The ultimate question of Jewish history

We are meant to be ‘a people that dwells alone,’ but does that mean we should abandon the world?

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portual, one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Credit: CIP/Bizarro
The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Oporto, Portual, one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Credit: CIP/Bizarro
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

It is a verse that directly challenges the contemporary Jew. At the outset of Bilaam’s prophecy, he declares: “Behold, a people that dwells alone, and is not counted among the nations.” To medieval commentaries, the verse was a roadmap: The Jews are meant to live separate lives, and because of this they will not assimilate.

Even in the modern era, many turned to this verse for inspiration. In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, argues for the importance of Jews remaining apart from non-Jewish society, because separation diminishes anti-Semitism.

He writes, “It is a people that dwells alone; not like all other nations and cultures, that when they go into exile and mingle within their new countries, they win even more love and respect, because they are no longer separated [by national distinctions]. … Israel is not like that; when they are alone and don’t assimilate, they can dwell in tranquility and honor … but when they try to mix, they are not reckoned among the nations and are not even considered to be humans.”

In middle of the 19th century, the Netziv makes the assertion that assimilation provokes anti-Semitism. This describes a developing trend in his own time—ugly, anti-Semitic reactions to assimilated Jews entering mainstream society.

Once the ghetto walls came down, Jewish separation became a matter of choice. The question arose whether Jews should still follow the directive to “not be counted among the nations.” Many felt continued separation would be a mistake, and instead embraced emancipation as an opportunity to transform the Jewish community.

Dwelling alone was not meant to be the eternal reality of the Jewish people, they believed, and now Jews had an opportunity to pursue normalcy. They desired to be a people and a nation like any other and fit in everywhere. They would dress like everyone else, pray in the same language as everyone else and go to school with everyone else. They would be a Jew at home and a citizen in the street. The hope was that this verse about the “people that dwells alone” would disappear, a relic of a past era of exclusion and discrimination.

Within the Orthodox community, many saw abandoning the mindset of “a people that dwells alone” as a mistake and a roadmap for assimilation. One of the most prominent exponents of this view was Yaakov Herzog. The son of the second Chief Rabbi of Israel, Herzog was brilliant and eloquent, an accomplished rabbinic scholar as well as a distinguished intellectual and diplomat. Among other accomplishments, he initiated Israel’s dialogue with Jordan’s King Hussein. In 1965, Herzog was offered the posts of Chief Rabbi of England and director of the Prime Minister’s Office at around the same time. After he tragically passed away at age 50, a collection of his speeches was published under the title of A People that Dwells Alone, and it was this verse to which Herzog returned repeatedly. He saw it as central to understanding Jewish identity.

In one speech from 1967, Herzog relates how he hosted 15 heads of theological graduate schools from the United States who were visiting Israel. He asked them to respond to the verse, asking, “Has this prophecy remained true to the present day? Has it been fulfilled in the realities of our history?” He explains that even these Christian clergymen admitted that “a people that dwells alone” was an eternal reality. In multiple lectures, Herzog argued that Jews will never be able to fully integrate into the lands of the Diaspora. More importantly, Jews must follow their unique destiny, one that sets them apart from the rest of the world.

A very different view was offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He told of a Shavuot lunch in 2001 that he shared with Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian parliament and a professor of international law at McGill University, along with a senior Israeli diplomat. Cotler was sounding the alarm on the upcoming United Nations conference in Durban, which he was concerned would become a platform for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda. (Unfortunately, Cotler’s worst nightmares came true.)

As the discussion proceeded, the Israeli diplomat interrupted to explain that one shouldn’t be too shocked about anti-Semitism, because “it was ever thus” and the Torah says the Jews are a people that dwells alone. Rabbi Sacks responded sharply to the diplomat’s suggestion: “What makes you so sure that Baalam meant those words as a blessing? Might it have not been that he intended them as a curse?” Sacks explained that the Hebrew word used for “alone”—baddad—is often used to portray unhappy loneliness. He argued that the Jewish self-image of standing alone is actually what causes our alienation from others. Sacks concluded by saying, “Jews have enemies. … But we also have friends. And if we worked harder at it, we would have more.”

At first glance, Herzog and Sacks have dramatically different viewpoints. But both recognize that the alternative to being a people that dwells alone is not unqualified universalism. Sacks lists several ways in which the dream of universalism failed the Jews. He writes that in the 19th century, after Jewish emancipation, too many assumed that the new political age represented the fulfillment of the messianic redemption. He quotes a German newspaper, which in 1843 reported that local Reform Jews believed “that the Messiah had come in the form of the German fatherland.”

Similarly, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the American Reform Movement declared that the modern era represented “the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community.” Then came the 20th century, and these dreams proved to be a mirage. Jews who were intoxicated with the delusions of universalism were unprepared for the disaster that would ensue.

Herzog quotes a similar story about Leon Trotsky. In 1917, after he was named the Bolshevik Minister of Defense, an old rabbi came to see Trotsky. He had once taught a young boy named Leibele Bronstein, and heard that now Leibele was a leader of the Communist movement, which was shuttering Jewish schools and synagogues. The rabbi approached his former pupil, wondering how it was possible that his beloved Leibele was the one leading the charge to destroy Judaism.

Trotsky explained to his rabbi that he was actually attempting to bring about the realization of the greatest hope of the Jews: the coming of the Messiah. But instead of the Messiah only helping the Jews, through Communism one could support “a universal development that would flood the entire world. … The time had come for Judaism to merge into this universal movement for the redemption of humanity.” Ultimately, Trotsky’s dream was a catastrophic failure, both for the Soviet Union and himself. Sacks and Herzog point out how universalism has failed the Jews in the past, and even Sacks agrees they cannot just be another nation among the nations.

It is often universalism that presents the greatest challenge to Jewish identity, especially on college campuses. In a speech from 1970, Herzog refers to young Jewish intellectuals on campuses who repudiate any idea such as “a people that dwells alone” as being egocentric, a rejection of progress, an abnormality, a self-imposed ghetto—in short, something that 20th century civilization cannot tolerate. This hostility is even more present today. Instead of Israel being the 3,300-year-old homeland of the Jews, it is viewed as colonialism’s original sin, one that intersects every form of racism and chauvinism. Anti-Semitism, the world’s oldest hatred, is belittled as an “eternal victim narrative,” just another piece of Zionist propaganda. And the Holocaust? It is seen as ancient history, which only contributes to Jewish paranoia.

The only way for young Jews to redeem themselves from the curse of Judaism, they say, is to renounce the Zionist heresy, the ultimate crime against universalism. Yes, these critics do allow that a Jew should be proud of their Jewishness, provided that it is innocuous. It is permissible to enjoy Yiddish culture and a good bagel, provided a Jew is first and foremost a citizen of the world, an activist interested in every cause except their own.

Ironically, the intense insistence on the importance of universalism actually distinguishes these Jews. As Cynthia Ozick put it in an oft-quoted essay from 1974, “Only Jews carry on this way. Universalism is the ultimate Jewish parochialism.” Perhaps being a people that dwells alone is a curse; but universalism has become a serious threat to Jewish identity.

On the other hand, it is important to recognize that universalism has been very much a part of Judaism from the beginning. Abraham was told that his mission was to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth; and Isaiah calls the Jews a light unto the nations, meant to bring goodness to the entire world. But it is here that the struggle begins. How can a people that dwells alone also be a light unto the nations? In isolation there is no influence.

The outline of an answer can be found in a fascinating Jewish law. The very same mitzvah that emphasizes how Jews must dwell alone is also the foundation of Jewish universalism. The commandment of kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name, carries two very different obligations. The first is yehareg v’al yaavor—to give up one’s life rather than violate the prohibition on idolatry. Jews throughout the ages accepted martyrdom rather than betray their religious beliefs; and in medieval Europe, Jews refused to become Christians, even when a sword was held to their neck. This aspect of kiddush Hashem is the ultimate expression of a people that dwells alone. Jews would rather give up their lives than accept the religion of their neighbors.

Yet there is a second aspect to kiddush Hashem: acting in a manner that brings honor to God and the Torah. The classic example of this is a passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi, which tells the story of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who had bought a donkey from a non-Jew. Upon examination, he found a diamond attached to its saddle that its owner had forgotten and abandoned. Shimon Ben Shetach insisted on returning the diamond.

When his students asked him why he was returning a valuable, abandoned object, he replied: “What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? Shimon ben Shetach would rather hear [the owner exclaim] ‘blessed is the God of the Jews’ than receive all of the rewards possible in this world.”

Maimonides sees this story as an example of true kiddush Hashem: One sanctifies God’s name by acting according to the highest ethical standards and spreading the light of the Torah through the world.

These two definitions of kiddush Hashem sit side by side. Both fierce loyalty to Judaism and authentic devotion to all of humanity are demanded of every Jew. But this confrontation with competing obligations has proved difficult in practice. Some take comfort in retreating into a ghetto, forgetting 99.8% of humanity. And all too often, the response is to go in the other direction, transforming universalism into the only meaningful mitzvah of Judaism.

Neither alternative is acceptable. And this is the ultimate challenge for 21st-century Jews: Can we faithfully embrace Judaism and love humanity at the very same time? Yaakov Herzog put it this way: “Three thousand years ago, Balaam the prophet described the children of Israel as a people that dwells alone. … The problem is whether this concept denotes a privilege (not an escape from society, but a unique role within it), or whether it is an anomaly which must be denied and discarded. This is the question of Jewish history.”

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was originally published by Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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