Unholy and Holy Nationalism

Introductory Comments:


We are in the midst of mourning for those murdered by terrorists in a brutal attack on Mumbai, India. Among the victims were Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who founded the Chabad center in Mumbai, which has served as a center of warm hospitality for Jewish travelers and Indian Jews. They will be buried in Israel on Monday.


Spiritually-sensitive souls realize that this ongoing brutal terrorism threatens the moral values which are to guide all the nations, especially since the terrorists and their millions of supporters take pride in their violent acts. The following Divine promise is therefore particularly relevant to our situation:


“I shall cut down the pride of the wicked, so that the pride of the righteous will be exalted.” (Psalm 75:11.)


In the meanwhile, we need to strengthen the moral values that are to guide all the nations, and the attached new letter in our series relates to this need.


Unholy and Holy Nationalism:


Dear Friends,


The term “nationalism” can refer to feelings of concern, love, and pride regarding one’s nation and land. From the perspective of the Torah, there are both unholy and holy forms of nationalism, and this spiritual perspective is found in the writings of Dr. Isaac Breuer, a noted scholar and lawyer who was an activist in the Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel during the 1930’s and 1940’s.


What I referred to as “unholy nationalism,” Dr. Breuer refers to as “absolute nationalism” – a form of national loyalty which views the nation as an end in itself.  Dr. Breuer adds that absolute nationalism also encourages a vibrant national life in a particular land as an end in itself. In our previous letter, we cited the following statement of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker, which can serve as an example of this approach to nationalism:


“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.”


As Dr. Breuer explains, the Torah denies the nation any intrinsic value, since the nation exists to serve the moral idea expressed in the Divine Teaching; thus, to view the nation as an end in itself is to make the nation into an idol.


What I referred to as “holy nationalism,” Dr. Breuer refers to as “relative nationalism” – a form of national loyalty which views the nation as a collective way of serving the moral idea. Dr. Breuer points out that relative nationalism, like absolute nationalism, encourages a vibrant, national life rooted in a particular land; however, the relative nationalism of the Torah demands that the nation’s will for life and its attachment to its soil are to be exclusively in the service of the higher moral idea. It is this truth which provides the moral standards for the development of a full national life.


The Prophets of Israel often had to remind us of this truth, since many of our people desired to emulate the “absolute nationalism” of the pagan nations around us. Dr. Breuer therefore cautioned the political Zionists of his generation not to follow after the idol of absolute nationalism in their desire to have a homeland and a state like other nations, and he wrote:


“From remotest centuries there rings out to political Zionism the word of the Prophet Ezekiel (20:32), valid to all eternity: ‘What enters your thoughts - it shall not be! That you say: Let us be like all the nations, like the families of the lands, to serve wood and stone.’  In the eyes of Judaism, self-idolization in the form of absolute nationalism is also service to wood and stone.” (This quote is from his book, Concepts of Judaism.)


Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, forbids us from making our nation into an idol, for we are to serve the higher moral idea of the Divine Teaching. Through this sacred service, we develop a caring and just society which can serve as a model for others. A reference to this altruistic role is found in the following Divine message:


“For Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and through it, all the nations of the earth will be blessed. For I have cherished him because he commands his children and his household after him to keep the way of Hashem – practicing tzedakah and justice” (Genesis 18:18, 19).


“Tzedakah” – The sharing of our resources with those in need


 In the spirit of the above message, the holy nationalism of Israel views our nation as a means of serving the higher moral idea through “practicing tzedakah and justice.” In this way, we become an altruistic social model which inspires other nations to serve the higher moral idea through practicing tzedakah and justice. As a result, we merit the fulfillment of the Divine promise that through our nation, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.”



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


Rabbi Aryeh Carmell offers the following reason why the Torah was given to a nation and not to an individual or group of individuals:


“Its primary purpose was not to ‘save the individual’s soul,’ but to bring into existence that extreme rarity in human affairs – the just society. It was intended that all the facets and institutions of this society would be pervaded and sanctified by the spirit of justice and love which is the hallmark of the Torah. (Masterplan, The Just Society)


Masterplan is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .


2. Our nation is to serve as model of a Torah society and thereby become “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). According to the following teaching of our sages, this light includes the light of tzedekah:


“It says, ‘And nations will walk by your light’ (Isaiah 60:3). And what light does the Holy One, Blessed be He, shine upon Israel? It is the light of tzedakah, as it says, ‘But to you who are in awe of My Name, the sun of tzedakah will shine’ (Malachi 3:20).”


The above teaching is from Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8).


3. The Jewish devotion to tzedakah gained the admiration of good people in other societies. For example, George Cooper Pardee, a progressive governor of California in the early 20th century, once said, “The Jew takes care of his own poor and helps to care for other peoples’ poor.” (From “The Jew and Civilization” by Ada Sterling, page 121 – cited in “Permission to Receive” by Lawrence Keleman)

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