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The Jewish People: Unique and different or part of a Greater Whole?

This week in Parashat Balak, Yossi Turner, professor of Jewish thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, discusses what sets the Jewish people apart from all the others. With the help of 19th century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Nahman Krochmal, he answers the question: why does Balak need the help of Bil’am to curse the Jewish people? Read the article to find out why a magician was needed to curse B’nei Yisrael.

Watch the video and read the article:

The biblical story of Balak raises a question that is relevant in our day. Should we, the Jewish people, see ourselves as an integral part of humanity and human culture or as something different, unique, and set apart? Parashat Balak appears to give a definite answer to this question when it says of the people of Israel in chapter 23 vs. 9: “This is a People that dwells alone and is not reckoned with the other nations.”

Of course, to ascertain the deep meaning of this verse, it is necessary to interpret it in the context of the story proclaimed. It’s a story of the Moav king, Balak, and his attempt to curse the people of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Land of Cana’an. With intent, Balak turns to Bil’am, a magician from the East, to curse the people of Israel in his name. 

Now, for a moment, please note the meaning of the verb to curse in the ancient world isn’t the same as it is today; it is not merely to say something bad about someone or something. Rather a curse is understood as a verbal statement that carries magical powers. Balak turned to Bil’am, a magician, to curse the people for him. 

Consequently, we find in verse 23 the following statement that explains why Bil’am is unsuccessful in cursing the people of Israel, “Because there is no charm in Jacob, no magic in Israel.” As opposed to the other nations that in those days were all idolatrous and believed in magic, magic neither works against the people of Israel nor is present among them, for their existence is solely dependent upon divine activity and speech. This fact teaches us in what way Israel, according to this story, dwells apart from the other peoples. It lives by divine prophecy and not by idolatrous magic. 

Let’s consider: Does the verse that states that Israel is a people who lives have any significance in the modern period when the surrounding peoples are monotheistic and no longer believe in magic. I turn now to an important 19th-century Jewish thinker, Rabbi Nahman Krochmal, who used the term “a nation that dwells alone.” In his classic Guide for the Perplexed of our Time, there is a section where Krochmal uses this term to explain why the first temple was destroyed and the people were exiled. 

He says that even though in the kingdom of Judah there was not an extensive practice of idolatry, under the kings Ahaz, Menasheh, and Yehoyakam, the people adopted aspects of idolatrous ritual, “these foolish kings were not aware of the spiritual character of the Jewish people, as was the gentile prophet.” That is – the magician Bil’am, who said: “This is a people that dwells apart and is not reckoned among the nations.”

According to Rabbi Krochmal, the first destruction and subsequent exile follow from the people forgetting that they were meant to be different than the other peoples and therefore sinned in adopting their ways. We find elsewhere in Krochmal’s writing the opposite position as well: he explains why the children of Israel had to go down to Egypt and become enslaved before they could be an independent people. There he says, “Divine Providence […] commanded this holy family to go down to Egypt and live there […] in order to become enriched […] by learning the skills that they could not acquire in the Land of Canaan.” The reference is to the skills needed to build a material civilization, such as building houses, roads, industry, etc. 

But then we must ask, does Krochmal see the people of Israel as one that dwells alone or is involved with the lives and cultures of other peoples and humanity as a whole? At first glance, he does appear to be contradicting himself.

The answer is to be found in a dialectical perception that Krochmal ascribes to the Torah in its entirety. He believed that the people of Israel were a people that were involved, often through exile, in the material building of human civilization with other peoples. Israel is also a people that dwell unto itself in its mission to sanctify what it has learned from the peoples through the ages in the unification of the divine name for all.  

Shavua Tov, From Schechter

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

Yossi Turner is professor of Jewish Thought and Philosophy (Emeritus). He received his MA and PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is active in a number of academic and public forums interested in the advancement of Jewish education and culture in Israel and around the world. Professor Turner has written dozens of articles and edited a number of works on a variety of topics in the area of Jewish Studies. He has also authored three full-length books: Faith and Humanism – An Examination of Franz Rosenzweig’s Religious Philosophy (Hebrew); Zion and the Diaspora in 20th Century Jewish Thought (Hebrew); and Quest for Life – A Study in Aharon David Gordon’s Philosophy of Man in Nature (English).  Professor Turner is currently writing a book of original philosophical thought concerning the present state of the Jewish people, Israel and humanity, tentatively entitled: Between Desperation and Hope.

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