All humans ask themselves who they are, where they came from, and what is their identity. This quest for identity is important and fascinating, but it can also be dangerous. In attempting to define a clear identity for myself, I might close myself off to the world. I might conclude that my identity is defined by belonging to a single group of people, emphasizing those parts in me that connect me to the chosen group, and ignoring all my other parts.
But people are incredibly complex beings. If we focus on just one part of our identity and imagine that it alone matters, we cannot understand who we really are. For example, for me as a Jew, it is obvious that Jewish history and Jewish culture are important to my identity. But to understand who I am, the Jewish story is far from sufficient. I am made of many pieces that came from all over the world.
I like football, which I got from the British. They invented this game. So when I kick a ball into the goal, I am being a little British. I like to drink coffee in the morning, for which I must thank the Ethiopians who discovered coffee and the Arabs and Turks who spread the drink far and wide. I like sweetening my coffee with a spoonful of sugar, so I am grateful to the Papuans who domesticated sugarcane in New Guinea at least 8,000 years ago. Sometimes I upgrade my coffee with a piece of chocolate, which came to me all the way from the tropical forests of Central America and Amazonia, where Native Americans began making cocoa treats perhaps as early as 5,000 years ago.
Some Jews don’t like football, don’t drink coffee, and avoid sugar and chocolate. But they still owe much to foreigners. Hebrew, the sacred language of Judaism, got many of its words, idioms, and basic structures from other languages such as Phoenician, Akkadian, Greek, Arabic, and most importantly Aramaic. Entire chunks of the Old Testament are written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, as are large parts of the Mishnah, Talmud, and other key Jewish texts. The ancient Aramaeans worshipped the god Haddad rather than Jehovah, and killed several Jewish kings, but the Hebrew language and Jewish culture can hardly be imagined without Aramaean contributions. Orthodox Jews leave the world to the Aramaic sound of the kaddish prayer. At some point about 2,500 years ago, Jews even abandoned their own Hebrew script, and to this day write the Torah, the Talmud, and their daily newspapers in Aramaic script.
As for the very idea of writing, it is a contribution not of Aramaeans, but of the ancient Sumerians. Thousands of years before the first Jew lived, some Sumerian geeks had a startup: use a stick to imprint marks on a piece of mud. They invented a code for these marks and created the technology of writing, which eventually gave us books, newspapers, and websites.
Not just its language and writing system, but even core religious beliefs came to Judaism from outside. For instance, the belief that humans have an eternal soul that is punished or rewarded in the afterlife isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Torah, and apparently was not a key part of biblical Judaism. The Old Testament God never promises people that if they follow his commandments, they’ll enjoy everlasting bliss in heaven, and nowhere does he threaten that if they sin, they’ll be burned for all eternity in hell. Belief in a personal after-life seeped into Judaism from other faiths, most notably from the Greek philosophy of Plato and from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. The Persians also gave the Jews the idea of the devil—and of the messiah.
From food to philosophy, from medicine to art, most of what keeps us alive, and most of what makes life worthwhile, are things that were invented not by members of my specific nation but by people from across the whole world. That’s true not just of Jews, but of everyone. Once, someone who wanted to belittle African cultures asked derisively, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” That person seemed to believe that the culture of no African people—either the Zulus or anyone else—produced literary works comparable to Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Ralph Wiley, an African-American journalist, answered this challenge with breathtaking simplicity. Wiley didn’t list Zulu authors like Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene, or John Langalibalele Dube. Nor did he insist more generally that African authors like Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Ngugi wa Thiong’o are as good as Western authors. Wiley completely bypassed this sectarian trap. Instead, he wrote in his book Dark Witness that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus—unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
In contrast to the views held by fanatical racists, as well as by people taking the condemnation of “cultural appropriation” to extremes, Tolstoy isn’t the exclusive property of Russians. Tolstoy belongs to all humans. Tolstoy himself was deeply influenced by the ideas of foreigners like the French Victor Hugo and the German Arthur Schopenhauer, not to mention Jesus and Buddha. Tolstoy speaks of feelings, questions, and insights that are relevant to the inhabitants of Durban and Johannesburg no less than those of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Two thousand years ago the African-Roman playwright Terence, a freed slave, expressed the same key idea when he said, “I am human, and nothing human is foreign to me.” Every human being is heir to the whole of human creation. People who in search of their identity narrow their world to the story of a single nation are turning their back on their humanity. They devalue what they share with all other humans. And they devalue far deeper things. All the inventions and ideas of humans over the past few thousand years are just the upper crust of who we are. Under this crust, at the depths of our bodies and minds, we contain things that evolved over millions of years, long before there were any humans. This deep mystery manifests itself in everything I feel and think. To understand who I am, it is necessary to open up to this mystery and explore it, instead of settling for a story about how I belong to one tribe of people who lived for a few thousand years on some hills near some river.
Consider, for example, our courtship rituals. What do we feel when we see someone we find attractive, when we hold hands for the first time, when we exchange a first kiss? Think of the emotional storm, the hopes and fears, the butterflies in the stomach, the rising body heat, the quickening breath. What are all these things that authors are endlessly fascinated with, and that singers never tire of singing about?
These aren’t things that were invented by Jews, Aramaeans, Russians, or Zulus. These things weren’t invented by any humans. Evolution shaped them over millions of years, and we share them not only with all other humans, but also with chimpanzees, dolphins, bears, and numerous other animals. Religious rituals like the Jewish bar mitzvah or the Christian Eucharist are at most 2,000 years old, and they connect the present generation to about 100 previous generations. In contrast, the rituals of mammalian romance are tens of millions of years old, and they connect us to millions of previous mammalian generations and even to pre-mammalian ancestors.
If I insist on narrowing my identity to the fact that I belong to one specific human group, then I ignore all that. I leave little room in my identity to football and chocolate, to Aramaic and Tolstoy, and even to romance. What remains is a narrow tribal story, which may serve as a sharp weapon in the battles of identity politics, but which comes with a high price. As long as I adhere to that narrow story, I’ll never know the truth about myself.
Harari is the author of Sapiens and Unstoppable Us
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