07 Jan

Chapter 8: Israel and the Nations

The Heart and the Limbs

There is a famous quote from one of the greatest Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Judah Halevi, “Israel is to the nations as a heart is to the limbs.” We must try to understand this statement. All of humanity is a single, living, incredibly large organism that exists throughout generations and cannot be reduced to any particular generation. Within this totality there is a vector, a direction to humanity. Since prehistory, and the beginning of history, though all cultures, we feel that humanity has a direction, a goal.

And for there to be a direction there must be a center that will serve as the memory that retains the chronicles of the whole.

What can we compare this to? To a person who starts out as a baby, and then is five years old, and then fifteen, and then thirty, fifty, and a hundred. What connects all the parts of this person? His memory. He remembers being fifteen, thirty etc. It is this recollection that gives a continuity to all the forces of life and states of being. So too within humanity. Traversing the generations and the nations there is a memory center.

This memory center is the heart of humanity, and this is the role of the nation of Israel, the Jewish people.

A critical point arises from this. A heart cannot live without the limbs, and the limbs cannot live without a heart. If the heart will try to be a limb or the limbs will try to be a heart, the body will become dysfunctional. So too, in mankind, every nation has its unique role. The nation of Israel’s function is not simple at all. It must maintain the vitality of the connection between God’s light and the world. This is not a normal or usual position, and it requires the Jewish people to live not fully natural lives. The Jews’ task is to be constantly exposed to the light and function like a shutter on a camera, letting in the right amount of light. Whoever is constantly in the divine light has a difficult time settling down, or remaining comfortable in the same way the other nations of the world do.

In the Jewish tradition, non-Jews are called “the nations of the world.” They are called nations of the world because they live in this world. Are the Jews not living in this world? They are living in this world but at the same time they feel a certain estrangement to the human identity and toward the natural world. And so, as another great Jewish thinker, the Maharal of Prague, explains, the nation of Israel must remain small in number. For if it were to become the majority of humanity, or if all humanity were to live perpetually in the divine light, this would delay its development and stunt its growth. Because someone who is always exposed to the God’s light cannot develop naturally. So we must thank the divine providence that always ensured that the Jewish people would remain small in number through to today, in a humanity of billions. They remain a dot in the natural realm, and precisely because they are small they can have a great qualitative influence and the nations of the world will give this people the room to spread holiness in the world.

It can be said that there is a friendship, a covenant between Israel and the nations.

This covenant requires Israel to nurture the connection with God, and the entire world – all of humanity – provides the complementary natural human identity. Thus, we have a healthy system of heart and body. But one ingredient is especially necessary – love.

The heart must love the body and the body must love the heart. Through this we can achieve an ideal world, with perfection for all those in it.

I want to add another point here. Our sages said, “He who says something in the name of its original source brings redemption to the world.” From here we learn that the world is in need of redemption. From what? From its exile from its Creator. And the truth is that the natural world is good and beautiful but is also disconnected from its Creator. How was the world created? The tradition of the Torah recounts that it was created through ten sayings; the ten times where it says the words “and God said” in the account of creation in Genesis. This is what created the natural world.

It can be said, then, that the divine sayings created a framework for the world that disconnects it from God, its creator. But these ten sayings were transformed over history into the Ten Commandments. Through these God revealed His will and rebuilt the conduit that connects between Him and the world through the nation of Israel.

This the meaning of the expression “he who says something in the name of…” He who changes the sayings into the commandments brings redemption to the world and redeems man from his loneliness and distance from the Creator. This is the role that the Jewish people play for the rest of the world.

Love Those Close to You so that You Will Love Those Distant

Israel and the nations. This dichotomous expression carries a certain tension because if we’re are speaking of the nation of Israel standing on one side, and all of humanity on the other, this automatically creates tension. It could be hostile and it could be sympathetic but this kind of picture, of Israel on one side and the rest of humanity on the other, cannot result in indifference. Indeed, we see that throughout the history of the Jewish people there were periods, sometimes even simultaneous, of both positive, attractive and radiant influence on one hand, and of hostility, Jew-hatred and persecution on the other, even to the point of wanting to take Israel’s place.

The question is what does the Jewish nation want from the world? Does it want to distance itself from humanity or be close? The answer is twofold. The distant side certainly exists. Many laws in Judaism serve the purpose of forming a barrier. For example, dietary laws; I cannot eat with my non-Jewish friend from the same plate, and even at the same table we eat different foods. Intermarriage is forbidden. We do not have the same day of rest, I observe the Sabbath and he does not, so how could we work together? It’s clear that Jewish law has created a built-in barrier between Israel and the nations. But if we contemplate this we understand that the goal of this barrier is not simple introversion on the part of Israel, but rather for the goal of perfecting the world.

In order to help others, there is a need to retain a framework whose role is to create a focal point of holiness, of values, and of morality. So within Israel’s inwardness, as it were, lies a great and deep love for all mankind. “Man is most loved, as he was created in the image of God,” says Rabbi Akiva. Hillel the elder, one of the great sages during the second temple says, “Be like the students of Aaron, love peace and pursue peace, love the creations and draw them toward Torah.” If so, who was the Torah meant for? To those who are distant from it. A wealth of holiness and purity must be shared with them. And so, every time we see hints of what seems to be hatred, even harsh comments, we must understand the context of the worldview in which they are being said, and genuinely recognize that the Jewish people love all mankind, and were therefore chosen.

The commandment to “love your neighbor like yourself” was a point of criticism by the founder of Christianity against Judaism as this law only obligates Jews to love people of their own nation. Meaning a Jew must love another Jew. And what about the other nations? The founder of Christianity said, ‘They told you to love those close to you and hate those distant from you.’

But the truth is that this is not what Judaism says at all. The injunction is to love those close to you because this is the principle challenge of love. Loving those who are distant is not difficult, it is taken as a given. It is precisely that the Jew succeeds in loving those close to him that makes his love for others real and authentic.

Worship the Creator of the World Directly

We are not going through a systematic comparison between Judaism and other religious systems here, but because Christianity sprang up from within Judaism, a direct comment on it is in order. Notice a certain asymmetry, for if we ask a Christian what is Christianity, he would have to include Judaism in his explanation. Christianity is defined in relation to Judaism, because it developed out of Judaism. In contrast, a Jew has no need to mention Christianity in order to define what Judaism is. Judaism stands on its own, regardless of what the church says about it.

That being said, we cannot ignore the fact that many of the messages of the prophets of Israel were promulgated to humanity through the efforts of Christian theology, the Christian religion and the Christian civilization.

The relationship between us and Christianity was never simple or easy. Think about what it means when someone says to you “I am you.” This is what the church said for years; that it has replaced the Jewish people as “Israel.” So much so that in its prayers, the church calls itself “Israel.” So who are the Jews? The Jews are the biological descendants of the children of Israel, Israel in the flesh. But the church is Israel in spirit. This can be called identity theft.

Thank God, in our times the nation of Israel has returned to its home. The claim that the Jews are not Israel anymore has become very difficult to maintain. And this raises the question, if the Jews are in fact Israel, what is the church? And so today, within the Christian world there are many questions and discussions of revision. It has stopped talking about replacement and instead about an additional testament, as opposed to a new one, and about the Jews as having a role to play, and the like.

So the truth must be said, that we are duty-bound to help the world discover what it is missing. Put otherwise, in order for the Christian world to absorb the light that is bound in the soul of Israel, there was a need for a type of myth built around the persona of Jesus that is meant to replace the nation of Israel. But there was only a need for this while the nation of Israel was unable to implement its influential role.

However, now that we have returned to our place, and the divine presence has begun to rest in Jerusalem, we are obligated to tell the nations of the world that there is no longer a need to pray to Jesus, nor to see him as a Deity, nor to worship him in any way. But rather, it is possible, with the guidance of the nation of Israel, to worship the Creator of the world directly.

Islam as the Religious Progeny of Judaism

Can Islam be recognized in the framework of the Noahide covenant? Does Islam accord with the universal teachings of Judaism? The answer is complicated: it is yes and no.

Islam does indeed represent an adoption on the part of the sons of Ishmael, our cousins, of the requirements of the seven Noahide laws. And we do indeed find all of the seven Noahide laws within the Islamic legal tradition. But at the same time, there is a point of contention: the claim found in Islam’s oral traditions that the children of Israel – the Jews, as well as Christians for that matter, distorted the holy writings. And therefore, as the claim goes, everything written in the Jewish holy writings, as well as the Christian ones, is unreliable, unless it accords with what it says in the Koran.

This issue has serious implications. It is not only of unreliability but something much deeper. The Koran sees itself as “the” authority for delivering the world of God. And so, it also sees itself as something that is meant to replace Judaism and Christianity. It comes as a substitute. This leads to a denial of the nation of Israel as such. This is a denial of the fact that God chose us to be his messengers, to guide the behavior of humanity.

When Mohamad began his career, during the period of Mecca before the move to Medina, we find in these chapters of the Koran that he did, in fact, act as a messenger of the Torah of Moses. If the situation were to have remained this way, it’s possible that the nation of Israel would have been granted a position of respect, and would have guided Islam in correcting the aspects that needed correcting, namely how to add the value of mercy to the value of judgement.

To be sure, this is not yet the case. But if Islam were to undergo an internal reform, it’s possible that these two currents could be resolved. At the end of the day, we are family. What is the necessary reform? That Islam must acknowledge itself for what it really is: an offshoot, or the ‘religious progeny,’ of Judaism. Once it can recognize itself as such, we could certainly be accepted in their houses of worship and study, and teach them what the Torah of Moses believes should be rectified, and how to meet the needs of the current generation. In doing so, Islam would become a welcome branch of Moses’ Torah.

Atheist Believers

Atheism. The position that says that there is no God (God forbid) is a common belief today, even a dominant one. Many people say that they have no need for a belief in God, and feel that there really is no such thing as God. The question is, what is Judaism’s attitude toward atheism?

Here we are in for a few surprises. The Talmud tells us, “Anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Jew.” Very often the atheistic position is not actually an outright rejection of any reality of God, because many people are not really clear themselves on what they mean when they speak of these issues. But they do have a sense that all sorts of primitive, and pagan beliefs should be rejected. It’s possible that the atheist assertion, instead of coming in the name of small-mindedness or heresy, is coming to liberate the soul from mythologies and pagan beliefs that found their way into their faith in recent generations.

So the Talmud tells us, “Anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Jew” because this is a rejection of small-mindedness. When people say that they don’t believe in God, you must check how much they really are clear on what they mean. It is possible that such a person is really a great believer, as reflected in the seven Noahide laws. They require man to negate paganism but include no positive commandment to believe in God. It’s likely that the Halacha intended that the issue of positively defining belief remain incumbent on the Jews only, and not on the rest of the nations, so that these definitions of God will not deteriorate into pagan worship, or views that have the effect of repressing man’s spirit instead of uplifting it.

So we must remember that while we may see big trends of disbelief in the world today, these trends bring with them a denial of paganism as well. And while this, no doubt, leads man to a terrible condition where he feels that there is no meaning to the world, it also paves the way for a renewed belief that is more pure and more healthy.

One of the Jewish greats who lived about 500 years ago, Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, said that the awakening against the Christian faith in the western world portends a true acceptance of the ‘Yoke of the kingdom of heaven.’ It is also likely that when Maimonides’ spoke of a non-Jewish sage that accepts the rejection of God because his intellect demands it, he had in mind those modern ‘atheist believers’ that don’t realize they are believers.

The Noahide Covenant

The Talmud tell us of a special covenant that was made between God and man, years before the Israelites appeared in history and well before the Torah was given. What is this covenant between God and mankind? It is called the Torah of the Sons of Noah, or the Noahide Torah, named after the prehistoric biblical figure, Noah. When he left the ark he received the commandments that represent mankind’s minimal obligations.

These are called the seven Noahide commandments, or laws, that obligate all of humanity.

What is the content of the seven laws? Surprisingly, they are seemingly trivial things that are fundamental to basic human morality. There are only seven clauses: not to worship idols, not to engage in prohibited sexual relations, not to murder, not to curse God – meaning not to develop a pessimistic attitude toward the world, not to steal and not to be cruel to animals by eating a limb torn from a living animal. Finally, there is the law to establish courts to judge and enforce the above issues.

At the end of the day, all of these are things that a decent, civilized society should already be fulfilling. In that case, what does the Noahide Torah come to add? The Talmud explains by distinguishing between those who keep the basic moral imperatives as moral demands only, and those who keep them as God’s commandments, in addition to their belonging to basic morality. Moral imperatives are very important but they are limited to making one a complete person, to achieving human perfection. But a divine commandment adds an additional dimension and that is a connection with the Creator. When I fulfill the divine imperatives I connect with the Infinite Creator; I connect to Him through His commandments.

This condition of being connected is called holiness, sanctity. Before performing a commandment we say, “Blessed is He… who has made us holy through his commandments…” Thus, the seven Noahide laws provide man with a link between the natural world and the transcendent world.

The Talmud relates to us that, at some point, humanity ceased to keep the Noahide laws as divine commandments but continued keeping them as “one who fulfills without being commanded,” as voluntary. But this is a lower level of fulfillment. In order to return to the status of “one who fulfills as a divine commandment,” and not only as a moral imperative, there must be a formal acceptance of the Noahide laws before a court of three Jewish sages, as our great Rabbi, Maimonides, taught. After this, the Noahide laws are not the end of the story. In fact, they are like an entry pass into the domain of God’s word, as revealed through the Mosaic tradition.

To Join One’s Fate with the Jewish people

What is the status of the Ger Toshav, the ‘foreign resident,’ in the Torah? In a number of places in the Torah, it speaks of people living in the land of Israel who are not part of the Israelite tribes, and are referred to as Gerim Toshavim. What is this ‘foreign residency?’

A Ger is someone foreign. A Toshav, resident, is a citizen, one who belongs. A ‘foreign resident’ is an intermediate status. The truth is that everyone in this world is in some sense a foreign resident. We are foreign from our souls’ perspective, foreign in this world. But from nature’s viewpoint we are citizens of this world. This is what 37 The term ‘Mosaic tradition’ is used here to mean the Torah that was given through Moses. It is a translation of the Hebrew term Torat Moshe.

Abraham meant when he said, “I am a foreigner and a resident…” and added, “with you.” He wanted to explain this point to others, but they did not accept his opinion.

In any case, the Torah speaks of additional people living among the Israelites who, of course, accepted the Israelite nation’s sovereignty. But they also must accept the fact they are obligated by the Mosaic tradition to uphold the seven Noahide laws that all humans were commanded to fulfill. This is a requirement. In order for them to be residents with the full social, welfare and critical medical assistance rights of someone who resides with the nation of the land of Israel, they must achieve the status of foreign resident.

The Talmud teaches that this special status is only formally applicable in a time when the Jubilee year is also applicable. The laws of the Jubilee year are only applicable when all of the Jewish people reside in the land of Israel, and are arranged geographically according to their tribal affiliations. This has not been the case for 2600 years. So, today there is no official status of foreign residency. However, someone who desires to be recognized with this status can do so, only, the nation of Israel would not be obligated to provide for the welfare of someone fulfilling the minimum requirements.

Two years ago, the Israeli Rabbinate gave recognition to a Noahide in Israel as a Ger Toshav and they chose to sell him the lands of the land of Israel during the Sabbatical year. This is an entire story in itself. In any case, a Ger Toshav is one who decides to join his fate to the Jewish people by accepting the seven Noahide laws and, of course, much more than that.

Human Reason and the Wisdom of God

The ‘Wise One’ and the ‘Righteous One’ are two titles of respect. In our tradition, someone with intellect and wisdom is called by the title ‘wise.’ Whereas, someone who is honest, faithful, loyal to his teachers and loyal to moral values is called righteous. What about people of other nations? There is a famous expression, the “Righteous ones of the nations” (Chasidei Umot Ha’olam). Who are they? Today this term is used to describe people that helped Jews during the Holocaust, when we were persecuted.

However, the Halachic tradition defines this righteousness as someone who has accepted the seven Noahide laws via the religious tradition. This means someone who has come to believe and observe the laws through the Mosaic tradition. Such a person is called a “righteous one of the nations.” Our great Rabbi, Maimonides, says of such a person that he has a place in the world to come, that he has the status of foreign resident, he may live among us in the land of Israel, within Jewish society and he is beloved. This is the righteous of the nations.

What about someone who comes to fulfill the same laws, only not through any religious tradition, but rather because his human intellect, his basic morality and natural honesty bring him to these principles; to what is called the categorical imperative of reason. Is such a person considered righteous? Maimonides says no. He would be called a “Wise one of the nations” (Chacham Umot Ha’olam). But what about his place in the world to come? Maimonides points out that he would not be a foreign resident, but he makes no comment regarding the world to come, and many speculations have been made as to why.

One of the great sages of the 20th century, Rabbi Kook, however, provides us with the explanation of Maimonides’ omission. He explains that according to Maimonides the attribute of wisdom is so admirable that someone who is so wise as to arrive at the seven Noahide laws with no religious tradition is certainly an exceptional person and full of the wisdom of God. And so there is no need to state that such a person has a place in the world to come. It would be beneath his honor to have to state this explicitly, it is so obvious. Other philosophies have expressed this in their own ways.

So the wise is greater than the righteous, but why is he not a foreign resident? This is because within Jewish society we want people who are committed to the Mosaic tradition, and not only to general morality. At the same time, we are, of course, interested in promoting the wisdom of God within the heart of man, whether this wisdom is drawn from the Mosaic tradition or from the intellect of man

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