(Courtesy: Or N. Rose and American Jewish World Service)
At first glance it is difficult to understand the meaning of the rabbinic teaching [Avodah Zarah 2b] that the Holy Blessed One offered the Torah to each and every nation of the world, and that it was only after they rejected it that He came to our people. It is hard to imagine that it was possible for God [to even consider] giving the Torah to non-Jews. In truth, the Holy Blessed One did this in order to [deepen His] love [for] Israel. By approaching each and every nation, having them decline acceptance [of the Torah], and having the seed of Israel accept it, His love for them [Israel]
increased. And so, by making these rounds, [additional] love came to Israel and additional hatred came to the nations of the world. It is for this reason that our sages of blessed memory said, “It [the mountain] is called Sinai, because hatred (sinah) descended upon the nations of the world [from it] (Shabbat 89b).”
Kedushat Levi, Yitro
This teaching, attributed to the famed hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, (1740-1809) is an important source for contemporary Jewish activists to reckon with. All too often we pluck from the Jewish tradition those texts that support our contemporary ethical sensibilities (the Tikkun Olam “top ten”), without addressing seriously the many teachings from our past that challenge, agitate, or anger us. While it is necessary to choose carefully the texts that guide our lives, privileging some over others, we cannot ignore the materials that disturb us. To do so is not only intellectually dishonest, but it also denies us the opportunity to refine our spiritual visions against the grain of these disquieting texts. Further, without this exegetical grappling we cannot adequately respond to those in the Jewish community and in other religious communities that defend uncritically the views of sages from earlier times.
I have chosen this particular homily to illustrate this point because it is a teaching from one of my most beloved spiritual masters. Ironically, what I love most about Levi Yitzhak is his compassion for the people of Israel—rich and poor, learned and uneducated. But the Berditchever (as the Hasidim call him) lived in a world that was sharply divided between Jews and non-Jews, and as a member of a persecuted minority he was the victim of regular Christian abuse. Levi Yitzhak used the pulpit (armed with anti-gentile texts from past sages) as an outlet to express his outrage and to uplift his community. He proclaimed fiercely that despite the claims of his Christian neighbors, God still loved the Jewish people, they had not been cast off nor replaced by a “new Israel.”
But this is not enough. While placing such texts in their proper historical contexts is important, we must also address the theological claims presented in these teachings. Do we believe that God loves Jews and
hates (soneh) non-Jews? Do we believe that the Torah is the only path to the Divine? My answer to both of these questions is no. I do not know a God who chooses one group of people over another, nor do I believe that Judaism is the only true religion. How, in a world of such immense diversity, could there be one spiritual path for all people? In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “I believe that it is the will of God that there should be religious diversity.”
I actually that think Levi Yitzhak would appreciate this challenge. As a pioneering figure in Hasidism—a great mystical revival movement—he regularly preached about the importance of religious renewal, calling
on the leaders of his generation to fashion a Judaism that was reflective of the spiritual and ethical demands of the hour. He goes so far as to say that in every age there is a different prophetic spirit, and that one cannot address present-day issues by simply invoking the spirit of the past.
In an age of religious fundamentalism and violence, the Jewish people has an obligation to articulate an inclusive vision of the relationship of God to the peoples of the earth. Freed from the heavy burdens of past victimization, we must learn to celebrate our particularism while also acknowledging the sanctity of other religious (and non-religious) communities. This is not to suggest that people of faith should not continue to debate matters of ultimate concern, but this discussion must be suffused with humility and accompanied by a genuine willingness to learn from one another.
In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that we are members of not one, but two biblical covenants: the covenant of Sinai and the covenant of Noah. While Sinai is a special pact between God and the Jewish people, we are also a part of an earlier bond forged between God and humankind. Allegiance to these two covenants requires us to honor and care for the Jewish people and for the other peoples of the earth.