My Faith: Being Jewish at Marquette
by:Mark Nagurka, Ph.D.

(Delivered at Faith Harvest, Marquette University, Oct 23, 2000)


Thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts about “Faith” as a Jewish member of our Marquette community. It is an honor to be here.
I have thought a great deal about how to spend my few minutes talking about faith. Perhaps you have heard the story of the preacher talking about the difference between fact and faith. He started his sermon by saying: "That you are sitting before me is fact. That I am standing here, speaking from this pulpit, is fact. That I believe anyone is listening to me is faith."
Let me start by saying that I feel unbelievably lucky to be here. It is nothing short of a miracle that I am standing here before you. Over 3600 years ago (1671 BCE) Abraham - my great-great-great-great-great grandfather, the first Jew, my grandfather’s namesake - entered into a covenant with G-d. Over 3300 years ago (1312 BCE) Moses, the first prophet, the one who took us from slavery out of Egypt, my namesake in Hebrew, received the Torah from G-d at Mt. Sinai.
I am standing before you as a link to Abraham and to Moses and to those monumental events. And, given that so much of the history of our world has been directed to eliminating my ancestors, links to those events, I am living proof of Jewish faith. My parents were one link closer, my grandparents a link even closer. In contrast to the Darwinian view that children are an updated model of the previous generation (since evolution is always improving on itself) I was raised with the consciousness and respect that my grandparents were two generations closer to those G-dly events and that they had touched their grandparents who were two generations even closer. Truly amazing. Respect for the elderly, awe for the elderly, for they were closer to those miracles.
Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book "Who Needs God" (1989) tells the Hasidic story of a man who got a telegram telling him that a relative had died and left him valuable property. He was to contact the rabbi for details. Excited, he went to the rabbi, only to be told that the relative was Moses and the valuable property was his Jewish religious tradition, his faith.
My parents instilled in me the deepest respect for our tradition, truly with the view of that story that the riches of Judaism are my most valuable possessions, that to live a righteous life is the greatest blessing, and that we are divinely commanded to make the world a better place, yes, by seeking justice, by being righteous, by helping others, by studying Torah, the Hebrew Bible. We aspire to make the world a more civilized and moral place, to bring us back to the Garden of Eden. This is our mission, in a world that doesn't very much like us - to say it most softly.
My parents received these blessings from their parents, and so it goes back, the unbroken links to the past. That I am alive at all, given our treatment in history, is amazing. Here I am, a Jewish engineering professor at a Catholic Jesuit University. But rather than speak about my personal story … I would like to share with you some Jewish ideas that touch directly on faith.
I start by reading a letter. It is known as “Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God”. It was written in April 1943: “G-d of Israel … You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my G-d and the G-d of my father, that it will not avail You in the least! You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me. “And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God; nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make renounce You, to make me lose my faith in You, but I die exactly as I lived, a believer …”
Yossel Rakover was a Hasidic Jew who perished in the Holocaust. He maintained his faith, his love of G-d, to the end. This is sheer faith, that the world may kill a Jew, the messenger, but the world cannot kill the message.
Sadly, there are many people working to destroy us, even today, this very moment. Hatred of Israel is often, most often, just a cover for anti-Semitism. Are the recent political events of the Middle East a local political problem? Listen and you will hear. It is a religious war against the Jews. The shouts are “Kill the Jews”. Jews are being attacked, not just in Israel, but in England and France and Germany. Synagogues are being destroyed, Jewish cemeteries are being vandalized, again, not just in Israel but in England and France and Germany. Closer to home there have been problems at two local synagogues in Milwaukee. I have no delusions. We have many enemies. The world sits quietly, watches events with an established arm-chair apathy. G-d forbid that it should lead to the destruction of Israel, for that is the intent. G-d forbid.
Rabbi Schalman has said "A Jew without hope is not a Jew." That, too, is faith. That it will work out. That we will not be destroyed … at least not all of us … that we will continue praying to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that we will continue following G-d’s commandments, that we will continue working to improve our world.
People think there are hundreds of million of Jews in the world today, given all the attention and news about us. There are only 13 million of us.
Milton Himmelfarb once quipped, "The world's Jews are less in number than a small statistical error in the Chinese national census yet the world seems fixated upon everything they say and do." We are less than one-quarter of one percent of the world population.
We are small in number, but not in contribution. We provided the world with the very cornerstones of civilization. We gave the world the idea of one God.
"In the Hebrew Bible one finds the concept that all men are created equal in God's image. Today it is called democracy. The idea of a brotherhood of nations and of peace was first mooted in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Now it goes by the name United Nations. 'One must love one's fellow man as oneself' (Leviticus 19:18) was restyled into the Golden Rule, and its origin is now perceived as being Jesus's sermon on the mount. Life must be dedicated to the pursuit of justice, goodness, and ethics, so Judaism says. Today it is known as secular humanism." (Rabbi Shmuley Boteach)
Mark Twain wrote: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, [and] has always been heard of … “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, and then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. “All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? (Concerning the Jews)
Writing in the New York Review of Books, the historian Gary Wills considers different explanations for the anomalies of Jewish history. Was it good genes, he asks? Was it moral sensitivity, social solidarity, or ancestral loyalties? Was it self-fulfilling prophecy? All explanations, he concludes, are inadequate, save one: “Something very strange did indeed happen to the Jews in history. It was G-d.”

Mark Nagurka, Ph.D. (MIT) is an Associate Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His lifelong passion is love of Jews, Judaism, and Israel. Although he resides in Glendale, Wisconsin, his heart and soul are in Jerusalem.
 

1998, Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc.