Shiur #13: The Unique Essence of Israel (Part II)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     We saw in the previous lecture that the unique essence of the people of Israel revolves around two principles, one its cause and the other its consequence.


     The cause of this essence was that unique potential was passed down from Adam, from one generation to the next, until it reached the people of Israel.  This unique potential is what makes it possible for Israel to prophesy and to receive the Divine influence, which is above the intellect that characterizes the most elite of men, the philosophers.


     The consequence of the possession of this unique essence is the joining of the Divine influence with Israel when they left Egypt and received the Torah at Sinai, which created the obligation toward God that falls exclusively upon the people of Israel.


The Khazar king summarizes the first principle, the potential uniqueness, as follows:


This is the true greatness, which descended direct from Adam. He was the noblest creature on earth. Therefore, you rank above all the other inhabitants of the earth. (I, 96)


     And this is how he summarizes the second principle, God's connection to the people of Israel:


If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves? (I, 26)


     Both of these conclusions have a direct ramification for converts. According to what has been said here, two stumbling blocks stand before a gentile who wishes to join the Jewish people. The first is the absence of the potential that is passed down from father to son, and the second is the absence of the foundation for the convert's obligation to God; he does not descend from someone who witnessed the revelation at Sinai with his own eyes and who passed his testimony down as a legacy from generation to generation. The Rabbi gives explicit expression to these conclusions:


God allows him who treads this path, as well as his progeny, to approach Him very closely. Those, however, who become Jews do not take equal rank with born Israelites, who are specially privileged to attain to prophecy, while the former can only achieve something by learning from them, and can only become pious and learned, but never prophets. (I, 115)


     Acquiring piety and wisdom, as we shall see below, is connected to the intellectual plane. Accordingly, any person of intelligence who is capable of using that intelligence in a productive manner can reach the high level of a pious and wise man. Acquiring the Divine influence, however, depends not only on a person's actions, but on his inherent potential. Someone who lacks that potential will, therefore, never be able to acquire the Divine influence. The chief expression of that influence – as we see in Moshe, who acquired it in the most perfect manner – is prophecy; thus, a convert, in Rihal's opinion, will never be able to attain prophecy.[1]


     As stated above, Rihal also relates to the second obstacle:


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, 27)


     Here Rihal relates to the absence of any foundation for obligation with respect to the gentile, inasmuch as he did not participate with the rest of Israel (neither he nor his ancestors) in the revelation at Sinai and, as we saw, the obligation to the Torah stems from the connection between the Giver and the community that received it.[2]


     We see, then, that Israel's selection is based on two principles – its genetic uniqueness and the revelation.


     Let us now consider other passages in the book that point to a different element in Israel's selection.


     In the third book, the Rabbi describes the pious man's service, including the benedictions that he recites in his prayers. This is the way he explains the "Ahavat olam"benediction, the second benediction recited prior to the evening reading of Shema:


At the blessing beginning with "With eternal love" ("Ahavat olam"), he, in a similar manner, bears in mind the attachment of the Divine influence to the community which was prepared to receive it, as a smooth mirror receives the light, and that the Law is the outcome of His will in order to establish His sway on earth; as it is in heaven. His wisdom did not demand of Him to create angels on earth, but mortals of flesh and blood, in whom natural gifts and certain characteristics prevail according to favorable or unfavorable influences, as this is explained in the "Book of Creation." Whenever a select few or a whole community are sufficiently pure, the divine light rests on them and guides in an incomprehensible and miraculous manner, which is quite outside the ordinary course of the natural world. This is called "love" and "joy." The Divine influence, however, found next to the stars and spheres none who accepted His commands and who adhered to the course He had dictated, with the exception of a few between Adam and Yaakov. When they had become a people, the Divine influence rested upon them out of love, "in order to be a God unto them." (III, 17)


     YochananSilman, in his book "Bein Filosof Le-Navi," sees in this passage an altogether different approach to the selection of Israel. He relates to two principles in this passage that he sees as contradicting the approach adopted in the first book, as it was presented above.


     The first principle is the emphasis laid here not upon genetic uniqueness and genetic continuity, and not even upon revelation, but rather upon natural gifts and characteristics that are connected to celestial influences (mazalot). The desired purity of soul results from "favorable and unfavorable [celestial] influences." According to Silman, this principle even contradicts the hierarchical structure that the Rabbi constructs for the various levels of nature, since there is no mention of any special level above that of mankind in general.


     In my opinion, what the Rabbi says here does not contradict what he said in the first book. As we saw in the previous lecture, the genetic component is not absolute for two reasons. First, there are additional factors that influence the molding of this component (nurture, climate, etc.) Second (following from the first), because the potential is not automatically passed on to all of a carrier's descendants.


The non-absolute character of the genetic component fits in with the idea of "favorable and unfavorable [celestial] influences." The individuals, and afterwards the community, about whom the Rabbi speaks in this passage - those pious men from Adam to Yaakov, and afterwards the entirety of Israel - are those about whom it may be said that a combination of circumstances led to the disposition necessary to receive the Divine influence.


Rihal's understanding of the hierarchical structure of nature also fits in with this passage, precisely because the superiority of a man who bears the unique essence over an ordinary person is not anchored in his external form, which is evident to the eye, as are the differences between the inanimate world and the plant life, plants and animals, and animals and man. Rather, it is a special inner superiority that elevates him over ordinary mortals. The description of the natural circumstances that occasionally combine to create a disposition that is necessary to receive the unique essence fits in with this system. The fifth level is precisely the unique essence that allows man to ascend from the level of the ordinary mortal to that of the Divine.


The second principle that, according to Silman, contradicts the Rabbi's approach in the first book regarding the unique essence of Israel, is found at the end of the passage in which the Rabbi presents the principles of Judaism and says:


He who unites all this in pure thought is a true Israelite and worthy of aspiring to the Divine influence which among all nations was exclusively connected with the children of Israel. (Ibid.)


     Silman understands these words as follows:


It seems that the end of the sentence must be understood as it was understood by "Otzar Nechmad"and not as it was understood by "Kol Yehuda," whose harmonistic tendency in this instance is clear. That is to say, in this sentence the Rabbi argues that the "true Israelite" is one who clearly recognizes certain principles of faith… The Rabbi adds and clarifies that owning to this belief, he is a full-fledged Israelite, and he is subject to the Divine influence that rests exclusively on the children of Israel. (Silman, Bein Filosof Le-Navi, p. 137, note 7)


Once again, Silman tries to distinguish between Rihal's understanding of Israel's unique essence in the first book and his understanding of this same issue as presented here. He has reservations about an interpretation that tries to reconcile what Rihal says here with his earlier discussion about Israel's unique essence. He suggests that, in contrast to the genetic understanding of that unique essence, Rihal presents here an understanding according to which Israel's unique essence can be acquired through the acceptance of certain principles of faith. Once again it seems to me that this interpretation is incorrect.


We saw in the previous lecture that Rihal clearly distinguishes between those who have potential but fail to realize it (Terach, for example)and those who do not have the potential at all (for example, other sons who are not part of the genetic chain).


This distinction between potential and its realization is exceedingly important. Whenever Rihal speaks of a person who is worthy or unworthy of receiving the Divine influence, we must examine whether the "worthy" one is one who has the potential and the "unworthy" one is void of this potential, or whether the "worthy" one is one who realizes his potential and the "unworthy" one is one who has not yet realized his potential.


In my opinion, this distinction would have saved Silman from his misunderstanding of this passage. When the Rabbi asserts that one who believes in the principles of Judaism is a true Israelite and he can expect the Divine influence that rests exclusively on the people of Israel, he is not saying that belief in these principles can turn a non-Jew into a Jew. Rather, he is talking about a Jew who carries the potential; this does not yet mean that the Divine influence will adhere to him and that this potential will be realized. Belief in the principles of Judaism is a major step in the Jew's realization of his inherent potential.


The argument that in this passage, which closes the description of the service of the pious man (who is of course Jewish), the Rabbi suddenly turns to all of mankind and proposes that they enter the bosom of Judaism as full members and merit prophecy in exchange for their acceptance of Judaism's principles, does not fit in with the context and content of the entire passage. Silman's anti-harmonistic inclination seems to have led him to this mistake.


Yet another source deals with the selection of Israel, and it too suggests another element regarding that selection:


The fourth principle expresses the conviction that existing beings are of higher or lower degree. Everything that is possessed of feeling and perception is higher than those creatures which lack the same, since the former are nearer the degree of the Prime Cause which is Reason itself. The lowest plant occupies a higher rank than the noblest mineral, the lowest animal is higher than the noblest plant, and the lowest human being is higher than the noblest animal. Thus, the lowest follower of the divine law occupies a higher place than the noblest heathen. For the divine law confers something of the nature of angels on the human mind, a thing which cannot be acquired otherwise. The proof is that prolonged practice of this law leads up to the degree of prophetic inspiration, than which there is no nearer degree to God for man. A forward monotheist is, therefore, preferable to the pagan, because the divine law empowered him to lead an angelic life and to reach the degree of angels, though it has become sullied and defaced by his forwardness. Some traces will always remain, and the fire of his longing for it is not quite extinguished. If he had his own choice, he would not prefer to remain untutored, just as a sick and pain-plagued person would not prefer to be a horse, or fish, or bird, which, though happy and free from pain, is far removed from reason which brings near to the divine degree. (V, 20)


     The Rabbi sets before the Khazar king the most important principles for understanding the Torah. In the fourth principle, he relates once again to the different levels found in nature: minerals, plants, animals and, above them, human beings. The Rabbi then turns to the fifth level, but this time he focuses on the mitzvot inasmuch as they lead man to the level of prophecy. Here, Rihal establishes the principle that one who is commanded but sins is at a higher level than one who is not commanded at all. In other words, the fifth level, which elevates the select among the human race above their fellow men, entails the performance of mitzvot. There is no mention here of any uniqueness that passes down as an inheritance from one generation to the next.


At first glance, this does not fit in with the model presented thus far, which describes the unique essence of Israel as stemming from its genetic legacy and the revelation that gives rise to the obligation in mitzvot that results from this unique essence. As Rihal states: "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, 27). Here it would seem that fulfillment of the mitzvot is a definition of the fifth level and not a consequence of it.[3]


     It seems to me that this, too, does not stand in contradiction to Rihal's fundamental understanding of the unique essence of Israel. Once again, the key to understanding this passage is the distinction between the very existence of the potential and its realization. Rihal chooses here to speak of the practical difference between the fourth and fifth levels, that is, between the man of intellect and the prophet. What creates this difference is the fulfillment of the mitzvot, just as what turns a Jew into a "true Israelite" is belief in the principles of Judaism.


     Belief and the mitzvot constitute preparation for the resting of the Divine influence,[4] and there is therefore no contradiction between relating to them in the context of the Divine influence and the assertion that the Divine influence can only rest on one who bears the unique essence of Israel.


     As opposed to the previous passage with which we dealt above, Rihal is not dealing here exclusively with a Jew, but rather with the universal distinction between the fourth and fifth levels. It is therefore strange that he does not mention the idea of the unique essence and only speaks of the way of realizing the fifth level. Nevertheless, the leap between this difficulty and the conclusion that Rihal is asserting in this passage that whoever fulfills the mitzvot enters the bosom of Judaism as a full partner is very great. Moreover, elsewhere Rihal relates explicitly to this possibility:


The "dead" nations which desire to be held equal to the "living" people can obtain nothing more than an external resemblance. They built houses for God, but no trace of Him was visible therein. They turned hermits and ascetics in order to secure inspiration, but it came not. (II, 32)


Even in other instances of imitation no people can equal us at all. Look at the others who appointed a day of rest in the place of Sabbath. Could they contrive anything which resembles it more than statues resemble living human bodies? (III, 9)


     Here Rihal establishes two principles:


1)      There is no way to imitate the mitzvot through the study of their principles and the application of those principles according to our own understanding.[5]


2)      The difference between Israel and the other nations is similar to the difference between a living body and a statue. Moreover, Rihal compares Israel in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple to dry and scattered bones; even so, these bones are superior to statues, because they "have retained a trace of vital power, having once been the seat of a heart, brain, breath, soul, and intellect"[6] (II, 30).


It turns out, then, that a non-Jew who observes the mitzvot out of a desire that that they will make him worthy of the Divine influence is like a statue that seeks life. It seems to me that the vitality that is missing from him is that unique potential that is found in a Jew. A non-Jew who observes the commandments, even if he converts, will never reach the level of prophecy, as is stated explicitly in the first book.


What follows from all the above is that three things are necessary if the Divine influence is to rest on a person:


1)      The basis is the spiritual potential that was given to Adam and passed down from generation to generation until it reached the people of Israel.


2)      The first step is the revelation, which only those with the potential merited when all of Israel were given the opportunity to realize their potential at Sinai.


3)      The second step is observance of the mitzvoth;through faith in the principles of Judaism and observance of its commandments, the individual is capable of reenacting the revelation and bringing the potential inherent in him to realization.


This triad, the unique potential, revelation, and mitzvot, can be viewed as a sort of historical dialogue between God and man.


The unique potential is the groundwork prepared by God, together with nature, to make the dialogue possible.


The revelation is God's turning to man. This turning to man, as we have seen, is comprised of two elements: establishment of the dialogue and guidance on how to maintain the dialogue.


The mitzvot constitute the step that man must take, his turning toward God. This is the path taken by man, who descended from Sinai to ordinary life, on the way up to the top of the mountain, upon which God had descended just yesterday.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] Attention should be paid to what the Rabbi claims must be told to a potential convert: "Now we do not allow any one who embraces our religion theoretically by means of a word alone to take equal rank with ourselves, but demand actual self-sacrifice, purity, knowledge, circumcision, and numerous religious ceremonies. The convert must adopt our mode of life entirely. We must bear in mind that the rite of circumcision is a divine symbol, ordained by God to indicate that our desires should be curbed, and discretion used, so that what we engender may be fitted to receive the Divine influence" (I, 115).

Some have argued (Sh. Rosenberg, Be-Ikvot Ha-Kuzari, p. 70) that, according to Rihal, a convert's inability to achieve prophecy is limited to the first generation, but prophecy is open to his children. This understanding appears to be based on the aforementioned passage. Great emphasis is placed on the fact that when a non-Jew converts to Judaism, he is explained the symbolism of the rite of circumcision, so that he should know that his seed might be fit to receive the Divine influence. If this is not the case, why is the convert told these things, if receiving the Divine influence does not pertain to him?

It seems to me that this inference is incorrect.

First of all, the expression, "may be fitted to receive the Divine influence" does not describe the potential, but the realization. That is to say, the potential of the "ripe fruit" who succeeded in realizing his potential and meriting prophecy was also found in his ancestors, but only he was found fit to receive the Divine influence inasmuch as he succeeded in realizing his potential. It is therefore a mistake to understand this expression, which describes the realization of potential, as directed toward the convert and encouraging him to curb his desires so that his seed will merit the potential that is missing from him.

Second, sharing the idea of the Divine influence with the convert, despite the fact that prophecy pertains neither to him nor to his descendants, presents no difficulty. According to Rihal, before a non-Jew is accepted as a convert, we must ascertain that he truly wishes to enter the bosom of Judaism, and that he understands the price that he will have to pay for joining. We do not try to persuade him to convert; on the contrary, we try to chill his excitement and  to examine his sincerity. Thus, Rihal emphasizes that we must inform the potential convert about the mitzvot that he will have to fulfill, stressing those mitzvot that will require special effort and are difficult to understand.

It seems that this is the way to understand the matter of circumcision and the explicit mention of the matter of prophecy. The pinnacle of Judaism is prophecy, and the convert must understand that neither he nor his descendants will ever reach that level.

A potential convert who has heard the price that will be extracted from him when joining Judaism and understands that he will not receive a full return on the price that he will be paying, but nevertheless wishes to take this step - we do not doubt the sincerity of his decision and warmly welcome him into the fold.

[2] In the previous lecture, I pointed out the difficulty in the distinction between a Jew who heard about the revelation from his father, and owing to what he heard is regarded as having been present at the time of the revelation, and a non-Jew who heard about the revelation from his teacher, and about whom we do not say that what he heard joins him to the revelation. The difficulty exists primarily in light of the understanding that focuses on the certainty of revelation. I have not yet come up with a satisfying resolution of this difficulty.

[3] Shalom Rosenberg, in his book Be-Ikvot Ha-Kuzari (p. 71), sees this passage as Rihal's way of opening the door to a different understanding of the idea of the unique essence of Israel.

[4] "Divine Providence only gives man as much as he is prepared to receive; if his receptive capacity be small, he obtains little, and much if it be great" (II, 24).

[5] I shall relate to this issue in detail in the lecture dealing with the commandments.

[6] This assertion fits in with the principle that we saw above regarding the mitzvot, that a sinner is preferable to one who has no obligation, inasmuch as he had been exposed to the Divine light which left its impression upon him.