Shiur #15: Summary of the Unique Essence of Israel (Part IV)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

     In this lecture, I will once again take a break from our examination of the thought of R.YehudaHalevi, and try to compare it with other views. These other views were not selected at random; many point to the direct connection and continuity between three thinkers: R.YehudaHalevi, the Maharal of Prague, and Rav Kook.


     In this lecture I will present these other views in very general terms. I will not enter into a detailed discussion of the views of the Maharal and Rav Kook; I will merely note several similarities and differences between the various thinkers.




     The Maharal of Prague, who lived in the sixteenth century, authored many works in which he relates to the unique essence of Israel. Two threads of thought emerge from what he writes. According to the Maharal, the world is a natural world, not a Divine one. Thus, it is not necessary that the Divine potential be found in every individual. This is in contrast to the natural potential that must characterize every created being, inasmuch as the world is a natural place. This serves as the foundation for the argument that not everyone possesses Divine potential.


Without a doubt, prophecy is a potential in the human soul. This potential is unique to the nation chosen by God… Those who have a Divine soul have the potential for Divine things, such as prophecy and the holy spirit, and this is only found in the nation that was chosen by God. (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 1)


     We see, then, that the nations of the world lack the potential for Divine actions (the mitzvot) and Divine comprehensions (the holy spirit and prophecy).


     We find support for this understanding in another matter discussed by the Maharal. Elsewhere the Maharal distinguishes between two levels in nature, "natural-bestial" and "Divine-intellectual." One who lives on the natural level lives on the level of animals.


     Accordingly, the nations of the world, who live on the natural level, exist on the same level as animals. Maharal cites Chazal:


You are called "man," but non-Jews are not called "man." This means as follows: The critical difference between man and other living beings is that man has a Divine soul. This is only found in the nation that was chosen by God… Therefore, they are called "man" with respect to their perfection, in that they have everything that should be found in a man who is called "man," because he has Divine rather than natural status. Therefore, you are called "man." (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 1).[1]


     On the one hand, this conceptualization is clearly connected to Rihal's mineral-plant-animal-man hierarchy in nature; on the other hand, there is a clear distinction between the two positions.


     The Maharal, like Rihal, divides the levels of nature into two groups: the one natural (for Rihal these are the first four levels in the mineral-plant-animal-man hierarchy), and the second Divine (this is the fifth level according to Rihal).


     Like Rihal, the Maharal also maintains that only Israel is found at the Divine level, while the rest of mankind is at the natural level. According to both thinkers, this fact bestows upon Israel the superiority of prophecy and the holy spirit, a superiority given exclusively to them.


On the other hand, there is a striking difference between the two outlooks. The Maharal includes the intellectual level in the supernatural Divine level. Thus, he has no choice but to include the rest of mankind who do not descend from the seed of Israel with the animal world, since both groups lack the intellectual level given exclusively to those with a Divine soul. This position is quite extreme and seems to contradict reality; we see essential differences between animals and human beings. In a certain sense this position is repugnant and even dangerous in its ramifications, and we shall immediately see a certain tempering of this position in the words of the Maharal himself.


     Rihal, in contrast, includes the intellectual level in the natural level. Accordingly, the third level in the natural quartet – the animal level – is essentially different from the fourth level in that group – the human level. Non-Jewish philosophers are highly praised and esteemed by Rihal (as we saw in earlier lectures). Although Rihal agrees that non-Jews lack a Divine soul, he does not group them with animals. According to Rihal, non-Jews have intelligence, which clearly differentiates them from animals.


     As stated above, we already find a certain retreat from the Maharal's radical position in other passages in his writings.


     The Maharal relates at length to the issue of mitzvot; he sees them as Divine rational actions stemming from the Divine soul, which means that one who lacks a Divine soul is not obligated to observe them.


     It should follow, according to the Maharal, that the rest of mankind, who lack a Divine soul, are totally exempt from the mitzvot, for they are like animals. But this is not what the Maharal says:


And therefore it is for the people of Israel, whom God chose for His portion. They were singled out for the Divine actions, which are the mitzvot of the Torah, in accordance with the level of their Divine soul, that they have the potential for prophecy and the holy spirit, and to have the Shekhina in their midst. And non-Jews, in accordance with their own level, were given seven mitzvot, namely the seven Noachide laws. (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 1)[2]


            Non-Jews are at a certain level that obligates them in some mitzvot. In light of the equation that the Maharal himself makes between obligation in mitzvot and the Divine soul, non-Jews must also have some connection to the Divine soul.


     We are forced to conclude that, according to the Maharal, all human beings, inasmuch as they have an intellect, are connected in one way or another to the Divine level. Non-Jews, however, do not have a full Divine soul as Jews do, and it is only this completeness that can lead to prophecy and the holy spirit.


     This proposal finds support in a precise reading of the two passages cited above:


1)   When the Maharal writes "in accordance with the level of their Divine soul," he may be talking about a certain level in their Divine soul, and not about a categorical distinction between one who has a Divine soul and one who does not.


2)   "Therefore, they are called 'man' with respect to their perfection" – non-Jews do not reach the level of human perfection, but they are certainly in the category of human beings, and not animals.


In this context, the Maharal has an interesting position regarding converts. As we saw with respect to Rihal, the issue of Israel's unique essence has immediate ramifications on the status of converts. It seems that once again there are two threads in the Maharal's thought regarding this issue.


On the one hand, the Maharal states:


When [a non-Jew] comes to convert, he has the quality of a Jew.


This statement may be understood to mean that a non-Jew's conversion reveals retroactively that the unique essence of Israel had always been concealed in his soul, although it has become activated only now.[3]


On the other hand, the Maharal asserts:


When [a non-Jew] converts, he becomes subordinate to the people of Israel, and like it. (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 1)


The expression "subordinate to the people of Israel" tends less in the direction of a potential that has now become exposed, and brings to mind the rule of "nullification in a majority" (bitul be-rov). A convert can never acquire the unique level of Israel, but he becomes nullified and subordinate to it. Accordingly, even though he himself lacks that unique essence, he has a part in what is found in the rest of Israel - not through himself, but through his clinging to them. The continuation of the passage supports this interpretation:


Nevertheless, [the Sages] said: Converts are as bad to Israel as a sore on the skin, for the nature of a sore is not good and it ruins the flesh which has a good nature. (ibid.)


According to this, we can understand the earlier citation, "he has the quality of a Jew," not as an exposure of the convert's potential, as was argued above, but rather as his "acceptance of the rule of majority."


The views of the Maharal and of Rihal regarding conversion are very similar. The assertion that a convert acquires the level of a Jew undermines the understanding that the unique essence of Israel is natural-genetic. It is impossible for a person - through his actions, beliefs, or the expression of his desire - to acquire a quality that is passed down from father to son. Thus, the status of a convert will always be inferior to that of a Jew.


It should be mentioned once again that the idea of retroactive exposure of potential may be able to bridge the gap between the idea that conversion confers status upon the convert that is equal to that of a Jew and the idea that the unique essence of Israel is genetic. Converts, certain thinkers argue,[4] are lost souls created from the Throne of Glory like the souls of the Jewish people but ended up in the bodies of non-Jews (alternatively, as was explained above, these souls were present at the revelation at Mount Sinai and at the covenant in Arvot Moav). The act of conversion returns the convert to his true source; converts should not be viewed as joining the Jewish people, but as returning home to them.


Rav Kook[5]


The difference between Israel and the Nations:


     Rav Kook clearly distinguishes between a non-Jew and a Jew, and his statements are reminiscent of Rihal's approach:


The difference between a Jewish soul… and the souls of all the nations, at all their levels, is greater and more profound than the difference between a human soul and the soul of an animal, for between the latter there is only a quantitative difference, whereas between the former there is a qualitative difference. (Orot Yisrael, chap. 5, sec. 10)


These words are very sharp, and they bring to mind the radical element in the words of the Maharal that we saw above. Rav Kook groups together man and beast (the difference between them being merely quantitative), and sets against them the Jewish soul. Even Rihal himself (as we saw in the comparison between him and the Maharal) does not appear to have adopted such an extreme position. It seems to me, however, that these words are tempered in light of another passage that clearly limits the distinction proposed by Rav Kook in the previous passage:


I have already written in [previous] letters that with respect to unique individuals we do not recognize a difference between nations, and that "a non-Jew who occupies himself in Torah is like a High Priest." Our early Sages have already said: "Let us greet our colleague the philosopher." But that which we praise the people of Israel as a whole is with respect to the Divine unique essence found in the soul of the nation as a whole, which also reveals itself in each individual in some special way. (Iggerot Ha-Ra'aya, I, no. 64)


Rav Kook declares here that his distinction between Israel and the nations relates to the difference between Israel as a nation and other nations. While it is true that this difference expresses itself also in individuals, this is only when they are connected to the nation and are nurtured from it;[6] it does not relate to those individuals in themselves. This seems to be the way to understand the sharp words of Rav Kook cited above. "The difference between a Jewish soul…" relates to the collective Jewish soul and not to the soul of the individual Jew, which, as stated, also draws from this distinction; the distinction, however, does not follow to his own individual soul.


Rav Kook's approach here is similar to that of Rihal, yet differs from it. It is similar in the sense that Rav Kook sees an essential difference between Israel and the nations of the world.[7] It differs in the sense that Rav Kook tries (almost always) to locate the difference in the collective soul of the people of Israel rather than in the soul of the individual.[8]


It goes without saying that this approach leads to a different attitude toward the non-Jew.


Rav Kook can accept conversion and integrate it into his general outlook as a total process because the essential uniqueness of the Jew stems from his connection to and drawing from the collective soul of Israel. A non-Jew who chooses to join the Jewish people and to share its destiny draws from the nation's unique essence just like any other Jew. Thus, there is no reason to distinguish between him and one who was born a Jew. Shifting the focus of Israel's uniqueness from the individual to the collective makes it possible to understand and accept the phenomenon of conversion without any reservations.


Another way of shifting the focus of Israel's uniqueness from the individual to the collective is found in the writings of RavJosephB.Soloveitchik. RavSoloveitchik locates the uniqueness of Israel in two covenants. The first is a covenant of fate, which connects the entire people of Israel through a shared fate. The troubles, the pogroms, the exile, and the suffering cast all of Israel in the same basket. As RavSoloveitchik puts it, a Jew living in New York should feel on his own flesh the pain of a Jew who is persecuted in Morocco. Second, Jews are bound by a covenant of destiny, which connects all of Israel through a common aspiration for national and universal redemption.[9]


A convert, argues RavSoloveitchik, accepts both covenants upon himself. From the moment that he converts to Judaism, he binds himself to the fate of Israel – from now on he will be persecuted like any other Jew, he will wander from exile to exile, and he will return to Eretz Yisrael along with the rest of the people. The convert also binds himself to Israel's destiny, its faith, and its striving for self-perfection and perfecting the world with God's kingdom[10] (Divrei Hagut Ve-Ha'arakha, p. 43).


Like Rav Kook and as opposed to Rihal, RavSoloveitchik locates the core of Israel's unique essence in the Jewish collective. Unlike Rav Kook, he locates it not in some abstraction found in the Jewish people (the "soul of the people," or the like), but rather in the historical fate and religious destiny of the Jewish community.


Accordingly, RavSoloveitchik argues that when a non-Jew joins the Jewish people by deciding to share in their fate and destiny, he becomes a full partner in Israel's uniqueness:


Converts were also included in that covenant made with individuals. Were this not the case, a convert would lack one of the two sanctities that characterize a Jew, and surely we know that the law governing a convert in all matters is like that which governs all Jews. (Al Ha-Teshuva, p. 137)


A convert, according to RavSoloveitchik, is for all purposes like any other Jew, unlike the position of Rihal.[11]


The Nature of Israel's Uniqueness:


     Rav Kook relates to the fundamental question regarding the essence of the Jewish people and the difference between Israel and the nations of the world, and he calls for a serious examination of the issue.[12]


     Rav Kook presents two different models. The first is the assertion that Israel's uniqueness in relation to the other nations finds expression in the special level given to them, in addition to the level common to all people. In addition to the humanity that they share with the rest of mankind, the Jewish people have "a spirit embellished with the splendor of holiness." This model accords with the view of Rihal, who argues that the fifth level – the supernatural level – comes on top of the four lower levels. According to Rihal, the Divine influence that sets Israel apart is in addition to the intellect that is universal and characterizes mankind as a whole.[13]


     According to the second model, the uniqueness of Israel in relation to the nations of the world finds expression from head to toe. Israel and the nations do not share a common universal foundation, for the person of a Jew is unique and special, from the most material sense to the most refined spiritual sense.


     Rav Kook decides the matter, arguing that God's original intention was in accordance with the first model, but in the wake of man's sin and the fall of the world, the first model was replaced by the second.


     Rav Kook explains why the model had to be changed. The basic, universal stage, according to Rav Kook, is the world of the profane, which is supposed to serve as a foundation for the world of the holy. But with the world's sinking in the wake of man's sin, the profane foundation of the world was undermined in such a way that it was no longer fit to bear the holy upon it. Divine providence was thus forced to build a unique foundation for Israel so that it would be able to bear its holiness.


     Rav Kook maintains that following the exodus from Egypt, the correct model for the relationship between Israel and the nations of the world is the second model, which is different from that adopted by Rihal.


     It is important to emphasize that the difference between the two models is not merely theoretical, and that it has many practical ramifications. When Rihal asserts that the Jewish essence is comprised of a universal, rational layer, on top of which there lies a Divine layer that distinguishes Israel from all others, he asserts that the road to prophecy begins with universal cognitions, about which the Jew and the non-Jew use the same terminology. At this stage, which is pre-theological, there is no evident difference between the Jew and the philosopher. As long as we are not dealing with the relationship between man and God, but rather with the relationship between man and his fellow, the perfection of man, the perfection of the family, the perfection of society, and the perfection of the state, the tools which man uses, whether he is Jewish or not, are universal tools that have a universal language. As we saw in previous lectures, Rihal praises and adopts the approach of general philosophy, attesting that it brought mankind to great achievements in these areas. It is only from here onward, when man proceeds toward the Divine, that a new language begins, one that characterizes the Divine influence and is therefore exclusive to the people of Israel.


     In contrast, the second model demands of the Jew from the very outset special cognition and a holy language that set him apart from the rest of mankind. The perfection of man and concern for his physical needs, and all the more so the perfection of society and the state, are one thing for the nations of the world and something totally different for the Jew. Rav Kook educates the Jew to develop a Jewish perspective, not only on the theological level, but on all levels of life and the world. In this sense, the entirety of a Jew is holy and his entire life is holy.


The People of Israel's Mission:


     Rav Kook goes far beyond Rihal with respect to the obligation and mission cast upon Israel as a result of its uniqueness. If the people of Israel are the essence of being, as argued by Rav Kook (Orot Yisrael, chap. 1, sec. 1), if their essence is the supreme moral objective of existence (ibid., sec. 5), and if they are the revelation of God in the world ("the light of the Shekhina is the people of Israel," ibid., secs. 8-9), we understand the following:


All the civilizations in the world will renew themselves through the renewal of our spirit, all beliefs will be rectified… all the nations will don new garments, they will remove their filthy clothing and put on precious garments, they will abandon everything impure and abominable in their midst, and they will unite to draw nurture from lights of holiness, which had been prepared in days of old for every nation and every man in the well of Israel. Avraham's blessing to all the peoples in the world will begin to have effect with force and out in the open. (Orot Ha-Milchama, 9)


All the Nations are a Single Organism:


     In the previous lecture, we noted that Rihal, in his parable of the heart and the organs, makes the important assertion that the entire family of nations constitutes a single organism. This is the starting point of the relationship between Israel and the nations.


     From this stems the assumption that all the nations serve the supreme goal of applying the Divine influence in the world, something that is done by Israel.


     From this also follows the assumption that when Israel attains the Divine influence, they are obligated to allow it to influence the entire body, that is, the entire family of nations.


(Translated by DavidStrauss)


[1] Similarly, Tiferet Yisrael, end of chap. 2.

[2] And similarly and at greater length, in Gevurot Yisrael, chap. 7.

[3] We find such an understanding in the rabbinic statements that the souls of converts participated along with the souls of all of Israel in the covenants made at Sinai and Arvot Moav.

[4] This view is found in the writings of certain kabbalistic authors.

[5] Rav Kook's position on this issue is complex. I will not go into all the details, but merely discuss certain points for comparison. For a comprehensive discussion of Rav Kook's position, see Rav Yoel Bin Nun's article in "Yovel Orot" and in the bibliography brought there.

[6] Rav Kook maintains as a matter of principle that every national collective bestows a particular essence (external or internal) upon the individuals of which it is comprised (Orot Yisrael, chap. 2, sec. 3).

[7] Rav Kook emphasizes that we must not attribute the difference between the people of Israel and the other nations to the practical level of observance of the mitzvot (Orot Yisrael, chap. 5, sec. 7). We saw previously that some wish to attribute this idea to Rihal. I rejected this understanding of Rihal, just as Rav Kook rejects the idea in itself.

[8] This distinction becomes stronger in light of the difference that has already been noted between the idea of uniqueness in the thought of Rihal, which translates into race and genetics and focuses on the individual, and the idea of uniqueness in the thought of Rav Kook, which translates into "the spirit of the nation" and focuses on the nation as a collective. Another distinction that follows from these diverse definitions relates to the other nations. Rihal's theory asserts that the Jewish people are the chosen people, while the others not. This is a judgmental statement, which asserts who "has it" and who "has it not." The idea of "the spirit of the nation" is a universal concept that does not judge, but merely describes (this idea is used by other thinkers who were not necessarily connected to Judaism, such as Hegel). Understanding Israel's uniqueness in this manner leaves room for the importance of values and ideas found in other nations, values that comprise their "national spirit." Indeed, as we saw in the previous lecture, one of the differences between Rihal and Rav Kook relates to the role and importance that they attribute to the other nations. Are the other nations merely a backdrop that serves the Jewish people, as argued by Rihal, or do they contribute their own essence and colors in the formation of the edifice of humanity that will reveal God's kingdom in the world? (Regarding the idea of "national spirit," see Natan Rotenstreich, Ha-Machshava Ha-Yehudit Be-Et Ha-Chadasha, 5705, vol. 1, p. 216 and on.)

[9] Variations on the idea that Israel's unique essence is found in its destiny are suggested by Rav S.R. Hirsch (The Nineteen Letters, 8,9) and Shadal(Yesodei Ha-Torah 36).

[10] Rav Soloveitchik connects the convert's circumcision with the covenant of fate (Avraham, the exodus) and his immersion to the covenant of destiny (acceptance of mitzvot). Elsewhere he writes: "When he converts, the convert accepts the legacy of sanctity that belongs to all of Israel, and he also becomes part of 'You are a holy nation unto the Lord, your God.' How does a convert acquire his sanctity?… Through acceptance of the Torah… a reenactment of 'You stand to day before the Lord, your God'" (Al Ha-Teshuva, p. 136).

[11] Two comments regarding RavSoloveitchik's approach: 1) RavSoloveitchik also speaks of a covenant made with the individual; however, that is also part of Israel's collective historical standing, and does not mark a unique essence found in each and every individual. 2) RavSoloveitchik has an interesting attitude toward Jews who have severed themselves from the Jewish people. According to Rihal, even a sinner who estranges himself from the Torah and from the people of Israel continues to carry the unique essence that may reveal itself again in his descendants. But according to RavSoloveitchik, who focuses the uniqueness in belonging to the Jewish collective and sharing its common fate and destiny, losing that uniqueness is entirely possible.

[12] See Orot Yisrael, chap. 5, sec. 8.

[13] In previous lectures, we saw that Rihal asserts in several places that one cannot reach the Divine influence without a rational foundation.