“Let us be like all the nations.” These words of Jacob Klaztkin, a leading Zionist activist and editor, became a major motto of the World Zionist Organization. As we discussed, this desire to become like all the nations caused the major leaders of this organization to reject the traditional belief that we are a nation with a unique spiritual identity which is defined by the Torah, the Divine Teaching. Their desire to become like all the nations, however, is not a new desire. For example, this desire was expressed by leaders of our people in the generation of the Prophet Ezekiel, and the Prophet conveyed to them the following Divine response:
“As for what enters your minds, it shall not be – that you say. ‘We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands’ ” (Ezekiel 20:32).
In this letter, we will discuss sources within our tradition which reveal why the One Who is guiding us to our ultimate destiny responded to the desire to be like all the nations by saying, “it shall not be!”
The Torah reveals that our existence as a separate people within our own land has a universal and spiritual goal; moreover, the Prophets of Israel elaborate on this idea. One of the beautiful references to this universal goal is found in the following Divine message which the Prophet Isaiah conveyed to our people:
“Thus said the God, Hashem, Who created the heavens and stretched them forth; Who firmed the earth and its produce, Who gave a soul to the people upon it, and a spirit to those who walk on it. I am Hashem; I have called you on behalf of righteousness; I will strengthen your hand, and I will preserve you; I will set you as a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations.” (Isaiah 42:5,6)
“I will set you as a covenant for the people” – for the existence of the earth’s peoples, as the Hebrew word for “covenant” – bris – is an expression of existence (commentary of Radak).
Radak explains that the goal of becoming a covenant for the existence of the peoples, as well as becoming a light for the nations, will be fully achieved in the age when “Torah will go forth from Zion” (Isaiah 2:3). The nations will then “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4). In addition, says Radak, Israel will inspire the nations to fulfill the universal life-giving path within the Torah which applies to all humankind, which is why the nations will say:
“Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths” (Isaiah 2:3).
The above Divine promise regarding the universal goal of our history is actually an elaboration of the early Divine promises within the Torah which state that we are to become a source of blessing for “all the families of the earth” – a biblical term for the earth’s peoples. For example, Hashem told Jacob, our father:
“All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your offspring” (Genesis 28:14).
If our people exist for the benefit of the world, then the loss of our people’s unique identity through assimilation would be a loss to the world. This is a reason why just before Hashem told us, “I will set you as a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations,” He said, “I will preserve you” – a promise that He will not allow us to totally disappear through destruction or assimilation, for we exist for the sake of the world. In this spirit, we will discuss sources within our spiritual tradition which reveal that the Guardian of Israel will intervene in order to protect our people from assimilation among the nations. We will begin with an example from the story of our exile in Egypt:
Our father, Jacob, was given the additional name, “Israel” (Genesis 35:10); thus, his descendants became known as the Children of Israel. When Israel and his family descended into Egypt, they were given the region of Goshen as their separate area of settlement (Genesis 45:10). Egypt was a decadent, oppressive society that worshiped the gods of power, lust, and wealth; however, the Children of Israel were to maintain their separate identity in Goshen and thereby fulfill the mission which was passed down to them by their righteous ancestors – “to keep the way of Hashem through engaging in acts of righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).
As the years went by, many of the Children of Israel became attracted to the pagan culture of the Egyptians. They began to wander all over Egypt, and the Torah records, “and the land became full of them” (Exodus 1:7). The Torah then describes how the Children of Israel became enslaved.
The Midrash Rabbah (1:8) explains that before they became enslaved, they said to one another, “Let us be like the Egyptians!” The Midrash notes that the desire to be like the Egyptians caused them to neglect the mitzvah of circumcision. As a result of this trend towards assimilation, states the Midrash, the Holy One transformed the love that the Egyptians originally had for the Children of Israel into a hatred of the Children of Israel. The Midrash mentions that a source for this explanation can be found in the following passage from Psalm 105:
“Then Israel came to Egypt and Jacob sojourned in the land of Ham...He turned their hearts to hate His nation, to plot against His servants” (Psalm 105: 23,25).
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was a leading sage of the late 19th century, and he discusses the above passage from Psalm 105 in his commentary on the opening section of the Book of Exodus (Beis Halevi, Parshas Shmos). He explains that since our people were beginning to assimilate among the Egyptians, Hashem caused the hearts of the Egyptians to hate us, in order to preserve our separate identity. He points out that whenever we try to assimilate among the nations, Hashem will intervene to preserve our separate identity by arousing hatred against us.
An example of this metaphysical phenomenon can be found in the following development which took place in 19th century Germany. During this century, a strong movement of assimilation began to take place among the Jews of Germany, and many of them began to proclaim, “Berlin is our Jerusalem!” Some of them even converted to Christianity. These Jews thought that when they became like the Germans, they would escape the traditional European hatred of the Jews; however, soon after the movement of assimilation began, a new movement of anti-Jewish hatred began, and Wilhelm Marr, a leading German thinker, referred to this development as “anti-Semitism” – a new term to describe a modern version of the old hatred. According to the modern anti-Semite, even an assimilated Jew is a threat to the Gentiles because the Jew cannot escape his true identity. For example, a leading anti-Semitic German thinker, Karl Eugen Duehring, wrote in 1881:
“The Jewish question would still exist even if every Jew were to turn his back on his religion and join one of our major churches. Yes, I maintain that in that case the struggle between us and the Jews would make itself felt even more urgent. It is precisely the baptized Jew who infiltrates furthermost, unhindered in all sectors of society and political life.” (The Question of the Jew is a Question of Race.)
During this period, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading Torah sage, began a movement of Jewish renewal in Germany which inspired thousands of Jews to return to the path of the Torah. Rav Hirsch had a deep understanding of the metaphysical nature of Jewish survival, and he therefore warned his brethren that the desire to assimilate among the nations will not bring them a secure future. For example, in a Purim essay addressed to the assimilated Jews of his generation, he wrote:
“O, you deluded ones! Look at the society which is now freely open to you. Look around on the great marketplace of life. Has the race of the Haman died out completely with his ten sons? Could you not find someone from the Rhine to the Oder, from the Volga to the Danube who is capable of being his successor? Be sober and observe. Indeed, the horizon of the Jew may well become somber; sultry clouds hang in the German sky. Even in our own Jewish circles indications for gloom are apparent. No one is secure.” (Collected Writings, Vol 8, pages 246-47)
As we discussed in this series, major leaders of the World Zionist Organization wanted our people to become in the Land of Zion a nation like all the nations – a desire which caused many members of this organization to abandon the unique spiritual culture of our nation. Through this process of assimilation, these Zionist leaders developed a secular Israeli society which “imitates” all the nations, and we cited in our series various examples of this development. We also discussed how some secular Zionist thinkers within the State of Israel became concerned about this development. For example, we cited the following lament of a noted Israeli secular thinker, Hillel Halkin, regarding the trend towards assimilation within Israeli society:
“We have developed a society whose one demand from everything, from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of that outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes, as paupers once indentured themselves to a master when they could no longer earn their own bread to eat.” (Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Letter 5)
As we mentioned in Part 1 of this letter, Herzl and his followers believed that through becoming a nation like all the nations in the Land of Zion, the problem of anti-Semitism would be quickly solved. We now realize that they were mistaken, for the state that their organization established has become a major cause of the current renewal of anti-Semitism. The teachings that we have cited in this letter can help us to understand this phenomenon. These teachings reveal that our nation has a metaphysical existence due to the Divine mission that was assigned to us; moreover, it is this mission that defines our unique national identity. When we are in danger of losing our unique identity, the One Who guides human history will arouse the nations against us, and this opposition is to serve as a Divine wake-up call to preserve our unique identity.
This Divine intervention to preserve our identity is not just for our sake; it is also for the sake of the nations, for our nation is to become a model Torah society which will serve as a light to the nations. The preservation of our identity will therefore lead to the fulfillment of the following prophecy regarding our role in Zion at the dawn of the messianic age:
“Arise! Shine! – For your light has arrived, and the glory of Hashem shines upon you. For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth and a dense cloud the kingdoms; but upon you, Hashem will shine, and His glory shall be seen upon you. Nations will go by your light; and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
May you be blessed with a good and strengthening Shabbos.
And may you be blessed with a “Chodesh Tov” – a Good Month.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. At the beginning of this week, you received the letter titled, “Understanding the terms “Zionism” and “Zionist.” The ideas in this previous letter, including the retort of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld to the sheik that was hostile to Zionists, can contribute to a deeper understanding of the ideas that we have begun to discuss.
2. With the help of Hashem, we will discuss in the next letter another spiritual cause for anti-Semitism. We will also discuss Torah teachings which reveal the ways to bring an end to anti-Semitism, so that we can experience the birth of the messianic age of universal enlightenment and shalom.