3 CHAPTER 3. Advancing our Understanding of Jewish Life through the Concept of a National Dialogue with God

In this chapter, we will “test-drive” the idea above with a few examples in which the concept of a national dialogue helps us understand world events. We will then examine paths to the development of the individual, society, and religion that are opened by this concept.

1. The Establishment of Religious Holidays
to Commemorate Key Events in National History

The concept of history as a national dialogue with God allows us to view many familiar things in an entirely new light. The simplest but most vivid example of this is the peculiar Jewish phenomenon of transforming key historic events into religious holidays. We see this in no other national-religious system. Of course, events involved in the origin of a religion itself always become holidays. In Judaism we have Pesach and Shavuot. In Christianity there are Christmas, Easter, and Trinity (or Pentecost). Islam commemorates Mohammed’s escape from Mecca to Medina. However, only in Judaism have events that took place over the course of several centuries following its founding been made into new religious celebrations: Purim, Chanukkah, Ninth of Av. Today, Israeli Independence Day approaches the same stature.

We see a similar lack of attention to centuries of national history in almost all Western peoples. In general, there is sufficient national memory to celebrate only the most recent victorious war for independence (to be replaced by the next war of similar scale) and the establishment of the current form of government. Old victories and forms of government are forgotten. Only the Jewish people continues to celebrate key events in its long-term history, and to imbue them with religious meaning. This unique phenomenon has no apparent explanation other than a self-perception of the Jewish people as a single national organism in all its generations. This is what allows a group to see landmarks in its history not merely as links in a chain of political and economic events, but as a national dialogue with God (monotheism at the national level), and to perceive key historic events as Divine revelation.

The transformation of national historical events into religious holidays is striking evidence of the difference in world-view between Jews and other peoples. It has no apparent explanation other than Rabbi Kook’s concept of the national dialogue with God.

Bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple;
the difference between the Jewish and Christian approaches to history

We will examine one more instance. The Torah includes a commandment to landowners to bring the bikurim, the first fruits of the new harvest, to the Temple, place them at the altar, and speak the following words:

“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me.” (Deut. 26: 6-10)

Every Jewish landowner, in fulfilling this commandment, yearly teaches himself to see his farming not only as a source of sustenance, but also as an integral part of Jewish history. It is not by chance that this passage later became the basis for the Passover Haggadah.

Now picture an American farmer bringing the first crop to Washington DC, setting it opposite the Capitol and declaring: ”There was a British Colony and it did not let us farm freely and taxed us heavily. But the patriots went to war and liberated the land, and gave me a plot to farm. Now I am bringing the crop and asking for God’s Blessing.”

Why does this sound inconceivable? Not because Washington DC is too far to travel: it is equally impossible to imagine of those who live near. It is because history has never become a source of religious meaning or popular instruction for the Church. What has a peasant been taught in the church? He has been taught the concept of God; he has been taught not to kill, not to steal, to honor elders, etc. He is taught faith and morals (which are important), but in the church, he has not been taught history. If anything, he has learned Jewish history: in Christian culture the term “sacred history” refers to the ancient history of the Jews. This startling phenomenon – that sacred history for all European peoples is not their own but that of the Jews – came to be, apparently, because Jews alone declared their history to be sacred (and included it in the Holy Scriptures). European religious thought attached great importance to the life of the individual and to the individual’s relationship with God, but it almost never examined national histories in a religious light. Because Christianity proceeded from Judaism at a time when the Jews’ dialogue with God remained real only at the individual level, it did not retain the idea of a national dialogue. For this reason, the Christian people’s religious criteria adhere only to the individual.

Jesus’s admonition to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”[1]3 was interpreted by the Christians to mean that spirituality was not to be found in political or national history. Christianity divides life into the spiritual and worldly spheres; the former pertain only to the individual, the latter to national and political matters. For this reason, classical Christianity never subjected the history of the Christian peoples to religious scrutiny (only at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries did this begin to happen). Individual biographies were examined; national biographies were not. The individual can serve as an example for emulation – this is why Christianity has saints who, through their actions, pave the way for others to follow. The emphasis is on the person, not on the historical process. For this reason, the Christian peoples have made no place for their national histories in the spiritual realm.

2. The Implications for Freedom of Choice

Here it must be emphasized that neither the concept of the national dialogue with God nor its corollary view of history as sacred precludes freedom of choice, either for the individual or for the nation as a whole. If we see life as a dialogue with God, freedom of choice – real freedom, not imaginary – is inevitable, as without freedom to speak, there can be no dialogue.

In the same way, the transition from the individual dialogue with God to the national makes national freedom of choice equally inevitable. Such an approach renders it impossible to attribute the actions of the national organism to material and physical circumstances, difficulties, etc.

Thus, this worldview is the one that presupposes free will and, accordingly, great responsibility, for both, the individual and the nation. And the greater the responsibility, the greater the spiritual and cultural (and along with these, material) progress of the society.

3. The Dialogue with God at the Jewish National Level and at the Level of Humankind as a Whole

One may ask: Is it worthwhile to focus on the dialogue with God at the level of a single nation, or should we rather look at humankind as a unified organism and, accordingly, at our individual participation in the larger dialogue carried on by human history?

The answer is that, indeed, there exists a dialogue with God at the level of all humanity, when all humanity acts as one, and in this sense human history should be considered as such. However, the national dialogue with God exists in addition to the individual; it does not replace it. Further, until we fully and deeply understand the essence of the dialogue at the individual level, we cannot adequately carry it on at the national. Just so, the human dialogue does not replace the national, but complements and is founded upon it.

Human history cannot be examined without the history of nations. This is evident in regard to material and political history, in which the players are peoples and governments. It is equally true for spiritual history, be it literature, art, philosophy or religion. Every accomplishment of human culture is fully revealed in the context of its own national culture. For this reason, to omit the national level and skip directly from the individual to the human impoverishes rather than enriches. Love for humankind is important, but it must complement love for one’s people, not oppose it.

In connection with this, Rabbi Kook notes that the next era in spiritual history will be the recognition of humankind’s dialogue with God. However, this step can only follow the national dialogue.[2]

4. The Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible:
an Example of the View of History as Divine Revelation

 

The next example of Jewish history made sacred is the presence in the Bible of the historical books: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These books primarily recount and analyze Jewish history. Why did they become part of the Holy Scriptures? What Divine revelation occurs in the telling of history? And why are they included under “Prophets”? The Christian view would have no trouble with the placement of Isaiah or Jeremiah in this section, as they contain prophecy; but it is unclear why Samuel or Kings should be here.

Let us imagine, for comparison, that someone suggests including a history of the first thousand years of the Christian Church in the New Testament. Such a suggestion would be seen almost as sacrilege. The Christian consciousness makes a sharp distinction between the New Testament, which contains the Divine Revelation, and the centuries-long process that followed in which humans received, disseminated, and realized that revelation at both the sacred and secular levels. Because of this distinction, a thousand years of history of the Christian Church has no place at all in the New Testament. In Judaism, this is not so. The Torah contains the original revelation and first stage in the life of the Jewish people, but these are followed with books dedicated to describing and analyzing nearly a thousand years of Jewish history. It is all part of the Holy Scriptures, that is to say, of the Revelation. This is a very important manifestation of the principle of history as sacred.[3]

Here we may make an observation on the structure of the Hebrew Bible as distinct from the Christian Old Testament. As we know, the Hebrew Holy Scriptures are divided into three parts: Five Books of Moses, or Torah; Prophets, or Nevi’im; and Writings, or Ketuvim. The first Christians, who were Jews, were fully aware of this division, and it is referred to in the New Testament; however, in the Christian Bible, the Old Testament is not divided into these three sections. Why not?

It is possible that one of the reasons for this lies in the difference between the Jewish and Christian understanding of the word prophet. In the Christian mind, a prophet is a seer of the future, one who foretells in the name of God. Thus, the primary use made by Christians of the texts in Prophets has been the seeking and interpreting of prophesies which, according to them, were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as well as prophesies of the apocalypse. There is little else of interest to Christians in the books of this section. As they see it, Isaiah and Jeremiah are prophets, and Judges and Kings have nothing to do with the topic. Because the section referred to as Prophets is not associated, for them, with prophecy, they did not retain the Hebrew division of the book. (Instead, the Christian Old Testament is divided thematically into Pentateuch, Historical Books, Poetic Books, and Prophetic Books.)

However, according to Judaism, a prophet is something far different. A prophet is one who brings the word of God to the people, in particular through the understanding of the historical process as a dialogue with God. In a certain sense, a prophet is a religious history teacher or, more accurately, one who exhorts the people to see religious meaning in historic events.

The division of Prophets into Former and Latter was not made chronologically. (Part of Kings tells of events that occurred after the lifetimes of some of the “latter prophets.”) The books of the Former Prophets describe events that took place in the course of national history, and so they are written in epic form, whereas the books of the Latter Prophets deal principally with an understanding of future Jewish and world events, and so for the most part consist of the words of the prophets.

Thus, from the point of view of Judaism, the main function of the prophet is not to tell the future, but to teach people to see God’s will revealed in the course of history and, through this, to perceive the Divine Revelation. As Christianity does not view history as revelation, this concept does not make sense to it. For this reason, the very meaning of the word prophet has shifted, and it has become unclear what is prophetic about the books of the Former Prophets. In consequence of this, the division of the Hebrew Bible was not retained in the Christian Old Testament.

5. Even Today Jewish History is Seen by Humankind
as Sacred

 

The idea of sacred history originated when Jews included their own in the Holy Scriptures. Other peoples, adopting the Bible, agreed with this view to some extent. And here we might propose that this acknowledgement of the religious significance of Jewish history, though it originally applied to ancient times, is, apparently, the deepest reason for the close attention paid by the world to Israel today. This phenomenon, though it has an obviously negative aspect (overly strong interference in Israeli life by the rest of the world), also has a positive side. The whole world follows anxiously all that takes place within the State of Israel. And if we compare the amount of coverage by the world’s media with the actual number of events, particularly in light of the size of the population, we see that, proportionately speaking, Israel receives a hundred times more attention than all other countries.

The reason usually suggested for this – that it is an area of war and of conflicting interests – cannot fully explain it. The world contains many conflict zones, many clashes of interests and faiths. The only explanation for this heightened attention is that the peoples of the world subconsciously know that Jewish history in the Holy Land is of the utmost importance; is, in fact, sacred; and that through it spirituality is revealed. It is for this reason that our life is observed with such close attention, both positive and negative. The world senses the truth of the lines from Isaiah: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” This is an essential aspect of the world’s view of us, and one of which, unfortunately, we are not always deeply enough aware ourselves.

The immanent and transcendent revelation of God,
and the awareness of this in Judaism today

When we view history as sacred, we assert that God reveals Himself immanently in the course of history. This is natural revelation, as opposed to the transcendental, or miraculous revelation that occurred at the birth of the religion. Taking place in the course of the historical process, God’s continuing revelation[4] is a key teleological factor in understanding religion as a dynamic and growing system. The recognition of history as a dialogue with God is a subtle and complicated idea that is not adequately grasped by the Jewish religious community as a whole. The entire approach laid out above is tied to Rabbi Kook’s ideas, but it is far from being adopted by all streams in Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Kook’s ideas were revolutionary nearly 100 years ago, and though today approximately half of all Orthodox Jews (the Religious Zionists in Israel and the Modern Orthodox in America) embrace them, others still do not.

After all, in a certain sense, history stopped for us during the time of Galut: it could not be made sacred then. For this reason, the revival now in Judaism of a powerful sense of this sacredness is not a simple process.

6. Interpreting Jewish History in Light of the Idea
of the National Dialogue with God

 

If you feel that you fully grasp the concept of the national dialogue with God, you may deepen your understanding by undertaking the following.

Recall the principal events of the last, say, 200 years of Jewish history, and try to analyze them from the perspective of a dialogue with God. Systematically state what you believe the Jewish people has said to God, and what God has answered. Which of God’s words over these years do you understand, which are incomprehensible to you? If you do this, Jewish history over the last two centuries will take on an entirely new aspect.

Then you might try to analyze, from the same point of view, contemporary Jewish life and the actions of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Where are we right in our dialogue with God, where not? Where have we acted honorably, where not?

From these observations, reflect on the ethical principles that should guide national behavior (which emerge when we examine the people as a unified whole), and consider which of these principles should apply to the individual, and which should differ.

Reflection on these matters is, I believe, of the utmost importance for the advancement of our understanding of national life and its challenges.

page43

  1.   Jesus was asked whether it was right for Jews to pay taxes with Roman money, which bore the portrait of the Roman emperor and so represented idolatry. 
  2.   An exception to this might be scientific discoveries (and, to a lesser degree, technical progress), which are also, of course, manifestations of the dialogue with God, and which today occur at the international, rather than national level. 
  3.   Today in Israel it is quite possible to hear the assertion that we are writing new chapters in the Torah with our lives; and though some may agree with this and others disagree, nobody would think to call it sacrilege. It is seen as a legitimate, if not indisputable, claim. 
  4.   For more on this, see Part 2, Chapter 6, section 8. Also, see T. Ross and Y. Gelman, The Influence of Feminism on Orthodox Jewish Theology, part 5: The Theology of the Continuing Revelation and its Antecedents in Jewish Philosophy, the Aggadah, the Kabbalah, and the works of Rav Kook. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *