatically prohibited as “idol worship.”

Although Jewish prophets are esteemed, they are not worshipped. A Temple and its rituals were sacred, but they did not substitute for transcendent Shechinah, “God's presence,” whatever that was understood to be. “Holiness” was manifest and yet impossible to define.   

This is a radical departure from all other theologies and religions.

A form of cognitive stimulation, the process of abstract thinking is an essential quality of Judaism and a way of thinking about self and the world. Like studying mathematics, it forces the brain to leap, to imagine – and that is the basis of creativity.

The Jewish idea of God is paradox —  form without form, silence within silence, Being and Nothingness, that which was, is, and will be at every moment; it is the absence of something that can lead to new concepts and understanding – translated and transformed into human relationships, and its divine reflection. 

Thinking about Thinking

The most important part of educational development is not memorization, but problem-making and problem-solving, the need to know.  

This inquiry into the origins of the idea consciousness is basically historical. With a background in classics, I was somewhat surprised to find that standard texts ignored any references to Jewish sources. Consciousness seemed to be taken for granted as a Greek invention.

Long before Greeks created the 'Age of Philosophy,' however, Jews had Torah, Prophets, a Temple and a profound civilization. Why was this omitted?

When Jews were expelled from Eretz Yisrael, Judea and Samaria, dispersed throughout the “civilized” world, what effect did this have on other cultures? Can this be traced? Is there a correlation between the rise of new forms of belief, philosophies and Jewish exiles?       

All cultures have myths, which are ways of making sense out of the world. But what is their message and where do they lead?

Through its belief in a totally abstract concept of Divinity, its emphasis on the question, its willingness to include ambiguity, an insistence on Infinite and Unknowable, Jewish civilization produced meta-cognition, a way of insight and creativity that leads to consciousness. Jews turned theology into questions, curiosity and the search for Truth into holiness, and the quest for meaning into a sacred endeavor.

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