Are Jews A Religion Or A Nation?

Are Jews A Religion Or A Nation?

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:09 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftorah: Joshua 2:1-24
Havdalah: 9:18 p.m.

“We should go up at once and possess it [the land] for we are well able to overcome it” [Numbers 13:30].

The tragedy of the desert generation is the refusal of the Israelites to conquer the Land of Israel, and their failure to realize the main objective for their freedom from Egypt. The miraglim (scouts) give their report, display the luscious fruit with which they have returned and concede that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey. But they continue to describe a land filled with aggressive giants, and well-fortified cities, concluding that “we cannot go forward against those people … they are too strong for us.”

One individual, Caleb, speaks out mightily on behalf of the land: “We must go forth and occupy the land. … We can do it,” we will be able to conquer it because we must conquer it; without a homeland, we cannot be a nation.

Caleb loses the argument. The people silence his plea; their conclusion is to either return to Egypt, or remain in the desert. But what was the point of remaining in the desert (the argument that won the day), at least for the desert generation?

I believe the difference between Caleb and the other, more vocal and convincing scouts (who preferred the desert) was how to define the people Israel. Are we a religion or are we a nation? In a more modern context, are we Israelis or are we Jews?

You will remember from previous commentaries that the Kotzker Rebbe referred to Korach as “the holy grandfather.” Korach was deeply religious and wanted more than anything else to be a Kohen (priest) and serve God. He didn’t want to go to Israel, to get involved in a difficult war, to get his hands dirtied by the politics and arguments about nation building. He believed, as the majority of scouts apparently believed, that the Hebrews could remain in the desert, focusing on the Sanctuary, praying to God and living off the manna from Heaven. If we are first and foremost a religion, then he was right. After all, life in the desert is an eternal Kollel (an advanced yeshiva), with God taking care of you and no responsibilities to the outside world.

Moses, two of the scouts (Caleb and Joshua) — and most importantly, God Himself — saw it differently. Yes, a very important part of us is our religion, which was given to us at our covenant at Sinai. But prior to that was Abraham’s covenant “between the pieces,” the covenant in which we are promised eternal life as the seed of Abraham and a national homeland. From the beginning of our history, God elects Abraham with a promise that “I shall make you a great nation… and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” [Genesis 12:2-3]. Even before we received the Revelation at Sinai, we were charged with being a “kingdom of priest-teachers [to all of humanity] and a holy nation” [Exodus 19:6].

God determined that our mission is to influence the other nations to accept a philosophy of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. God also understood that we could never hope to influence other nations unless we were also a nation-state, subject to the same challenges as other countries. A religion only bears responsibility towards God; the Jewish religion, however, is meant to be expressed within a nation-state, with responsibility to the entire world.

This analysis has critical ramifications for our attitudes concerning conversion, especially in Israel where there are approximately 300,000 Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who are not yet halachic Jews. Ruth is undoubtedly the most famous convert in Jewish history, aside from Abraham. Her formula of conversion begins with her statement to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law: “Wherever you go, I shall go … your nation shall be my nation and your God shall be my God” [Ruth 1:16]. For Ruth, the very first obligation of the convert is to live in the Land of Israel, the land of the Jewish nation; hence, her most important act of conversion is following her mother-in-law to the Land of Israel. When she defines what it means to convert to Judaism, she begins with national terms (your nation shall be my nation), then religious terms (your God shall be my God). She understands that whatever Judaism is, it includes a national as well as a religious aspect.

When one studies the Talmud’s discussion of conversion [BT Yevamot 45-47] and even the Codes of Jewish Law, we see that our Sages never insisted on total performance of commandments before one could become a Jew. They did insist that the convert be tutored in several of the more stringent and several of the more lenient commands, and accept Judaism as a system of commandments. They also insisted upon ritual immersion (rebirth into the Jewish nation) and circumcision for males (the symbol of the Abrahamic covenant).

Citizens of Israel from the former Soviet Union, who themselves or whose children serve in the IDF, are performing the most stringent of our national commands in this generation. This must be taken into account by judges of conversion, in addition to everything else these new immigrants will learn about Shabbat, the festivals and our rituals.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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