When it comes to the workings of the natural world, we take for granted that there are rules to the game. We call these the “laws of nature.” Because we have such rules, the physical reality in which we live is predictable and, therefore, usually safe. When we walk out of house in the morning we don’t fly off into space because the law of gravity keeps us on the ground. That same law would have a huge impact on us if we were to decide to jump off a building. Without these laws, life would be dangerous and unpredictable.
When we look at history, however, we tend not to view it as logical or predictable because history is shaped by humans who are notoriously fickle and often act irrationally. Thus life is often viewed as a vast sea of uncertainly—unpredictable and often fraught with danger.
If we look at the Jewish understanding of history, we get an entirely different perspective. While Judaism absolutely believes in the concept of free will, something MUCH BIGGER must also be factored into the equation: God. Judaism understands God to be the Creator, Sustainer and Supervisor of the universe. In simple English, God knows all and controls all. Everything that happens in the universe, from the cosmic to the quantum, is under the constant supervision and control of an infinite, omniscient an omnipotent Being.
This “God Factor” has massive implications for the concept of history. From the Jewish perspective there is no such thing as random or accidental. It is a fundamental belief in Judaism that the path through history is a controlled process leading to a predetermined destination. It can thus be said that Judaism introduced the idea of determinism to the world—that history is leading us somewhere. The entire human race and the events we experience are all part of story with a fixed duration and a guaranteed ending.
In addition to being in a story with a specific ending, there is another concept which has a huge impact on our understanding of the mechanics of history: There are rules to the game just like there are rules to science. If you put a cup of water in your freezer, when it reaches a certain temperature it will change from a liquid to a solid that we call ice. Imagine if, occasionally, when you did this, the water came out not as ice but boiling hot. A simple trip to your freezer could turn out to be a hazardous journey.
Judaism understands that, just like in science, the same Creator, Sustainer and Supervisor, who controls the process of history, also put rules into His-story that enable us to act in specific ways that will guarantee certain outcomes. One of the oft-repeated concepts in the Bible is the notion that if the Jewish People collectively keep their side of the agreement with G-d and fulfill their mission as a “Light to Nations,” then G-d will guarantee that the Jewish People’s journey (and as I’ll soon explain, all of humanity’s) will be a pleasant one and that they will arrive at their destination quickly and painlessly. If they choose not to keep their side of the agreement, then the journey will prove to be long and difficult. The choice is up to us. This is the free will factor—the power to choose—which is one of the greatest gifts that the Creator bestowed on His children.
When we put all these concepts together we see that history is an amazing interplay between G-d’s ultimate will and human free will. Because the Creator has the final say, the end of the story is guaranteed. But because we have free will we decide the paths we will take to get to the end of the story: the short easy journey, the arduous, painful route, or something in between.
The last piece of the puzzle we need in order to get the complete picture is the role of the Jewish People in this ultimate of all stories. From Abraham onward, the Jewish People have understood that the concept of “Chosen People” means chosen for a unique responsibility of leading humanity on a journey back to relationship with G-d, which is the ultimate destination of all human history. Thus the Jewish people play a critical role in the story.
More than anyone else, they must understand the plot of the story and the rules of the game, because the decisions they make collectively will have the greatest impact on the entire story. It is precisely for this reason that Jewish education is so critical, because you can’t represent the Jewish People until you know what the Jewish People represent.
Just as you can’t play a game until you understand both the goal and the rules, we can’t hope to navigate our way through history until we understand why we are here, what our destination is, and how to get there.
Rabbi Ken Spiro is a world renowned historian, lecturer, author, and tour guide. Check out his courses on our site!