Everybody knows the term ‘Orthodox’ and its association with a certain segment of Jewry. The Orthodox are the really religious ones, those who actually take all the rules seriously and make a solid attempt to run their lives around Judaism. Orthodox has a connotation of being both traditional and correct. It is a historical curiosity that the term was never used by the Orthodox to describe themselves until the advent of Reform Judaism during the 19th century. It was actually the Reform who referred to those traditional Jews as ‘Orthodox’ - a derogatory term implying that they were behind the times and not keeping up with the modern world.
In fact, one of the leading defenders of the traditional Jews claimed that ‘the name was at first resented by old Jews. And rightly so. Orthodox Judaism does not know any varieties of Judaism. It conceives Judaism as one and indivisible. It does not know a Mosaic, prophetic and rabbinic Judaism, nor Orthodox and Liberal Judaism. It only knows Judaism and non-Judaism. It does not know Orthodox and Liberal Jews. It does indeed know conscientious and indifferent Jews, good Jews, bad Jews or baptized Jews; all, nevertheless, Jews with a mission which they cannot cast off. They are only distinguished accordingly as they fulfill or reject their mission.’
The Orthodox Jew who made that statement was Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century leader of the traditional Jews in Germany. His life spanned most of the century (1808-1888) and his rabbinic career (almost 60 years) most of his life. Hirsch is known for his introduction of the term ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ (Torah with worldly ways), a phrase that originated in the Avot section of the Mishna (2:2). The term ‘Derech Eretz’ is rather vague and can refer to many different things, but the bottom line is that it refers to some mode of behavior that is complementary to Torah while not being Torah per se. In time, it came to mean refined character traits or knowledge of the natural world. Hirsch, who enshrined the phrase as a way of Jewish life, explained in his commentary to that Mishna that ‘Derech Eretz includes everything that results from the fact that man's existence, mission and social life is conducted on Earth, using earthly means and conditions. Therefore, this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order.’ He saw the combination of the two, Torah and Derech Eretz, as parallel essentials to the Jews fulfilling their purpose in the world, which he defines as nothing less than ‘the salvation of the whole of mankind’.
He expanded upon this bold idea in what is probably his most famous work, his commentary to the Chumash written during 1867-1878. In the section on Exodus, Hirsch expounds on the verses (19:5-6), ‘And now if you will listen to My voice and keep My covenant, you will be to Me as a treasure among the nations, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…’ Hirsch explains that the word ‘treasure’ refers to the Israelite’s unique status as belonging solely to God and not to anybody else, even to themselves. This, he claims is ‘really nothing exceptional, is nothing but the beginning of the return to the normal condition which the whole world should bear towards Me. The whole of humanity, every nation in the world really is destined to belong to Me and will be ultimately educated by Me up to Me.’
How is this to happen? ‘It is just for this ultimate destiny of the whole world that you are to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto Me…So is the impression which Israel as a nation is to make on the world to be one of holiness to God. You are to be a unique nation among the nations, a nation which does not exist for its own fame, its own greatness, its own glory, but the foundation and glorification of the Kingdom of God on Earth, a nation which is not to seek its greatness in power and might but in the absolute rule of the Divine Law – the Torah – for that is which holiness is.’
These are bold and controversial ideas. To those in the know it is really nothing new. This is the old ‘light unto the nations’ notion straight out of the Old Testament. That famous statement ‘Or l’goyim’ ranks among the best known of the Bible. It comes up in one context or another a few times in the book of Isaiah (42:6, 49:6, 60:3). The meaning is not entirely clear there and the classic commentaries differ on what the light will be and who will serve as that light. Hirsch, in his commentary of Isaiah 42:6 clearly understood it as referring to the Jewish nation living according to the covenant of the Torah, serving as a beacon of justice for the rest of the world.
So what is so bold and controversial about the ‘light unto the nations’ idea? For one thing, it separates the nation of Israel from the rest of the world, putting them in a class by themselves. Nobody wants to hear that some other person or group considers themselves to be better than everybody else. If the claim is backed by the supposed word of God it becomes all the more outrageous. Hirsch takes it at face value and uses it to explain the meaning and purpose of life.
God created us to belong to God. We live under a perpetual illusion that our lives, our brains, our talents, our souls, our time, all belong to us. We never really even consider the possibility that this obvious fact isn’t true at all. Why don’t we ever ask ourselves the question, ‘How did we get her?’ Or, ‘Where did my soul come from?’ Or, ‘Who gave me my mind?’ All these amazing things are just birthrights that we take for granted without a second thought.
To this attitude Hirsch writes. We belong to God. The normal human situation is to understand that we belong to God. It is abnormal to believe otherwise. We are truly God’s children and everything we have, from our souls to our toenails, belongs to God. We do not exist for our own fame, greatness, or glory, ‘but the foundation and glorification of the Kingdom of God on Earth’. This is why we are here. This is the only reason why we are here.
The Israelites, and their successors, the Jews, were created to be a ‘treasure’ of God – an example to demonstrate that everything and everybody belongs to God. The mission of the Jews is to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ charged with teaching this fundamental idea. The Jews are to be a ‘holy nation’ dedicated to ‘not seek its power in greatness and might but in the absolute rule of the Divine Law – the Torah – for that is what holiness is’. Holiness, according to Hirsch is simply dedication to God and to God alone. Any other goal is self-serving, and therefore devoid of holiness.
Why did God need one group to demonstrate this fundamental idea to everyone else? Why not just command the entire world to dedicate themselves solely to God and be done with it? The answer to this question is rooted in the nature of humanity and borders on racism. Human beings simply do not dedicate themselves solely to God. They think of themselves, of their own survival and comfort and pleasure. There is nothing really wrong with such an attitude. It is the way of the world. But it isn’t holy and wasn’t God’s goal in creation.
The Jews, perhaps because they had the debatable fortune of powerlessness, have continued to carry that light against all odds. Maybe they haven’t done a perfect job. Perhaps they sank too much into bitterness against the nations for the treatment that they received wherever they wandered, and raised their own feeble walls of insularity to protect themselves. But that light was always there, calling out to the world to recognize that it also has a higher calling. This is the role of the Jews. Neither the Jews nor any other nation would volunteer to bear such a burden, but bear it they have.
Being a ‘light unto the nations’ comes with a heavy price. It is a great responsibility and more often than not is resented by those who could benefit the most from it. Not everyone wants to hear that they, and everything about them, belong not to themselves, but to God. These are challenging words that cut through the entire facade of personal pride and worship of the self. But without such a challenge human beings will never rise above the limitations dictated by evolution. The mission of the Jews, whether or not they choose to accept it, is to teach and to demonstrate otherwise.
To belong to God is both constricting and liberating. It is constricting in that one can no longer do whatever one feels like doing. There is an overriding sense of servitude that permeates all of one’s doings. It means acting different, speaking different, even thinking different. It means being apart from normal ways of the world, not being able to eat the same foods or to frequent the same places or to partake of the same forms of pleasure. It means studying obscure wisdom and treasuring obsolete customs, to say nothing of abiding by a rather stringent code of ethics. But most of all, it means not allowing oneself to be the person whom one would be if one did not have a sense of belonging to God. There is an inner change of the personality in which it is understood that the primary use of the mind is to enrich the spirit rather than the body.
But servitude of this kind can also be liberating. It frees the person from the shackles of social pressure and conformity. It frees the body from the artificial need to pamper itself at the expense of everything else. It enlightens the mind to be able to see and understand itself as a source of willful internal choice and not as a victim of conflicting and contrasting bombardment from external forces. It enables every human being to rise above the pettiness of jealousy and the restrictions of arrogance, to see other people as creations of God in the image of God. It baths the entire world with a luminescence that can never be dimmed by the taint of cynicism and apathy. The world, as a creation and a possession of God, is holy. It is not a playground but a sanctuary.
This attitude is surprisingly easy to attain, but frustratingly difficult to maintain. Attaining it is simply flipping on a switch and seeing things from a different angle. You are not just you. You are a child of God, a fully independent creation, while totally dependent on your Creator for your very being. That contradictory state is the human condition. In a flash we can see ourselves as utterly subservient to God. But just as quickly we can lose touch with that insight and revert back to the default state of blissful ignorance of God’s existence. It may sound surprising, but this is what God expects out of the Jews. It is also what God expects out of every human being.
Food for Thought
The prediction of the Jews being a ‘light unto the nations’ has spurred more than its share of resentment and confusion. But in spite of all that, it has proven remarkably true. Why are both Jews and non-Jews frequently so resistant to the idea?
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