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The Uniqueness of Jewish Nationhood

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As we celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, it is a proper time to reflect upon the basic nature of our Jewish national identity. The questions actually abound...as do the myriad of answers from a spectrum of different perspectives. One such inquiry that was on the mind of all involved in the birth of Israel was: is our goal to be a nation like all other nations or are we to be uniquely distinct, a nation unlike any other?

There were those who argued the former; even more so, declared that it was important for the goal of a new Jewish state to be a national homeland for Jews similar to any other country. There were also, of course, those who maintained that the essence of Jewishness must always be to be a distinct nation unlike all others.
 
Traditionalists were and are clearly in the latter camp. The message of the Torah is clearly that the Jewish nation is to be a nation like no others. But what does this really mean? Obviously, nations are all different as they all have their own cultures. Even those who argued for the Jewish nation to be, simply, like all other nations did not mean that it would not have somewhat of its own identity.

The adamant promotion of the Hebrew language and aspects of Jewish history by these individuals clearly showed that they also wanted a certain pride in being specifically Jewish to be part of this identity of a Jewish nation like all other nations. The reality is, though, that being a nation like all other nations includes this feeling of distinct pride in your nation. Cheering on your nation at the Olympics is like being a member of a nation like all other nations even as you are specifically cheering on your own nation. What does it, thus, really mean to be a nation like all other nations and, then, what does it really mean to be a nation unlike other nations?
 
Nations are sub-groupings within humanity basically formed to serve the interests of those within the group over the interests of the world population in general. With a commitment to nationhood we care about what happens within our nation -- and to the members of our nation -- over what happens to those outside our national grouping. This is not to say that identifying with nationhood will mean that a person does not care at all about others outside of the nation.

The reality, though, is that this is a possibility; throughout history there were clearly nations – the bullies of history -- that (to say the least) had no positive emotions for human beings belonging to other nations. In our world today, though, we generally look upon this extreme attitude as most negative. People generally do, and recognize that they should, care on some level for all. Nationhood, though, does still inherently indicate that a priority should be given to those within the national grouping over those without. Calling upon the Jewish People to be a nation like all others thus simply means that we should also share this attitude about national groupings within humanity. This call is for the Jewish nation to be a nation like all others and that, like all other nations, its focus must be primarily on the needs and aspirations of its group members.
 
The voice against nationalism is usually termed universalism. Individuals who support this view maintain that, for the full advancement of humanity, it is important and necessary to see humankind as an indivisible, complete whole. The division of people into nations is ultimately seen as harmful and detrimental. This division between universalism and nationalism is, of course, not black-and-white. In our world today, even those who promote nationalism, generally, as mentioned above, recognize a value in the connection of humanity as a whole. The priority of the nationalist, though, is still his/her nation.
 
It is with this recognition, though, that we can begin to understand how the traditional Torah view of nationhood is different than the normative view of nationhood. In a world of idolatry with every nation having their own deity, the theology of the day could defend even the most extreme version of national precedence. ‘My nation is more important than your nation because my god is more important than your god.’

In contradistinction, though, a belief in One Universal God would seem to actually promote a formidable view of extreme universalism with even a negative view of nationalism. This view, however, is not what we find within the principles of Torah, the teaching of the One Universal God. Torah maintained a value in nationhood and even declared one nation – the Jewish People – to be distinct. How does this idea of nationalism connect with a Universal God? Herein lies the distinction of Jewish nationality.
 
A value of nationhood clearly supports a primary commitment to one’s national sub-grouping but what still should be the overall human goal? Generally, the modern nationalist, who may accept some value of universalism, may contend that once the needs of the nation are generally met we can, and even should, help others – but, even to these individuals, this is only secondary.

Other nationalists throughout history would declare no concern outside the nation. The argument of Torah, though, is that the ultimate goal should actually be humanity as whole. Nationhood is, thus, but the structure that humanity should adopt in furthering its universal goal. Within the realm of Torah thought, we speak of humankind as the Seventy Nations. It is not in the best interest of humanity to function as one gigantic whole.

It must form sub-groupings to more efficiently meet humanity’s objective – with each grouping even able to develop its own specific qualities. These sub-groupings of the world – the Seventy Nations – should then come together to meet the Divine goal for all humanity. The Torah vision of humanity is a heterogeneous collective unity. Herein thus lies the distinction of the Jewish People. We are Divinely chosen to be the nation with the task of leading humanity towards this goal.
 
This vision is clearly imparted to us through the stories of King David and King Solomon. The actions of King David, who fought and won many battles to obtain and establish the security of the nation, clearly point to the importance of developing the Jewish national presence. King David is clearly distinguished, as such, in Torah thought for all that he accomplished – yet he was still not allowed to fulfill his final desire to build the Temple.

The development of Jewish nationalism was the first Divine directive King David had to meet yet to fortify the Jewish nation demanded conflict with other nations. As such, albeit the proper step in the moment, these conflicts also meant that King David could not continue to meet the further objective of building the Temple. It was King Solomon, who did not have to fight with other nations, who was left with that task and, thus, it was King Solomon who built the Temple. But how did King Solomon refer to the Temple upon its construction? As a place of prayer for all the nations. The building of the Temple was part of our ultimate universal vision.
 
Herein lies the distinction of the Jewish nation. We are unlike all other nations in that our national identity is inherently tied into universalism and humanity as a whole. We are unlike other nations for we are to be the nation that is to guide the Seventy Nations, in the advancement of collective humanity, together to the One God.
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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