INSIGHT

5769 - #01

NATIONAL AND UNIVERSAL

Devarim 29:12 presents a theme that is found throughout the Tanach, that the Jewish People have a special brit, covenant or contract, with God in that we will be His nation and He will be our Elokim, Lord.1 This concept would seem to limit Judaism to only being applicable to Jews and thus not universal., a challenge that has often been made against it. Why would the Creator of the Universe limit His involvement with Mankind, His creations, to only one nation? The critique has also been directed specifically against our people. Why, if God has revealed His directives and His path to the good to the Jewish People, do they not share this Divine wisdom with all humanity but rather keep it to themselves? Of course, we do respond that God has indeed shared His wisdom with all Mankind through the Noachide Code and a righteous gentile also can be rewarded in the World-to-Come, yet this does not truly answer the question. A distinction between Jew and Gentile still exists – why would this be so? Why does the universal God distinguish between human beings and declare a special relationship with one human nation?

            Of course, assorted, variant answers to this question exist with much of the differences in approach dependent on one’s understanding of the basis for the distinction between Jew and gentile. Many, though, have a difficulty with some of these approaches as they seem to define an inherent distinction between the two and thus initiate connotations of racism.2 Many, in turn, respond to such critiques with a reference to conversion and the fact that any gentile can become a Jew3 and thus there is no inherent impenetrable barrier between the two.4 An approach that attempts to directly respond to this criticism, though, maintains that God’s goal is still indeed universal; the distinction given the Jewish nation is solely and ultimately for the benefit of all Mankind. We are to be, applying the words of Yoshiyahu 42:6, a “light unto the nations.” But, why? Why could God not simply, directly teach all humanity to live correctly? Why must God first educate the Jewish People and then direct the Jewish People to teach the world or, expressed differently, as a distinct nation, be models for universal Mankind? One approach in attempting to answer this question may be based on the very need for a righteous nation qua nation.

            Even within the world of Torah, throughout the centuries, there was always much discussion regarding the need for God to reveal his law at Sinai and the role of reason as a source of morality. In the eighteenth century world of philosophy, though, this question may have reached its zenith. Strong arguments were advanced in support of the superiority of reason as a source of morality and the inherent weakness of Revelation. One contention was that reason was universal while an event of Revelation was always specific to a certain group thus limiting its application. Moshe Mendelssohn, Jerusalem responded to these challenges by contending that the Revelation at Sinai in which Judaism believed was not an event of revealed morality but rather revealed law. As such, it was, by definition, not universal but rather specific to the nation who was given this law. With these words, a new perspective on the distinctive nature of the Jew could possibly also be advanced. God, in the context of universal, personal morality may, indeed, relate to every individual human being equally. The distinction of the Jew arises from his/her nationalistic context. God also wished to relate to a nation in the very context of being the National Sovereign of this nation. In this context, the contention that God should treat all nations equally cannot arise because such an equality would challenge the very nature of the relationship desired – the uniqueness of national sovereignty. The distinction of the Jew thus emerges from the uniqueness of the relationship with God. The essence of this unique Jewish relationship with God does not emerge from a exclusivity in the personal relationship of an individual Jew with God but rather in the unique national relationship that God desires with the Jewish People as its national Lawgiver, Sovereign, Judge and Lord.

            The words of Shiurei Da’at 3:166, Bein Yisrael L’Amim, may actually lend some support to this idea. He argues that under the Noachide Code, a Noachide has a certain flexibility to deviate if he/she feels that this is proper in a specific situation. This would be in line with a concept that the Noachide Code reflects a system of morality, not a code of law.6 Under the Torah Law, though, he contends there is no allowance for deviation which would also seem to reflect an understanding of it as reflecting a legal nature. Torah is revealed law presented by God to the Jewish People in forging a unique relationship with God that includes a national and political perspective. It is only as members of this nation that the Jew is distinguished.

            Of course, the question can still be asked regarding why specifically the Jewish nation. The key point, though, is that this type of relationship could not be forged with all nations as this, by definition, would challenge the uniqueness of this national relationship. To be a nation, a nation that would have God as Ruler would have to be unique in having God as Ruler. This idea, though, may provide a further understanding in being a “light unto nations.” God could teach every individual person individual morality directly but He could only teach the essence of national law by distinguishing a specific nation and instructing it in being God’s nation.

. .

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 As is often the case with translations, the specific nuance of the Hebrew language can be lost in the attempt to translate the word Elokim. The generic term God could be used but in the context of this Insight, I believe the translation of Lord would be more suitable in that it reflects an aspect of governance. In this context, it should be remembered that the word elokim used in a secular sense and without connection to the Divine is usually translated as judges.

2 See, further, Rabbi Dr. David Berger, Jews, Gentiles and the Modern Egalitarian Ethos: Some Tentative Thoughts, a paper presented, I believe, at a session of the Orthodox Forum. My understanding is that this paper has subsequently been published but I only have read it in the form that it was shown to me which, most likely, was still in draft format.

3 There is, theoretically, a limitation in this argument in that Moabites and Ammonites are eternally barred from entering the nation, yet this law is inapplicable in our modern times. The fact is, though, that this bar was actually specifically in the realm of marriage and members of these two specific nations could still convert and receive the basic benefits of being Jews and bound to Torah. In any event, this exception still would seem to prove the general rule that conversion does open Torah to all people.

4 Of course, pursuant to such views of that of the Kuzari which maintain that some inherent distinction still exists between the convert and the born-Jew, this retort is somewhat weakened. Yet, it should also be recognized that according to the Kuzari, any inherent distinction between Jew and gentile can really be defined as secondary in any event.

5 The Noachide Code, reflecting the perfect religion of reason, as such, presented universal morality. A further discussion of this idea, especially in the context of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11 which contends that observance of the Noachide Code should be based on Revelation, is beyond the scope of this Insight.

6 See, however, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Kol Ram 3: 373.

 (c) Nishma, 2008


 


Return to top

2006 NISHMA