Jewish Nationalism

  • Rav Hillel Rachmani



Last week we discussed the idea that every nation must have a central theme around which it is unified. The difference between the Jewish nation and other nations is that the focal point of Judaism is God. It was around a central message of ethical monotheism that the Jewish nation was created, and it is around that flagpole that the Jewish nation stands. Other nations have social or cultural central ideas, but only the Jewish nation is typified by a religious essence. There can be no Jewish nation without God at its center. It would not be viable, it could not survive.


Rabbi Nachman Krochmal, who lived in the early years of the emancipation, explains that in the Hegelian world view, each nation in turn climbs onto the world stage, takes the pulpit and preaches its particular truth to the world. This is always then followed by a decline of that nation, its disappearance from the world stage after having passed on its central idea. R. Krochmal points out, however, that the Jewish nation made its entrance onto the world stage, began to express its message, yet never disappeared. True, the Jewish nation may not be at its acme, but nevertheless it is still around, vital, vibrant and stubbornly defying its "imminent and inherent decline" as predicted by Hegel!


R. Krochmal explains that this is not so surprising once we recognize that the Jewish nation is vitalized by its eternal theme - God. This is an idea that can never fully be expressed, a message that can never be complete. Hence the nation carrying this message will also be everlasting, as its task is never complete. R. Kook alludes to this principle, although he never explicitly states it.


We have also seen that the Jewish nation cannot be explained outside the context of Torah, nor can the Torah be explained outside the context of the Jewish nation. Whereas other religions are wide open to anyone, the Torah and the Jewish people are woven together in the fabric of history and independently defy explanation.




This is a very important, central idea in the philosophy of Rav Kook and to fully grasp the concepts, it would be well worth reviewing lectures 5 and 6 on Tolerance.


When discussing the philosophy of nationhood, the inevitable problem one encounters is that of chauvinism. There always exists the concern that where there is nationalism, there will ultimately be chauvinism; that benign support for one's own country eventually leads to exclusion of those who are members of other nations. This results in hatred of others, simply because they are not part of your national clique. All seemingly harmless patriotism is hazardous, because it may ultimately lead to jingoism.


If so, how is it possible for the Jewish nation to embrace Nationalism - surely it is as dangerous as any other nationalism! Moreover, what is the legitimization of Jewish nationalism? Nationalism is restrictive by definition, and any constraint on benevolence is surely wrong. How can we confine our benefaction to our own nation alone?


R. Kook's answer is not simple. It is intricately complex and can be presented in a number of different ways. We shall look at one particular facet.


Every nation has its particular innovation to announce to the world. Every nation is fundamentally limited in this way and, therefore, when it begins to love itself excessively, it will be unable to tolerate those who live alongside. As we explained in the lectures on tolerance, what develops is the pernicious zeal between the two colors, blue and red: "I am blue, blue is right. There is no truth but blue. If you remain red and refuse to become blue, I shall have to force you." This attitude is harmful, unjustifiable, evil and unacceptable.


Two Principles


To appreciate, then, both the justification and the necessity for maintaining the Jewish national identity, we must first examine the Jewish nation's soul, its inner flame, its deepest essence. We have already seen that the Jewish nation exists around a central idea of God; that is its national identity. Rav Kook proceeds to teach that the very nature of the Jewish nation is to be maximally benevolent to all. The nation carrying the banner of a munificent God - in the words of the Psalmist: "The Lord is good to all, and this mercy is upon all His works" (145:9) - cannot by its nature be spiteful or condescending to the rest of humanity. A nation with God at its center must be open and not limited in its kindness and generous spirit towards others.


If "Jewish nation-ism" can be justified, it is for one reason alone - the Jewish nation uniquely does not have a "color." Unlike other nations, our message is boundless. We have not a specific, limited novelty to introduce into the world, but an ongoing, universal, timeless one.


It is because this message or theme is eternal, that the Jewish nation is in a unique position, with an unparalleled task to perform. As a piece of transparent, colorless glass in a rainbow world of tinted glass, each piece glowing its own color, the Jewish nation must act as a prism by spotting the truth whenever it is to be found; and, by focusing on the divine element present in all ideas, it can then focus the entire spectrum of colored lights to produce a fine beam of pure, brilliant white light - the Divine light. To reflect God, the Jewish people must first interact with the principles inherent in each nation. The Jewish nation can then act as a metaphysical reflecting dish, receiving revelation and divinity, and then radiating the divine light over all of creation.


It is important to realize that it is not because of nepotism or favoritism that the Jewish nation alone has these two special properties - the ability to connect with God and the ability to connect with all other nations. It is not because we are "superior" to all to other, "inferior" nations. Not at all. It is because only the Jewish nation has an eternal, universal message at its heart, enabling it to connect with other nations and because only the Jewish nation has undergone the necessary spiritual preparation to receive the Infinite. Only the Jewish nation's glass is both clear and colorless, therefore only it can act as an intermediate, transition station between man and God.


Nationalism in the Jewish context isn't some sort of spiritual isolationism, but an overwhelming need to preserve Jewish national identity - to remain crystal-clear and untainted - in order to reveal the unlimited abundance of good emanating from God.


For any nationed with a colored flag, nationalism is a potentially dangerous force, and care must be taken lest it should result in petty hatred and possibly chauvinistic xenophobia. As long as the Jewish nation retains its identity as a nation with God at its center, it is colorless and the possibility of descent into hatred of other nations unthinkable. If this identity were not preserved and guarded, the resulting distortion would be as susceptible to the disease of nationalistic exclusivism as any other nation.


In summary, in order for the Jewish nation to fulfill its role as a bestower of Good upon mankind, it must connect to God as its central theme. In order to connect fully to God, the Jewish nation must be tolerant of others and their ideas, and be open to sparks of truth in all their guises. Only when Jewish identity is nurtured can the Jewish nation act as a receptive for Godliness and proceed to broadcast and distribute heavenly goodness to the rest of mankind. The Jewish nation must, in effect, be narrow to be broad.


 A Moral Dilemma


In chapter 3 of Orot Ha-kodesh, section 32 (page 349), Rav Kook deals with a quandary which affects some people:


"There are those righteous people ... who are unable to limit themselves to the people of Israel alone, who are alwaconcerned with bringing good to the entire world."


These people want to live their lives guided by the verse "The Lord is good to all," and they are unable to comprehend the apparent constraint halakha, for example, places on their good actions, sometimes limiting them to their own nation first.


Although the narrow attitude sometimes displayed by Judaism is perhaps inexplicable when looked at in isolation, as part of the overall scheme it is possible to perceive the explanation.


Sometimes, in order to reach a given target, it is necessary to undergo a secondary process which is tangential (or even opposite) to the general direction of the complete process. For instance, a good parent realizes that occasionally, for the overall welfare of the child it is necessary to be stern. This may be unpleasant, it may cause arguments, it may seem unnecessary. Nonetheless, it is important, even essential, for the healthy development of the child.


A similar process exists in world history. Currently, the world is passing through a stage where, for the sake of a final goal of the Jewish nation conferring God's good upon the whole world, it is necessary to pass through an intermediate stage of the Jewish nation's being inward-looking, narrow and nationalist. If the Jewish nation wants to be benevolent to the whole world, then currently the correct thing to do is be nationalist, because it is this narrow path which will lead to revelation of Godly good to the whole of humanity.


To leave the answer there, however, would be unsatisfactory. The entire solution rests on a number of premises which we have not dealt with. We asked "Why?" and we answered "Because it needs to be that way." Yet there remains a "Why?" Why must you smack a young child, argue with a teenager, give out punishments? Why must the Jewish nation act in such a narrow way - why can we not maintain the general momentum of the process and go straight to the end, the final vision?


 Abraham and Aaron


Elsewhere, Rav Kook does indeed deal with this issue. In Orot Ha-kodesh, chapter 3, section 23 (page 337) Rav Kook hints at why a narrow approach may be needed at some point in history. To understand, we shall use the story of Abraham (Genesis 12) as a parallel.


God commands Abraham to leave his home town and go to live in the Land of Canaan. Abraham might well have asked God "Why?" Why can he not continue where he is, in Babylon? Why must he stop mixing with his neighbors and spreading good to them. "The Lord is good to all ..." Why need he emigrate to distant places, to hide away and build himself up as a nation?


Rav Kook answers Abraham's theoretical questions, by juxtaposing the biblical figures of Abraham and Aaron. Both are characters of tremendous kindness, of great charity. However, whereas Abraham is a figure of universal benevolence, Aaron's benevolence is more particular, more specifically directed towards his own nation, the Jewish nation. Abraham's kindness, explains Rav Kook, was unlimited in breadth, but Aaron's was unsurpassed in depth. Rav Kook would say in reply to Abraham that his intention of pan-human benevolence, is a sound goal, but before that will be possible, you will need to undergo a period of nationalism, in spite of the limitation involved. Abraham's benevolence was of such a type that were he to be universal and not set up a new nation, his teachings would collapse, and the good he had done, evaporate. There must first be a period of concentration, of distillation and strengthening - as typified by Aaron - and only then can the good be universally revealed. Many sociologists would agree that a loving society is created by multiple units of the loving family. Children who first learn to primarily love their family will develop a quality of love which they can then share with people outside the family.


The ultimate messianic goal is that "by way of the quality of the benevolence of Aaron the quantity of the benevolence of Abraham will be uplifted." Eventually we must "bring together the two clouds of glory of Abraham and Aaron." Until that day, we must continue to focus on our own nation, aiming for self-improvement and development so that, come the time, we will have the inner strength to be universally benevolent.


(This lecture summary was prepared by: Benjamin Ellis)