Skip to main content

The Jews and the Nations (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

 Part I


            Until this point, we have examined the concept of chosenness through the perspectives of a number of significant Jewish thinkers.  Now let us turn our attention to the "chaver" and attempt to elucidate R. Yehuda Halevi's position on this issue.


            A cursory reading would lead one to conclude that a deep philosophical chasm separates Rihal from R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in their perception of chosenness.  The source of their dispute can perhaps be traced to a divergence in their respective approaches to the meaning of Jewish existence.  The elementary question is this: Do the Jewish people exist "a priori," or is their presence in the world merely a remedial measure taken in response to a negative situation?  In the view shared by R. Ovadia Mi-seforno and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, it appears that the birth of the Jewish nation stemmed from the failure of God's original covenant with Adam.  Thus, the creation of a Jewish people was the divine reaction to an unsatisfactory state of affairs.


            It seems, upon initial analysis of his opinion, that Rihal would oppose this approach.  However, a closer look will demonstrate that Rihal agreed, in essence, with Hirsch's position, for, clearly, Rihal believed that had the Adamic covenant prevailed, Adam would have been the first Jew.  In fact, Rihal develops the notion that the concept of segula has been in existence since Adam's day; thus, the potential for the segula could have developed earlier than it actually did.  For Rihal, a developing segula constitutes the definition of the Jewish people.  At the root of Rihal's position lie the possibility and the hope that all of humanity, without exception, may one day achieve the highest pinnacle of spiritual life.


            The gallery of ideas which Rihal applies in his attempt to define the status of the Jewish people includes three central concepts: the Divine essence; the segula of Israel; and the symbolic description of the relationship between Israel and the nations as that of heart and body, the core and the outer shell, and the seed which rots while inseminating the ground.  To understand the system in its entirety we must analyze each concept separately.  We will discuss these concepts, God willing, at a later stage.  At this junction we will examine these ideas not separately but rather as part of an organic system of Rihal's making.  The individual concepts will be clarified through an understanding of the composite picture.


            A look at the metaphor of the heart and body confronts us immediately with the dialectic between the concept of chosenness and the relationship between the Jewish people and the other nations.  This famous metaphor establishes that the Jewish nation is the heart, yet the heart as metaphor can be interpreted in two ways.  We can speak of the heart in contrast with the body or of the heart in contrast with a surrounding shell.  These two options express conflicting approaches.  The position which contrasts the heart and the shell views the Jewish nation as the elite of humanity, and the world merely as extraneous matter, created for the sole purpose of serving, obeying or setting the stage for advent of the Jewish people.  According to the second approach, however, Israel in fact serves the world, and the chosenness itself consists simply of the obligation to serve as a divine tool for the furtherance of world development.


            The metaphor of the heart and body (2:36) stresses the centrality of the Jewish people in the cosmic plan.  However, it equally emphasizes an organic, holistic view of the world, for all the nations are symbolized by the various anatomical sections of the body and the heart itself would be rendered meaningless without its constant interaction with the other organs despite its functional importance.  The symbol of heart and shell (4:23), too, does not separate the Jews from the other nations; rather it distinguishes between the nations themselves, dividing those who will eventually vanish from those who will evolve into new forms in the future.


Segula and the Divine Essence


            The role of the Jewish people in the world finds expression on various levels.  On one plane, the existence of the Jewish people creates the possibility of God's presence in the world:


"... [The relationship between] the Divine Essence [and the Jews] is comparable to that of the soul and the heart.  Therefore [God] states: 'I have known only you from all the nations, therefore I will punish you,' and this [refers to] the afflictions.  But the [return to] health is [contained in] what our Rabbis said: 'He forgives the sins of His nation Israel, disposing of the first [sin] first' for He does not allow our sins to remain with us and thus cause our absolute destruction ... And it should not appear strange to you that ... we are tormented while the world is at rest, [for] the troubles that beset us come to improve our Torah and to remove the chaff from us, and when we are pure, the Divine Essence will cleave to our world (2:44)."


            The next level consists of the Jewish nation's influence upon the other nations.  This refers to the development of a faith which is based on divine revelation, going beyond the confines of the intellect, and whose most profound expression is found in our firm belief in the creation of the world:


"...until [the Jewish] community attained the purity to make them worthy of receiving the light and to have miracles performed for them, changing the natural order, and [God] demonstrated that the world has a Ruler, a Keeper, an Arranger and a Creator ... so that in our day all the inhabitants of the world admit that the world was created and [believe in] the eternal life of the Creator, and the proof for this is the Jewish people, and what occurred to them and what was decreed upon them (2:54)."


            I believe that we will not stray overly far from Rihal's stance, if we adopt the position of R. Ovadia Mi-seforno and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch.  We retain, of course, the basic assumption of Israel's status as a chosen nation which underlies Rihal's approach.


            The desire to grant philosophical expression to the uniqueness of the Jewish nation and the Land of Israel lies at the core of Rihal's position.  This uniqueness is not considered significant within general philosophy; apparently, philosophy does not concern itself with specific cases.  However, Rihal maintains that any religious philosophical position, whether Jewish or not, must relate to that which is singular and unique.  Jewish philosophy must therefore relate to the unique existence of Israel and the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Rihal searched for philosophical expressions for these realities and he found them in his own distinct fashion.


            It seems to me that the second approach as well, mentioned earlier, which follows in his footsteps to some extent, also fulfills the basic demands of Rihal's thought.  In any case, it is essential to note that the annals of Jewish thought contain numerous responses to the paradox of uniqueness vs. universalism.


            This seems an appropriate juncture to discuss briefly our interpretation of the Rambam's view of this issue.  It appears to me that the difference between the Rambam's approach and that of Rihal can be illustrated through an analysis of their respective approaches to prophecy.  According to the Rambam, Moshe attained the highest possible spiritual plane, and from the heights of this spiritual achievement he brought the Torah to his people.  Moshe earned the Torah's teachings due to his elevated status, while the nation somehow attained it as well.  The midrash describes this gift of the Torah to the nation as an act of kindness on Moshe's part.  According to Rihal, however, Moshe acted the part of a mere messenger, the nation's representative, and merited the gift of prophecy simply because of his function as the nation's tool.  These two approaches succinctly express the positions of the Rambam and Rihal regarding our issue.  The Rambam stresses the prophetic gifts of the individual, the elevation of a chosen few.  The community exists, in his view, only to permit the development of the individual.  The community creates the necessary conditions to allow the individual to achieve perfection, and thus to attain prophecy; whereas, in Rihal's view, the entire nation is composed of prophets.


            We have noted the difference between chosenness, which is related to keeping the commandments and commitment to the Torah, and segula, a spiritual reality which existed prior to any given action.  Despite the obvious differences between Rihal and the Rambam, the latter's position contains a similar principle, as he emphasizes the eternal quality of the covenant and the promise of a prophetic relationship with the Jewish people.  The concept of Jewish chosenness is not only the "property" of Rihal or the Kabbalists; it has its place in the rationalist school of thought as well.  To be sure, differences between the two schools of thought remain.  These will become clearer when we examine R. Kook's approach, which creates a synthesis of these two positions.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!