Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ambassador-at-large / V'etchanan

Diplomat Sir Henry Wotton wrote: “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” That may hold for politics, but what about the realm of religion?

Rabbi JonathanSacks, writing about how we might draw close to God during the y’mei-teshuvah, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, exhorts us to find God’s divine presence through, “Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name in the world by acting as God’s ambassadors. "The roots of the notion that we are God’s ambassadors are deeply embedded in this week’s parashah.

See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment  [chochmah and binah] to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people [chacham v’navon].” For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him? Or what great nation has laws and rules as just as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)

The notion that we are God’s ambassadors is not new, and is closely tied to the controversial, confusing, and uncomfortable notion of chosenness. Rabbi Uziel Milevsky provides a traditional explanation in a column: “In essence, Jews are God's ambassadors in this world. When a non-Jew commits a sin in public, he alone bears the consequences. In contrast, when a Jew sins publicly, he is not the only one affected ― through his sin God's esteem is diminished among people and His Name is desecrated. As the most advanced society of its day, Egypt represented the world at large. For this reason God set out to elevate the Egyptian conception of God, through the experiences of the Jewish people. Thus the ultimate role of the Jews in Egypt was to bring the world to a clearer understanding of God.”

This idea of ambassadorship is riddled with problems and concerns. We could certainly jettison the idea as untenable and inappropriate in our day, but I prefer to explore it further. It seems to me that the underlying question boils down to this: Does this “clearer understanding of God” mean that Jews should run out and become evangelists for Torah toward the end that in the fullness of time everyone becomes Jewish? Or, alternatively, does it mean that Jews should share with humanity Jewish insights and wisdom, Torah’s exhortation to build a justice, moral, and compassionate society?

I would hold no to the former, and yes to the latter.

We are not evangelists, holding that our perspective on God and our traditions are superior to others and that to be saved, fulfilled, or made whole, other people need to “see the truth” which only we possess. Such thinking is obnoxious and offensive. Our prayers make this abundantly clear. Our public prayer services end with Aleinu, which closes with a verse from this week’s parashah, V’etchanan:

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:39)

In the context of parshat V’etchanan, this verse enjoins the Israelites to scrupulously observe God’s laws for them and thereby ensure their success and longevity in the Land of Israel. In the context of Aleinu, however, the same verse expresses the hope that some day in the future, the evil of idolatry will disappear and no longer lead people morally astray, and of course this can include Jews; but it does not suggest that everyone will become Jewish.

The alternative to understanding ambassadorship as license to go out and convert the world is sharing Jewish insights and wisdom. This is a bit more complex. We quoted Torah above a saying: Observe [God’s Torah] faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment [chochmah and binah] to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people [chacham v’navon].” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) understands chochmah to be absorption of truths, and binah to be the intelligence needed to draw the correct inferences and conclusions from what one has learned. He writes in his commentary to this passage from parshat V’etchanan:

Whatever arts and sciences may characterize the heritage of other civilized nations, yours, the Jewish arts and sciences, are the knowledge and skills needed to build up all of personal and national life upon two foundations: your awareness of God and your awareness of your duties to human beings. These are the arts and sciences entailed in knowing the Law of God and translating it into reality, the arts and sciences of truth and of a harmonious life.

Hirsch is attempting to convince the Jews of his day, who are just beginning to be accepted into secular European society, to retain their heritage and not assimilate. We, however, can understand Torah’s comment about “wisdom and discernment” together with Hirsch’s observation in another way: We have something to offer the world and therefore the obligation to do so.

Struggling with diaspora Jewish existence, Hirsch comments further:

You are the only nation on earth that possessed laws before it possessed a land of its own. Furthermore, these laws that have been given to you are the only laws extant that are not intended as a means for building up a national existence and for achieving national independence and prosperity based on the possession of a land of your own. They represent, instead, the sole end for which you were given existence as an independent nation on your own soil. Every other nation becomes a nation solely by virtue of the fact that it has a land of its own; only after that does it create its own laws to be observed in that land. You, by contrast, became a nation solely by virtue of your Law and were given a land of your own solely for the purpose that you may observe that Law. (p. 668)

In essence, Hirsch is saying that while other nations developed their laws and cultures because people living together in one geographic area needed to do so to survive, Israel came into existence as a nation with its own turf in order to promote Torah.

Today, we have our turf back. The State of Israel, for all its struggles and challenges, is thriving and contributing to the world in many areas, from Jewish studies to high tech biomedical innovations. But most Jews live outside Israel, in countries around the globe. There are many people today hungering for wisdom, insights into the complexities of life, and spiritual connection. Judaism has much to offer without presenting itself as the only legitimate wellspring of wisdom and truth. This is happening.

As an example, Rabbis Without Borders is working to achieve this goal. Their mission “is to nurture and develop a network of rabbis with a shared vision to make Jewish wisdom available to anyone looking to enrich his or her life.” Many rabbis and others write and blog in an effort to share — not evangelize — Jewish moral values, spiritual models, modes of thinking, and methods for exploring and analyzing difficult issues. Many of us speak with and teach classes for both Jews and non-Jews; our goal is to enrich, not convert. This, for me, is what ambassadorship is all about.

The claim to exclusive wisdom and truth should have no place in a diverse and highly connected modern world. Intellectual integrity should reign supreme, lest we fall into an abyss of fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, regressive ideas and beliefs. Our society needs a marketplace for ideas, competing not on platforms of claims of exclusivity and superiority, but on their own merits. Caveat emptor. Our job is to be ambassadors; not of the sort Sir Henry Wooton knew, who while constitutionally honest are compelled to lie when doing their job, but rather who seek truth and wisdom and feel privileged to share what they have discovered with interested others.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment:

  1. i like to think of being chosen as an open invitation to learn Torah and to come closer to haShem via Torah and the opportunity to choose Judaism to guide my life. i appreciate the continuing history of Torah study and commentary and so thank you for sharing your insights and links.