Jews and Nationhood
When last heard from, we were lamenting the alienation of younger, non-Orthodox American Jews from Israel, as detailed in a recent study by sociologists Stephen M. Cohen and Ari Kelman. Those findings parallel a great deal of social science evidence describing the rapidly waning sense of peoplehood among American Jews and declining willingness to affirm any special responsibility to one’s fellow Jews (see Cohen and Wertheimer, ‘Whatever Happened to the Jewish People,’ Commentary, June 2006).
Some have attempted to put a happy face on these findings by arguing that while Jewish ethnic identity is plummeting, Jewish religious observance is holding steady and perhaps even increasing. Unfortunately, there is little consolation to be found in that direction.
Whatever can be said of religious observance that downplays mutual responsibility of Jews for one another, it is not Judaism. Lawrence Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, describes the new Reform Siddur as taking into account ”a growing emphasis on personalism as opposed to peoplehood, the individual’s search for the sacred. . .”
That emphasis on the subjective experience of the worshiper as providing the validation of religious ritual is borrowed from 18th-century German Protestantism. But it has far earlier antecedents. The essence of pagan ritual, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik observed, is that it derives meaning only from the emotional impact upon the one performing the ritual.
In Jewish thought, Rabbi Soloveitchik noted, it is the objective command, not the subjective emotions, that is primary. The word mitzva – commandment, derives from a root indicating joinder. In short, the essence of the command is the link formed between the one performing it and God the commander. Joy is the outgrowth of the proper fulfillment of the Divine will through the mitzva, not its goal.
NO JEWISH concept has aroused such animosity over the millennia or creates such discomfort among modern Jews as that of chosenness, a chosenness predicated on Jewish nationhood. In a 1996 Commentary symposium on the state of American Jewish belief, almost no non-Orthodox theologian was prepared to give his or her unqualified assent to the idea that Jews are God’s chosen people.
Yet what are we to do, the Torah reaffirms this principle repeatedly. Upon reading from the Torah, we bless God as ”the One Who chose us from among the nations.” The Torah describes us as ”a kingdom of priests, a holy nation,” and repeatedly as God’s ”treasured nation.”
As Rabbi Yehuda Halevi writes in The Kuzari, the Jews are unique among the monotheistic faiths in that their revelation took place before the entire people and was not just given to a solitary prophet. The difference pertains not just to the verification of the revelation. In the other religions, the solitary prophet hands over the principles of faith, and those who accept those principles become members of a faith community. But in Judaism the entire people is described as entering into a covenant with God. The covenant is with an entire nation.
With His revelation to an entire people, God assigned to that nation a common mission incumbent on each and every member of the nation. That mission is nothing less than to reveal God’s existence to the world. Sometimes we fulfill that mission through our actions, and sometimes through what happens to us. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch emphasized that it is primarily through the fate of the Jewish people that God reveals Himself in history.
The mission is a universal one, but it starts with a particular people. Only by creating among ourselves an ideal society can we demonstrate to the world what a society based on a relationship to God might look like. (Obviously, I’m describing an ideal not any existing Jewish society.) Because the mission is a national one, the halacha continually reinforces the relationship of mutual responsibility that Jews bear toward one another as citizens of a single nation.
Thus it is forbidden to lend money to a fellow Jew with interest – even though logic alone would not dictate a proscription on taking interest any more than on renting
one’s donkey. Similarly, the halacha imposes different obligations with respect to the lost objects of a fellow Jew and those of a gentile. The reason in both cases: the Jew is ”your brother.” I can make kiddush for another Jew who does not know how to do so, even though I have already fulfilled my obligation. The underlying concept is that no Jew has ever fully filled his obligation unless every Jew has done so.
IN CHRISTIAN thought, and even to most modern Jews, there is something degraded about a particularistic love for one’s fellow Jews. Far more elevated is the universal love of all mankind. But in the Jewish view, it is only through the love of the particular that we learn to expand the realm of our concern outward. Those who aim to love all men equally usually end up in the position described in the old bumper sticker: ”I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”
This difference in perspective, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik argues in the current Commentary, explains why Judaism, in juxtaposition to Christianity, rejects the ideal of celibacy. Far from the particular love of one’s wife and children derogating from a higher universal love, that particularistic love is, in the Torah view, the necessary condition for the development of a more all-encompassing love. A High Priest without a wife could not perform the Yom Kippur service.
When Jews lose the sense of their interdependency with, and obligations of mutual responsibility toward their fellow Jews, something more than mere ethnic identity has been lost. That ethnic identity was itself nothing more than an attenuated connection to the essence of what it means to be a Jew – to be a member of the nation with a Divine mission.
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on November 2 2007.