Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

God commands Moses to tell Aaron about lighting the lamps (Num. 8:2). In a broader sense every one of us is an Aaron who needs light to illumine his life.

Is there something in Jewish identity that gives life meaning?

For some people the chief feature of Jewish identity is the Holocaust. "Why am I a Jew? Without the Holocaust I would not feel Jewish!" Others say, "Without Israel I would not feel Jewish!"

The Holocaust Jew says, "I am Jewish because I cannot be annihilated!" The Israel Jew says, "I am Jewish because my determination cannot be squashed!"

There is something great in both ideas, but there is something missing, the deeper dimension that says, "I am Jewish because of Sinai. Without Sinai I would not feel Jewish!"

Sinai is shorthand for spirituality, wisdom, commitment, compassion, excitement, cultural richness. With Sinai I find a message in every moment, a poem in every place, a challenge in every deed.

The Holocaust Jew and the Israel Jew should not forget to be a Sinai Jew.

Being the Chosen People

Q. Isn’t it arrogant and exclusionist for us to regard ourselves as the Chosen People?

A. The concept of Jewish "chosenness" offends many as arrogant.

George Bernard Shaw compared it to the Nazis’ claim to be a Herrenvolk. HG Wells called it a hindrance to world unity. Arnold Toynbee said it was "the most notorious historical example of the idolisation of an ephemeral self".

So let us put the record straight. We may be a distinctive people but we do not pretend to be intrinsically superior to others. Nor do we claim exclusive rights to salvation. Jewish teaching is clear: "The righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come."

It is not a person’s religious label which is decisive, but whether he has lived a righteous life.

But to attain righteousness, says Judaism, the world needed a teacher. Our belief is that Israel had long ago developed sufficiently in moral consciousness that it was capable of understanding and accepting the challenge of attempting to spread righteousness as "a light to the nations".

Thus Isidore Epstein said: "Israel had from the very first laid upon them the task of dedicating themselves to the rearing of righteousness among the sons of man. It is God’s work that they were called upon to do, and they must do it in the whole world, transforming the darkest corners of the earth".

It is paradoxical of course that the so-called people of God have suffered so much for their pains. Perhaps it is inevitable for a deliberately dissentient minority to attract suspicion and persecution. Perhaps we needed to undergo experiences which would reinforce our determination to strive for the stars even when others sought to bring us down to the dust.

This can be a heavy chore, and we are not perfect as a people, yet the world has a long way to go before it really learns the lessons of our prophetic teachers and begins to approach the Jewish ideals of mutual concern and social justice.

Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective..