The year is 1933. Two Jews are sitting in a Viennese coffee house, reading the news. One is reading the local Jewish paper, the other the notoriously antisemitic publication Der Stürmer. “How can you possibly read that revolting rubbish?” says the first. The second smiles. “What does your paper say? Let me tell you: ‘The Jews are assimilating.’ ‘The Jews are arguing.’ ‘The Jews are disappearing.’ Now let me tell you what my paper says: ‘The Jews control the banks.’ ‘The Jews control the media.’ ‘The Jews control Austria.’ ‘The Jews control the world.’ My friend, if you want good news about the Jews, always read the antisemites.”
An old and bitter joke. Yet it has a point and a history and it begins with this week’s parsha. Some of the most beautiful things ever said about the Jewish people were said by Bilaam: “Who can count the dust of Jacob … May my final end be like theirs! … How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel! …A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”
Bilaam was no friend of the Jews. Having failed to curse them, he eventually devised a plan that worked. He suggested that Moabite women seduce Israelite men and then invite them to take part in their idolatrous worship. 24,000 people died in the subsequent plague that struck the people (Num. 25, 31:16). Bilaam is numbered by the rabbis as one of only four non-royals mentioned in the Tanach who are denied a share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 90a).
Why then did God choose that Israel be blessed by Bilaam? Surely there is a principle Megalgelim zechut al yedei zakai: “Good things come about through good people” (Tosefta Yoma 4:12). Why did this good thing come about through a bad man? The answer lies in the principle stated in Proverbs (27:2): “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” Tanach is perhaps the least self-congratulatory national literature in history. Jews chose to record for history their faults, not their virtues. Hence it was important that their praise come from an outsider, and one not known to like them. Moses rebuked the people. Bilaam, the outsider, praised them.
That said, however, what is the meaning of one of the most famous descriptions ever given of the people Israel: “It is a nation dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations.” (Num. 23:9)? I have argued (in my book, Future Tense) against the interpretation that has become popular in modern times, namely that it is Israel’s destiny to be isolated, friendless, hated, abandoned and alone, as if antisemitism were somehow written into the script of history. It isn’t. None of the prophets said so. To the contrary, they believed that the nations of the world would eventually recognise Israel’s God and come to worship Him in the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah (8:23) foresees a day when “ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” There is nothing fated, predestined, about antisemitism.
What then do Bilaam’s words mean? “It is a nation dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations.” Ibn Ezra says they mean that unlike all other nations, Jews, even when a minority in a non-Jewish culture, will not assimilate. Ramban says that their culture and creed will remain pure, not a cosmopolitan mix of multiple traditions and nationalities. The Netziv gives the sharp interpretation, clearly directed against the Jews of his time, that “If Jews live distinctive and apart from others they will dwell safely, but if they seek to emulate ‘the nations’ they ‘will not be reckoned’ as anything special at all.”
There is, however, another possibility, hinted at by another noted antisemite, G. K. Chesterton, who we have already mentioned in Beha’alotecha. Chesterton famously wrote of America that it was “a nation with the soul of a church” and “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” That is, in fact, precisely what made Israel different – and America’s political culture, as historian Perry Miller and sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out, is deeply rooted in the idea of biblical Israel and the concept of covenant. Ancient Israel was indeed founded on a creed, and was, as a result, a nation with the soul of a religion.
We discussed in Beha’alotecha how Rabbi Soloveitchik broke down the two ways in which people become a group, be it a camp or a congregation. Camps face a common enemy, and so a group of people bands together. If you look at all other nations, ancient and modern, you will see they arose out of historical contingencies. A group of people live in a land, develop a shared culture, form a society, and thus become a nation.
Jews, certainly from the Babylonian exile onward, had none of the conventional attributes of a nation. They did not live in the same land. Some lived in Israel, others in Babylon, yet others in Egypt. Later they would be scattered throughout the world. They did not share a language of everyday speech. There were many Jewish vernaculars, versions of Yiddish, Ladino and other regional Jewish dialects. They did not live under the same political dispensation. They did not share the same cultural environment. Nor did they experience the same fate. Despite all their many differences though, they always saw themselves and were seen by others as one nation: the world’s first, and for long the world’s only, global people.
What then made them a nation? This was the question R. Saadia Gaon asked in the tenth century, to which he gave the famous answer: “Our nation is only a nation in virtue of its laws (torot).” They were the people defined by the Torah, a nation under the sovereignty of God. Having received, uniquely, their laws before they even entered their land, they remained bound by those selfsame laws even when they lost the land. Of no other nation has this ever been true.
Uniquely then, in Judaism religion and nationhood coincide. There are nations with many religions: multicultural Britain is one among many. There are religions governing many nations: Christianity and Islam are obvious examples. Only in the case of Judaism is there a one-to-one correlation between religion and nationhood. Without Judaism there would be nothing (except antisemitism) to connect Jews across the world. And without the Jewish nation Judaism would cease to be what it has always been, the faith of a people bound by a bond of collective responsibility to one another and to God. Bilaam was right. The Jewish people really are unique.
Nothing therefore could be more mistaken than to define Jewishness as a mere ethnicity. If ethnicity is a form of culture, then Jews are not one ethnicity but many. In Israel, Jews are a walking lexicon of almost every ethnicity under the sun. If ethnicity is another word for race, then conversion to Judaism would be impossible (you cannot convert to become Caucasian; you cannot change your race at will).
What makes Jews “a nation dwelling alone, not reckoned among the nations,” is that their nationhood is not a matter of geography, politics or ethnicity. It is a matter of religious vocation as God’s covenant partners, summoned to be a living example of a nation among the nations made distinctive by its faith and way of life. Lose that and we lose the one thing that was and remains the source of our singular contribution to the heritage of humankind. When we forget this, sadly, God arranges for people like Bilaam and Chesterton to remind us otherwise. We should not need such reminding.
 That Chesterton was an antisemite is not my judgment but that of the poet W. H. Auden). Chesterton wrote: “I said that a particular kind of Jew tended to be a tyrant and another particular kind of Jew tended to be a traitor. I say it again. Patent facts of this kind are permitted in the criticism of any other nation on the planet: it is not counted illiberal to say that a certain kind of Frenchman tends to be sensual…. I cannot see why the tyrants should not be called tyrants and the traitors traitors merely because they happen to be members of a race persecuted for other reasons and on other occasions.” (G.K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity, London, Methuen & Co., 1920, p. 239). On this Auden wrote, “The disingenuousness of this argument is revealed by the quiet shift from the term nation to the term race.”
These weekly teachings from Rabbi Sacks are part of the ‘Covenant & Conversation’ series on the weekly Torah reading. Read more essays from the series on www.rabbisacks.org.
Now available for additional learning: The FAMILY EDITION of Covenant & Conversation. To read and print this new learning resource, for an inter-generational discussion around your Shabbat table on Rabbi Sacks’ ideas for the week, click here!
Covenant and Conversation 5779 is kindly supported by the Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation in memory of Maurice and Vivienne Wohl z”l.
The Covenant & Conversation volume for Bamidbar is available to order here. Bereishit, Shemot and Vayikra are also in print.
“Lessons in Leadership”, the Covenant & Conversation book by Rabbi Sacks on themes of leadership throughout the chapters of the Torah, is available to order here. “Essays on Ethics” is a similar book containing essays on the weekly reading of the Bible, which you can order here.