Parashat Lech Lecha: Universalism and Nationalism

[Tal Chermon]

Avraham's designation as "the father of the multitude of nations" (Bereshit 17:5) indicates his responsibility for the whole of mankind. This responsibility was visibly manifested when Hashem informed him of his intention to annihilate Sedom. Avraham as "the father of the multitude of nations" recognized his responsibility and stepped in to intervene on their behalf. Avraham's moral obligation to mankind emanated from the fact that he was the father of the Nation of Israel, which had received this task, to be a blessing to the nations of the world (ibid. 12:3) by instructing them and redeeming them from both spiritual and physical perils.

There are Jewish thinkers who claim that our mission is to be "a light to the nations" which can only be performed when we are living dispersed among the nations such that we can bring them the morality of the Tanach. Their view is based on a misunderstanding of the verse in Yeshayahu where Hashem says to the Nation of Israel (Yeshayahu 42:6): "I have made you the Nation of my covenant, a light to the nations." We will not be a light to the nations scattered as individuals in Pressburg, Johannesburg, or Williamsburg. On the contrary, we can only effectively illuminate the world as a healthy Nation living in its homeland. Obviously, even as a forcibly dispersed Nation in the Exile, we did our best and our influence was conspicuous wherever we lived. But this was only a pale imitation of the real thing. We are destined to be a massive searchlight illuminating all of the darkness, but this is only possible when we are a Nation in our homeland.

Question: Is it correct to infer from the fact that Avraham is the father of all mankind that all the nations must become Jewish?
Answer: Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah (Bereshit 17:5), hints at this very question. Avraham's name was originally "Avram" which is an acronym meaning "the father of Aram." This means that he was a national leader, the father of his nation, Aram. Later, however, his name (and together with it his mission) was changed to "Avraham" which indicates his universal task as "the father of the multitude of nations." A remnant of his former name remains in his new name which shows that despite his new universal character, he still retains his national character. He is both universal and particularistic. This is not an anomaly, for the Kuzari (2:36) says: "Israel is the heart of the nations" or as the Zohar puts it: "the mind of the nations" (Zohar, Mishpatim 108. See Orot Yisrael of Rav Kook 1, 1). The comparison to the essential limbs, the heart and the mind, indicates that Israel is on a different level of existence from the rest of mankind, which could be compared to the inessential limbs, such as the leg or ear. We are the central life force present in humanity. However, it must also be remembered that the heart is only of significance when it is connected with the rest of the body, but not as a detached limb sitting in isolation.

We are linked to the rest of the nations and have a responsibility towards them, but we are also distinct and separate from them. Along with them, we possess the Divine image that exists in mankind, but we are above them from our external vantage point, "as a Nation that will dwell alone, not counting itself among the nations" (Bemidbar 23:9). We must use our special characteristics to help them. This state of connection and separateness can be exemplified by the world of ideas. There are ideas that are common to both Jews and non-Jews and it makes no difference if they were conceived by Aristotle or, on a holy level, by the Rambam. These ideas are broad concepts, well beyond national distinctions. A second category of thought is one where the idea is universal but the style in which it is stated is specific to each nation. Therefore, they have to be specially adapted to our specific national style before they can be adopted. This is unlike the first category which can be adopted without any alterations. There is a third class of ideas which are distinctly ours. Regarding them, we are "as a Nation that will dwell alone, not counting itself among the nations." These ideas are specifically ours and have no connection whatsoever with the non-Jews. This example in the sphere of ideas also applies to the practical world. We and our forefather Avraham are one and we act identically. Avraham was connected to the nations as "the father of the multitude of nations," but also a "mighty nation" (Bereshit 12:2), naturally separated from the nations and also a source of blessing to them. In the same way, we are both nationalist and universalistic as the same time and a source of blessing for the entire world.