A Light unto the Nations: What do today's rabbis say?

Influential Rabbis in Israel weigh in on whether after the establishment of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jews have the same mission.

Tzvi Fishman ,

Fishman
Fishman
Tzvi Fishman

When I became a baal t’shuva 37 years ago, I benefited greatly by studying the writings of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsh, especially his Commentary on the Torah and his Commentary on the Book of Psalms. In the year 1836, he wrote in his book, “Nineteen Letters” that the mission of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, in the Exile was to be a light to the nations.

With the Festival of Shavuot approaching, I asked a group of influential Rabbis in Israel if, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jews in the Diaspora still had the same mission?

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Rosh Yeshiva, Ateret Yerushalayim, Old City, Jerusalem, has authored over 150 books on a wide variety of Jewish themes.

Rabbi Hirsh stood in opposition to the leading Zionist Rabbis of his time. He believed that the principle undertaking of the Jewish People was to strengthen Judaism in the Exile at a time when masses were being drawn away by alien philosophies. His goal was to renew the Jewish People’s pride in their glorious ancestral Faith, and to stem the tide of intermarriage. Am Yisrael was to raise the banner of Torah in Germany and America.

Being a “light to the nations” wasn’t his main preoccupation. In Chapter Nine of his book, “Nineteen Letters” he speaks about the educational mission of the Jews to enlighten the world, but he was more concerned with saving the Jews themselves.

In any event, after the Holocaust, people who believed that the Jews could refine the Gentiles by example changed their thinking. They realized that they could not have any influence on such a monumental evil. The nations did not prove themselves capable of receiving light and illumination. For example, if we consider the Jews of America, or of France, where I grew up and studied before coming to Israel to learn Torah, the Jews didn’t strive to be a “light to the nations.” They strove to be loyal Americans and Frenchmen without drawing overdo attention to themselves.

The Americans have a great dislike for dual loyalties. In the United States, if you are not a patriotic American, you aren’t worth a dime. That is true for the secular American Jew, and true for the religious as well. Even though the haredim dress and act differently from the people around them, they consider themselves good Americans through and through. I don’t think they are concerned about being a light to the Gentiles. The outstanding attributes of the Jewish People indeed illuminated the darkness of life that is found amidst the nations who adhere to immoral cultures and false religions. Our influence appeared in many significant ways, beneficially affecting the general society wherever Jews lived. But our ability to light up the darkness completely while we ourselves dwelt in its shadows, was ultimately limited and often quickly forgotten.

According to HaRav Kook and others, being a “light to the nations” means establishing Medinat Yisrael as the vessel for the appearance of the Kingdom of Hashem in the world. It is certain that Rabbi Hirsh believed that the day would come when the scattered Jewish People would return to Zion. But he envisioned it as something very far away.

However, things didn’t have to be that way. If more Jews had actively joined the Zionist endeavor and returned to the Promised Land to rebuild Zion, the State of Israel could have come about much sooner. We might even have been saved from the Holocaust. Maybe yes, maybe no. The fact is that we didn’t try hard enough. Too many failed to respond to the call. Little more than a handful rose to the challenge.

For Rabbi Hirsh, Zionism wasn’t relevant at all. He wanted to save German Jewry from abandoning the Torah - that was his entire Weltanschauung. Other Rabbis felt the same. But we can see for ourselves that everywhere in the Diaspora assimilation grows and grows. Each year another 100,000 are lost. In ten years, one million. A silent Holocaust. This is the greatest tragedy of Am Yisrael today. This is what the book, “HaKuzari,” explains. In the days of Ezra, the vast majority of Jews in Babylon failed to return to Zion because they fell in love with their houses and businesses, and with the Gentile society around them. Then, and now, the Jews in the Babylons of today don’t want to give up what they have.

Nonetheless, we have to be honest and say, although Hashem has given us the State of Israel via the great efforts of those who returned to build our Homeland, we are not a light to the nations as yet. First we have to be a light to ourselves. There is too much corruption in the country. Too much greed. We have adopted too many alien ideologies and cultural norms, imported from the Goyim. That was an unavoidable consequence of an Aliyah from all over the world, and from our desire to become a lead player in the “global village” in every facet of international life.

Building a Nation faithful to Torah is not an easy undertaking. We still have much work to do. A great deal of Jewish Education is needed. Rabbi Kook emphasized that we cannot expect to bring about a World Tikun before we perfect ourselves. We have improved in many ways. The Galut was indeed a good training ground for humbling our haughty natures, the basis for the senseless hatred that destroyed our Kingdom and brought about our exile from our Land. Today, there is a lot of name calling during election campaigns in Israel, but we don’t chop off each other’s heads like in the violent Jewish wars of old. We are improving, but we still have a long way to go.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu is the Chief Rabbi of Tzfat.

The only place on the globe that a Jew can be a light to the nations is in Eretz Yisrael. The Prophet Isaiah makes this clear in Chapter 42, regarding the ingathering of the exiles and the prowess of Am Yisrael in its Land. To our chagrin, the situation of the Jews in the Diaspora over the last 150 years is one in which Jews are scorned and persecuted, or else they abandon, or play down, their Jewish identity in order to blend in with the Goyim. In the previous century, hundreds of thousands of Jews abandoned the Jewish faith out of weakness and a sycophantic compulsion to be accepted by the non-Jew. Likewise in our generation, myriads of Jews are assimilating from the same lack of spirit and obsession with groveling.

One cannot rightly call a community a “light unto the nations” when more than half of it is assimilating. It isn’t a light even unto itself. It is ashamed of its own identity. Gentiles look down on Jews for trying to fit in with the Gentile society around them. A person who is untrue to himself cannot be a guide for others. It is a joke and self-delusion when Jews fabricate all kind of stories to in order to justify their bowing down to their foreign masters.

If a Jew wants to be a light to the nations, let him follow the instructions of Hashem, and heed His command to Avraham, “Lech lecha,” by moving to the Land of Israel. Precisely there, in Eretz Yisrael, Hashem promised that Avraham’s offspring would become a great Nation, and a blessing to all of mankind. "Go forth from your country, and from your family, and from your father's house, to the Land which I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you, I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." This glorious destiny can only come about in Eretz Yisrael. It was true then, and it is true today.

Rabbi Reuven Fierman teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and lectures widely in universities throughout Israel.

Am Yisrael was chosen to spread the spiritual and moral light of Hashem in the world. It is clear that this role of “the good student in class” was bound to spark anti-Semitism. We knew this from the outset, but was this a justifiable reason to abandon the nations to their destructive ways and not try to help them? It you truly love somebody, you are prepared to help him even if he curses and spits at you. Especially if he is wounded and bleeding, and desperate for aid. The ancient world was in this degenerate state – wounded and bleeding from its immersion in immorality, cruelty, and falsehood. Throughout history, you won’t find a century where there wasn’t the atrocities some terrible war. Until a few hundred years ago, a person could not travel 1000 kilometers in Europe without the danger of being mugged, raped, enslaved, or murdered. Before Am Yisrael was exiled and scattered amongst the nations, the world was rampant with barbarism.

How was it possible to influence mankind towards improvement and Tikun? Obviously, via the Torah. Unfortunately, in those days, most people didn’t know how to read or write. Therefore, Am Yisrael had to be scattered amongst the nations in order to be a living example of spirituality and proper moral behavior. When I was a youth growing up in Russia, the wife of our Russian neighbor would scream at her husband, “Why doesn’t Fierman get drunk every day? Why doesn’t he beat his wife like you do?” Throughout the ages, the Jewish family was a symbol of fidelity, respect toward women, good education, and proper behavior. This too aroused jealousy and hatred.

After humanity began to shed somewhat its cruel and beastly nature, the Jews began to influence the world in many spiritual spheres, and in science, philosophy, technology, literature, economics, art, and more. The Jews helped pull humanity out of the dark ages. But this advancement remained on a theoretical level only. It became necessary to influence humankind not only on an individual basis, by the exemplary behavior of this individual Jew or that, but as a NATION. For the Gentile nations to become progressive and moral statehoods, guided by principles of justice and goodness, a model NATION had to show the way. In the Divine Plan of History, this was to be accomplished via the establishment of a Jewish State enlightened by the national guidelines and ideals set down in the Torah.

Medinat Yisrael arose to be a beacon of light to the nations, a country with the difficulties and challenges of other nations, but with the inner spiritual strength to overcome moral weaknesses, thus instilling humanity with hope for a better future. The Nation of Israel in Israel was needed to teach nations that not only individuals could be righteous, but also an entire State, combining spirituality and material development together. This is the world task of the State of Israel today. The establishment of Medinat Yisrael marks the beginning of a new phase of human history in which the nations of the world will eventually flock to Jerusalem to learn the ways of Jacob. The day is approaching, may it come soon, when the countries of the world will not only spend billions to purchase the technical innovations of Israel, but will joyfully seek to acquire the spiritual treasures of Israel as well – completely free of charge.

Rabbi Nachman Kahana led the Young Israel Synagogue of the Old City for 32 years, and is the author of 15-Volume “Mei Menuchot” series on Tosefot.

Rabbi Hirsch was opposed to Political Zionism, as are the members of the “yekeh” community in Washington Heights, NY, to this day.

How can being a “light to the Nations” apply today in the Diaspora when there is a 70-80 percent rate of assimilation in the United States and Europe. I dare say that the light we have provided to the Goyim was produced by the thousands of fires which they started in order to burn our holy books, our homes, and our bodies. The last light came from the crematoria in the death camps in Europe. A light is a necessary entity when it is appreciated, but the Goyim were not interested in light that shines from the flame of moral conscience. It is no coincidence that the color red of Esav, the color of fire and blood, appears in the national flags of almost every country in Europe.

The sun produces light and heat for us. But the sun is not close to us, rather millions of kilometers away. It takes 8 minutes for the light we see now to arrive from the sun, at the speed of 300 thousand kilometers per second. So too, we have to be a light, first to ourselves, then to the Goyim, while always remaining far, far away from them, just as the sun is far away from the earth.

Rabbi Avraham Blass, Director of the Jerusalem Talmud Institute in Jerusalem.

Eighty-five years ago, in the Ninth Letter of the book, “Nineteen Letters,” Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsh wrote that the mission of Am Yisrael was to be an educator to the nations during its wanderings in Exile. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, for Jews who, for whatever reason, have not made Aliyah, does this mission still apply to them?

First, it is important to understand Rabbi Hirsh’s thinking in the light of his times, or, perhaps even more revealing, by understanding the nature of Exile. The basis of his belief comes to justify our nation’s existence in Galut. Indeed, there are other sources which support his theory that until our inevitable return to Israel, we are to fortify the Jewish presence in our foreign abodes, to the point of making Galut the center of Jewish life, even ahead of the centrality of Eretz Yisrael. For example, Rabbi Yehuda in the Babylonian Talmud stated that it is forbidden to leave Babylon for Eretz Yisrael. Elsewhere in the Bavli, it is written that the Shekinah was in the house of Rabenu in Babylon. The Sages of Babylon did not rest merely with their opinion that Babylon was the spiritual center of Jewish Life, but also forwarded a theological explanation for remaining on foreign soil – in order to gather converts to Judaism, converts who realize that Judaism is the true belief.

The perspective of Torat Eretz Yisrael is maintains the total opposite viewpoint. The Prophet Ezekiel, in his prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones, declares that the phenomenon of Exile and Jewish life in Gentile lands is an all-encompassing Desecration of Hashem. The reason, as Rashi explains, is simple. A situation in which Am Yisrael lacks its own Statehood causes the Gentiles to look down scornfully on the Jews, and at Hashem, who seems to lack the power to safeguard His People in their own Land. Why look to such a debased People for enlightenment and guidance? The fact that the Jewish People live as outcasts in alien lands debases God, His Chosen People, and the Torah. In Galut, our Sages teach, the Torah sits in darkness, so that even if the Gentiles were interested in hearing what it teaches, it would be in its very truncated, water-down form. In order to be a light to the nations, first and foremost, the Jews have be dwell in the Land of Israel, in their own Jewish State. Once there, in the Holy Land, they have to return to a life of Torah in its original fullness. Living the Torah in its national grandeur, then, and only then, can Am Yisrael fulfill its mission of being a beacon of light to mankind.

Rabbi Hirsh’s philosophy might be understood as the only way of looking at things, since returning to Eretz Yisrael was, at the time, a seemingly overwhelming and impossible enterprise. The vast majority of the Jewish People were scattered around the globe, with no Jewish State waiting to welcome its children home. But the moment a Jewish State becomes a reality, which, in the words of Ezekiel’s prophecy, is a great Sanctification of Hashem in itself, even before the stage of national tshuva to follow, then the Exile becomes void of meaning and a Jew has no reason to live there. Even though Medinat Yisrael has not reached the stage where it is a symbol of a just and moral nation, merely the fact that we have become a successful and prospering country, with an abundance of Torah scholarship, and with new religious institutions being built everywhere, this in itself is a Kiddush Hashem. Today, the Diaspora is irrelevant. Whatever function it had, is now obsolete. Furthermore, Jews are endangered there, whether through the ever-increasing rate of assimilation, anti-Semitism, or Corona. Projects to strengthen Jewish communities and Jewish Life in foreign places are doomed to failure. Am Yisrael was never meant to remain in Galut forever. The time has arrived to come home and to build a bonfire of Torah that will light up the world.

Rabbi Shalom Gold has led the Kehillat Zichron Yosef Congregation in Har Nof for nearly 40 years.

To answer the question, I would like to refer to the Siddur of Rabbi Hirsh, in his explanation of weekday Amidah Prayer. He writes regarding our plea that Hashem sound the great shofar for our freedom and gather our exiles together from the four corners of the earth: “This is the plea of the whole congregation of Israel, for which there can be no freedom while it is in the Exile. Its Redemption will only begin when all of its members are gathered together to be united. But such a union cannot be brought about by human action, or through the intermediary of human effort. We must wait for God himself to sound the shofar.”

Do you get the picture? According to his vision, no Redemption is possible for the exiled Jewish People, and thus no Jewish community is possible in Eretz Yisrael, until the preceding clauses of the Amidah prayer have been fulfilled – the full return to Torah and the full repentance of the Nation. Any attempt by human means to return to the Land of Israel before the Nation has embraced the Torah and been granted forgiveness, is, according to Rabbi Hirsh, “a folly of the imagination that will lead to disaster.” One of the leading Zionist Rabbis of the time sent a letter to Rabbi Hirsh, calling upon him to join the “Lovers of Zion” Movement. Rabbi Hirsh answered: “What your honor considers a great mitzvah, I consider not a small sin.”

We have to be honest. Everything that has transpired here in the Land of Israel in the last 72 years since the establishment of Medinat Yisrael is clearly from Hashem. The Almighty didn’t first wait for the complete t’shuva of the Nation and our complete return to the laws of the Torah. Hashem brought about the miracle of Medinat Yisrael, and its incredible growth and achievement in all spheres, precisely through sweat and blood of human effort, through the non-religious Zionist pioneers, and through religious Jews who heard the great shofar even before it was sounded.

The most awful Chillul Hashem that ever occurred took place with the wholesale slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews, Hashem’s children, His Chosen Nation, during the Holocaust in Europe, when even Allied forces cooperated with Hitler, may he and his memory be erased, by not enabling Jews to come to Eretz Yisrael, and by not allowing shiploads of Jewish refugees to enter their countries. Then Hashem, the Lord God of Israel, decided that He would not allow His Holy Name, which is intrinsically bound in an everlasting bond with His Nation Israel, to be desecrated again. So He founded the State of Israel via the selfless bravery and back-breaking labor of Jewish pioneers, whose prodigious deeds transformed a devastated and downtrodden People into a dazzling international leader, which is the greatest beacon of light there is in the world today, even before we have reached the levels of t’shuva and national return to the ways of our holy Torah. Medinat Yisrael is helping humankind everywhere, as an innovator and pacesetter in all fields, precisely from the Land of Israel, and not outside of it.

A beacon of light which is destined to glow brighter and brighter until it lights up the darkness of the moral and spiritual corruption surrounding mankind - while the tiny lights of Jews and Jewish communities scattered around the globe flicker and fade, until they are gradually extinguished completely, a passing footnote in Jewish history, while the light of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael blazes forth from Zion in an ever-increasing flame until the very end of time.

Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."



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