Pinchas Goldschmidt
Pinchas Goldschmidt

Universalism versus Particularism

As we enjoy our summer in Israel, some thoughts come to mind. We see Israel, the start up nation, prosper and grow, (notwithstanding occasional terrorism, an unfriendly neighborhood and BDS). I tell my children that 70 years ago, parents had to tell their children why we should celebrate Pesach. Today, we must explain to our children why we still need to commemorate the Ninth Day of Av.

King Solomon, son of King David and Bathsheba, enjoys a special place in the pantheon of Jewish leaders. He provides Israel and the Jewish people with a golden era, one of peace and development, and builds the first temple in Jerusalem. Israel under Solomon becomes a regional superpower, drawing leaders from near and far to Jerusalem to enjoy the wisdom and justice of Israeli society. Solomon succeeds in creating far reaching political alliances with Egypt and many other nations through marriage, and Israel seems more secure and prosperous than ever.

However, this golden age does not go on forever. Soon after the death of the wisest of kings, the kingdom of Israel cracks apart. There are now two states, with differing religions and political aspirations, hostile to one another, bent on a downward spiral. This leads to the demise of both kingdoms and the termination of Jewish sovereignty. The golden era is gone forever.

King Solomon’s writings and thoughts have become part of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The Midrash expounds on Proverbs chapter 31: “The sayings of King Lemuel — an inspired utterance his mother taught him.”

Said Rabbi Ishmael, the very night that Solomon completed the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he married Pharaoh’s daughter, and the people of Jerusalem attended both celebrations, going from one to the other. The rejoicing at the wedding ball was greater than the rejoicing in celebration of the completion of the Temple. At that time a thought came before the Almighty to destroy the temple.

This Midrash allegorically addresses the tensions existing in Solomon’s kingdom. On the one hand, there is the quest for Jewish particularism, symbolized by the building of the temple in Jerusalem, bringing to fruition the words of Moses (Deut 12:10) that,

When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God will choose for His name to dwell:

On the other hand, there is the quest for universal improvement and justice, symbolized by the marriage to the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Both forces and quests, which together characterized the Golden Age of Israel, continued to struggle for primacy and status in the Jewish state.

Not unlike today, according to some commentators, Israel is divided between the “State of Tel Aviv” and the “State of Jerusalem.” Israel is split between those who want to become a light unto the nations by creating new startups and technology, and those who think that the divine presence will herald the fulfillment of the prophecy that “from Zion shall come forth the Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.”

A priori, this Midrash suggests that the union of King Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter, whether or not politically motivated, was seen by the sages in a negative light. This reflects a critical attitude towards universalism. On the other hand we see that our sages equated the reign of Solomon with the messianic era. The peace and prosperity of his time was due both to the high level of spirituality of the Jewish people, referred to by Rav Soloveitchik as, “the sanctity of the covenantal community”, as well as the universalism and outreach to other nations. It was not the marriage, per se, of Solomon to Pharaoh’s daughter, which is criticized in this midrash. The criticism pertains to the fact that the event of the consecration of the temple of Jerusalem, which was of monumental spiritual importance to the Jewish people was actually overshadowed by the celebration of Solomon’s great diplomatic achievement. This juxtaposition of events minimized the glory of the inauguration of the temple, diminishing its primacy and subjecting it to a diplomatic event of secondary importance.

In our world a parallel can be drawn to the great many Jews living in the Diaspora, who have adopted the idea of Tikkun Olam, and have made it to be the sole expression of their Judaism, neglecting all other national and religious aspects of our faith. I have seen many people in a community becoming very involved in religious dialogue with other faiths, while totally neglecting the internal problems and challenges within our communities, in the field of education, welfare and security.

Those who want to interpret the words of the midrash as negating the necessity for universalism and the importance of its component to the composition of the Jewish state, as we witness today the voice of so many of those who forget the history of our people and are prone to negate all universal values shared by the human race, need to be reminded that the words of this midrash are built around the chapter in proverbs, which according to the simple meaning of the verse, is quoted in the name of Lemuel, King of Massa, a non Jewish ruler who quotes his mother’s words of vision in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew, where she tells her son:

Listen, my son! Listen, son of my womb! Listen, my son, the answer to my prayers! Do not spend your strength[a] on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings. It is not for kings, Lemuel – it is not for kings to drink wine,not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish! Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Solomon heeds the advice of his mother (or the mother of his colleague-king) and administers justice to the lowest caste of his citizenry, namely, the two harlots who come to him fighting over one remaining live child after childbirth. Solomon, applying his wisdom, determines the true mother. Solomon’s famous judgment found its place in the liturgy as the haftarah of the weekly portion of Miketz. However, this haftarah is almost never read, perhaps once in 15 years, because the weekly portion of Miketz falls almost every year on the festival of Hanukkah. The words of the Prophet Zechariah speaking about the temple, the High Priest and the menorah, take precedence over the heavenly universal justice of Solomon.

However, the ambiguity surrounding King Solomon goes much further. The Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:2) lists the three Kings who have lost their place in the world to come, and R Yehudah in the Babylonian Talmud (104b) mentions that a fourth king was debated without mentioning his name. However, in Bamidbar Rabbah (14:1) and Tanchuma (Metzorah,1) R. Yehuda is quoted as saying, “They wanted to include Solomon among them”. Not only is Solomon on the brink of being declared a heretic, his writings are also subject to scrutiny and are only included in the holy scriptures after a lengthy Tannaitic debate, when Rabbi Akiva declares that “all the books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”

Solomon’s era is the golden era, but after his death, his mediocre successor son, ignoring his father’s counselors, loses the great part of the kingdom and in a civil war, where more than half a million warriors lose their lives.

We can celebrate in our times almost 70 years of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land, we can celebrate the ingathering of the exiles as well as the return of Torah to Zion and Jerusalem. However, the perils and the challenges of the past are still with us. We are in danger of dividing ourselves into a State of Tel Aviv and a State of Jerusalem. We are in danger of a rapid estrangement of Israel from the Diaspora. The two Jewish candidates for president of the United States, Dr. Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders, are more disposed against the Jewish state than all of the non-Jewish candidates. Diaspora Jews, who by definition are carriers of a double culture, are finding it more and more difficult to feel and to identify with the particularism and nationalism of Israeli Jews, rendering our people weaker and more vulnerable. Jews never seek consensus. We love to disagree and each and every one having a separate opinion. But we have to learn from the mistakes of the past and seek unity in our diversity, juggle our different values and aims in the right order and learn how to build a scale of values, which will be a guiding light for the future of the Jewish nation. In the mean time, there is still more than ample reason to fast and mourn on the day of the destruction of the first and second Jewish commonwealths.

1. Midrash Raba Proverbs 31 (Buber)
2. Another version of this midrash, appears in the Pesikta Zutrata on the Book of Lamentations, adds a nuance to this critique.Medrash Lekach Tov Eichah (2:8): He thought to destroy, on the day of the consecration of the Temple did Solomon wed the daughter of Pharaoh, and the rejoicing of the wedding ball was as joyous as the one in celebration of the completion of the temple.
3. Yevamot 24, In the times of David and Solomon as in the times of the messiah, converts are not welcome
4. See Changing the Immutable by Marc Shapiro, p. 45, who claims that the talmudic text was censured.
5. Chronicles II 13:3

About the Author
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, a position he has held since 1993. In 2011, he also became president of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER).