The Jewish people are unique among ancient civilizations.

Despite the many mighty empires that have come and gone throughout history, the Jews, small and scattered as they have been, have survived with their beliefs, traditions, and practices intact for over three millennia.

One explanation for the fact that so many peoples have vanished over time is that when indigenous populations are conquered or ethnic minorities absorbed by larger societies, they tend to abandon their unique features and cultural differences to blend in with the host civilization. They do this for a number of reasons, most significantly, to escape the persecution that stems from “the dislike of the unlike” and to ensure their physical survival.

Not so the Jewish people. Since the beginning of the Jewish story, starting with Abraham, Jews have stood apart from their neighbors, tenaciously clinging to their beliefs and values, not willing to part from them at any cost.

Indeed, Abraham was known as Ha’Ivri, the Hebrew.1 In context, this meant Abraham from the other side of the Euphrates. However, the Midrash explains that Abraham earned this title not only for his birthplace but also for his faith and culture, which ran against the currents of popular belief. In the evocative words of the Midrash:2 “The entire world was on one side, and he was willing to be on the other side.”

This is one reason Jews were originally called Hebrews, or in Hebrew, Ivriyim, because they were willing to take on, and take down, the idols of the day.

To be a Hebrew thus literally means to possess the courage to stand apart, to dare to be different, and Abraham was the first to proudly bear this title of distinction.

In his youth, Abraham uncovered the ultimate reality of Divine unity that exists beneath the veneer of multiplicity in creation—the one G‑d Who created and continuously sustains the universe.3 Even more impressive than his spiritual discovery, however, was his steadfast commitment to his newfound belief despite living in an idolatrous society, which was quick to punish outliers severely.

In the face of such pressure to conform, fueled by his faith, he was not afraid to pay the price for his iconoclasm. According to the Midrash,4 Abraham was even willing to be cast into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod rather than abandon his monotheistic beliefs.

And what was the result of Abraham’s courageous dissent?

T.R. Grover writes in his book, The Ancient World:5 “Mankind, East and West, Christian and Muslim, accepted the Jewish conviction that there is only one G‑d. Today it is polytheism that is so difficult to understand, that is so unthinkable.”

The former heretic has become the standard bearer.

The seeds of Abraham’s revolutionary path, which would transform the landscape of human history, are encapsulated in his first exchange with G‑d, in which he was told, Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.6

The radical nature and historical context of this journey is eloquently articulated by Thomas Cahill in his bestselling book, The Gifts of the Jews: “If we had lived in the second millennium BCE, the millennium of Abraham, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Abraham’s journey? In most of Africa and Europe, they would have laughed at Abraham’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity… a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads in disbelief. The early Greeks might have told Abraham the story of Prometheus... Do not overreach, they would advise; come to resignation. In India, he would be told that time is black, irrational and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. On every continent, in every society, Abraham would have been given the same advice that wise men like Herculitas [and others] would give his followers: Do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow.”

Against the grain of such fatalistic thinking, Abraham’s first journey would set the transformative tone for all of Jewish history. Ancient ideals of static hierarchies, circular time, and strict determinism would give way to Abraham’s groundbreaking path of hope, meaning, progress, and redemption.

The Jewish story can, therefore, in some way, be explained by its people’s stubborn resistance to conformity. Abraham’s heirs have consistently been defined by their willingness to become foreigners, to defy the status quo, and, as poet Robert Frost so eloquently put it, to “take the road less traveled.”

In the words of Michael Grant, the renowned historian of Classical Greece:7 “The Jews proved not only unassimilated, but inassimilable...”

Already in the third century, the famous Greek sophist Philostratus observed: 8 “For the Jews have long been in revolt not only against the Romans but against humanity; and a race that has made its own life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasure of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separate from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Sura or Bactra of the most distant Indies.”

In recent centuries, there have been numerous movements bent on assimilating the Jews into their host cultures, so as to “set them free” from the differential treatment and antisemitic hatred that has forever plagued the Jewish people. What will be the outcome of these attempts? Besides the futility in this argument—antisemitism seldom distinguishes between the devout and assimilated—history can attest to the complete disappearance of Jewish factions that chose to assimilate.

In the words of Cecil Roth’s A History of the Jews:9 “Today, the Jewish people has in it still those elements of strength and endurance that enabled it to surmount all the crises of its past, surviving thus the most powerful empires of antiquity. Throughout our history, there have been weaker elements who have shirked the sacrifices that Judaism entailed. They have been swallowed, long since, in the great majority; only the more stalwart have carried on the traditions of their ancestors and can now look back with pride upon their superb heritage. Are we to be numbered with the weak majority, or with the stalwart minority? It is for ourselves to decide.”

Our stubborn commitment to truth, no matter how out of style or step it might be, is why we are still here, while so many others have vanished into the shadows of history. Just as poetry was famously defined in the twentieth century as “news that stays news,” Jewish history is defined by Jews who stay Jews.

When the entire world stands on one side, and you are on the other, never forget that the very root of Judaism, being an Ivri, means having the faith and fortitude to stand apart from the crowd and stand up for what you most deeply believe.

The Big Idea

The secret behind the singular history, survival, and contribution of the Jewish people is their unique ability to stand alone and stay true to their beliefs no matter the cost.

It Happened Once

Several bar-mitzvah age boys had stopped attending their local Hebrew school. Their parents, who were concerned, took the teenagers to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, hoping he would convince them to continue seeking a Jewish education.

“Tell me,” the Rebbe asked the first boy, “why have you decided to stop attending Hebrew school?”

“All the other boys on my street have stopped going to Hebrew school, so I want to stop as well,” he answered.

“And what about you?” the Rebbe asked the second boy.

“Same reason,” the boy explained. “The kids on my street don’t go, so why should I?”

“Tell me,” the Rebbe asked the boys, “who were your favorite Jewish heroes that you learned about?”

One boy responded that he deeply admired Noah, and the other, Abraham.

“Do you know,” the Rebbe told the first boy, “that if Noah would have followed all the other kids on his street, we would have no world? And if Abraham would have followed all the kids on his street,” the Rebbe told the second boy, “we would have no Jewish people!”10