Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Sukkot 5764/ Oct. 11-18, 2003
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Sukkot 5764/ Oct. 11-18, 2003
Simhat Torah - Why the Jews?
Prof. Hannah Kasher
Dept. of Jewish and General Philosophy
He shone upon them from Seir; He appeared
from Mount Paran
The Torah blessings include two statements: (1) "who has
chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah", (2)
"who has given us a Torah of truth (or: "who has given us His Torah,
a Torah of Truth") and planted eternal life within us". The waw
in both statements can be explained as the "explanatory
waw". In other words, (1) The Holy One blessed be He chose us from among
all the nations by giving us His Torah, and (2) The Holy One blessed be He gave
us His Torah and in doing so planted within us eternal life. In this way the
giving of the Torah is explained both as expressing the choice of the People of
Israel, and as an act that includes its own reward in that it proffers eternal
life on those who accept the Torah. The perception of the giving of the Torah
as an event that includes its own great reward raises the question: Why was the
People of Israel singled out for privilege, and why was the Torah not given to
all the nations of the earth?
gentiles have raised theological claims regarding their discriminatory treatment
Porphyry, a Neo-Platonic philosopher of the third century, and Julian the
Apostate emperor of Rome in the fourth, both ask similar questions:
Why did the merciful Lord make it that all the nations. . .
be doomed because of lack of knowledge of G-d's ways?
. . . and He left all the nations from East to West and North
to South . . . to worship idols. . . save for one small nation. . . if He is
in the same measure the Lord of us all and the Creator of all, why did He
estrange Himself from us?
This question is already mentioned in various midrashim that
respond using the words in our parasha - "He shone upon them from
Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran (Deut.
"Lord of the Universe, hast Thou given us the Torah and
have we declined to accept it? (But how can they argue this) seeing that it is
written, 'The Lord came down from Sinai and rose from Seir unto them, He
shined forth from Mount Paran?' And also it is written: 'G-d cometh
from Teman' (Habakuk 3:3) - R. Johanan says: This teaches us that
the Holy One blessed be He offered the Torah to every nation and every tongue,
but none accepted it, until He came to Israel who received it!" (Abodah
According to this well-known midrash, the sources before us
recall revelations that were rejected prior to the one experienced by Israel at
Sinai. In other words: It was not G-d who chose Israel, it was the other
nations that refused to accept the Torah when it was presented to them. This
rejection is explained in part by the prohibitions that those nations were
unable to accept - for murder is endemic to the children of Esau, adultery
to the children of Ammon and Moab, and theft to the descendants of Ishmael, and
"they were unable to accept even the seven commandments accepted by Bne
Noah and threw them off". (Sifre Devarim
It appears that the challenge of the heathen towards the good
and all-powerful G-d, who supposedly acted unfairly with his creatures when he
chose to give the Torah to only one nation, generated a variety of responses in
Jewish thinking throughout our history. One explanation given presents the
revelation to the Jewish People as suited to their basic and special qualities.
R. Yehuda Ha-Levi gives such an explanation in "The Kuzari". In
this book, based on an interchange between the Kuzari king, the converted
heathen, and the Jew, the question arises several times. The first time (I,
26-27) the conclusion drawn by the king of the Khazzars upon hearing the words
of the rabbi is: "If this be so, then your belief is confined to
yourselves". And the rabbi responds:
"Yes, but any gentile who joins us unconditionally
shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us. If the Law
was binding on us only because G-d created us, the white and the black man would
be equal, since He created them all. But the Law was given to us because He led
us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of
As will be recalled, the claim voiced by Julian the Apostate
was "if He is in the same measure the Lord of us all and the Creator of
all. . ." In fact the response of the Kuzari provides an answer to this
complaint: True, all humans are creatures of G-d, but the Torah was granted on
historical grounds and it expresses a special bond that exists only with an
elite group. The Kuzari king raises the question of inequality in another
context (I, 101-103) when he responds to the rabbi's exclusive claim that
"Moses invited only his people and those of his own tongue to
accept his law" that "Would it not have been better or more
commensurate with divine wisdom, if all mankind had been guided in the true
path?" To this the rabbi responded with a question: "Or would it
not have been best for all animals to have been reasonable beings? (or capable
For one of the basics of R. Yehuda Halevy's thought is
the existence of levels in the world: the inanimate, plants, animals and man
("speaker" or "thinker"), and above them is the level of
the Jew, "the subject of G-d's interest". The Torah enables
the person on this level to fulfill his innate quality and establish a
relationship with G-d.
The Maharal follows in R. Yehuda Halevy's footsteps.
After quoting the familiar midrash that G-d asked all the nations to receive the
Torah, he explains (Gevurot Hashem, 72):
We do not find that the Lord sent them prophets. Rather, he
checked their suitability to receive the Torah. He did not find them prepared,
and this is the meaning of their rejection. For certainly an animal
"rejects" intelligence by virtue of the fact that he is without the
infrastructure for intelligence, and likewise the gentiles were not prepared to
accept the Torah, but Israel was.
In other words, the Maharal claims that the midrash should not
be understood as describing a process in which the Lord sent each and every
nation a prophet - like Moses who was sent to the people of Israel -
and then discovered that they do not wish to receive the Torah; rather the
unwillingness of the nations to receive it meant that they lacked the natural
infrastructure to do so. The Maharal therefore suggests an explanation in the
spirit of R. Yehuda Halevy's concept of levels: Just as animals are
unable to receive the human level of intelligence, so the nations of the world
lack the quality that would enable them to accept the Torah.
In this spirit R. Kook also established that: "Only a
prepared vessel in the form of a holy nation, in whose soul is inscribed the
Divine light, can receive this hidden prize" (Olat Re'iyah,
commentary on the Yigdal poem, Torat Emet natan).
Another Answer was provided by Maimonides in his Moreh
Nevukhim. (2, 25). He included the question, Why did G-d give the Torah to a
special nation, and not to any other?, together with other questions to which
the answer is the same: "The answer to them all is that so was His will.
So decreed His divine wisdom... we cannot fathom His will or the ways of His
Wisdom." Already one of his ancient interpreters, Moses of Narbonne
(14th century) claimed that this was but an avoidance of the issue.
Instead, he proposed the following explanation as more in line with
Maimonides' teachings (to be found in Shlosha Qadmone Mefarshe
Hatorah, p. 36b):
And why did G-d give his Torah to a particular nation and not
another? Because the prophet arose from amongst this people, and we already
received its roots from our first father. And when we were borne on
eagles' wings and He brought us close to Him... and He show us the Great
Teacher, we accepted and placed na'aseh before nishma, for
actions come before cognition.
Israel alone received the Torah because the personality who
could be the agent for this was born among them. In line with Maimonides'
own thoughts (Hilkhot Aboda Zara 1, 1) Moses of Narbonne points out that two
personalities were the agents of change: Abraham and Moses. The people of Israel
made its contribution when they expressed their willingness to accept the
commandments; the order of the words na'aseh venishma matched the
process of internalizing values—actions should precede the intellectual
recognition. So it was historical and natural circumstances which made Israel
the recipients of the Torah.
Hundreds of years later, Moses Mendelsohn in the
18th century met the question head on and claimed that
"according to the true tenets of Judaism, all the world's
inhabitants are invited to share in a life of contentment" for they all
were granted "the powers of reason". To think that only a specific
religious revelation could grant this way of life was to limit G-d's power
and goodness. Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer of the 19th century in one of
his halakhic responsa explains as follows: At the outset, G-d's motivation
was universal. "The Creator Blessed be He, all the inhabitants of the
world are His handiwork, one G-d created us all. When He appeared in His
goodness to crown Israel with the Torah, he had intended to give it as well to
all the people of the world, as the Rabbis said in Aboda Zara 2b, on the verse
He appeared from Mount Paran".
Nevertheless, like the Maharal, he points out that the catch was a
lack of suitability in the Gentiles: "And when he saw a meanness of spirit
in them, He gave it [the Torah] to Israel alone." But G-d wanted to
correct their spirit, so he chose Israel as the Priests of Light:
And so it is written, "Indeed, all the earth is Mine,
but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests" (Ex. 19:5-6). For all the
earth is Mine, and I want to merit them with the Torah, but only because there
is no light shining among them, therefore you shall be as priests for all the
peoples, and when you draw close to Me, they too will see the
This light unto the nations finds expression also in the
seventy bulls offered on Tabernacles, as R. Eliezer expounded in the Talmud
(Sukkah 55b): These seventy bulls, to whom do they correspond? To the seventy
nations of the world."
On this topic as dealt with in the rabbinical literature see: M. Hirschman,
Torah le-khol Ba'e Olam
Tel Aviv 1999, and for our specific
matter pp. 10-95.
See the following sources and discussion: D. Rokah, Ha-Pulmus Bein Yehudim
ve-Nozrim al ha-Behira
, in S. Almog and M. Hed (editors), Ra'ayon
ha-Behira be-Yisra'el uva-Amim,
Jerusalem 5751-1991, pp.
For additional midrashim and their analysis, see: A.A. Auerbach, Hazal
- Pirke Emunot ve-De'ot
, Jerusalem 5729-1969, pp. 472-474; J.
Heinemann, Aggadot ve-Toledotehen
Jerusalem 1974, pp.