19 Dec

Chapter 2: The Meaning of History

Universally Oriented Nationalism

One of the most significant sources of suffering in the world is the tension in human society between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Today, this tension is referred to as being between ‘left’ and ‘right,’ and I’m going to be a little schematic here, even though we’ll lose some nuances, but I think it’s important to understand the basic structure of the issue.

Man has a natural tendency to love his nation and land. These are his roots. And if I love my nation, and my birthplace, I’m a patriot, I’m a nationalist, I’m distinct and particularistic. If I have deep roots to my nation and land, and I take this feeling to the extreme, then it means that I actually hate the rest of the world. That is, this focus on my particular identity leads to an exclusion of all others.

But there is another point of view here, the cosmopolitan view. I’m a citizen of the world, and if I’m a citizen of the world, then I love everything. I’m connected to everything but at the end of day, if I take this feeling to the extreme it means that I hate my own uniqueness, my land, my nation, because my particular roots are in conflict with my ability to love everything.

So it can be said that the world oscillates between ideological movements that tend to deny particularistic identity – movements of impersonal cosmopolitanism on one side, and movements of particularistic nationalism, sometimes religious, on the other, that focus man on his individual world to the detriment of the rest of the world.

So what can be done about it? How can we live with this tension? This tension remains unreconciled for the vast majority of humanity. The Jewish people have the solution. In the case of the Jews, nationalism was founded from its inception in order to serve humanity. God commands Abraham, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation.” Land and nation is a state, a political entity. As it were, God is saying to Abraham, ‘you know why I’m going to make you into a nation? In order that…’ “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” This means that the decision made by Abraham, by the Jewish people that left Egypt and by the Jewish people who re-founded their state in the 20th century – all these decisions are nationalist decisions that were made intrinsically in the name of rectifying the entire world.

So it can be said that the more faithful I am to my own identity, the more I will serve humanity. I’ll give an example from another field: Beethoven is considered a treasure to all mankind. But what makes Beethoven of universal value is that he did not try to be Mozart. If Beethoven were to have tried to be Mozart instead of being himself, the results would not have been great. In other words, it is precisely loyalty to my own identity, when it is directed toward giving from myself to the rest of world, when I volunteer my identity for the good of the world, that this self-loyalty does not only not contradict the perfection of the world, but instead it itself contributes to the perfection of the world.

I would say that this idea, this example, of “universally oriented nationalism,” is one that can be adopted by other nations. This is what the prophet Zachariah saw in his prophetic vision of the future, “And many nations will join Hashem on that day, and they will be a nation to me…” That is to say, the Jewish people are the first nation in history that merited to be ‘God’s people’ and it teaches to all mankind how to create a national political entity that will be ‘God’s people’ and bonded to the perfection of the world.

Sanctifying the Collective

What is unique in the mission of Abraham when compared with other religious or spiritual movements in the world? Let it be said that the originality of the Torah regarding Abraham is in the concept of collective holiness as opposed to individual holiness; politics, as opposed to merely religion.

In order to explain what I mean, let us contemplate for a moment the religion of Christianity. From its inception, Christianity recoiled from the ancient Jewish idea of the possibility of moral and sanctified politics. As its founder said “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” meaning that the Caesar should deal with politics, and politics will be in the hands of the evildoers of the world while the good people will deal with God, meaning redeeming the individual’s soul. Apparently, this world is unsalvageable but individual souls can be saved. This is partially pessimistic – pessimism regarding the political world, and optimistic regarding the soul of man.

One of the great French writers of the 19th century, Victor Hugo, wrote a book called “Les Misérables,” a wonderful book that had great influence on humanity, whose basic thesis is that this world is beyond all hope of salvation. This world is cruel because it is controlled by a political system that tramples man and his morality, but we can somehow get through this hell with a little personal kindness, ‘Christian loving-kindness.’ Then, despite the overwhelming bitterness of the world we can make our lives barely livable while we await death by loving each other. But it remains a work that has utterly despaired of all things political.

Instead, the message of the Jewish Torah is that because the political arena remains the main platform for changing anything in the world it must not be abandoned and placed outside the domain of holiness. To be sure, it’s possible that politicians will exploit religion to perpetuate evil and we must be cautiously aware of this phenomenon. But the Jewish people have a comprehensive plan, the 613 commandment plan that functions as the political constitution for the Hebrew state. This constitution is meant to make the political entity into an instrument for sanctifying God’s name and for revealing His moral will.

And so, if we want to put Judaism in a category it would, in fact, be inaccurate to put it alongside other religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism because Judaism is a national identity. It must be discussed as Jewishness, as compared to French-ness, Russian-ness, British-ness etc. Of course, this national political entity of the Jewish people carries in it spiritual content that comes to sanctify the collective, sanctify politics, and through this to add holiness to the individual. Not as the reference point, but rather as a product.

Messianism – Political and then Spiritual

What is messianism? Many varying concepts can be found regarding the ‘days of the messiah,’ or the messianic movement, or the identity of the messiah, and there is much confusion. What is the messiah? As a result of the influence of Christian culture that is dominant in the western world even until today, we have gotten used to seeing the messiah as some sort of mystical figure, with a spiritual mission. Christianity even expects that the messiah will redeem man’s soul from his sins, and that without the messiah, connecting to God is impossible; not to mention entry to heaven and the eternal existence of the soul. This approach can deeply warp man’s soul as it portrays God as a despotic figure that is hostile to man, and sees the messiah as coming to save man from God’s wrath.

The Hebrew tradition’s approach to this issue could not be further from the above. The Jewish approach is fundamentally optimistic and believes that man is promised existence after life by default, by the fundamental purity of his soul, and only if he goes to great lengths to corrupt it, is there a chance that he could remove himself from the afterlife. The spiritual world is not a problem in the Jewish tradition. What needs rectifying is the temporal world and for many years the Jews have been trying to attain a small corner of this world with mediocre success. But, thank God, in our time the Jewish people have returned to their land and are beginning to settle it.

So what is messianism and who is the messiah?

Messianism is any ideological movement that believes that we can make our world a better place and that we have all of the conditions necessary to succeed in reconciling between man and man, and between man and God. This possibility is realized through a figure which we call the ‘Messianic King.’ Meaning, a political figure, and this is the most essential point. When the Hebrew prophets spoke about the redemption they spoke about the return of the nation of Israel to its land and its political independence.

The messiah’s purpose is to bring to the world not love – that we can do without him – but justice! True justice is what will bring the world out of its suffering and this starts with the return of the Jewish people to its proper state of political independence. And through this, with God’s help, the holy temple will be rebuilt, peace will come to the world, prophecy will be returned and all the Hebrew prophets’ visions will come about.

The Unity of East and West

The East and the West are two large cultural spaces in humanity. We can’t help but notice that all throughout history, the human world was split more or less into two vast cultural realms; the Western world on one side and the Eastern world on the other. The border between these worlds runs more or less between Persia and India, around what is today Pakistan. Here is the natural border between these vast swaths of land. On one side, we have one cultural realm from Persia until the Atlantic Ocean with empires that heavily interacted with each other. And on the other side we have China, India, Japan, Indochina etc. that make up a separate cultural realm.

Why is this? And, as well, we must ask, if the Jewish people are supposed to be so important for all humanity why did our history play out principally in the western part of the world, and not in the eastern part? We find in the book of Genesis the undertaking to build the Tower of Babel. This was an attempt to rebel against God. There, it relates that those who initiated the building of the tower came from the east to the west, “And it was, when they traveled from the east, and they found a valley.” So we can say that the beginning of what we call the ‘Western movement,’ in the broadest sense, not what we refer to today as ‘Western civilization,’ but rather all Western (as opposed to Eastern) cultures, began with the Tower of Babel.

What are these Western cultures about? They aim to change the world. This is precisely what the builders of the tower wanted. This is actually a messianic way of thinking, the idea that the world is going somewhere. The idea that man can succeed in doing something truly great led him to rebel against God. It is on this backdrop that Abraham our father appears on the scene to restore the recognition of God’s kingship among man. He revolted against the rebels.

The Eastern part of the world, on the other hand, never participated in this rebellion, so has it sinned at all? Is it at all deficient? Certainly. The deficiency is in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ‘Generation of Enosh.’ Enosh of pre-history invented paganism and paganism arose from a disregarding of God. Not a revolt against God but rather a ‘disremembering,’ an erasure of God from any relevance to man. God in the East is not revealed. He remains at the boundaries of existence.

The Jewish people have a role to play in the East as well as the West, but it is not the same role. The prophet Isaiah says that the day will come when “And in the West they will fear Hashem’s name, and His Honor in the rising of the sun.”8 The West has a need to know God’s name, so he is given all types of names: ‘Theos,’ ‘Allah,’ ‘Dieu,’ ‘God,’ etc. But in the East they do not give Him a name. Lao-Tze says in the “Tao Te Ching” that the Tao who can be called by a name cannot truly be the Tao, because he has no name; and that the ‘lack of a name’ is the source of many things.

So what is our message for the East? To teach God’s honor. The prophet Isaiah continues, “… and a redeemer will come to Zion.” Our role is to teach both the name and the honor as one. After reading the passage “Hear O’ Israel, Hashem our God, Hashem is One,” we add a praise “Blessed is the name of the honorable King for ever and ever.” We merge the knowledge that the Creator has a name with the knowledge that He is beyond all names. Therefore, his explicit name is never to be uttered in practice. Rather we substitute the explicit name with the title “Adonay”, (meaning my master) that expresses Hashem’s presence. He has a name, but we don’t pronounce it, out of His honor.

The name is known in the West and the honor is recognized in the East, and both are unified through the inclusive monotheism of Judaism. Thus, the Jewish nation is meant to publicize the possibility of reconciliation between the different cultures, between East and West.

The Encounter between Man and his Creator

The account of creation in the book of Genesis is not meant to tell us how the physical world was formed. This is what scientific research is for. So why is it recounted at the beginning of the Torah? To teach us the meaning of the world which man occupies. That is, meaning, not simply facts. The meaning is that the world has an ultimate purpose. Each one of the ‘days’ of creation has a particular mission. For example, the mission on the first day was, “And God said let there be light”9 and the result was “and there was light.” On the second day, “…a firmament” and the result “and there was firmament.” And so on for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth day. Every day there was a goal.

And then we reach the seventh day, but on the seventh day nothing was created. On the contrary, God rested. The seventh day, however, did not end. Notice, that at the end of the first day it says, “And it was evening and it was morning, one day.” And similarly for the second day, “And it was evening and it was morning, a second day.” And so on for the other days and then, “And God saw all that he had done, and it was great, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” After that, the account tells us of the seventh day, and to our surprise the expected conclusion: ‘And it was evening and it was morning, a seventh day,’ never comes. There is no passage of the sort. This is to teach us that in the Torah’s understanding, the seventh day is not over. That is, all of human history, that is still ongoing, remains within the seventh day of creation. The world functions according to the seventh day. This is an essential point to comprehend. We claim that God created the world, but we walk around and we don’t see him. We can give rational explanations to everything that happens in the world without needing to bring God into the picture. The Torah tells us the reason for this: because we are still within the seventh day of creation during which God refrains from taking action and delineates to man the task of completing the process of creation. “Because on that day He refrained from all His work that God had created – to do.” There is another mission, a task, needed to complete the world, and it is meant to be performed by the creations, meaning man.

So just what is man required to do on the seventh day? The Torah says, “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” Namely, the special mission of human history is to bring man to a state of holiness. The mission of all of humanity is to achieve a state of holiness, during the current era of the seventh day of the creation.

But what is meant by this holiness? The Torah explains in a number of places that holiness is a state of unmediated encounter, with no filters, between the creations and the Creator. If you take this seriously it is not at all trivial and even a little dangerous. How can one meet the Infinite Creator, with no filter? One may be swallowed, consumed, totally absorbed within God. Therefore, God arranged for shields between Him and us. These shields can be mental screens, screens rooted in nature, conceptual screens, all of which are important and must remain until the appropriate time.

But when the time comes, when man has earned his existence, when he has justified his life by good deeds, by the commandments that he fulfills, then he can remove the screen and stand before God without risk. That is to say, the state in which man is disconnected from God is a positive and necessary stage but one that must end at the appropriate time. The ultimate goal is that there be a dialogue between man and God, not a situation where God acts alone, and not one where man cuts God out of the picture. But, on the contrary, the encounter between God on the one hand, and man in his most exemplary stature, and the dialogue between them; this is the condition of holiness that all humanity must manifest, through the Jewish people who are the nation of holiness, a holy nation.

The Reunification of Reason and Revelation

Let us notice that human history can be divided into a number of spiritual periods as such: the ancient era, the less ancient era until today, and the future. In traditional Jewish terms these would be called: the First Temple period, the Second Temple period and the Third Temple period. Of course, the term ‘First Temple period’ refers to a much longer period than that during which the first temple stood, which was a total of 410 years only. When we say ‘first temple’ period the meaning is the period of prophecy, the period when prophets spoke in the world and they were significant. It can be said that during an era when God is revealed to mankind, all of life’s values are different.

We know that during this period there was no atheism in the world. There were bitter arguments between the prophets of Israel and the sages of the world that believed in mythologies and polytheism. But the possibility that there is no God, as atheism holds, was something that did not even occur to people. This is not because man was primitive, as we can see that the ancient cultures were highly developed in many areas, but instead, because it was impossible to believe in atheism when the divine presence was felt immanently, when it was an undeniable reality.

In contrast, in the second temple period and onwards philosophy appears in parallel to the ‘removal of the divine presence.’ The immanent, unequivocal, divine presence that was felt in the world until that time, was terminated. At this moment in history, man found himself alone in the world, and felt the need to fill the void that was left by the removal of the divine presence. A second option then arose. It was manifest as classical philosophy in Greece, as well various religions that appear beginning in the fifth century B.C. These represent the period in which the divine presence is not recognizable, and it continues until today.

So two categories have been created, the prophets on one side, and scholars on the other, but man is satisfied by neither. Even today, the world is divided between scientists and poets. Consider a scientist and a poet watching the setting sun. Each of them perceives it in a totally different way and has trouble accepting the approach of the other and believes the other is missing the main point.

We anticipate that in the era of the Third Temple, both of these categories, these two phenomena, will be rejoined to each other. Prophecy and wisdom, (or revelation and reason) will again become one reality, just as it existed in the soul of Moses. But this will be a reality for the entire world – the reconciliation between the inner experience of the encounter with God, which produces prophecy, with the scientific intellectual consciousness that lies at the basis of the concepts produced by philosophy. These two categories of consciousness will eventually become united and this will be an original innovation and bring a new kind of world.

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