On July 4, 2015, I gave the D’var Torah at Minyan Masorti at Germantown Jewish Center on Numbers Chapter 22:2 to Chapter 25:9.
In 1858, a year after the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, which extended slavery into all 31 states and the territories, and two years before the nation was torn apart by Civil War, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise published an editorial in his newspaper the Israelite, in celebration of the Fourth of July.
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
Rabbi Wise founded the principal institutions of Reform Judaism in the United States. He called the Fourth of July a second Passover. He wrote:
Next to the Passover feast, the fourth of July is the greatest, because it is a memorial of the triumph of liberty, Israel’s redemption, God’s direct interposition in behalf of liberty and justice, the first successful declaration of independence, the first birth day of the first free nation, free in truth and justice, which ultimately revolutionized the whole civilized world by the laws and institutions of the nation liberated on that day, to adopt right instead of might, law for despotism, justice for the arbitrary will of one or more men, and personal liberty in place of servitude. . . .
The editorial appears in Jewish American Literature (Norton, 2001).
Rabbi Wise’s editorial is prophetic, a statement of ideals and aspirations, rather than a recognition of the reality of the times. In Twenty-first Century terms, he speaks of American exceptionalism. Wise and his Nineteenth Century colleagues saw America as a new Zion, a light unto the nations. It is ironic that he celebrates liberty in America when one eighth of the population was held in involuntary servitude.
In today’s portion, the King of Moab commissions the prophet Balaam to place a curse on the Children of Israel. Balaam warns the King that he can only say what God puts into his mouth. The King insists that Balaam place a curse on the Children of Israel. Balaam proceeds to praise.
At Numbers 23:9, Balaam predicts:
As I see them from the mountain tops
Gaze on them from the heights
There is a people that dwells apart
Not reckoned among the nations
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut
In the The Torah, A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981) Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut comments:
Few prophecies have been borne out as accurately as Balaam’s vision of Israel as a “people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” Balaam’s forecast has become historical fact. In the Western world, people are divided between the Gentile majority and the tiny Jewish minority.
At its worst, the setting apart of the Jew has meant ghettoization, disenfranchisement, anti- Semitism, and finally the Holocaust.
At its best, it has signified the attempt to render an entire people holy, its voluntary submission to God and Torah, the development of hundreds of thousands of students and scholars, the pursuit of knowledge as a sacred discipline, and the unabashed proclamation of an apparently impossible goal
—to hasten the kingdom of God through human effort.
[Adapted and condensed]
I understand Balaam’s prophecy of a people apart as one of the proof texts for the doctrine of Election or Chosenness.
In 1983, Dr. Arnold Eisen, today chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, published The Chosen People in America, A Study in Jewish Religious Ideology (Indiana University Press, 1983).
Dr. Eisen writes that the Election of Israel or Chosenness was recast as a survival strategy for the Jewish nation in America.
For the first time in the history of the Diaspora, Jews were living in a fluid society, where there was social mobility and an expanding economy. Though there was social discrimination, Jews had full legal rights, including freedom of religion and freedom of political participation. Social mobility and the absence of legal barriers raised the danger of assimilation.
In response to assimilation, the American Rabbinate dealt with Election and Chosenness as a strategy to keep Jews within the fold.
Reform rabbis, having abrogated the mitzvot, stressed Israel’s ethical mission—to teach the world about God and the message of the prophets.
Conservative rabbis spoke of Chosenness in ethnic terms such as “peoplehood.”
Orthodox rabbis viewed Chosenness and Election in the context of Halacha.
To the contrary, Reconstructionist rabbis saw Chosenness as chauvinistic and incompatible with American society. They argued that Chosenness encourages anti-Semitism. They reconceived Election as vocation.
Chosenness as a survival strategy was advocated by Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis in the first half of the 20th Century, in the context of a white-dominated, almost entirely Christian society, where assimilation was the ideal.
Today, America is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural. We are no longer the society which elected Eisenhower and Reagan.
Can the Twentieth Century versions of Election and Chosenness be used to keep Jews Jewish in our now multi-cultural America?
Should we re-embrace a historic, classical view of Election?
Rabbi Harvey Fields
In A Torah Commentary for Our Times (CCAR Press, 1993) Rabbi Harvey Fields discusses the “people apart” prophecy of Balaam.
Rabbi Fields writes that Rashi suggests that the House of Israel is distinguished (dwells apart) by Torah traditions and because of them the Jewish people will not suffer the fate (be reckoned) of extinction but will survive and prosper.”
Rabbi Fields says that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Jewish people does not seek to control the world as anti-Semites claim. Rather, Jews seek only a peaceful, cooperative coexistence with other peoples and nations.
Rabbi Fields concludes:
The people of Israel “dwells apart” in a sacred covenant relationship with God, and, because of that covenant, it is judged differently by itself and by others. When Balaam looks upon the people, he sees in their traditions and values a uniqueness worthy of blessing.