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Particularism and Universalism (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

   PART II:  Chosenness and "Segula"

 

            History teaches us that if we wish to comprehend the uniqueness of the Jewish people, we must realize that an additional concept exists: the concept of "segula" (specialness), which preceded the idea of chosenness and which accompanies the Jew even when he has, for all intents and purposes, deserted the Torah and its commandments.  This distinction originated with Rihal and was further developed by the Maharal and later by Rav Kook.  To understand the paradox inherent in this dual status, we can consider briefly the concept of chosenness from a different angle, one which was stressed by various thinkers and critics, among them the late Israeli historian Ya'akov Talmon.  These thinkers note the prominence of Jewish revolutionaries in various fields.  A sociological interpretation can be given for this phenomenon, explaining their struggle on the basis of the historical situation of the ghetto Jew who was devoid of rights.  However, as the Maharal says, this may be a reason, but it is not the first cause.  Searching for this original cause will lead us to an understanding of the concept of segula.

 

The Maharal's Approach

 

            The idea of segula is basic to the Maharal's concept of "alienation."  According to his perception, exile is neither a historical nor a sociological state.  For example, he vehemently opposed the claim that it was because Jews lived in social deprivation that they were forced to develop in an original and creative fashion, instead of using their talents in public service or in academia.  Exile, in the Maharal's view, is something much deeper.  The Jews were alienated from the world because in the depths of their souls they harbored "something different."  We call this "something:" segula.

 

            Allow me to explain this concept with the aid of a somewhat daring example.  A children's film which broke all the box office records is the movie "E.T."  This film describes the adventures of a creature from outer space who arrives on earth and meets children who help and protect him, while the adults persecute him at every turn.  Our protagonist suffers because he comes from a much more advanced world than our own.  In a way, we can sum up the Maharal's central thesis by saying that the Jewish people are a type of E.T.  The Jew belongs to another world, to the world of the future.  The world of the future is symbolized by our patriarch Jacob, while this world is symbolized by Esav.  Despite the fact that the Jewish people's roots are not in this world, they have been sent here by God on a metaphysical mission.  The Jewish nation's role is to implement change in this world, despite the fact that we must suffer by our very presence here.

 

            This brings us to an interesting twist.  Earlier, we mentioned the historian Toynbee who saw the Jews as a fossil from an ancient period, and claimed that we belong to the past.  The Maharal, in contrast, emphasizes the fact that Jewish suffering stems from just the opposite: we belong to the future.  It is as though a time capsule had transferred us here from the period of redemption.  This is why we are currently in exile.  The Maharal expressed this idea linguistically by noting that the Hebrew words "ga'al" (redemption) and "gala" (exile) come from the same root.  The suffering and alienation of exile result from the fact that we belong to another world.

 

            The Maharal's position is one of the two central ways to view the concept of chosenness.  Although we described it in a whimsical fashion, it displays Jewish history in a new light and addresses questions which we still face today.  Secular Zionism wished to return us to the land of Israel in order to transform us into "a nation like all other nations."  This political goal is not far from the ideal of assimilation espoused by many Jews of the modern era.  While the latter fought for this goal as individuals, the former preferred assimilation as a group.  And yet, we now find ourselves alienated once again, this time as a nation and a state.  Even after achieving independence and carving out a niche in the world community, we continue to experience the alienation of Jewish existence.  Do not be fooled: this is not a complex!  The Maharal attempts to teach us what E.T. illustrates so poignantly, that our sense of alienation should not discourage us or create feelings of inferiority; it must rather assist us in searching out our spiritual roots.

 

            Whether or not we accept this extreme interpretation, we have learned that segula is different than chosenness.  Chosenness comes as a result of man's actions, whereas segula is an intrinsic state of otherness.  Rihal's basic thesis is that, whether we like it or not, we exist in a state of alienation.  Segula precedes chosenness.  Segula is what confers upon us the option of chosenness.  On the one hand, we must call out "We shall hear and we shall obey" - this is the chosenness; yet on the other hand, we were forcibly given the Torah - and that is the segula.

 

            Our starting point is that we are different.  We need not and cannot escape that fact.  We must accept our identity, come to terms with our alienation, and ask ourselves why it is so.  Rihal, who grasped this idea intuitively, attempted to express it using the limited terminology at his disposal.  His only conceptual tools to explain the segula of our nation and land, were physical, biological and racial.  It appears that Rihal seeks to locate the difference between us and others in our genetic inheritance and the uniqueness of our land in certain climatic-spiritual effects.  Though he struggles to find the appropriate categories, this truth is greater than its scientific or pseudo-scientific expression.  We are faced with a completely mysterious phenomenon.  Mystery is the central component of the concept of segula. 

 

            Although the Maharal took Rihal's approach in one direction, next week we will examine a very different development of Rihal's ideology - the thought of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

 

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

 

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