|The Jewish People - A Unique Nation?|
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:
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:
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:
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: