What is a Jew and What is a Jewish State?

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

Such has been the assimilation of so many Jews since the Enlightenment, so varied are the attachments of most Jews to Judaism, that the eminent scholar Raphael Patai could do no better than conclude, in The Jewish Mind, that “a Jew is a person who considers himself a Jew and is so considered by others.”

In contrast to this subjective and vacuous definition of a Jew, I will argue that what is most distinctive of Jews is that which has preserved them as a people, the Torah and the Talmud.

Turning to specifics, I will mention only two unique characteristics of the Jew — and without disparaging countless Jews who do not exhibit these characteristics. The first is this: In principle, the Jew relates every question concerning thought, passion, and action to the Torah and regulates every facet of his life to the laws thereof—say the Halakha. If he is not learned in the Halakha, he consults his rabbi and defers to his judgment. And every rabbi has a rabbi.

It needs to be emphasized that the Talmud, rooted in the Torah, is more than a collection of laws. It is the architecture and science of life without which the individual and society become a welter of discordant passions, opinions, and interests. Torah Judaism is an art, and like any great work of art, each part contributes to the whole, while the whole enriches the part and endows with meaning. A Torah Jew is not the random individual typical of democracies; and a Torah community is not a strait jacket typical of autocracies. No people has been more creative than the Jewish people.

Accordingly, when Torah Jews have a problem or controversy, they seek its solution in the Talmud or in the works of its great expositors, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or more recent Torah masters. In short, they consult a renowned Torah scholar just as one might consult an eminent physician. The goal of such inquiry is truth, justice, and peace, the three pillars on the world was established, says Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in the Ethics of the Fathers (Avot 1:18). The order is significant: truth is the prerequisite of justice and peace. Truth permeating the totality of life—this is the paramount concern of the Torah and the Talmud.

The Prophets and the Sages regard truth and Torah as identical. On this identity depends the intellectual integrity and merit of the Jew and the solidarity and survival of the Jewish people. Only by making life a work of art modulated by the laws of the Torah can the Jew and the Jewish community achieve genuine freedom and harmony as well as intellectual perfection.

The second unique characteristic of the Jew is this: he relates his experiences with diverse nations to the world-historical function of the Jewish people. He views the doctrines and practices of the non-Jewish world in terms of the laws and teachings of the Torah. The Jew does not regard any philosophy as merely true or false; nor does he regard some action of an individual or of a nation as simply good or bad. He measures the relative validity (or invalidity) of ideas, and the goodness (or wickedness) of deeds in terms of whether they advance or hinder the world-historical program of the Torah and the divine mission of the Jewish people. Such is the Providence of God that even wicked deeds may have salutary consequences, as the story of Joseph and his brothers exemplifies.

Since the Torah Jew knows that man proposes and God disposes, he understands how the multifarious ideas and deeds of mankind function in relation to the only nation possessing a Universal History: Israel. He knows that the statelessness and dispersion of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Second Temple magnified the influence of Jewish universalism on the Gentile world, while enlarging the knowledge and skills of the “Wandering Jew.” Of course, many wandering Jews forgot what it means to be a Jew.

The word “Jew” is derived from “Judah” (Yehudah) which means “he shall exalt.” In his very name we behold the Jew’s world-historical purpose. “This people have I created that they may relate My praise” (Isaiah 43:21)—meaning God’s infinite wisdom, power, and graciousness in every domain of existence.

Nothing is further from the minds of the Jews who control the State of Israel. Surely this is why this so-called Jewish State has become so pathetic, so devoid of purpose. This unhappy conclusion leads me to the question of “What is a Jewish State?”

Religious Jews talk about the need to make Israel an authentic Jewish State. The trouble is that a “Jewish State” is a contradiction in terms—and though I often use this oxymoron, I do so to avoid complicating other issues. Here let me simply point out that in modern times the State is deemed the source of supreme power of any political society. This obviously contradicts the Jewish idea that God is the source of supreme power, hence, that the laws of the State must be consistent with the laws of God, that is, with the Torah.

It is precisely because modern Israel acts like a State whose power is superior to the Torah that the Government of Israel can expel tens of thousands of Jews from their homes, destroy their synagogues, their schools, their life’s work and aspirations. So I am not merely speaking in abstract terms. I take ideas like the idea of the State seriously: some ideas elevate; other ideas decimate.

Nevertheless, let me use the misleading concept of “The Jewish State.” The Jewish State is the title of a book written by Theodor Herzl, the only name that appears in the text of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Herzl is exalted in that document as the “spiritual father” of the Jewish State. All honor to Herzl, but let us not succumb to idolatry.

If we follow conventional usage, we should say that an authentic Jewish State is one based on the Torah, on the Sinai Covenant, on Jewish law. This is tacitly denied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Israel’s Supreme Court called the Declaration “the credo of the Jewish people”—a document which, unlike its American counterpart, does not even mention the word God. It never occurred to the rulers of the so-called Jewish State that its ultimate purpose is to sanctify the Name of God.

Is this why the rulers of this State have a Road Map to the establishment of a Palestinian state—one that would negate the existence of the Jewish State? Having negated God when they established the State of Israel, its ruling elites are now dismantling the State of Israel!

Notice they have no creative or constructive goal, no Jewish goal. Notice how long they have been preoccupied with Israel’s security problem, hence with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They do not know that Israel’s security depends not on them or on the State but on God. But then the people of Israel must be faithful to God. This does not mean Israel must be a theocratic state, something foreign to Judaism. It does not even mean that Jews must in a trice fulfill all the mitzvas or commandments. But it would hasten their redemption if they took a step toward God by ceasing to worship false gods.

The false god of our time is Normless Democracy—a democracy whose principles of freedom and equality are devoid of rational and ethical constraints. Jews should derive freedom and equality from the Torah’s conception of man’s creation in the image of God. This is the only solid foundation of justice, kindness, and peace. It is the one idea that enables us to speak honestly about the unity of the human community. It is the very idea that should prompt Israel’s government to demand that her neighbors abide by the Seven Universal Laws of Morality—the basis of international law.

One last word. We all know that Israel is an exceptional–not to say foreign–plant in the Islamic and despotic Middle East. In this hostile environment Israel has no future. But it is here that Israel—if it would but cease worshiping the idol of the normless secular democratic state and construct a God-oriented polity—it is here that Israel, by its example, can bring peace and prosperity to the Middle East and thus be a blessing to all mankind.

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