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Shiur #12: The Unique Essence of Israel (Part I)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In this lecture, we will begin to deal with one of the central and distinctive issues in R. Yehuda Halevi's thought – the unique essence of Israel.


     We saw in previous lectures that Rihal bases the obligation of an individual or a nation to God on God's revelation to that individual or nation.[1]  This obligation stems from the certainty achieved through public and miraculous revelation that cannot be denied and whose truth cannot be questioned. Rihal concludes the parable of the Indian king as follows:


Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me. (I, 22)


     Revelation, then, accomplishes two things. First, it removes all doubt about the existence of God, and second, in the wake of the removal of this doubt, it imposes on man an obligation toward God.


     It turns out, then, that the only ones who are obligated to the God of Avraham and His Torah are the people of Israel, for it was only to them that He revealed Himself, and it was only among them that all doubt was removed and an obligation was created:


The Khazar king: If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?

The Rabbi: Yes; but any Gentile who joins us unconditionally shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us. If the Law were binding on us only because God created us, the white and the black man would be equal, since He created them all. But the Law was given to us because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of mankind. (I, 26-27)


     A religion that is based on the event of creation and draws its authority to impose demands on man from it applies to all those who had participated in this "event" – that is, all of mankind. Philosophy that rests on the existence of a Prime Cause is a universal religion that is directed at all who emanated from this Prime Cause. This is not true of Judaism; its commandments are based not on the creation, but on the revelation, and thus it follows that only those who took part in that revelation are obligated in those commandments.[2]


     This understanding of obligation being based on the certainty of revelation also finds expression in the Rabbi's words about the reward promised in the World-to-Come. He notes that according to Judaism, the promised reward is first and foremost in this world (whether a physical reward, "And I shall give rain in your land," or a spiritual reward – closeness to God, prophecy, the ability to perform miracles, etc.) and only secondarily in the World-to-Come. This stands in contrast to the other religions, which promise reward exclusively in the World-to-Come. Rihal illustrates the difference between these two approaches by way of the parable of the convoy:


The following parable will illustrate this: One of a company of friends who sought solicitude in a remote spot, once journeyed to India, and had honor and rank bestowed on him by her king, who knew that he was one of these friends, and who had also known their fathers, former comrades of his own. The king loaded him with presents for his friends, gave him costly raiment for himself, and then dismissed him, sending members of his own retinue to accompany him on his return journey. No one knew that they belonged to the court, or that they traveled into the desert. He had received commissions and treaties, and in return he had to swear fealty to the king. Then he and his Indian escort returned to his companions, and received a hearty welcome from them. They took pains to accommodate them and to show them honor. They also built a castle and allowed them to dwell in it. Henceforth they frequently sent ambassadors to India to wait upon the king, which was now more easy of accomplishment, as the first messengers guided them the shortest and straightest route. All knew that traveling in that country was rendered easier by swearing allegiance to his king and respecting his ambassadors. There was no occasion to inquire why this homage was necessary, because it was patent that by this means he came into connection with the monarch - a most pleasing circumstance. Now these companions are the Children of Israel, the first traveler is Moshe, the later travelers are the prophets, while the Indian messengers are the Shekhina and the angels. The precious garments are the spiritual light which dwelt in the soul of Moshe on account of his prophet-ship, while the visible light appeared on his countenance. The presents are the two tables with the Ten Commandments. Those in possession of other laws saw nothing of this, but were told: 'Continue in obedience to the King of India as this company of friends, and you will after death become the associates of the king, otherwise he will turn you away, and punish you after death.' (I, 109)


     The right to demand of man obligation to a system of laws is only given to one who has demonstrated to man the reward for obeying those laws and the punishment for their violation (in our case reward and punishment both in this world and in the World-to-Come). Once again, the obligation is based on the achievement of certainty and the removal of doubt. As we have seen, Rihal's approach is unique in that it argues that the certainty of belief in the God of Israel, as long as He has not revealed Himself to the other nations, rests solely among the Jewish people.


     The first conclusion to be drawn from this is that it is useless to try to prove and convince others of the truth of Judaism, a goal towards which great efforts were invested on the part of Jewish sages and thinkers, especially during the Middle Ages. In this, according to Rihal, Judaism differs from the other religions, which aspire to bring all of mankind under their wings (as we saw in the previous lecture).


     The second consequence relates to the possibility of a non-Jew adopting Judaism. In the aforementioned passage, the Rabbi utters some cryptic words, "he will share our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us." Later in the book, however, he speaks more explicitly, as we shall see in the coming lectures.[3]


     Thus far I have explained the foundation for Israel's exclusive obligation to the Torah, but I have not yet explained the basis for God's revealing Himself only to Israel. The basis for this is alluded to in the aforementioned words of the Rabbi: "Because we are the pick of mankind," and it is spelled out at length later in the first book. But before we examine the source of Israel's uniqueness, let us first relate to its consequences.


     After the Rabbi confirms the Khazar king's assessment that, according to the Rabbi's model, Judaism directs itself exclusively toward Jews, and one who joins them will not be equal to them, the Khazar kings becomes angry:


Jew, I see you quite altered, and your words are poor after having been so pleasant. (I, 28)


     The Rabbi, however, is not deterred, and he tries to anchor his words in the hierarchical system that he erects – the hierarchy of mineral, plant, animal, and man.


     At first glance, man stands at the top of this ladder; the Rabbi, however, wishes to climb up to an even higher level, one that is distinguished from the previous one by way of an essential rather than a quantitative distinction, just as the others are distinguished from those that came before them.


The Rabbi: If we find a man who walks into the fire without hurt, or abstains from food for some time without starving, on whose face a light shines which the eye cannot bear, who is never ill, nor ages, until having reached his life's natural end, who dies spontaneously just as a man retires to his couch to sleep on an appointed day and hour, equipped with the knowledge of what is hidden as to past and future: is such a degree not visibly distinguished from the ordinary human degree?

The Khazar king: This is, indeed, the Divine and seraphic degree, if it exists at all. It belongs to the province of the Divine influence, but not to that of the intellectual, human, or natural world.

The Rabbi: These are some of the characteristics of the undoubted prophets through whom God made Himself manifest, and who also made known that there is a God who guides them as He wishes, according to their obedience or disobedience. He revealed to those prophets that which was hidden, and taught them how the world was created. (I, 41-43)


     It is only Moshe whom the Rabbi describes as having reached this miraculous level, and this is because Moshe was the only person to fully realize his potential. But this potential – this unique essence – is found in each and every Jew; were this not the case, what is the point of this description as a response to the Khazar king's reservations about putting the entire Jewish people at a higher level than the rest of the nations of the world?[4]


     What is the source of this uniqueness, and who received it?


     This question takes us back to a much earlier period, long before the revelation at Mount Sinai, and even before Israel's emergence as a nation. Let us join Rihal on this historical journey:


Adam was perfection itself, because no flaw could be found in a work of a wise and Almighty Creator, wrought from a substance chosen by Him, and fashioned according to His own design. There was no restraining influence because of the seed of the father or the blood of the mother, no question of nutrition or education during the years of childhood and growth; neither was there the influence of climate, water, or soil to consider. For He created him in the form of an adolescent, perfect in body and mind. The soul with which he was endowed was perfect; his intellect was the loftiest which it is possible for a human being to possess, and beyond this he was gifted with the Divine power of such high rank, that it brought him into connection with beings Divine and spiritual, and enabled him, with slight reflection, to comprehend the great truths without instruction. We call him God's son, and we call all those who were like him also sons of God. (I, 95)


     R. Yehuda Halevi teaches us many things in this passage. First, he establishes that various components determine the essence of a person:


1)      Heredity – "the seed of the father or the blood of the mother."

2)      Education and raising - "nutrition or education during the years of childhood and growth."

3)      Climate and environment – "the influence of climate, water, or soil."


Second, a person is comprised of several levels:


1)      The living soul.

2)      The intellect.

3)      The Divine influence that is above the intellect.


The first two were given to all men inasmuch as they belong to the category of human beings. The third, as we saw above, was not given to all men, but only to the pick of mankind.


Rihal asserts that Adam was perfection itself. This assertion stems from the fact that there was no flaw in him caused by one of the three factors that determine the essence of a person. He was work of the Creator (1), he was formed as an adolescent, past the age of childhood and growth (2), and he was placed in the Garden of Eden, the most perfect place in the world (3). He was endowed with a perfect soul, the loftiest possible intellect, and the Divine influence that is above the intellect, the unique essence of man. All these provided him with the unique potential "that brought him into connection with beings Divine and spiritual."[5]


The next stage of the unique essence of man was the period between Adam and Yaakov:


He left many children, of whom the only one capable of taking his place was Hevel, because he alone was like him. After he had been slain by Kayin through jealousy of this privilege, it passed to his brother Shet, who also was like Adam, being [as it were] the essence and seed of man, while the others were like shells. The essence of Shet, then, passed to Enosh, and in this way the Divine influence was inherited by isolated individuals down to Noach. They are compared to the heart; they resembled Adam, and were styled sons of God. They were perfect outwardly and inwardly, their lives, knowledge and ability being likewise faultless. Their lives fix the chronology from Adam to Noach. (I, 95)


     As was stated above, the genetic component is just one of the three components that determine a person's essential character. It therefore often happens that a person has many children, but the father's unique essence is only passed on to some of them. This is what happened in the case of Hevel, Adam's son; in his place, Shet merited receiving that unique essence, and from him it was passed down until it reached Avraham. The parable that Rihal uses to describe this understanding is the parable of a seed and a shell.


     It was not by chance that Rihal chose the parable of the seed and the shell; it is not brought only to sharpen the difference between the essential and the non-essential. It seems to me that a full understanding of this parable will contribute to a more profound understanding of Rihal's approach.


A fruit is comprised of three parts: the seed, the flesh, and the shell. The full realization of a fruit finds expression in its flesh. Both the seed and the shell are of secondary importance in relation to the flesh of the fruit, when it rests in the hand of someone who wishes to eat it. The shell, however, is different than the seed. The shell has no value – other than providing protection for the flesh of the fruit – and once the flesh is eaten, the shell is discarded. The seed, however, as opposed to the shell, plays an important role, inasmuch as the seed is what allows for other fruit to grow as well. Even a fruit whose flesh is not perfect can give rise through its seed to the growth of new fruit.[6]


     So, too, Rihal distinguishes between three components in the passing down of the unique essence of man:


1) The seed – this is the potential for the unique essence found in the chosen person.

2) The shell – this refers to the sons who do not receive this potential, and whose historic role both in their own time and for posterity is absolutely meaningless. The Torah mentions these people, but they serve no purpose in the development of the unique essence of man.

3) The flesh – referred to by Rihal as the "perfect fruit" – is the realization of the potential ("Until it produces perfect fruit, resembling the first fruit from which it was planted, viz. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and his brethren. The seed further produced Moshe, Aharon and Miryam").


     The distinction between one who has the potential and one who realizes it is the distinction between a fruit that contains a seed but is unripe and its flesh is imperfect, and a ripe fruit whose flesh is perfect. This distinction is important for understanding the following argument put forward by Rihal:


Their lives fix the chronology from Adam to Noach, as well as from Noach to Avraham. There were some, however, among them who did not come under Divine influence, as Terach, but his son Avraham was the disciple of his grandfather Ever, and was born in the lifetime of Noach. Thus the Divine spirit descended from the grandfather to the grandchildren. Avraham represented the essence of Ever, being his disciple, and for this reason he was called Ivri. Ever represented the essence of Shem, the latter that of Noach. He inherited the temperate zone, the center and principal part of which is Palestine, the land of prophecy. Yefet turned towards north, and Cham towards south. The essence of Avraham passed over to Yitzchak, to the exclusion of the other sons who were all removed from the land, the special inheritance of Yitzchak. The prerogative of Yitzchak descended on Yaakov, whilst Esav was sent from the land which belonged to Yaakov. (I, 95)


     The Rabbi notes that the Divine influence did not adhere to Terach. Does this mean that he did not bear the unique essence of man? The answer is no.


     Rihal's underlying assumption is that apart from the case of Adam, this uniqueness cannot come into being other than by way of heredity.[7] Neither education, nor motivation, nor study can provide man with this unique essence. Therefore, Avraham could not have acquired it had it not been found, at least in latent manner, in his father. Terach was an unripe fruit that carried the seed. As opposed to the shell, Terach had an important role in history in that he bore the unique essence that he had received from his father and passed it down to his son, Avraham. This role is described later in the passage:


Many people do not resemble their father, but take after their grandfathers. There cannot, consequently, be any doubt that this nature and resemblance was hidden in the father, although it did not become visible outwardly, as was the nature of Ever in his children, until it reappeared in Avraham. (I, 95)


     The final stage in the development of the unique essence of man was from Yaakov on:


The sons of the latter were all worthy of the Divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the Divine spirit. This is the first instance of the Divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals. Then God tended them in Egypt, multiplied and aggrandized them, as a tree with a sound root grows until it produces perfect fruit, resembling the first fruit from which it was planted, viz. Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and his brethren. The seed further produced Moshe, Aharon and Miryam, Betzalel, Oholiav, and the chiefs of the tribes, the seventy Elders, who were all endowed with the spirit of prophecy; then Yehoshua, Kaleb, Chur, and many others. Then they became worthy of having the Divine light and providence made visible to them. If disobedient men existed among them, they were hated, but remained, without doubt, of the essence inasmuch as they were part of it on account of their descent and nature, and begat children who were of the same stamp. An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage. This is how we regard Terach and others in whom the Divine influence was not visible, though, to a certain extent, it underlay his natural disposition, so that he begat a descendant filled with the essence, which was not the case with all the posterity of Cham and Yefet. (I, 95)


     The model of the seed and the shell came to an end with the birth of Yaakov's children, the twelve tribes of Israel. From now on, they were all "seeds." That is to say, they all carried the Divine influence in potential. However, as in the case of the earlier "seeds," it was still possible that they would include sinners who hate God; this is not because they lack the unique potential, but because they estrange themselves from it. But they still carry it for their children, in whom it might find expression: "An ungodly man received consideration in proportion to the minuteness of the essence with which he was endowed, for it reappeared in his children and grandchildren according to the purity of their lineage."


     The question that may be asked is how it is possible that the unique essence should pass down now in perfect manner in all of Yaakov's descendants. What happened to the other factors – education, climate and the like – which up until now had sometimes prevented the unique essence from being transmitted from father to son?


     The answer that Rihal gives to this question is providence.


     This idea may be likened to a hothouse. A hothouse is meant to artificially create the ideal conditions for growing a particular plant.[8] God's providence over the people of Israel finds expression in the fact that since the time of the birth of Yaakov's children, all of his descendants were raised in hothouse conditions. In this hothouse, God oversees Israel just as a person watches over a tree that he has planted. When the Jewish people dwell in their land, they naturally have the ideal conditions for nurturing their unique essence. When they live in the Diaspora, God oversees them and preserves the special conditions so that genetics will do what it has to do and pass down the unique essence from father to son in perfect manner, without exceptions or disturbances.


     From seed to seed the unique essence was passed down until a perfect fruit was formed, which not only carried the unique essence like the seed, but also succeeded in realizing that essence and giving it expression in the most perfect manner – Moshe Rabbeinu.


     When Moshe brought the unique essence to expression, he revealed its highest level, as described by the Rabbi in his discussion of the hierarchy of nature. Qualities that had been concealed among those who had carried the unique essence from the days of Adam to Moshe became revealed in the person of Moshe. From seed to seed, those qualities had waited for that ripe fruit that would bring them to realization and illuminate the entire world with the light of the unique essence that distinguishes the people of Israel. This essence is given to all members of the Jewish People, from Moshe Rabbeinu to the lowest sinner, for even though he sinned, he is still a member of Israel.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] It is suggested that the reader review lectures 6-7, which are directly related to the issue under discussion in this lecture.

[2] We saw in lecture 7 that the group considered to have taken part in the revelation at Mount Sinai  includes those who received the tradition that began at Sinai and was passed down from father to son, for hearing is like seeing (I, 25).

[3] The objection can be raised that Rihal's proofs regarding the truth of the revelation at Mount Sinai are objective (its collective nature, the miracles, and the uninterrupted tradition). What, then, is the difference between a Jew who hears from his father about the historical continuity that goes back to the revelation at Sinai and a non-Jew who hears about that continuity from his Jewish friend? If Rihal maintains that hearing is like seeing, so that one who hears about that irrefutable revelation is like one who was present for it, what is the difference between the hearing of a Jew and the hearing of a non-Jew? (See Silman, Bein Filosof Le-Navi, p. 243).

Had Rihal understood the obligation stemming from revelation as being based on the experience of revelation and on the very fact that God decided to address Israel, we could have suggested that God turned to the Jew and to his descendants and not to the non-Jew, and therefore even hearing does not bring the non-Jew into the revelation. Rihal, however, as we saw in the parable of the Indian king, bases obligation on the removal of doubt that stems from a revelation of this type; regarding the removal of doubt, what difference is there between a Jew and a non-Jew? This matter requires further examination.

[4] Rihal relates to the hierarchy of nature in other places in the book as well:

1)      "You know that the elements gradually evolved metals, plants, animals, man, finally the pure essence of man. The whole evolution took place for the sake of this essence, in order that the Divine influence should inhabit it. That essence, however, came into existence for the sake of the highest essence, viz. the prophets and pious" (II, 44).

This fits in with our passage, which enumerates metals, plants, animals, man, and the essence of man – the fifth level. Here, the Rabbi even distinguishes between those who have this essence of man and those who have the "highest essence," the prophets and the pious who have succeeded to express and realize this essence.

[This distinction between the essence – those who carry the potential – and the highest essence – those who realize it – is found elsewhere in the book as well: "Was not Avraham also, and after having been greatly exalted, brought into contact with the Divine influence, and made the heart of this essence, removed from his country to the place in which his perfection should become complete?" (II, 14)]

2)      "They are alluded to in the verse: 'Let us make man in our image after our likeness' (Bereishit 1:26). The meaning is: I have displayed wisdom in arranging the creation in the following order: elements, metals, animals which live in the water as well as in the air, and those with fully developed senses and wonderful instincts. Next to this class there is only one which approaches the Divine and celestial" (IV, 3).

Y. Silman, in his book, Bein Filosof Le-Navi (p. 137, in note) argues that Rihal's disregard in this passage of the fifth level, and his setting the fourth level,  man, as the highest level in nature, reflects an approach that Rihal adopted at a later point and that differs from the approach that he takes in Book I. In my opinion, this is imprecise. In this passage, Rihal wishes to explain to the Khazar king why religion creates a world of identities between God and man (as in prophetic visions): Man and not beast, man and not mineral, man and not plant. Against this background, the Rabbi points to man's superiority over the rest of creation. The distinction between man with an intellectual essence and man with a Divine essence is at this point irrelevant to the Rabbi. Moreover, according to Rihal, both the intellect and the Divine influence have a part and a role in bringing man to the angelic level, a level that can be reached only by man and not by animals and lower beings. Thus, the distinction between man with intellect and man with the Divine essence is irrelevant here. Hence, there is no contradiction between what is stated here regarding the levels of nature and that which we saw in the passages cited above.

3) Another source relating to the levels in nature, which appears in V, 20, will be discussed in the next lecture.

[5] It should be noted that this is reminiscent of the philosopher's position at the beginning of the book: "Every individual on earth has his completing causes; consequently an individual with perfect causes becomes perfect, and another with imperfect causes remains imperfect, as the negro who is able to receive nothing more than the human shape and speech in its least developed form. The philosopher, however, who is equipped with the highest capacity, receives through it the advantages of disposition, intelligence, and active power, so that he wants nothing to make him perfect. Now these perfections exist but in abstracto, and require instruction and training to become practical, and in order that this capacity, with all its completeness or deficiencies and endless grades, may become visible" (I, I).

The philosopher, as well, mentions the causes that determine the nature of a person's soul and intellect, over which the person has no control. These qualities, however, reach him in potentia, but it falls upon him to realize them.

This approach bears a clear deterministic character that catalogues humanity according to predetermined levels. And it limits the expanse of choice to the realization of the potential inherent in each individual.

[6] I cannot say for certain whether the fruit that Rihal had in mind was a fig or the like, which matches our description, rather than a pomegranate or the like, which has only seeds and a shell, the seeds being the part that is eaten. I do insist, however, that when Rihal speaks of the seed, he is not talking only about eating it, but also about planting it for new fruit, as is also clear from the continuation of his words: "As a tree with a sound root grows until it produces perfect fruit, resembling the first fruit from which it was planted."

[7] "All of them represented the essence and purity of Adam on account of their intimacy with God. Each of them had children only to be compared to them outwardly, but not really like them, and, therefore, without direct union with the Divine influence" (I, 47).

[8] Rihal himself makes use of the botanical fact that every plant has its own optimal growing conditions to explain the unique qualities of Eretz Israel for the Jewish people (II, 10). I shall relate to this idea at length in the lecture on Eretz Israel.