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The Jews and the Nations (3)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


Part III


Judaism and Racism


            Allow me to say a few words about the problem of racism, since the text we have before us describes the status of the Jewish people with the help of racial - genetic, if you will - terminology.  This is not a theoretical discussion.  It touches upon a fierce debate which rages within the world of religious thought, especially in recent generations.


            First, I wish to reiterate an earlier point:  The Jewish entity is an anomaly within the geographical and cultural map of the world, qualitatively different from all other religious or national units.  The definition of a Frenchman, an American, or a member of any other nationality is essentially territorial in nature; each nation is the resident of its particular tract of land and is defined by it.  The Jewish people, on the other hand, is borderless and thus cannot be limited to the confines of a specific place.  Definitions which are valid for other peoples do not permit an adequate description of Jewish identity.  The Jews, dispersed among the nations, spoke all seventy languages of the world.  This condition misled Jews and non-Jews alike into the belief that the Jewish people was extinct.  Others, realizing the absurdity of this conclusion, began to search for a different way to understand the mystery of Jewish existence in exile.


            This is the reason that for generations, and especially during the last two hundred years, people as diverse as Disraeli and Martin Buber at times made use of terms such as "race" and"blood" when they wished to indicate that the nation's uniqueness is created not by territory but by origin.  However, this is liable to produce the mistaken impression that if territorial criteria do not define us, then racial characteristics do.  Clearly, this definition is flawed.  Race is not an appropriate model.  Perhaps the concept of the "extended family" is closer to the truth.  In any case, it is clear that the Jewish people have a unique existence.


            When philosophy discovered the concept of nationhood as distinct from that of the "territorial entity," there came into existence a term which drew closer to - yet still only approximated - an appropriate definition of the Jewish entity.  To be sure, even such a concept confronts us with ideological difficulties as Zionist and Jewish thought as a whole attempt to maneuver between the concepts of religion and nationality.  These difficulties arise from the fact that we attempt to fit Judaism into categories which do not necessarily suit it.  If the truth be told, Judaism cannot be defined by either of these two concepts.


            Judaism, being a religion, contains the possibility of conversion.  This is akin to a person becoming a naturalized citizen of a foreign state.  And although, as the chaver notes, the convert will never be exactly like the nation he has joined, his children certainly will be.  The phenomenon of conversion teaches us that the racial model is completely inappropriate, as does the fact that Jews of all colors can join together to form a minyan (a prayer quorum).  As mentioned above, we can see the model used by the Torah as that of the extended family - the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  As with any family, this one is perpetuated not only through the birth of children, but also in other ways such as adoption or marriage.  This concept was expressed by our rabbis when they declared that although converts did not physically participate in the revelation at Sinai (or in modern terms: the converts' genes were not present at Sinai), their souls were there.  They were like sheep who traversed great distances to heed the call of the heavenly herdsman and join his flock. 


            Judaism, then, is defined through concepts that differ entirely from that of race.  Two doors stand at the entrance to the Jewish nation.  One opens only by divine decree - birth.  The other heeds human commands and opens to admit those Gentiles who choose to convert.


            The concept of race does contain positive elements: it teaches us the imperative of noblesse oblige.  However, to our sorrow, it has become tainted, and we must apply to it the verse, "Do not erect a monument which your God your Lord hates" (Deuteronomy 16:22).  Rashi, the great medieval exegete, comments, "... and although it was beloved unto Him in the days of the forefathers, now He hates it, since these have made it a part of idol worship."  The Torah here informs us that there are actions or objects that are not negative in and of themselves; however, they adopt negative traits at the moment that they turn into tools in the hands of idolators.  The concept of race and origin, in bygone days, expressed the idea of lineage.  This signifies the responsibility to maintain the chain whose first links are Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and a commitment to the ideals which membership in that chain represents.  However, since the advent of modern racism, when murder and various crimes are committed in the name of racial superiority, this concept has lost its credibility.  We must not make use of a concept "which your God your Lord hates."


            One can, in addition, interpret the words of the Kuzari in a way entirely unrelated to the concept of race.  Rihal himself provides the key to this understanding at other points in the book.  Thus in the fifth essay, he presents us with another model regarding the nature of chosenness, a model centered around the keeping of the commandments:


"And the lowest of the plants is on a higher level than the highest of the inanimate objects ... and similarly the lowest of mankind who keep the divine commandments is on a higher level than the highest of those who do not have the commandments, because the commandment which comes from God, grants to souls the behavior and disposition of angels.  And this cannot be achieved in any other way."


            These words teach us two lessons.  The first is the readiness for prophecy: "The consistent fulfillment of the commandments brings [one] to the level of prophecy."  Secondly, it is the very fact of being commanded which creates the state of segula: "The one who is commanded, yet sins, is thus better than he who was never commanded.  Because the divine command has already lent him angelic behavior ... and if, in fact, his sin confounded and negated this behavior, in any case he maintains powerful impressions for it which continually keep him in a state of fiery longing to retrieve it."  We can now understand the meaning of the comparison of the Jew to the person devoid of commandments:


"Even more than this! If given the choice, he would not choose the level of those devoid of commandments, just as if a suffering man were granted in his dream the option to be a horse or a fish or a bird - with the knowledge that his life would be one of pleasure, with no suffering - and to thus distance himself from the intellect which brings him closer to the divine plane, he would not choose it."


            This is the ultimate meaning of chosenness.  If you could choose now to be reborn, would you choose to be born a Jew?  If the answer is yes, you believe in the chosenness of the Jewish nation.


            Later sages have expanded the Kuzari's perception.  However, even if we insist that the simple interpretation of the Kuzari is different, we must state that although in their context the sources were innocent, the tragic history of recent generations has transformed them into danger signs.  We must regard them in the light of the command not to erect a monument which God once loved but later hated.


            We must always remember our Rabbis' lesson that there are two binding concepts: "Beloved are Israel, who are called God's children," but also "Beloved is man, who was created in God's image."  The word man refers to all men, Jew and Gentile alike.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


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


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