To Be Like All the Nations?

Dear Friends,


There were leading activists within the World Zionist Organization that adopted the following motto: “Let us be like all the nations!” Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, a noted historian of the Zionist movement, discusses this motto in his book, The Zionist Idea. As he explains, these Zionist activists called into question the traditional view that the Jewish people were chosen by God for a unique and universal spiritual mission; moreover, these activists wanted the Jews to become a nation like all the other nations through having a land and language of their own. As an example, Dr. Hertzberg cites the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker: “Let us be like all the nations!” According to Klatzkin, this was to be the goal of the Zionist movement, and as we previously mentioned, Klatzkin defined this goal in the following manner: “In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (The Zionist Idea by)


Klatzkin and his colleagues felt that we should become like all the nations by having “nationalism” replace the Torah as our raison d’etre. This became the dominant view within the World Zionist Organization; however, there were some Zionist activists who challenged this view. One of them was Ahad Ha-am, a noted secular Zionist thinker, who wrote the following message to the Zionist movement regarding the unique role of our nation:


“History has not yet satisfactorily explained how it came about that a tiny nation in a corner of Asia produced a unique religious and ethical outlook, which, though it has had so profound an influence on the rest of the world, has yet remained so foreign to the rest of the world...This is a historical phenomenon to which, despite many attempted answers, we must still attach a note of interrogation. But every true Jew, be he orthodox or liberal, feels in the depths of his being that there is something in the spirit of our people – though we do not know what it is – which has prevented us from following the rest of the world along the beaten path, has led to our producing this Judaism of ours, and has kept us and our Judaism ‘in a corner’ to this day, because we cannot abandon the distinctive outlook on which Judaism is based. Let those who have this feeling remain within the fold: let those who have lost it go elsewhere. There is no room here for compromise.”


Another Zionist critic of the dominant Zionist view was Martin Buber, a philosopher who was part of a group of assimilated Jewish intellectuals in Germany that were exploring their Jewish spiritual roots. The group met during the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and Martin Buber worked closely together with another philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, who served as a leader of this group. Both of these philosophers were also educators who helped other assimilated Jewish intellectuals to rediscover the spiritual depth and beauty of the Torah; yet, there was one major difference between these two educators. Franz Rosenzweig accepted the Torah’s basic teaching that mitzvos are Divine mandates addressed to each Jew; thus, he felt that each Jew should strive to fulfill the mitzvos, even if he or she needs to proceed on a step-by-step basis. In his own return to the Torah’s path of mitzvos, he took this step-by-step approach, and when he was once asked if he was fulfilling a certain mitzvah, his reply was, “Not yet!” Martin Buber, however, did not accept the Torah’s teaching that the mitzvos are Divine mandates addressed to each Jew; thus, he did not have a personal commitment to fulfilling the Torah’s path of mitzvos. Ironically, Buber’s eloquent and moving writings about Judaism, in general, and Chasidism, in particular, inspired many searching Jews to adopt Rosenzweig’s approach and commit themselves to the Torah’s path of mitzvos.


Martin Buber rejected the motto, “Let us be like all the nations”; thus, he writes:


“I am setting up Hebrew humanism in opposition to that Jewish nationalism which regards Israel as a nation like other nations and recognizes no task for Israel save that of preserving and asserting itself.” (The Zionist Idea)


Buber also states, “Israel is not a nation like other nations, no matter how much its representatives have wished it during certain eras.” Buber explains that this is because Israel from its earliest beginnings has been both “a nation and a religious community.” Buber adds:


“Israel was and is a people and a religious community in one, and it is this unity which enabled it to survive in an exile no other nation had to suffer, an exile which lasted much longer than the period of its independence. He who severs this bond severs the life of Israel.” (Ibid)


In the following excerpts from his writings, Martin Buber makes an important distinction between the belief that Israel is chosen and the belief of some other nations that they are chosen:


“The point is not whether we feel or do not feel that we are chosen. The point is that our role in history is actually unique. There is even more to it. The nature of our doctrine of election is entirely different from that of the theories of election of the other nations… Our doctrine is distinguished from their theories in that our election is completely a demand. This is not the mythical shape of a people’s wishful dreams. This is not an unconditional promise of magnitude and might to a people. This is a stern demand, and the entire future existence of this people is made dependent on whether this demand is met. This is not a God speaking whom the people created in their own image, as their sublimation. He confronts the people and opposes them. He demands and judges. And He does so not only in the age of the prophets at a later stage of historical development, but from time immemorial; and no hypothesis of Bible criticism can ever deny this.


“What He demands, he calls ‘truth’ and ‘righteousness,’ and He does not demand these for certain isolated spheres of life, but for the whole life of the human being, for the whole life of the people. He wants the individual and the people to be ‘wholehearted’ with Him. Israel is chosen to enable it to ascend from the biological law of power, which the nations glorify in their wishful thinking, to the sphere of truth and righteousness. God wishes the human being whom He has created to become a human in the truest sense of the word, and wishes this to happen not only in sporadic instances, as it happens among other nations, but in the life of an entire people.” (Ibid)


Buber therefore stresses: “Israel was chosen to become a true people, and that means God’s people” (ibid).


The above words of Buber can remind us of the Divine words spoken to our ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai:


“You shall be holy for Me, for I, Hashem, am holy; and I have separated you from the peoples to be Mine.” (Leviticus 20:26)


On some level, Martin Buber understood that Israel must be a separate and holy people living in the Holy Land in order to serve as a universal model for other peoples. He did not fully understand, however, that all the mitzvos are our path to this universal goal. He heard one part of the Divine message, but he failed to hear the other part:


“You shall keep all My statutes and all My social laws and carry them out; then the Land to which I bring you to dwell will not spew you out.” (Leviticus 20:22)


It was in this spirit that Malachi, the last of the biblical prophets, revealed to our people at the beginning of our exile a Divine message regarding the end of our exile. This Divine message reveals the secret of how we can hasten the birth of the messianic age which will be preceded by the arrival of Elijah, the Prophet, who is the forerunner of the Messiah. As the following words of this message indicate, Elijah will arrive before the great and awesome day of Divine judgment and redemption:


“Remember the Torah of Moses, my servant, which I commanded him at Horeb for all of Israel – its statutes and social laws. Behold, I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of Hashem.” (Malachi 3:23)


“Remember the Torah of Moses, my servant, which I commanded him at Horeb for all of Israel – its statutes and social laws.” – And because of this, you will bring the redemption closer (commentary of Rabbi Yosef Kara).


Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo

Hazon - Our Universal Vision