by Rabbi Solomon D. Sassoon
Rabbi Sassoon was a noted Jewish thinker and leader of the Sephardi Torah world. He was at the heart of the Jewish community in Letchworth, near Cambridge, where he helped to bring Jewish students closer to Judaism, and campaigned to protect shechita in England. A student of Rabbi Dessler, he was equally at home with Sephardim and Ashkenazim. He was able to publish important manuscripts by Rambam, and supported many Jewish educational institutions. He spent his final years in Jerusalem.
(This article is adapted from a lecture given at the Jerusalem Academy…)
Even a cursory reading of the Torah is sufficient to impress us with the tremendous importance that it attaches to the duty of the Jewish people to acquire Eretz Israel and to live in it.
As early as in the third parasha of Bereshith, we read how Abraham was called by the Almighty to leave his country and kindred and father’s house and travel to the land that G-d would show him (Genesis, 12:1). Near the conclusion of the Torah, the last words spoken to Moses before his death by the Almighty, contain the deeply moving command: “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob saying, I will give it to your seed. I have caused you to see it with your own eyes, but you shall not go over to the land” (Deuteronomy 34:4). Previously, we heard Moses praying, pleading, and crying out to be permitted to cross the Jordan, and see the fair land that was promised to the Patriarchs, but the Divine decree had refused his plea. Here we see Moses poised on the peak of the Mount of Nebo, yearning to enter the land but only permitted to scan it from afar. The Torah more or less ends on this note of yearning and tension.
The significance of the land for Judaism is again illustrated by the spies, who when sent out by Moses, cast doubts upon the feasibility of trying to conquer it, and were punished more severely than those who worshipped the Golden Calf.
Limited to a Land
The following question must confront a thoughtful mind: Why is it that whilst the most important world religions do not recognize frontiers to their activities, the Torah directs that a specific nation and a specific land should act as a vehicle for its message?
We know that Christianity, for instance, tries to spread itself all over the world. So do Buddhism and Islam. The religions do not limit themselves to nations, peoples or particular countries. Yet, Judaism does. Is this not a surprising restriction? Why should a religion, which has such an unrivalled universal outlook such as Judaism, be so limited?
Of course this question could be given a simple answer by saying that in an overwhelmingly idolatrous environment the Jewish people had to be separated from the destructive surroundings in order to preserve in purity the worship and service of the one G-d. However, we venture to suggest that this answer may not really exhaust the significance of the need for a land and that it probably conceals a more subtle reason.
Other religions, quite apart from their dogmas, can be described as vertical religions in that they lay stress either on faith or inner psychological states linked to the monastic or secluded life pattern. Not so the Jewish religion, whose essence is its inter-personal relationships, and a legal system stressing above all a deep concern with the weak and under-privileged (such as the slave, the poor, the borrower, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the Levite – the latter a member of a tribe which possessed no portion or inheritance in the land).
In order to build up a society in which a legal system inspired by the ideals of kindness and protection of the rights of those who were socially disadvantaged could be set up, a special nation was needed whose religion insisted on such an ideal. A special country was needed in which such a legal system could be introduced. One ideal of such a state would be the abolishment of poverty: “…there shall be no needy among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).
In countries where the laws were largely designed to protect the vested interests of powerful landowners, a movement for improving the law stood little chance of success unless it was backed by the whole nation. Such movements would have been forcibly suppressed as threats to the interests of the rulers. Democracies did not exist in which the laws could be gradually changed from below.
The righteous who went before Abraham, such as Enoch, Noah and Shem, even though monotheistic, seem to have practiced a vertical religion as our rabbis explain. The great turning point came with our father Abraham, who G-d knew could “command his children and household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis, 18:19). It should be explained that when the word “mishpat” is used together with the word “tzedaka,” as in the above-quoted passage, it does not really mean justice in the sense of imposing a punishment, but rather has the sense of awarding the weak their just dues and rights. Compare: “laasoth mishpat avdo” (Kings I, 8:59) where it is translated, “to uphold the cause of his servant.” It has a similar meaning in “osei mishpat yathom ve-almana” (Deuteronomy 10:18 – “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow,” and in the passage “osei mishpat la-ashukim” (Psalms, 146:7) – “He upholds the cause of the oppressed.”
Thus, with Abraham a turning point in history takes place. It is revealed to Abraham that G-d does not demand so much worship in seclusion as ethical behavior reinforced by just laws and persons capable of upholding the spirit of such laws. The book of Psalms enshrines this thought: “And He gave them the land of the heathen and they inherited the labor of the people that they might observe his statutes and keep His laws” (105:44-45).
Eye of the World
But the Almighty had an even wider purpose. He wished the model society established by the Jewish people to serve as a model to the whole world. Therefore, he did not choose a remote land – but one that would catch the eye of the world – situated in the centre of the globe (“the navel of the world,” in the language of the rabbis). It is on the bridgehead joining three great continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, lying on the sea-coast, thus opening it to even more distant countries.
These ideas are tightly woven into the Almighty’s words to Abraham, telling him to establish a nation, and a country… “Get thee out of your country, and from your people, and from your father’s house, into a land that I will show you… And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing… and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis, 12:1-3).
These few words contain the basic ideas of being worthy to found a nation and to have a land and to become an example and blessing to the nations.
Moshe, our teacher, is also concerned that the nations of the world observe the Jewish way of life, and try to copy it. He says, “Observe therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples that shall say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'” (Deuteronomy, 4:6). Moses also says, “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you” (Deuteronomy, 28:10).
Example to the Nations
These ideas were expanded and elaborated by Isaiah. He says: “And it shall come to pass in future time that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at top of the Lord’s mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow into it, and many people shall go and say ‘come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and He will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in His paths, for out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem'” (Isaiah, 2:2-3). When Isaiah says that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established at the top of the mountains, he is speaking figuratively, for “mountain”, here, means the leaders of the world. Compare: “Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain” (Zech, 4:7). Isaiah has spelled out the message of Genesis and Deuteronomy: the social structure which the Jewish people shall exhibit will become a paradigm for the world, and, in fact, when the world will successfully create similar legal systems to ensure order, justice, and kindness to all its citizens, then the attitude of countries to each other will also change. Their violent passions will subside, for their citizens will build up much less aggression in their souls, living less frustrated and happier lives. Once such psychological conditions prevail, the peoples of the world will be ready to be led by a just leader. Hence, Isaiah continues: “And He shall judge among the nations… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah, 2:4).
At this point it might be asked, did the Land of Israel in the past actually fulfill the great role that was assigned to it?
The answer is that it played one of the greatest roles in history, and if it did not complete its task by absolute standards, it certainly did act as a sounding board to the nations whereby the foundations of the moral order of the West were laid down.
Speaking of the roots of American culture, Russell Kirk observes: “Our modern moral order, at least in what is called the West, runs back to the burning bush at Sinai” (The Roots of American Culture, p.17).
Professor Eric Voegelin writes: “Through the leap in being, that is through the discovery of transcendent being as the source of order in man and society, Israel constituted itself the carrier of a new truth in History” (Israel and Revelation, p.123).
Such is the depth of the Order which Israel taught that Professor Voegelin goes on to say: “Without Israel there would be no History” (ibid., p.126).
Then, referring to the confused and dark vision of some modern historians, he goes on to say: “Spengler and Toynbee return indeed to the School of Civilizations from which Moses had led his people into the freedom of history” (ibid.).
We have now answered the questions raised: Why a land and nation were needed as a vehicle for Abraham’s ideal, and why this specific land was chosen.
What lesson may be drawn from the above conclusions? The aim of the Torah is not a “vertical religion”, but essentially a religion of social justice. This was beautifully expressed by the Rabbis: “Moses said to the people of Israel, ‘G-d has given you His Torah – if you do not carry out the civil laws, He will take away His Torah from you.’ Why? Because G-d only gave you the Torah for the purpose of your carrying out justice, as it is written, ‘The strength of a king is shown when he loves justice’ (Psalms, 99:4). Therefore, if you carry out the civil laws, G-d will give back to you your law courts, as it says, “I shall bring back your judges as at first and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterwards thou shalt be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city”. And what does it say thereafter? “Zion shall be redeemed with justice and those that return to her, with righteousness”. (Bereshith Rabba, Exodus, Parsha 30, Para. 9) From this it follows that the immediate task of redeeming our country spiritually today is to bring the laws of our country more and more into accordance with the laws of the Torah and its spirit.
Responsa on Computer
Actually a beginning has been made to lay the foundations for carrying out such a task. We are handicapped by the fact that it is today almost impossible to know what the opinion of Jewish legal authorities through the ages have been in connection with countless specific topics. The reason for this is that although we have a huge literature of responsa (decisions by our legal authorities), we have at present no method of locating those decisions, embedded as they are in a vast literature which comprises some 30,000 volumes. In order to retrieve the necessary information, it is necessary to put the contents of individual responsa, which number hundreds of thousands, onto a computer. This is being done in two different places, one at Bar Ilan University, in conjunction with Yeshiva University of New York, and, in a slightly different way, at the Law Department of the Hebrew University Jerusalem on Mount Scopus. When completed, we may expect a body of well-trained experts in Jewish law to sit down and distill out the ideas of Jewish jurisprudence to find ways and means of applying those ideas to modern conditions and modern problems. The Knesset is sure to give its best attention to the considered opinions of such a body, and will incorporate their findings into future laws. However, the public must be aware of the vital role that the laws governing our country play in the framework of our religion.
Only too often one hears opinions and attitudes, from deeply religious people, which portray a complete indifference to the legal system of the country, without realizing how such opinions and attitudes contradict the most basic concepts which the Torah wishes to inculcate into the hearts of the Jewish people.
To understand the attitude of such people, one must realize how Judaism was gradually reduced from a structure of social engineering to a mere “faith.” Our people lost their independence, country and Sanhedrin. Then, they still kept their autonomous courts in countries such as Babylonia, where they lived in great concentrations. When, later on, Christianity and Islam did all they could to degrade the status of the Jew, he still kept a measure of autonomy within the walls of the ghetto. When the Emancipation started in Europe, the Jews were given to understand that they could only enjoy freedom if they gave up their autonomy, ceased to be an independent people, and reduced their religion to a passive and vertical faith like others. This process, as the nations who had erstwhile been persecuting us well understood, could break our back as a nation, and in fact, it nearly did. [See: Encyclopedia Judaica under the following headings: Emancipation, Napoleon Bonapart.]
Indeed, it worked so well that even the Orthodox in many countries were German or English or French by nationality and only Jews by religion, not realizing that in harboring these feelings they were playing into the hands of their enemy who was out to destroy the Jewish national identity.
Yet, with some, this self-destructive concept became so integrated into their Orthodoxy that the idea (which should have been felt as a betrayal of our people) was, so to speak, sanctified.
Such people forget that an indifference to the civil laws spells the end of the Torah, as our rabbis said in the passage quoted previously. Indeed, it is this insensitivity to the importance of the dimension of civil law as an integral part of Judaism that has allowed some Orthodox Jews to arrive at the strange opinion that a country of their own is a superfluous luxury for Jews and also for Judaism. This clearly represents regression to the pre-Abrahamic outlook, and, if acted upon, would nullify the great transformation in the moral order for which the Patriarchs and Moses stood.
We must remember that in ages past, during the time of the Second Temple, and again during the periods of the Mishna and Talmud – and even down to fairly recent times – major regulations were instituted by rabbinical legal authorities who wished to ensure that fairness and equity should always regulate Jewish society, through all vicissitudes and changing patterns of life which the years brought with them. Creative activity in the sphere of legal enactment was patently regarded as crucial to Judaism and as part of the natural application of Torah principles to new situations. Such growth may not be arrested now. Now that we have part of our Holy Land back, how can such a vital concern of our religion be handed over in its entirety to the secular powers, and to short-term interests? Every aspect of the long term welfare of our people must be strongly studied and legislated for.
Eye to the Future
If our ecclesiastical authorities might rightly feel that we are not yet ripe for a Sanhedrin, or that we do not have men sufficiently trained for such a position, might not then the creation of a “Shadow Sanhedrin” be considered? They could apply themselves to current problems and study in what direction substantial benefits could be bestowed on the Israeli legal system out of the rich storehouse of Jewish tradition and the Jewish past? For many years they would only be an exploratory body without actual powers but able to influence by advice.
But, an attitude of indifference to the question of whether the secular legal system in Israel is just or not, combined with an attitude of non-cooperation, must be seen as being contrary to the whole tenor and spirit of our Torah. One thing is certain and that is that a truncated Judaism that is chiefly interested in the ritual side of the Torah and has abandoned its great social ideas will result in a mere caricature of what Judaism really stands for and a mere shadow of its authentic essence. Furthermore, it would constitute a real abdication from a feeling of deep responsibility towards the social structure for which Judaism stands.
It would, moreover, become a Christianized Judaism, for just as the Church is chiefly interested in people belonging to the Church and the priest officiating at births, marriages, and deaths, so Judaism would become chiefly interested in synagogue attendance and that a rabbi officiates at births, marriages, and deaths. Could a greater distortion of our teachings be imagined? And could a greater victory have been given to our enemies whose main subconscious motive is to annul the specifically Jewish ethical ideas from influencing the structure of society?
Let us therefore reverse any process of attrition that may be overtaking us in this area. Let us take a deep interest in the formulation of Equitable Law in our country, and help in building up the legal structure in the spirit of the Torah, so that Zion may indeed be redeemed with “mishpat” and those who return to it with righteousness.
This is the point at which my article had originally ended. However, a friend who read it thought that the message of the article might be misconstrued by some readers, who might conclude that what I was suggesting is that all Judaism required was inter-personal and inter-social decency, and something that one might almost equate with secular humanism. Anyone coming to such a conclusion would be in serious error. Really deep commitment to others can only spring from a consciousness of G-d’s presence, and one might say that the depth of one’s commitment to others was in direct ratio to one’s commitment to G-d. It must be apparent by now to every discerning observer of human affairs that the humanism advocated by secularists is nothing but a veneer. Being a mere ideology, it cannot be more than skin-deep, although it can inspire enthusiasm that springs from a spurious motivation such as resentment, jealousy or a feeling of need for justification.
If one wished to see the truth of this statement illustrated in history, it is quite easy to read the patterns that stand out starkly.
Striking a Balance
We frequently hear liberals talking critically and with an air of superiority about religious persecution and religious coercion. Let us take a balance and put on one side of the scales all the persecutions and coercion that have been suffered by Jews and others during the last two thousand years.
Then, let us put on the other side of the scales the amount of blood shed by atheistic revolutions during the last two hundred years. The French Revolution accounted for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people. The Russian Revolution must have involved those of some thirty million innocents. The Chinese Revolution destroyed some twenty million, and fifteen million people were killed by the Nazis. We are not speaking of people killed in war, but of passive citizens who were put to death without trial. The above figures show that the wanton destruction of human life committed in the name of superficial secular ideologies make the acts of various religions over the last 2,000 years pale into insignificance. These figures also disclose the fact that under the banner of ideologies which profess a desire to improve human relationships, there simmers a ruthlessness and a disregard for life, which is unparalleled in any religious movement. All ideologies that have advocated secular humanism, liberty, fraternity, and equality not based on some deep religious institution have over the course of time been proved to have been hollow mockeries.
Let us now return to the question of Judaism. Over and above the various precepts which demand from us kindness, honesty, and humanity, there stand the important and indispensable precepts which demand the practice of various rituals bracketed under the heading of which means, precepts regulating the relationship between man and his Creator. The purpose of the precepts is to open up channels in our soul for the influx of Divine consciousness, and to develop in us sensitivity to the spiritual order. It is only on the solid basis of such consciousness and such sensitivity that the harmonious relationships to humanity and society can be built.
The above two aspects of the Jewish religion – the relationship between man and G-d, and the relationship between man and society – each underpinned and fostered by an array of precepts, are integrated in the Torah to form a grand system designed to ensure, ultimately, both personal and social perfection.