To read Part I, click here
To understand the danger of this unfortunate development, we need to take a broad look at Judaism and its vital mission. Several questions come to mind. Why does the world need a Jewish nation and what is its purpose? Why do the Jews need to be separate, and why is assimilation seen as one of the most destructive forces within Judaism throughout the ages? What lies at the very core of Judaism?
While many opinions prevail, there are some basic beliefs concerning the very existence of the Jewish People and its mission. With perhaps the exception of Maimonides (15), all the classic Jewish philosophers claim that the ultimate reason for Israel’s existence is to be part of the unifying thread in a kind of Heilsgeschichte (redemptive history). Its purpose is to move humankind forward on its spiritual journey both to full recognition of God as the ultimate Master of all existence and to supreme ethical behavior. This noble role demands exemplary conduct on the part of the Jews. To fully understand this, we must realize that God is not merely the Creator and God of the universe but primarily the God Who is deeply involved in human history. God is not a philosophical idea advanced by Greek philosophers, totally separate from and beyond all human existence. He is an almost touchable Being Who dresses Himself in human emotions to make His point known to mankind.
God appears to experience all the human emotions: love, anger, involvement, indignation, regret, sadness, and so on. By so doing, He gives the seal of divinity to the very essence of our humanity. He implicitly says to man: “You cannot know what is above and what is below, but you can know what is in your hearts and in the world. These feelings and reactions and emotions that make up human existence are, if illumined by faith and rationality, all the divinity you can hope for. To be humane is to be divine: as I am holy, so you shall be holy; as I am merciful, so you shall be merciful.” Thus, there is only one kind of knowledge that is open to man, the knowledge of God’s humanity. (16)
God, then, becomes a specific and historic personality. He becomes a player in the history of man, together with all the players in the human race. This makes Him the most tragic figure in all of human history, because He cannot appear in His authentic form, which would require Him to be far beyond all human limitations and characteristics. Would He do so, He would be meaningless to mankind. He must appear in opposition to His very Self. Not as a philosophical idea beyond all human resemblance, but as a Redemptive God within history. This means that He had to become a God of compromise for the sake of man’s limitations. Precisely for that reason He often fails in His ultimate goals. He has to fail so as to connect with man. His objective is to allow man to fail so that redemptive history becomes a reality. Nothing can be redeemed if all is perfect.
To achieve His goal, God requires a specific people who are destined to carry out the redemptive nature of history. Universal ideas cannot be relied upon, because they are impersonal, and what is impersonal is beyond history. Furthermore, an impersonal entity cannot carry a commitment, a moral assignment; for if all are committed to a particular mission, there is no one to be persuaded and therefore no mission to implement. Redemptive history then becomes impossible.
More important, however, is that the God of history can work only within time and space. This allows for a personal encounter with Him solely in the context of life and history. And only in that way can there be a mission of redemptive and God-centered history. It is through particularism that this universal mission can be accomplished.
And yet, those who are called on to carry out this mission must have an element of universality and eternity. They cannot be completely distinct, as that would lead them to becoming self-absorbed and unable to redeem and help mankind on its spiritual journey. So, paradoxically, this group must to some degree be a-historical. It must be unique and incapable of being sociologically or ethnologically categorized. It cannot belong to a particular race, culture or even a conventional religious domination. Nor can it be a nation in the traditional sense of the word. It must transcend all these definitions and represent something that is a mystery, an anomaly and even a contradiction, so that it can stand at the center of history. Through its uniqueness, all of human history must be expressed. It has to carry the true history of mankind in a world that has an origin and a divine goal. This group of people, then, must identify with all of mankind while remaining separate.
Only “Israel” fits this description, for Israel is neither a race nor a nation nor a religion, in the conventional sense. It violates all the criteria that “race,” “nation,” and “religion” stands for. Indeed, it is religion that determines its nationality, and it is nationality that determines its religion. It includes members of all races, and everyone can join to become a genuine child of Avraham and Sarah.
In addition, there is such a wide range of language, culture, and belief among Jews that no definition of these terms can accurately describe this unusual people. Yet the Jews do represent a surviving historic continuum, identifiable but consisting of constantly shifting groups.
This perplexing notion of “redemptive history” stands at the very core of the mission of Jews and Halakha. For Halakha to be meaningful and eternal, it must be redemptive Halakha, constantly deriving its vitality and its guidelines from this notion. Redemptive history must move forward in order to be redemptive, and Halakha must therefore move with it. Once it has accomplished a certain goal, it must abandon the means by which it achieved this goal and move to the next stage of its redemptive goals. If, instead, it adheres to the means by which it achieved its goal, it undermines itself and becomes destructive. Instead of being redemptive, it becomes confining and harmful, turning progress into regression and reversing everything that it wants to achieve.
It is for this reason that the law of yayin nesech is counter-productive. Its objective has already been achieved. It fulfilled its purpose and has become obsolete. As long as a good part of the non-Jewish world was deeply committed to idol worship and abominable acts, it was important and made a powerful point. But since by now, a very large percentage of mankind has abandoned idol worship, is no longer dedicated to repugnant deeds, and has accepted values such as human rights, equity and equality, we can no longer ignore these developments and look the other way.
In fact, by continuing to observe this law, we deny that Judaism has had a powerful influence on our world. As a protest movement in the face of great evil, it has done extremely well. Many of its redemptive goals have been fulfilled. Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on this subject have been right on the mark. He points out that it is not so much Judaism itself that is directly responsible for these achievements. (17) It required a more extroverted monotheistic religion to take on its ideals and expose them to the world. This, says Rosenzweig, is what Christianity did. With all its mistakes and anti-Semitic overtones, it paradoxically made monotheism into a powerful force throughout the world, and many Jewish values are now well known while conventional idol worship has ceased to exist. Rosenzweig adds that Judaism gave birth to Christianity for this very purpose, and Christianity can only fulfill its purpose if Israel is in its midst. It must take its inspiration from Israel. It cannot stand on its own feet. Christian philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich suggested that there would always be a need for Judaism because “it is the corrective against the paganism that goes along with Christianity.” (18)
That is the reason why there is no point in continuing to observe a law that forbids non-Jews to touch our wine.
To argue that idol worship is still alive and well and that there is still a lot of evil around is missing the point. First of all, it is questionable whether idol worship is indeed still around. Hinduism and Buddhism may very well not fall into this category, and even if they would, they are definitely not prone to immorality and evil. (19) Secondly, evil behavior is no longer acceptable by any law-abiding society. This is the indirect result of Judaism’s influence on civilization. In fact, Judaism introduced many other ethical laws that are not found in the Torah itself. Its redemptive qualities, which the law of yayin nesech symbolizes, did the job.
The same is true about assimilation, which is no longer affected by the law of yayin nesech. Now that there are so many alcoholic drinks that are not forbidden after they’ve been touched by non-Jews, the law is meaningless. If anything, we should forbid non-Jews to touch whiskey, or beer. But to do so would be ineffective. If we want to fight assimilation, we need totally different strategies. That phenomenon has undergone a shift and it can be countered only by ideology. To believe that the law of yayin nesech still has anything to do with assimilation is to bury one’s head in the sand.
For Jews to remain separate, other strategies will have to be developed. It will require a novel attempt to stir a strong feeling of mission among our youth, combined with a very compelling ideology and education that would be irresistible. Paradoxically, as long as this law exists, it sends a message that the mission rooted in the concept of redemptive history is a fake, and an effective ideology cannot be developed. So the law, which should be building a strong, compelling Jewish identity, in fact does the reverse.
To Be Continued…
15. See David Hartman, Israelis and the Jewish Tradition: An Ancient People Debating Its Future (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).
16. Dr. Yochanan Muffs, “A Jewish View of God’s Relation to the World,” The Personhood of God (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) p. 177
17. Franz Rosenzweig, Briefe (Berlin: Schocken, 1935) p. 100. See also Jacob Agus, Modern Philosophies of Judaism (New York: Behrman’s, 1941) pp. 191-194
18. Quoted by A. Roy Eckardt in Christianity and the Children of Israel (New York: Columbia University, 1948) pp. 146-147
19. See Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Eugene Korn, eds., Jewish Theology and World Religions (Oxford, England and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012) Part 3.