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.
Prepared for Internet 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
(Deut. 33:2)

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 consecutive 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?[1] Indeed, some gentiles have raised theological claims regarding their discriminatory treatment by G-d.[2]
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. 33:2):[3]
"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 Zara 2b).

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 343).

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 mankind."

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 of speech)?

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 light....
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."

[1] 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.
[2] 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. 73-75.
[3] 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. 118-119.