Shiur #14: The Unique Essence of Israel (Part III)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     We saw in the previous lecture that despite all the attempts to blur R.YehudaHalevi's theory of "racial supremacy," his position on the issue is unequivocal and has important ramifications.


     As we saw, the most important ramification relates to the standing of converts who join the Jewish people. They enjoy many benefits, but they will never be considered equals. This inferiority is explained by the absence of the unique essence passed down as a genetic legacy from generation to generation from Adam to the people of Israel, and by the converts' (that is, their ancestors') non-participation at the revelation at Sinai, which created Israel's obligation.


     This approach gives rise to a certain discomfort within us, particularly in light of what has happened in recent generations and the satanic use of the principles of the idea of racial supremacy. Shalom Rosenberg noted this discomfort:


The concept itself of origin has a positive side. It comes to teach the obligations that nobility imposes. Regrettably, however, we must apply to it the verse, "You shall not set up any pillar, which the Lord your God hates" (Devarim 16:22). Regarding this verse, Rashi says in the name of Chazal: "'Which the Lord your God hates…' although it was pleasing to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it because these [the Cana'anites] made it an ordinance of an idolatrous character." The concept of race in itself is not a negative concept, but from the time of modern racism, from the time that in the name of race, the most heinous murders and crimes have been committed, using this concept has become disqualified and inappropriate. We must not use a concept "which the Lord your God hates." (Be-Ikvot Ha-Kuzari, p. 71)


     In the continuation, Rosenberg tries to find in Rihal's work a different understanding of Israel's unique essence, but his intellectual honesty forces him to admit:


However, even if we insist that the plain sense of the Kuzari is otherwise, we must say that the sources, which in their own context were innocent, turned to their own detriment, in light of the tragic history of recent generations, dangerous. We must fulfill in them the mitzva of "You shall not set up any pillar," which at first He loved but later He hated. (ibid.)


     Rosenberg's attitude is that in the historical context in which we find ourselves we must reject and perhaps even omit R.YehudaHalevi's racial theory. Although this theory casts additional obligations upon the Jewish People, rather than exempt them from obligations,  and although it is meant to elevate its proponents to a higher moral level, rather than bring them down to a lower one, this does not lessen the discomfort and the justified antagonism to which the concept gives rise.


     It should be noted that Rihal himself challenged this attitude in the words that he puts into the Khazar king's mouth:


Would it not have been better or more commensurate with divine wisdom, if all mankind had been guided in the true path? (I, 102)


     Rihal's understanding of Israel's unique essence seems to have two ramifications regarding God.


     First, it implies that God created inferior creatures. This testifies to a deficiency in the Divine creation, for if the select of mankind are regarded as perfect, the implication is that the rest are not.


     Second, it imposes a restriction on the connection between man and God to the chosen people. Why weren't all men created in such a way that they can conjoin with God?


     The Rabbi answers these questions, like a good Jew, with another question:


Or would it not have been best for all animals to have been reasonable beings? (I, 103)


     The Rabbi returns the Khazar king to the hierarchy of mineral-plant-animal-man that he presented at the beginning of the first book. He teaches him that Israel's unique essence should be seen as part of the hierarchy that exists in the natural world. Thus, whatever explanation will be accepted regarding the hierarchical structure of the natural world will also answer the objections raised against the idea of the unique essence of Israel.


     At this point, the Rabbi does not provide any explanation, but he relates to the issue in two different places.


     In one place, he goes in the ontological direction, according to which the world itself was created by way of a series of emanations. According to this understanding, all of creation is anchored in hierarchy. The first link in the chain of emanation is closer to the "Prime Cause," as the philosophers put it, than the next link. It is very possible that this hierarchy will find expression both in the spiritual levels of the created beings, and in their ability to maintain a connection and relationship with a higher link in the chain.


     The philosophers who accepted this outlook did not see any problem in the hierarchical structure that they believed in; rather, they saw it as a necessary consequence of the structure of the world.


     Rihal expresses a similar idea in the third and fourth prefaces to true knowledge:


The difference of things is the outcome of their substances. One cannot, therefore, ask: "Why did He not create me an angel?" Just as little as the worm can ask: "Why did You not create me a human being?"


     And in the next preface:


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.


     In another place, R.YehudaHalevi goes in the teleological-pragmatic direction, according to which the world aspires toward a certain perfection, and it is therefore built with means and objectives; some beings serve as means that allow other beings to realize the supreme objective.


     This idea also finds expression in the Kuzari in the wonderful metaphor of the heart and the organs.


     The Rabbi likens the people of Israel among the nations to a heart among the other organs. Through this metaphor, the Rabbi tries to explain to the Khazar king that Israel suffers more than any other nations, as the prophet Yeshayahu says: "But in truth he has borne our sicknesses and endured our pains" (Yeshayahu 53:4). The heart, according to the Rabbi, is the soul's resting place, and this function obligates it to maintain a level of refinement not found in any other organ in the body. This level of refinement is maintained by fighting off any disease or infection attacking it. For this reason, argues the Rabbi, the heart is characterized by two contradictory traits: it is both the sickest and the healthiest part of the body. Its many ailments express the heart's heightened sensitivity, a sensitivity that preserves its health and allows the soul to rest upon it and, from there, in the entire body.


Thus, [the heart's] sensibility and feeling expose it to many ills, but they are at the same time the cause of their own expulsion at the very beginning, and before they have time to take root. (II, 42)


     This idea has various ramifications, one of which I will relate to at this time. The metaphor used by Rihal portrays the nations of the world as a single organism, each organ having its own role. Just as all the organs of the human body are means for the realization of an end – resting the soul on a person – so, too, all the nations have an end towards which all are aimed – the resting of the Divine influence on the select of Israel. The Rabbi concludes the metaphor as follows:


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, the prophets and pious. (II, 44)


     Once again, Rihal uses the hierarchical structure of the world and talks here of one level evolving from another. The lowest level serves as a background for the level above it.[1] It seems that we would not be straying from Rihal's position if we would speak not only about background but also about support and service that allow the next higher level to develop towards its purpose.[2]


     Three points must be noted here:


     First of all, these conceptions do not give the highest level the authority or freedom to act as it pleases with respect to the lower level. The lower levels are not inferior as to their rights, certainly not their human rights, but only with respect to the opportunity that must be given to them to conjoin with God (whether through intellectual contemplation, according to the philosopher, or through religious service and prophecy, according to Rihal).


     Second, these conceptions do not come to fashion a social order, but rather to explain the existing situation. How is it possible and what is the moral justification for the fact that one person should sit in his library and study, while another person, a fellow human being, must work all day in the kitchen to prepare the first person's food? The answer to this question, ontological or teleological, is meant to explain and even to justify the existence of this phenomenon.


     The third point relates to the mission and purpose that accompanies some of these conceptions, and in this, Rihal is an excellent example. The unique essence creates purpose and obligations, one of which is an obligation towards those who do not enjoy the unique essence. The people of Israel are understood by Rihal as the connection and intermediary between God and those who cannot connect to Him in direct manner. As such, Israel bears great responsibility on its shoulders, both to perfect itself, and to preserve the connection to those who do not have the unique essence.


     The fact that most people lack the unique essence does not bring us to disregard them, and certainly not to gas chambers and crematoria. Rather it imposes a mission upon us to try to elevate them and bring them to a higher place than where they were before; not through Crusades or missionary work, but rather through true illumination, which should draw them like a magnet into the bosom of Judaism – "For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations."


     This outlook might be regarded as condescending and non-egalitarian, but it is certainly not immoral and void of ethical restraints.


     The idea of Israel's mission in the world is evident in several places in the Kuzari.


     The first place is in the metaphor of the heart cited above. We noted that one ramification of this understanding is that the entire family of nations is seen as a single organism, the entirety of which serves the heart – the place where body and soul meet, this being the objective of all the organs. There is a second ramification, the other side of the coin. The soul that rests on man does not impact only on the heart. Its traits, objectives and application spread out from the heart to the entire body. The heart, then, does not merit the soul for itself. It serves as the body's representative, it merits that the soul should rest upon it, but it does so on behalf of the entire body. It, therefore, does not keep the achievement for itself, for it was not exclusively for itself that it received it.[3] This is also what the Rabbi says with respect to the Divine influence that rests upon Israel: "If we are good, the Divine Influence will cling to the world" (II, 44).


     Elsewhere, Rihal also describes Israel's obligation to illuminate the world with what they acquire:


Are not the intellectual faculties much finer than the light that is seen? Or were not the inhabitants of the earth prior to the Israelites in blindness and error excepting those few whom I mentioned?… The community was at last considered sufficiently pure for the light to dwell on it, to be worthy of seeing miracles which changed the course of nature… Thus, this community became a guide for all hearts, and all who came after these philosophers could not detach themselves from their principles. (II, 54)


     Here, the Rabbi describes Israel's influence upon the nations of the world as greater than the sun's influence upon the earth.


     According to these descriptions, Israel constitutes the very heart of the world. The entire world exists for them and for their sake. On the other hand, they cause life to stream through all the organs, and they are what turns the world from a dead organism void of vitality and lacking any connection to God, into a living organism, connected at its umbilical cord, or more precisely at its heart, to the source of eternal life.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] This direction is not sufficiently developed by Rihal. Despite what may be inferred from the metaphor, that each and every organ has its own function, Rihal does not state this explicitly. For comparison, let us consider Rav Kook, who also likens the people of Israel to the heart (and mind) of the human body (Orot Yisrael 1, 2). But the organs' roles, according to Rav Kook, are more significant than those assigned to them by Rihal:

"The Holy One, blessed be He, acted charitably toward His world, not bestowing all proficiencies in one place, neither in one person, nor in one nation… The treasure of the eternal essence is hidden in Israel. But in order to unite the world with them in an all-embracing sense, certain proficiencies must be missing from Israel, so that they be filled in by the world. Thus, there is room for Israel to receive from the world, opening the way toward influence" (Orot Yisrael 5, 2). In this sense, not only do the organs make it possible for the heart to live, as follows from the words of Rihal, but they also have an independent function of maintaining the body and preparing it for the resting of the soul, which the heart receives.

Support for this distinction between Rihal and Rav Kook may be brought from a comparison of the metaphor of the heart and the organs to the metaphor of the seed and the shell. Sh.Rosenberg, in his article "Lev U-Segula," in his "Mishnato He-Hagutit Shel R. Yehuda HaleviKovetz Ma'amarim" (p. 109) sees in the two metaphors two opposite ideas. In the metaphor of the heart and the organs, the heart serves the organs, whereas in the metaphor of the seed and the shell, the shell serves the seed. In light of what we have said, in both metaphors the nations of the world serve Israel, and in both of them this service is directed at a supreme objective – production of the ripe fruit or resting of the soul on the body.

[2] A similar idea is found in the writings of the Rambam:

"One question remains, namely, that a person can say: You have already said that Divine wisdom did not create anything in vain, but for a purpose, and that among all created beings under the lunar sphere, man is the most distinguished, and that man's end is to contemplate the rational truths. Why, then did the Holy One, blessed be He, create all those people who do not contemplate the rational truths? And we see that most people are void of cunning, and empty of wisdom, seeking to fulfill their lust, and that the wise man, who detests the world, is but one among the many, a single individual in a generation."

The Rambam proposes two answers to this question.

The first is that the ignorant serve the wise, and free up their time to contemplate the rational truths:

"The answer to this is that such people exist for two reasons. First, that they should serve that individual, for were all people to seek wisdom and philosophy, the civilized world would be destroyed… For man is very deficient, and he needs many things, and he would have to learn to plow and to harvest, to thresh, to grind, and to bake, and to make the tools for these labors, in order to prepare his food. And similarly, he would have to learn to spin and to weave, in order to make something to wear, and to learn construction, in order to build a place to shelter himself there, and to make tools for all these labors… for a person is in absolute need of all of them for his survival. When then would he find time to learn and to acquire wisdom? Therefore there are the other people, to do all these things that are necessary, so that the wise man will find what he needs ready, and the land will be settled, and wisdom will be found."

The second is to serve as companions to the sages:

"Therefore, the masses were created to serve as companions to the sages, so that they become desolate. You might think that this benefit is small, but it is necessary and more fitting than the first. For the Holy One, blessed be He, kept the wicked in Eretz Israel so that they have companionship, and to remove desolation from the pious. This is what is stated (Shemot23:29): "I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate" (introduction to the Mishna, chap. 8 (Mosad HaRav Kook ed., pp. 79-82).

An allusion to such an idea may be found also in the writings of Rav Kook, although it may be inferred from a precise reading of his words that the situation which he describes as "natural slavery," in which certain people are naturally inferior and subservient to others, is a situation that might one day pass from the world (Iggerot Ha-Ra'aya, I, no. 89).

[3] As stated in note 1, Sh.Rosenberg saw this as the essence of the metaphor of the heart and the organs. In my opinion, however, this idea indeed exists, but alongside the main idea that Rihal sees in the metaphor of the heart and the organs – that the organs serve the heart and make it possible for it to receive the Divine influence.