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What’s the Bible About? Jews, Nations and the World

Daniel GordisFilmed at Limmud New York

For a few years now, I’ve become worried that our conversations about Israel are too focused only on Israel’s enemies and the Jewish State’s security problems.  Those issues are real, but they’re not what the country is about it's about Jewish values. In this lecture, I lay out at least one new way of thinking about why a Jewish State matters.  It’s certainly not the only new way possible.  If lectures such as this get us all thinking again about why Israel matters, I’ll feel very gratified.

I’m Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem.  I write about Zionism, Jewish thought and Israeli society, and am now finishing up a biography of Menachem Begin.  Born in the US, I’ve been living in Israel with my wife and three children since 1998.

Whenever we read a book, and we recommend it to somebody else, the first thing they ask us, and it’s a perfectly legitimate question, is “what’s it about?” And a lot of us think actually that the bible is a book worth confronting, whether you find it comforting, challenging, problematic or whatever, most of us think that it’s a book that you should actually take a look at, whether you’re Jewish, Christian, anything in the Western tradition. But the question is, really, what’s it about?

Now, we have 10 or 12 minutes to try to make a case about what the Bible’s about. It’s a law book, but it’s not only a law book, it’s a history but it’s not only a history, it’s a book of moral content but it’s not only a moral treatise. I want to actually argue that the Bible is about Jews, nations and the world. It’s about peoples, it’s about homelands and that that theme of peoples wanting and needing homelands is actually one of the central themes of the book.

Now, in 10 or 12 minutes we are not going to do the Bible justice. I think we all remember that Woody Allen once talked about how he took an Evelyn Wood speed reading course and he read ‘War and Peace’ in 15 minutes and said, “It’s about Russia.” So we want to try to do a little bit better than that but we are not in 10 or 12 minutes going to be able to do much better. But let’s dive in and we’ll try.

When the Bible opens up it gives us a whole bunch of stories at the very very beginning that are designed to answer very basic questions, like, why is it so hard for human beings to make a living and to sustain ourselves, if God wants us to actually live on earth? So we have a story about Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden and getting kicked out of the Garden and the Bible says “[…] by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” Why are there things that fly and things that walk and things that swim and one strange animal that can’t swim, can’t fly, that doesn’t have legs, kind of slithers around on the ground? So we have a story in Genesis to explain why the snake has no legs. If we are supposed to perpetuate the species, then why is the perfectly natural and incredibly important biological process called giving birth, so very painful? We have yet another story to explain that.

One of the things that people noticed very early on was that people had different languages, different traditions, different cultures, the Tower of Babel story is about that but we are going to look at the verses that come right before the Tower of Babel story. These verses are repeated in very similar language a few times in this chapter – in chapter 10 – we are just going to look at the very very beginning of it.

These are the sons of Shem – Noah actually has three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth – and the same thing is said similarly about all of them, but we are just going to look at this one right now, “After their families, after their tongues, and their lands, after their nations. And these are the families of Noah, and their generations, and their nations and of these were the nations divided up in the earth after the flood.” After the flood, which is in its own way a third creation story, right, because there were two creation stories at the very beginning of Genesis, but then God erases the world in utter frustration and anger and disappointment, and creates a world yet again, so the flood is a kind of a third creation story, at the end of that creation story, we are told, that human beings dispersed according to nations, languages, lands and so on and so forth.

That seems to be one of the defining characteristics of humanity at the very beginning – we are different peoples, different clans, different ethnicities, different belief systems and so on and so forth.

Now, as soon as God introduces Abraham, a couple of chapters later, in chapter 12 of Genesis, we see in a couple of versus a lot of these things coming together. The first thing that God says to the first Jew ever, and we all know this, is “[…], get up and leave.” It’s nomadic, it’s movement, it’s going from one place to another, that defines what the Jewish people is. And in the second verse, because he’s willing to make that move, because he’s willing to leave Or Casdim and to go to the place that God has not yet defined but soon will, God says to Abraham, “and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will have a great name and you will be a blessing” and so on and so on and so forth.

So we have at the end of chapter 10 with the flood that all of humanity is divided up into different nations and then with Abraham basically here’s what you are, you are the father not of a religion, you’re the father of a people, you’re the father of a nation. And then of course the story begins to focus on exactly that, this particular nation among all the nations of the earth. Many of us tend to suspect that the Bible then is interested only in us as a nation, and I’ll try to show you that that’s not the case, that the Bible is interested in a lot of other things and other nations as well.

Here’s the first indication of that. We care a lot what other people think about us and in fact it’s very instructive that the very first person in the entire Tanach to call the Jewish people a nation is not a Jew but is Pharaoh. Pharaoh may be described as being evil, but he’s certainly not stupid and the Bible actually says, in many cases, it puts very important insights into Jewishness and Jewish peoplehood into the mouths of people who are distinctly not Jewish, Pharaoh being very distinctly not Jewish.

And so we read the first chapter of Exodus, which is the next book of course, “now there arose a new King over Egypt who did not know Joseph, and he said to his people, behold ‘Am B’nei Yisrael’ until now they have been B’nei Yisrael, they have been the children of Israel, but now he says ‘Am B’nei Yisrael’, the first time ever we’re called that, this nation, this people, the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us, and then he says something really fascinating, ‘[…], let’s deal wisely with them’ ‘[…] because what might happen is he might become numerous and a war could follow […] and he could become numbered among those who despise us or hate us or are antagonistic towards us. […], and fight us, and then what are the Jewish people going to do? He says ‘v’ala min ha’aretz’.

Commentators go crazy with what ‘v’ala min ha’aretz’ means and if you just open up half a dozen or even two or three different translations you’ll see people translate it in wildly different ways. But I think it means exactly what it says, he’s going to rise up and go out of this land. What does Pharaoh understand? That if the Israelites become among those people who rebel against Pharaoh, they’re not going to want to take over Egypt, the Jews are going to want to go out of Egypt, the Jews are going to want to go back to that homeland that Abraham was promised in the previous book. Pharaoh understands something unbelievably important, he understands that to be a people is almost invariably to have a kind of magnetic, almost erotic attraction to the place that you call home. You can be a Chechnian, you can be a Basque, you can be a Tibetan, you can be a Jew, you can be a Palestinian, it makes no difference. There is something almost inevitable about the fact that because you are a member of a people there is going to be an urge which is as powerful as the urge to love someone to go back to your homeland and to experience it, to build a life there. That’s what Pharaoh understands.

So now I want to show you how the Tanach ends, how does the Tanach end? Once again by putting something very important in the mouth or in the mind of a non-Jewish ruler, we’ll look at the very very very last verse of the whole Tanach: “thus says Cyrus, King of Persia, All the Kings of the Earth, God has given to me and he has charged me to build them a home in Jerusalem which is in Judah, whoever is out their among you, among his people, the Lord God be with him and let him go up.” It’s very interesting for a different time to talk about why the Bible ends with the verb ‘Ve ya’al,’ ‘let him go up,’ but none the less the important thing here is that Cyrus understands two things, that the Jews are a people and there’s a magnetic attraction, or there ought to be a magnetic attraction, between them and their land.

Now, there are books of the Bible that deal with the Jews not in their land at all and the most famous one, of course, is the book of Esther, where Haman says: ‘[…], there was one certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples. […], they are in all the kingdoms of your land. […], their practices are different from yours, and they don’t keep the practices of the people, therefore it does not pay for you, the king, to keep them around. […]”

The book of Esther, interestingly enough, does not have any connection to the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland, but it does still see the Jewish people as a people, and it recognises that peoplehood and vulnerability often go together. It suggests, I think, that vulnerability and survivability always go together, but even in a place in which the Jews actually have no connection to their land, people outside the Jewish people once again continue to see them as being fundamentally a people, not a religion.

Now here is what I want to end with, which I think is really particularly important. Many of us are troubled by the Bible’s focus on the Jewish people, and particularly by the Bible’s focus on the Jewish people and their attachment to their ancestral homeland, because it feels exclusive, because we are afraid that if you read the Bible that way that you can say, but you know with all due respect, we already read at the beginning of Genesis that there are lots of other peoples out there, how could God care only about us and our relationship to our homeland? What about those other peoples out there who also want their homelands? And to bring it closer to home, what about those other people who live right around us who actually have homelands and aspirations for them too?

And in a passage that we almost never look at, and every time I teach this passage in Israel, even to people who have spent years and years and years in Yeshivot, and are in Shul every Shabbat, so they’ve seen this passage many times, it doesn’t filter in. Look what gets said in the second chapter of Deuteronomy, not exactly an obscure Biblical text: “And the Lord spoke to me, obviously Moses, saying, you have circled this mountain long enough, now it’s time for you to go northward, command the people saying this, you are going to pass through the border of the children of Esau, who dwell in Seir, they are going to very afraid of you […] they are going to be very afraid of you, be careful”.

Having people be afraid of you comes with responsibility. It’s nothing to enjoy, it’s nothing to relish. When people fear you it comes with responsibility. And therefore […] don’t contend with them […] I’m not going to give you their land.” […] “I’m not giving you any of their land, their land I have promised to Esau.” And several more times in this very passage, in this very chapter, God comes to them and says, you’re going to have opportunities to go into other peoples’ lands, don’t mess with them, not because you can’t beat them, it’s not yours, it’s for them.

One of the most important things that we can understand from this is that the Tanach is interested… of course it focuses mostly on the Jewish people, and I would like to suggest that when it focuses on the Jews it focuses on us mostly as a people much more than a religion. And it believes that, for the most part, peoplehood comes with ancestral homelands, but never does the Tanach suggest that our being a people means that only we have a right to an ancestral homeland and that other people don’t.

I think the Tanach makes a much broader claim about what being a human being is about. It argues, I think in contradistinction to John Lennon’s very famous song: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.” The Tanach says John Lennon is wrong, the Tanach actually doesn’t mention John Lennon, I’m pretty certain, but it says basically that that viewpoint is wrong, the world would not be better off if there were no countries, the world would not be better off if there were no religions, the world would not be better off if there were no peoples, the world is interesting and human beings are majestic and fascinating precisely because we are different one from the other.

We exist in the multiplicity of forms that we do because we have what to teach and we have what to learn. And when Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1762 in his book ‘Emile’ and he said, “I do not believe that I will ever know what it is that the Jews have to say until they have a state of their own” which he says a century and a quarter before Theodore Herzl even invents political Zionism, Rousseau understands that states are fundamentally platforms for making claims about morality, about the ideal life, about the well thought-through life and so on and so forth. And if we combine Rousseau with this passage in Deuteronomy II, what we’d want to say is that we need countries but so too do other people need countries, so does Esau, and so do the other peoples who live and dwell right around us, not because we are the most altruistic people in the world, but because that is what the Tanach sees as the ideal of human life, different people with different views of the life well-lived, each of them having states, and nations and countries and ancestral homelands from which to say all the things that they think we need to learn.

Does the Bible have a political philosophy? Michael Walzer in his new book ‘In God’s Shadow’ actually argues that he thinks more or less the Bible doesn’t have a political philosophy, and Professor Walzer is an extraordinarily insightful person with whom one should not trifle, but I would simply end by saying this, even if the Bible does not have one coherent philosophical perspective politically, it certainly does say that the Jewish people ought to think of themselves first and foremost not as a religion but as a people, the Bible wants us to understand that ancestral peoples almost invariably have ancestral homelands but that its focus on us and our homeland is never meant to be understood as coming at the expense of other people and their homelands. What we want to try and create is a world in which each people flourishes and thrives on its own ancestral homeland, so that together humanity writ large can speak to one another, can learn from one another, can hear from one another and ultimately create the kind of world to which we all aspire.

Thanks very much.

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