A Deeper Perspective on Our Spiritual Identity

Dear Friends,


Through the giving of the Torah, the Divine Teaching, we were assigned a spiritual and universal mission; moreover, we became a nation whose identity would be defined by this mission. As Hashem proclaimed to our people at Mount Sinai:


“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch discusses the deeper meaning of this message in the following teachings, where he refers to our people by our Hebrew name, “Yisrael”:


“Yisrael was given the Torah in the wilderness, and there – without a country and land of its own – it became a nation, a body whose soul was Torah. Thereby it came to be a mamleches kohanim, a ‘kingdom of priests,’ a nation serving as the guardian of Hashem’s Word in the midst of humanity, as a priest serves amidst his people. At the same time, by fulfilling Hashem’s Word, it was to become a goy kadosh, a ‘holy nation,’ standing apart in holiness.” (The Nineteen Letters, Letter Eight)


Rabbi Hirsch adds:


“Torah, the fulfillment of the Divine Will, constitutes the foundation, basis and goal of this people. Its nationhood is therefore not tied to transitory things or dependent on anything of a passing nature; it is as eternal and everlasting as spirit and soul and the Word of the Eternal.” (Ibid)


Rabbi Hirsch then conveys a message which was stressed by all the Prophets of Israel:


“A land, prosperity, and the institutions of statehood were to be put at Yisrael’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as means for the fulfillment of the Torah. Accordingly, they were all granted to Yisrael on one – and only one – condition: that it would indeed fulfill the Torah.” (Ibid)


The above teachings remind me that Saadia Gaon, a leading sage of our people in the early 10th century, expressed the following basic principle regarding Torah and our national identity:


Our nation is a nation only through its Torah. (Emunos V’De’os 3:7)


This teaching of Saadia Gaon came up in a conversation I once had with a young rabbi who was a graduate of a yeshiva which is affiliated with the Religious-Zionist movement. He said that he did not understand how Saadia Gaon could say that our nation is a nation “only” through its Torah. He asked, “What about the Land of Israel?”


After some thought, I offered the following response: It is the Torah which reveals the holiness and purpose of the Land of Israel; thus, it is the Torah which defines our nation's relationship with the Land.


After some thought, he replied: “You gave me a good answer.” I recently found support for this answer in the following statement of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a leading sage who served as the spiritual leader of the Mizrachi (Religious-Zionist) organization in North America:


“The Land of Israel is holy and dear because the Torah sanctified it and because the Torah’s future is tied to it.” (Chamesh Drashos, page 26)


 The Torah’s future is tied to the Land, because the Land was given to us for the sake of the Torah. As Moshe proclaimed to our nation before we entered the Land: “See, I have taught you statutes and social laws which Hashem, my God, has commanded me, so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the Land” (Deuteronomy 4:5).


The following is a summary of Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary on the above proclamation:


Every other nation first became a people because it had a land, and it then fashioned its laws. But you became a people by virtue of the Torah, and only when you received it were you given a land for its sake. In fact, your lawgiver, the man who served as the transmitter of the Torah, never set foot on the soil of your land in his life! It is with the Torah in your arms that you now stand as a nation on the border of the land you are to enter, so that you may be able to keep all aspects of the Torah in this land. You are the People of the Torah and the Land of Israel is the Land of the Torah.


The Torah is therefore the essence of our nation’s identity; yet, without the Land of the Torah, we cannot fully express our identity, for the Land enables us to apply the Torah to all areas of our existence. Without the Land, we are still a nation, but we are not a “healthy” nation, as Rabbi Hirsch writes in his commentary on the “Siddur” – our classical prayer book:


“As long as the Jewish national organism is dispersed in exile, it is sick.” (The Hirsch Siddur, page 139)


May the health of the People of the Torah soon be restored through a full expression of our identity in the Land of the Torah.


Have a Good and Healthy Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Insights and Personal Comments:


1. The awareness that Torah is the essence of our nation’s identity can help us to understand why our nation did not completely assimilate among the nations during the centuries of our long exile. A study of Jewish history reveals that Jewish communities in the Diaspora which maintained a commitment to the study and fulfillment of Torah managed to maintain their collective identity, while those Jewish communities which lost their connection to Torah eventually assimilated among the nations.


2. In my last year of yeshiva high school, I was privileged to have as my teacher, Rabbi Gershon Weinreb of blessed memory, a Torah scholar who was a disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, a leading sage who was the head of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin. Rabbi Weinreb met my parents, who were progressive social activists, and he greatly respected them. Rabbi Weinreb once told me that I should begin to study the writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as his explanation of the universal vision of the Torah and the universal role of our people would help me to relate to Jews like my parents. As a start, he gave me Rabbi Hirsch’s noted classic, “The Nineteen Letters” – a soul-stirring work which helped to prepare me for my dialogue with the spiritually-searching Jews of our era.


“The Nineteen Letters” is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com  . A review of this soul-stirring work appears in, “The Universal Jewish Library,” on our website: 

Hazon - Our Universal Vision