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הדפסה דוא''ל

Michael Zvi Nehorai[1] 
CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD: JEWS AND THE NATIONS
[1]  In NUREMBERG REVISITED
Bioethical and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Trials and Code of Nuremberg
(J.J. Rozenberg
Ed.)Mellen Press  Lewiston 2003 pp.229-238
 

In this paper, we will examine a number of passages in Judaic literature which deal with the relationship between Jews and non‑Jews.  The history of this relationship is very complex and has given rise to many different theories, viewpoints and interpretations among Jews in the academic, secular and religious world. These divergent views become vitally important in times of grave crisis in Jewish history, when Jews attempt to understand their suffering, which seems to be connected to their continuing loyalty to the tradition of Israel.  During these periods of trial, Jews feel the necessity to re-examine the meaning of the ancient Judaic idea that the Jewish people had been chosen from among all peoples to bring the word of God to the world.   
 

There are different ways in which this idea of choseness has been interpreted in Jewish history. In this article, we will examine two major intellectual approaches, the mystical/particularistic approach and the rational/universalistic approach. The first approach holds that Jews see themselves as different from the other nations of the world, and are conscious of their intrinsic spiritual superiority over them. The second approach holds that the purpose of Israel's choseness was to create an ideal society.  This society was to be so attractive that non‑Jews would naturally seek to emulate the Jewish People in order to come closer to God.  This view is derived from Deuteronomy, "For this [the Torah] is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations who will hear all of these laws and say. 'This great nation can only be a wise and understanding people'."[2]

The ancient rabbis discussed and argued about Israel's choosiness. Let us first examine the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the second century, C.E.:

Beloved is man for he was created in the [divine] image.  A special love was made known to him because he was created in the [divine] image, as [scripture] states, "for in the image of God He made man".[3]  Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God...[4]

    From the first part of Rabbi Akiva's statement, it is possible to understand that God loves all human beings, because they are created in the divine image.  Rabbi Akiva then says, "Beloved are Israel, for they are called children of God."  Since Rabbi Akiva's second statement, in contrast to the first, refers to Israel alone, the first statement, "Beloved is man...," would seem to refer to humanity in general.

Rabbi Akiva's statement as interpreted above appears clear and unambiguous, however Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, one of Rabbi Akiva's major disciples, seems to have understood his teacher's statement in a different sense, or else did not take it into consideration when he issued a halakhic [juridical] ruling on the issue of the contamination of a corpse.   Rabbi Simeon stated in that context:

     The graves of the idolators do not cause impurity in an enclosed space, as [scripture] states: "And you my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, you are men".[5]  You are called "men" while the idolators are not called "men."[6]

     When discussing the rabbinic laws of the contamination of a corpse, Rabbi Simeon stated  "this is the teaching concerning a man who dies in a tent",[7]  and interpreted the word "man" to refer exclusively to an Israelite. Does Rabbi Simeon, a prominent student of Rabbi Akiva, disagreed with his teacher, or did he in fact believed that his ruling was compatible with his teacher's statement?  It is, however, difficult to accept the latter possibility since the original statement of Rabbi Akiva seems quite unambiguous.  We are thus left with the major questions of why Rabbi Simeon made a halakhic ruling that gentile corpses do not cause impurity in an enclosed space, and why, in support of this ruling, he stated that gentiles are not to be called "man"?  In this context it should be noted that, as Joseph S. Bloch pointed out, Rabbi Simeon's statement was not designed to state, in terms of Judaic law, who belongs and who doesn't belong to humanity.  It should not be interpreted according to  "scientific" racism that developed in Europe in the nineteenth century[8].  It was merely an approach to determining a degree of ritual purity which, it is important to note, was not accepted by the other rabbis. Certainly Rabbi Simeon's individual point of view received no force of law in Judaism.  
 

     Many of Rabbi Simeon's contemporaries disagreed with his opinion, as can be seen from the view of another disciple of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir held the opposite view of Rabbi Simeon when he stated: How do we know that a gentile who occupies himself in Torah is like a high priest?  [Scripture] states, "which a man will do and live by them" .[9]  [Scripture] does not refer to priests, Levites and Israelites but rather to "man".  Thus you have learned that even a gentile who occupies himself with Torah is like a High Priest.[10]

Rabbi Meir's teaching, which was influenced by Rabbi Akiva's teaching, respects all men because they are created in the divine image.  We may also understand from Rabbi Meir's words that he not only disagreed with the views of his colleague, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai; he may well have been arguing them.

 

    II   The two approaches to the idea of the choseness of Israel that we have examined continued to stimulate Jewish minds during the next millennium.  In the medieval period, the subject was analysed by Rabbi Judah Halevi (1075‑1141), among others.  R. Halevi , author of the Kuzari, expressed the theory that there was a substantial difference, both psychological and hereditary, between people possessed of "Jewish" and "Gentile" souls.  As far as R. Halevi was concerned, this difference was a natural phenomenon.  As he stated:

    The first man [Adam] received from the deity a vital soul in all its completeness, and an intellect of the highest possible level for a human being...Now the first man begat many children.  Of all of them, however, only Abel was worthy to stand in his place...and when he was killed by his brother, Cain...[God] gave Adam Seth in place of Abel.  Seth resembled Adam and therefore became the chosen among men...The sons of Jacob were all chosen. All of them together were worthy of the divine message...Though there were among them sinners who were hated by the deity, there can be no doubt that they were still chosen in a recognizable sense since their roots and nature were "chosen" and they were to beget children who would be "chosen".[11]

    This explicit distinction between the superiority of the Israelites, as opposed to the people of other nations, was undoubtedly written in the context of R. Judah Halevi's didactic aim in writing his book.  His goal was to furnish reasons for the continued existence of Judaism in a world where other religions denied its raison d’etre. The above quotation was thus intended to dissuade the Jews who were seeking to assimilate with the nations from doing so.  R. Halevi probably thought that the times required the erection of such a fortress for the Jews.  In this context, it is certainly worth noting that the original unabridged title of the Kuzari was "The Book of Defense for the Despised and Lowly Faith".  R. Halevi maintained the logic of his position even though it conflicted with the traditional and well‑established legal procedure whereby non‑Jews could convert to Judaism. On the subject of converts to Judaism, R. Halevi stated:

    Nonetheless the convert who comes into our religion cannot equal born Jews.  Born Jews alone can be worthy of prophecy.  As for the others, they may aspire to receive teaching from [the prophets] and to be sages and pious people, but not prophets.[12]


Since R. Judah Halevi is speaking here specifically about prophecy, there is no direct reference to Rabbi Akiva's statement.  We therefore cannot say conclusively what he thought about it and how he might have interpreted it in the light of his ideas.  Nonetheless, in a certain way it is possible to see in R. Judah Halevi's teachings a continuity of the position of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai.

    Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135‑1204) was a young contemporary of Rabbi Judah Halevi.  He opposed many of R. Halevi's ideas, though he never mentioned him by name.  Maimonides indeed affirmed that human beings have different capacities.  He attributed the differences in human capacities, however, to educational and cultural factors.  He thus stated:

    As for Seth, it was after [Adam] had instructed him and procured him understanding, and after he had attained human perfection that it was said of him: "And [Adam] begot [a son] in his own likeness, after his image"[13] .[14]

    Maimonides devoted a considerable portion of his famous responsum addressed to R. Obadiah the Proselyte to this issue.  R. Obadiah had asked whether, as a convert to Judaism, he was allowed to say in his prayers phrases like "O God and God of our fathers", or "The Land which you have bequeathed to our fathers".  Maimonides not only answered this question in the affirmative, but also established the principle that Jewish identity does not derive from physical descent, but rather from the spiritual teachings of ancestors like the patriarch Abraham (who was himself the biological son of the idolator Terah) and Moses.  Thus he stated in his responsum:

Know that for the most part our ancestors who left Egypt were idolators.  In Egypt they had mixed with the gentiles and had learned from their actions until the Holy One‑‑blessed be He‑‑sent our teacher Moses‑‑peace upon him‑‑the master of all the prophets.  He separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the divine Presence‑‑us and all the converts‑‑and gave all of us one law.  Let your heritage not be insignificant in your eyes.  If we count as our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, you are related to the One who spoke and the universe came into existence.  Thus it states explicitly in Isaiah, "This one will say, 'I am the Lord's' and the other will be called by the name of Jacob"[15].[16]

This statement of Maimonides, which praises the spiritual value of the convert to Judaism, influenced the teachings of Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, which we will discuss below. 

 

III  In the religious literature of early modern Jewry, a new element entered into the dispute about choseness.  The Kabbalists, Jews whose world‑view had been formed by the teachings of the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbala, argued that it was not merely Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, but Rabbi Akiva himself who reserved the title of "man" only for Israelites.  According to some kabbalists, Rabbi Akiva's statement, "beloved is man for he was created in the [divine] image" referred not to humanity in general, but only to Adam, the first man, of whom alone the Torah specifies that he was created in God's image.  This kabbalistic thesis was meant to emphasize the singularity of the Jewish people.  Thus the sixteenth‑century kabbalist, Samuel De Uceda (b. 1540), stressed in his book, Midrash Shemuel:

The [divine] image of holiness belongs only to the people of the children of Israel...Thus "man" refers to the first man [Adam]...of him [Rabbi Akiva] said, "Beloved is man for he was created in the [divine] image"...It is so [also] for the righteous and, indeed, all the people of the children of Israel.[17]
 

    In opposition to this kabbalistic view, it is possible to cite two major early modern commentators on the Mishna.  One was Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579‑1654), whose commentary was entitled Tosefot Yom Tov[18] ; the other was Rabbi Israel Lipschutz (1782‑1860), who wrote a commentary entitled Tiferet Yisrael and who was mentioned above.  Rabbi Heller, in his commentary on the statement of Rabbi Akiva in Tractate Avot, was astonished at the very attempt to interpret Rabbi Akiva's words other than according to their plain meaning.  Thus he stated:

Rabbi Akiva meant every man...he wished to grant this merit to every man

among the children of Noah...Thus I am astonished that this way is so far [from that of] the commentators that they did not wish to travel on it to interpret the words of Rabbi Akiva, who made his statement regarding all humans [but rather interpreted it to refer] only to Israel. They based [their interpretation] on [the sages]‑may their memory be a blessing‑‑[who stated] "You are called man..." is this not just one homiletical interpretation on top of another?


Rabbi Israel Lipschutz, in supporting Heller's position, spoke in the harshest terms concerning the school of interpretation that wanted to limit the number of those who were created in the divine image.  He held that this interpretation was completely contrary to the spirit of the Bible. He further held that, in the Bible, the children of Israel were called "man" [adam] whereas people of the other nations were referred to as "the man" [ha‑adam] or "sons of man" [bnei adam] in order to teach us that the latter were indeed superior to the former.  The title "the man" indicates that the people of the gentile nations had reached their human perfection on their own, whereas the Israelites had not reached their perfection by their own efforts alone.  This is because they are descended from the first man, who was created as he was without any effort at improvement on his part. We may assume that, in making this point, Rabbi Lipschutz had in mind the last section of Maimonides' responsum to R. Obadiah the Proselyte.  Rabbi Lipschutz also wanted to show that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai had not in fact intended to diminish the importance of the gentiles at all in his statement.  Here is what Rabbi Lipschutz had to say about the greatness of the gentiles:

All my life I have had difficulty with the statement of our sages‑‑may their memory be a blessing..."you are called 'man' and the nations of the world are not called 'man'. "  It would be difficult to believe that our sages‑‑may their memory be a blessing‑‑could even conceive of referring to gentiles, who, as we have shown, are created in the divine image, as mere beasts.  Moreover, even assuming that this were so, why would the Holy One‑‑blessed be He‑‑state [of the Israelites], "You will be special to me among all the nations".  If all the nations really were like beasts of the earth, then this verse would merely be saying, "you are special to me among all the apes who are similar in visage to man."  Moreover, assuming that this were so, and all the [gentiles'] actions were merely the actions of beasts who are not subject to reward and punishment, then this would contradict the dictum, "The righteous among the nations of the world have a portion in the world that is coming."  Even if the holy mouth of our sages‑‑may their memory be a blessing‑‑had not affirmed [that the righteous among the nations of the world have a portion in the world that is coming], we would know this from the exercise of our reason.  For "God is righteous in all His works and gracious in recognizing


 the Creator and believe in the divinity of the Torah, but also act kindly to Israel.  A number of them have greatly benefited humanity.  Thus the righteous Jenner[xix] invented inoculation for smallpox, because of which tens of thousands of people have been saved from disease, death and scarring.  Drake[xx]  brought the potato to Europe, which has staved off famine a number of times.  Gutenberg[xxi]  invented printing.  Some of these [righteous gentiles] were not at all recompensed in this world, like the righteous Reuchlin[xxii], who put his life on the line to save the Talmud from burning...and was persecuted for this by his enemies the priests until he died of this oppression...Can anyone imagine that all these great deeds will not be recompensed in the World that is Coming? God forbid! 

  The Holy  One‑‑Blessed be He‑‑does not withhold the reward of any creature...In any event, [the matter] remains difficult, for clearly even the most righteous among the [gentiles] does not cause [ritual] impurity in an enclosed space.  Is it so, however, because they are not considered "man"? [This interpretation] would present great difficulty, for [the gentile] is [created] in the divine image, is righteous and pious in his deeds, and also possesses a portion in the World that is coming.  Thus how can he not be called "man"?

 

IV In conclusion, we must say that the distinction we have drawn, between two different schools of thought regarding the relationships between Jews and non-Jews, is far from rigid. Numerous authorities that we have included in the mystical/particularistic school have also made statements supporting the universalistic interpretation.  Thus, for instance, Rabbi Judah Halevi looked forward to a future unity of humanity in messianic times when he stated, "In the end of days...the entire tree [of humanity] will be one."[xxiii]  He thus firmly believed in an ideal future in which the difference between Israel and the nations of the world will fall into disuse.  This opinion was seconded by the twentieth-century Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who stated that, "humanity should entirely unite in one family."[xxiv]

 

References

 

 Bloch,  J.S. (1927). Israel and the Nations. Berlin/Vienna: Benjamin Harz.

 

 Greenberg, M. (1985). On the Bible and Judaism [Hebrew]. Tel-Aviv: Am Oved. 

 Maimonides, M. (1963).  Guide of the Perplexed.  English translation by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 Kook, A.I. (1963). Orot ha-Kodesh. Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook .

 



[1] Bar-Ilan University



[1].  In the preparation of this article, I am indebted to Professor Moshe Greenberg, who discussed this issue in a chapter of his book On the Bible and Judaism [Hebrew] (Tel-Aviv, Am Oved, 1985).  I would also like to thank Professor Ira Robinson of Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, for his helpful suggestions.

[2].  Deuteronomy 4, 6.

[3].  Genesis 9, 6.

[4].  Mishna, Avot 3:15.  A similar thought is expressed in the Talmud (Megilla 10a).  There it is related that, when the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea, "the ministering angels sought to sing a song [of praise].  The Holy One--blessed be He--said to them, 'The works of my hand are drowning in the Sea and you wish to recite a song?'"

[5].  Ezekiel 34, 31.

[6].  Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 61b.

[7].  Numbers 19, 14.

[8] J.S Bloch. Israel and the Nations. Berlin/Vienna: Benjamin Harz. (1927). p.387.

 

[9].  Leviticus 18, 5.

[10].  Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin  59a.

[11].  Kuzari I.95.

[12].  Kuzari, I.115.

[13].  Genesis 5, 3.

[14].  Guide of the Perplexed I.7.  The translation is that of Sholomo Pines (Chicago, 1963), pp. 32-33.

[15].  Isaiah 44, 5.

[16].  Teshuvot ha-Rambam, ed. A. H. Freiman (Jerusalem, 1934), no. 42, p. 40.

 

[17].  This interpretation of Rabbi Akiva's statement is found in the writings of a number of kabbalists, including Rabbi Hayyim Vital, Rabbi Judah Loewe (Maharal), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  All these are dealt with extensively in Greenberg's book, cited in note 1.

[18].  Interestingly, he was a student of Rabbi Judah Loewe (Maharal), who espoused the opposite opinion.  See note 16.

[xix].  Edward Jenner (1749-1823)  English physician.

[xx].  Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596)  English navigator.

[xxi].  Johannes Gutenberg (1400?-1468?)  German printer.

[xxii].  Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522)  German scholar.

[xxiii].  Kuzari IV.23

[xxiv].  Orot ha-Kodesh  (Jerusalem, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1963) p. 156, paragraph 11.