The Jewish People - A Unique Nation?

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Three writers produce a continuum of concepts on this issue which are debated to raise consciousness among Jewish youth and support this with Jewish sources. The topic serves as an approach to self-awareness and development as Jews, appropriate to the approach to the Jewish New Year, and is also relevant to Succot.


There is an ever-increasing trend today to move towards universal values and away from an elitist stream of consciousness. In contra-distinction to this tendency, Jews have always had to come to terms with an awareness of being different. By their self definition or through a response to the outside world they have been elected or selected. In the liturgy of Sukkot, for example, the Jew has for generations expressed the belief in the Chosen People. How is it possible, however, to understand this Jewish condition within both an historic and a modern context?

To help us answer this question we present below three interpretations of the uniqueness of the Jewish people each of which can serve as a base for developing an expanded consciousness among Jewish youth.

Synopsis of Viewpoints

Our first concept attempts to define the Jewish condition in terms of the religious task given to the Jews, as opposed to the nations of the world. Intrinsic to this line of thought is a belief in the Divine source of the directive. The major component of life's purpose for the Jew is seen as the introduction of righteousness into the world.

The second approach suggests that Israel's uniqueness lies in its spiritual genius and the effect that the message of ethical monotheism has had on the humanisation of man. In contrast to the previous approach, this is less a matter of faith than of national psyche; more a question of contribution than the source of its inspiration.

The third writer takes a modernistic and nationalistic approach: The uniqueness of Jewish nationhood lies in its history of dispersion, attachment to the land and consequent re-unification in its ancient homeland. Despite this uniqueness, however, the writer stresses the similarities between the emergence of the Jewish liberation movement and other nations, in our day. He concludes that national feeling is a natural feeling and that it is sufficient for nations to recognise each other's right to be different, while also incorporating the good of other peoples into their culture.

None of these ideas is mutually exclusive. Each to his/her own interpretation; each to his/her own world-view . . .

Concept One: The Essence of the People of Israel's Selection

In essence, explains Rabbi Isidore Epstein in his now classic work "Judaism", Israel's selection lay in her special purpose to be in the vanguard of the continuing process of Creation:

"Made in the image of God, man must conform to the character of God. Because God creates, man must also create."

Thus the rationale for man's creating is the emulation of God; emulation is creating. This emulation expressed itself in the attempt to approximate God's morality. The means for accomplishing this is obedience to the moral law of the Torah.

This moral law falls into two types:
1) Justice --- which is concerned with the recognition of human rights;
2) Righteousness --- which stresses the acceptance of religious duties.

Unlike other religions of the world, Judaism went beyond belief in - or knowledge of - a godhead; it went further than love of God. Judaism requires of its adherents to express justice and righteousness through social and personal conduct.


The process of justice was started historically when Noah was enjoined to respect sanctity for human life. The Noachide precepts, such as the prevention of the spilling of blood, on the one hand, and the consumption of blood, on the other, were offered as a modus vivendi to a society which stood in need of re-creation.

This process of justice continued to expand and develop among the nations of the world, insofar as it was essential to safeguard human rights. But justice alone was but the negative aspect of moral law: Justice is regulative; not creative.


It was the covenant with Abraham, later ratified at Sinai, that entrusted a universal task to the people of Israel. This task was the additional feature of making known the meaning of righteousness in the world. As a "holy nation," the Jewish people accepted upon themselves a particular way of life in which moral conduct would become a religious duty. These duties were spelt out for the Jew in the Torah. And it would be this behaviour that would enable them to participate in the creative process and would mark the Jews off as a distinct people among the nations of the world.

Concept Two: The People of Israel's Special Contribution

Whether one believes in Divine revelation or not, it is clear that the Jewish people were the medium by which the message of monotheism was introduced into the world. The late Chief Rabbi of England, Dr. Hertz, in his commentary on the liturgy of the festival of Sukkot, elaborated on Israel's unique contribution to civilisation and suggests that this alone is enough to justify Israel's selectivity:

Each historic nation points with pride to its own peculiar contribution to the spiritual treasure of mankind whether in art or science, law of government. Israel's contribution to the humanisation of man transcends that of all others in eternal significance. "For only in Israel did ethical monotheism exist. And, wherever else it is found later on, it has been derived directly or indirectly from Israel, and was conditioned by the existence of the people of Israel. Hence the term "election" expresses merely an historical fact" (Leo Baeck).
When we think of the abominations that were part of human life in Egypt, Canaan, Assyria; when we recall that in Rome the cruelties of barbarism were combined with shameless indulgence of every vice, there is ample conviction that Israel was a people apart . . .

Thus, according to Dr. Hertz, there are no grounds for taking an elitist approach to the notion of chosenness. The contribution of the Jewish people to the world is the product of a spiritual genius and, perhaps, a propensity that lies in every Jewish soul towards righteousness. This was a unique input which has to be evaluated in the context of history.

Concept Three: The Right to be Different

Eliyahu Elon, contemporary writer and artist, picks up the notion that it is the people's unique history and attachment to the land that makes her an outstanding people. But the unique elements of the Jewish people, in his opinion, should not lead its adherents to reject the cultures of the world around them, in this day and age. In what follows, we can detect the dialectic of singularity and uniformity:

"Perhaps it was through a peculiar sense of destiny, shaped by its early history, that the People of Israel appears as the first group with a clear national identity. At a later stage, we can note that the Greeks resembled the Jews in some rEspects insofar as there was breakdown into tribes and city-states or into kingdoms. And, like the Jews, there was always a strong sense of belonging to a national framework, in contrast to other nations of the time. Despite the development of a strong national consciousness, however, it is not difficult to point out that the Jewish entity did not completely disassociate itself from the symbolism of surrounding, not entirely differentiated nations . . .
"It is the nineteenth century that historians call the 'Spring of Nations' in which the national consciousness of the European and American peoples arose. The twentieth century saw a continuation of this process among other nations of the world. And, in this context, the dispersed people of Israel returned to rebuild their national home in the land of their fathers: even she achieved national liberation. And, we too, are obliged to interpret this national consciousness in terms that are understandable in modern times...
"A nation can be defined as a group of people tied together, as it were, by a common destiny which may be identified on the basis of common ancestry, language, territory, culture and other such variables. Any one of these criteria may delineate one or other nation. But, however doubtful the existence of a given nation is, it can rightly be said that as soon as a national consciousness emerges amongst a given people, a national entity has been formed.
"There is no concensus on what really are the sufficient conditions of nationhood. Some theoreticians agree with the above notion: a nation consists of those who make a claim to nationhood. Others suggest that the achievement of independence is the important index. There are those who will yet take issue with both these approaches. They will search out the basic units of self-sufficiency and government --- the basic organisational framework --- without which any form of struggle for liberation is impossible.
"The birth of Israel contained all these three ingredients. Firstly, there was a national consciousness embedded in the tradition of Israel and which found its expression in the literature of the ages, the early messianic movements and the Zionist movement of modern times. Next, the founding of the Yishuv --- the early Jewish settlement of Palestine --- spurred on by the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe, gave rise to two phenomena: the formation of a state-in-embryo and the feeling that the people had returned to their homeland. With the development of the community and the building of self-government the path was set for the meeting of the third condition of nationhood --- independence. Each condition, we can see, was tied to the other in time.
"The Jewish people was not the only people to have suffered dispersion; nor is the ingathering of exiles a particularly unique phenomenon to the Jews. But there are few people who can claim to have brought back masses to their homeland. There are even fewer nations that have lost their independence, been dispersed, and maintained their unique national consciousness while in exile. And there is only one nation that lost both its independence and motherland but preserved itself, namely, the Jewish people.

Editors, Menachem Persoff, Zehava Albert, "Sukkot", Youth & Hechalutz Dept., WZO (Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education), Jerusalem. Revised Edition.



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08 Jun 2005 / 1 Sivan 5765 0