In the rabbinic sources

Elija said: Once while I was traveling from place to place, a certain man came to me and asked me about matters pertaining to Torah, saying, “My master, there are two things in my heart I love with a very great love – Torah and Israel. But I do not know which of them comes first.” I replied, “Generally people say that Torah is to be put first before all else. But I used to say: Israel, being holy, comes first.”

Tanna DeBey Eliyahu

Book of Legends/Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, eds., William Braude, trans. (New York: Schocken Books, 1992)

One possible reading of the text just to the left is that Israel comes first because they are people. Here I mean not a people, a nation – though that too; but I mean people, a nation is a community – a group – of persons, human beings. Martin Buber has a two page essay – just two pages is more a reflection or a meditation – on Books or People. So this definitely comes to mind here – that as vital, as critical, and indispensible as the Torah is – it is still a kind of book; even if it is a representative of The Book par excellence. So that, yes, one reading of the argument here – that Israel comes first –has greater importance even than the Torah – is that its purpose is to offer a guide, an education and inspiration for human beings. Indeed, its purpose is to defend and further the dignity of human beings – their spiritual-ethical development. And that, indeed, it is the human being – in her/his potential to be(come)

to live  בצלם אלהים ~  b'tselem Elohim
'in the image of God'

and, therefore, it is the human being that has the potential to be and thus to reflect something of what is alone truly holy.

But another reading of this text – of these same words – is certainly that what is being argued here is some kind of ethnocentric, some kind of chauvinistic perspective regarding the Jewish people – in, anyway, its ideal potential for realization – we would assume and not merely in any inherent way; though we all too well know that thoughts of inherent superiority is also one of the directions that 'religious'(!?) perspectives – of whatever tradition and manifestation can go.

In the next text we can see, perhaps, a continuation – an engaging – of this question. As is so vigorously characteristic of the Rabbinic project we encounter here a debate, a sharp difference in viewpoint. The first would seem to say what we suggested just now in relation to 'our' first text. Namely, that Israel is indeed special – has a critically decisive, repercussive role to play; but that this must be understood as a potential. When Israel lives out its life in a certain way then it is truly Israel and thus is children of God. In the text immediately below, we see Rabbi Yehudah saying the when Israel lives out its life in a certain way then it is truly Israel and thus its members are indeed children of God. But we also see that when Israel (when seen in its best light) is not living out its life as the Torah then its members are not children of God; they are not really Israel – what Israel is supposed to strive to be. 

But then we see Rabbi Meir disagreeing! No, he says. Even then, too, they are Israel – they are God's children. Now, again, there is not one way to understand what Rabbi Meir has in mind here. One possibility is that there is a kind of love that is unconditional. Yes, when not living up to the demands of the Torah – can anyone fully live up to those demands(?!); but when Israel falls far too short of the ideal it is called to strive toward, then, for sure, they must confront that violation, that missing of the mark. The Divine will judge accordingly, calling the people to engage that missing. But still the people should not think that God has abandoned them and thus that there is no hope for them. No, the love is still there. They are still His children. – And yet another possible reading of Rabbi Meir's argument indeed hears in it, again (as in 'our' first text regarding which is more important really – the Torah or Israel) some kind of chauvinistic view that ultimately, that relatively speaking, Israel cannot descend to a truly meritless state; its character, its spirit is inherently too lofty for such an eventuality. Here is the text:

We have been taught: 'You are sons of the YHVH your God' (Deuteronomy 14:1). When you conduct yourselves in the way of children, you are called children. [But] when you do not conduct yourselves in the way of children, you will not be called children! [These are the Torah-interpreting] words of Rabbi Yehudah. [While] Rabbi Meir says: Between/whether this way or between/whether that way you are called children, for [elsewhere] it is said: 'children – foolish they are' (Jeremiah 4:22) and it says: 'Children in whom there is no faith/commitment' (Deuteronomy 32:20) and it says: 'a seed of those-who-cause-bad/wrong –children who-deal-destructively.' [Yet, despite these instances of Israel's wrongdoing, they are nonetheless God's children – so argues Rabbi Meir against Rabbi Yehudah's view!]

Talmud ~ Kiddushin 36a

All of this brings to mind Professor Yeshaiyahu (Isaiah) Leibowitz's insistence – against the widespread perspective among so many, if not most, religious Jews – who embrace some form of traditionalism – regarding the holiness of the people Israel, the Land of Israel, the place where the Temple stood, etc. Here, in this passage from one of his essays, he especially draws upon the teachings of Rabbi Meir Simcha Cohen (1842-1926), rabbi of Dwinsk (Dinabourg in Latvia) from 1886 to his death. Meshekh Chochmah is a book of homiletical & halakhic comments on the Pentateuch. The statements cited by Professor Leibowitz occur at various points in this work. Most of them are to be found in the glosses on Exodus 19 and 32. As for the controversial colorful, rich prophetic-like life and character of Professor Leibowitz himself see:

The following passage is from the end of his essay on 'The Reading of the Shema' – in his collection of essays published by Harvard University Press in 1992, called Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State.

In its authentic sense, “holy” refers to God. Hence it is not amenable to explication in terms derived from ordinary discourse, and it cannot be applied to anything that exists as part of the world. In human reality the category of holiness cannot be applied except as indicating an activity which is directed toward “the Holy” and connoting the service of God, the performance of the Mitzvoth. It signifies both the goal toward which we must strive, and the striving itself. But it does not denote any existing entity. Within the confines of human reality there is only functional holiness. Essential holiness pertains to God alone. Whoever applies the notion of holiness to a natural or artificial being – to man, land, an institution, a building, or an object – is engaging in idolatry. He thereby exalts that object or fact to the rank of divinity. This is the great significance of the demand set forth in the Tsitsith: “To the end that you may bear in mind and perform all my commandments and be holy”. Man is not intrinsically holy; his holiness is not already existing and realized in him. It is rather incumbent upon him to achieve it. But the task is eternal. It can never be fulfilled except through a never-ending effort.

At this point it is appropriate to quote one of the greatest Torah scholars of recent generations, a man of true piety who devoted profound thought to the subject of faith, Rabbi Meir Simhah Cohen of Dwinsk, the author of Meshekh Hokhmah.15 The contention that “there  is nothing holy in the world… Only God, exalted be His name, is holy, and He alone is worthy of glory and worship” is repeated frequently and with great emphasis in his book, for example: “There is no holiness in any creature; only in the Creator, blessed be He”; “All holy things – the land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Temple, the Tablets, are not intrinsically holy, and they are not sanctified except by the performance of the Mitzvoth.” Consequently, when Jews repudiate the Torah and violate the Mitzvoth, they are all deprived of holiness and become profane. He makes this point insistently: “Do not imagine that the mountain is a holy thing”; “That they should not suppose that there is a sanctity inhering in the building itself”; “and do not imagine that the Tabernacle and the Temple are things holy unto themselves.”…

It would seem that the Torah wanted to illustrate the profound significance of “holiness” for faith in placing the story of Qorah immediately after the portion of Tsitsith. Only three verses separate the great programmatic affirmation of faith by Moses (“and you will be holy”) from the programmatic statement of faith by Qorah: “all the congregation are holy” – holiness being regarded by him not as an end whose achievement  is demanded, but as already given, established, and residing in the people as they are.

Try considering this next rabbinic text in reference to the question, to the distinction we raised – in our discussion of the first of The Twelve Points of Berlin – under our heading The choice between superiority versus uniqueness. There we discussed how a civilization can view itself as superior to other traditions or instead as wonderfully distinctive that celebrates one’s own tradition without denigrating, superseding, or even dehumanizing ‘the other’.   With this distinction in mind,  how do you read the following rabbinic? Do any or all of its five sections argue, necessarily, for Israel's superiority among religious traditions – or can they be understood as arguing rather for its unique role and contribution to the human orchestra of religious experiences and missions? Can other religious civilizations have their own – equally valuable  (again in their best manifestations!),  though each involving some different,  unique,– ways of engaging of a part of the spiritual-ethical possibility for humankind? How do you understand your own tradition in regard to these two approaches? 

Here's the passage:

'There is none like the Divine of Yeshurun [ - one of Israel's names]!' (Deuteronomy 33:26).  [This means that when] Israel says, 'There is none like the Divine!' the sacred spirit [of prophecy] replies, 'Like the Divine [so too] is Yeshurin [ - they are both unique!]'

Israel says, 'Who is like You, YHVH, among the gods/among all powers?!' (Exodus 15:11) to which the sacred spirit replies, 'Oh how happy are you, Oh Israel! Who is like you?!' (Deuteronomy 33:29)

Israel says, 'Heed oh Israel, YHVH our God/the Divinity-as-we-have-come-to-know-It/Him is singular/unique/incomparable-to-anything-we-else-we-know!' (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the sacred spirit replies, 'And who is like Your people Israel – a unique nation!'

Israel says, 'As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, just so is my Beloved among the beautiful men!' (The Song of Songs 2:2) and the sacred spirit replies, 'As a lily among the thorns,  just so is My love among the beautiful women!' (The Song of Songs 2:2)

Israel says, 'This is my God and I will make Him beautiful [by praises in prayer, by the intellectual study of Torah and by good/just deeds]!' (Exodus 15:2) and the sacred spirit replies, 'This is the people I have formed for/as My own!' (Isaiah 43:21)

Israel says, 'It-is-You Who are the beauty of their strength!' (Psalm 89:18) and the sacred spirit [of prophecy/medium-of-divine-communication] replies, 'Israel – it is through you that I am made/become/come-to-be-known-as beautiful!' (Isaiah 49:3)

Sifrey ~ on Deuteronomy, passage 355

These texts we've been engaging involve Israel's self-understanding and by implication Israel’s understanding of 'the other' – the non-Jew. But, of course, there are numerous references in the rabbinic sources to the other nations directly, to the other religious traditions of the human family. And, of course – especially because of the Jewish people's history of themselves being vilified and persecuted by many Islamic regimes and especially by Christian Europe – many of these Jewish sources are dismissive and even harshly condemnatory of these, after all, all too frequent and often persistent not merely neighbors – but enemies. And yet for all that the historical context of these derisive attitudes makes them understandable, they exact serious harm to the spiritual-ethical character that all religious traditions at their best strive to develop. And the persistence of such attitudes once generated become dangerous obstacles when these same competing civilizations – when many of their leaders and adherents – enter into serious confrontation with their history of vilifying those fellow humans who belong to different civilizations, to different traditions of the religious life. This indeed becomes a tragic problem of delegitimation and hatred of the other too long and too well pursued; as the classic novel about South Africa – Cry the Beloved Country – has one of its characters reflect – that by the time the whites will have, eventually, turned to loving, the blacks will have turned to hating.

One of these rabbinic sources represents God as first making the rounds of all the other nations – offering the Torah to them. But each and every nation asks what, for instance, is written in this Torah and each finds that there is a commandment, a demand that contradicts an essential element in their character. So, for example, the Ishmaelite – the Arab – people say – No stealing, no assaulting?! Oh, but that's something vital to our way of life! And there is a biblical verse to call upon in support of each of these stereotypical character defects of each of the nations! For example, regarding the Arab peoples it is Genesis 16:12  that predicts Ishmael and his descendants will be 'a wild man; his hand against every person'. (See pages 78-79 in Bialik & Ravnitzky's The Book of Legends – Sefer ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash.)

Yet, on the other hand, there are numerous passages in the same rabbinic sources – often on the same page alongside degrading attitudes toward the non-Jew – numerous passages of tolerance and even affirming embrace. Perhaps the most stunning is the teaching in regard to a non-Jew who achieves high levels of spiritual and ethical development. Such a person can be described metaphorically and even literally as  tantamount to one who studies and practices the Torah. They are thus like the Kohen Gadol – the High Priest – the highest spiritual-ethical office when the Temple(s) stood in Jerusalem! (One of the sources of this teaching is in the Talmud, Avodah Zara 3b. An elaborated version that is especially striking appears in the Talmud volume Baba Kama 38a, as well as in the midrashic collection Exodus Rabbah – the 4th passage in the 19th section, as well as in the midrashic collection known as the Sifra – on Leviticus – on page 86b of that collection. In Bialik & Ravnitzky's The Book of Legends, it can be found on page 354, passage 151. Stunning is the repeated expression in this text that in several biblical contexts – in reference to someone who engages Torah or good deeds – Scripture does not say 'a kohen (of the priestly class), a Levite, or a (common, regular) Israelite,' but rather says 'a person'; thus, the non-Jew is included!

It is from such sources – and from the general principle in Judaism that does not see the non-Jew as having to join the Jewish people, or adopt Judaism, in order to achieve the highest levels of spiritual-ethical attainment – that Emmanuel Levinas develops his view of Judaism's particularist-universalist dialectic:

'The fact that tolerance can be inherent in religion without religion losing its exclusivity is perhaps the meaning of Judaism, which is a religion of tolerance. … This emotion is experienced by Israel in the ethical life whose ritual law itself guarantees discipline and culture. The welcome given to the Stranger which the Bible tirelessly asks of us does not constitute a corollary of Judaism and its love of God, but it is the very content of faith. It is an undeclinable responsibility. … Before appearing to the Jews as a fellow creature with convictions to be recognized or opposed, the Stranger is one towards whom one is obligated. The Jewish faith involves tolerance because, from the beginning, it bears the entire weight of all other men. … The idea of the chosen people, which seems to contradict the idea of universality, is in reality the founding of tolerance. This idea is prolonged in Judaism to the point where we reach an ultimate intimacy with the Stranger, since 'the just of every nation have a share of the future world'; it leads to the affirmation that the world was created for 'the paths of peace.' It is conclusions such as these that reveal the sense of being chosen, which expresses less the pride of someone who has been called than the humility of someone who serves. … In Judaism, the certainty of the absolute's hold over man – or religion – does not turn into an imperialist expansion that devours all those who deny it. It burns inwards, an infinite demand made on oneself, an infinite responsibility.'

in Levinas' reflection on 'Religion and Tolerance' in his – already referenced above – volume on Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism.

But as we have seen this is not always so in all of Judaism's sources; there are contrary attitudes to be found 'as well'(!?). In medieval Jewish philosophic sources, for instance, we encounter Yehudah HaLevi's racist view, in his work The Kuzari – that only Israelites, only Jews, have the potential for prophecy – the reception or grasping of Divine truths – as much as human beings can attain to the Absolute. Indeed, the Rihal, as he is known by abbreviation, argues that the non-Jew's soul or character is as different from the Jew's as are the categories of animals, vegetables and minerals! So this is part of Judaism! Yet opposing this view – also in Judaism – is Maimonides' teaching in his work The Mishneh Torah – in his Laws/Ways of the Foundational Principles of the Torah – where he in fact legislates that "It is one of the principles of universal theology that the Divine causes – potentially, if people develop their potential – causes all the Children of Adam – all humankind – to prophecy' (i.e., to have the potential capability to attain an understanding of the truths governing all phenomena of the Divinity's Creation – what Aristotle categorized as either 'physics' or 'metaphysics.')

Apparently based on a historical incident, The Kuzari describes how the king of an Eastern European tribe called the Khazars invited scholars from the three Abrahamic faiths to come before him. He posed questions to each of them. And, ultimately, being most satisfied with the answers offered by the Jewish scholar, he converted himself and his entire tribe to Judaism.

The Kuzari recounts the discussions between the king and the Jewish scholar. But twice in the book, the king asks questions which the scholar cannot answer satisfactorily. In one case, he asks about the deep connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. If the land is so crucial to Jewish faith and practice, then how can we explain the fact that most of the Jews live outside of Israel? To which the Jew replies: "You have found my Achilles heel."

In the second case, the king asks about Jewish morality, which developed historically in a situation of powerlessness. If you were to acquire military power, asks the king, wouldn't you then become just as violent as any other people? To this also the Jewish scholar has no adequate answer, responding, "I am embarrassed, as you have discovered my weak point."

What do you think of the characterization of Rihal as “racist?” Might this be anachronistic? Might the second question-and-answer above seem to contradict such a claim?

At this point, we may want to question the phrasing in the first bullet point of call no. 6: “...Jewish texts that appear xenophobic or racist…” Some of our members have considered this too strong, and have suggested changing it to “…that appear chauvinistic or exclusive…” Others claim it isn’t strong enough; they suggest we remove the words “that appear” and substitute “that are…”

What do you think?