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Shall We Dance? Neziv’s Views on Jewish-Gentile Relations

In modern times, Jews have had to wonder whether and what has changed in relation to the non-Jewish world in which we live. The issue has been divisive. Within the Orthodox community there is no unanimity on the question. In the so-called ultra-Orthodox camp there has always been a serious attempt to rebuild the ghetto walls which crumbled in the modern era. Every attempt is made to minimize outside influences that could allegedly contaminate the community. In the Modern Orthodox world this fear is greatly diminished. The encounter with non-Jews and their cultural products is not necessarily considered to be dangerous to Jewish survival and is viewed more as a challenge that can enrich our human experience.

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“Return, return [the] Shulamit; return, return so we might look at you. What can you see in the Shulamit? We are like a company of dancers.”

Song of Songs 7:1

Changing Times

In modern times, Jews have had to wonder whether and what has changed in relation to the non-Jewish world in which we live. The issue has been divisive. Within the Orthodox community there is no unanimity on the question. In the so-called ultra-Orthodox camp there has always been a serious attempt to rebuild the ghetto walls which crumbled in the modern era. Every attempt is made to minimize outside influences that could allegedly contaminate the community. In the Modern Orthodox world this fear is greatly diminished. The encounter with non-Jews and their cultural products is not necessarily considered to be dangerous to Jewish survival and is viewed more as a challenge that can enrich our human experience.

In some Jewish circles you cannot say anything too nice about Gentiles. These people are afraid that if we say anything nice about the people among whom we live that it will lead to assimilation. It is safer, they believe, to live among hostile rather than friendly people. I disagree.

Jews living among hostile people tend to hide and cover-up their unique commitments. They try to look and behave like the majority Gentile society. Some deny their Jewishness altogether and even develop what is called Jewish self-hatred. They believe that this is the way to avoid persecution and humiliation. They resent Jews who visibly appear as radically different than members of the local society for they believe that this behavior jeopardizes all Jews. If Jews do not stand out too differently from others then they will be accepted and tolerated.

Hostility is not the way to build Jewish identity. We are a covenanted people engaged in a committed process to God, Torah and nation. A married person is loyal to his or her spouse not because everyone else is hateful. There are many nice people out there with whom one could form a special relationship. But you are committed to your spouse.

I believe that Jews living in a friendly society are more likely to remain Jewish. They do not try to hide their Jewishness and minimize their Jewish commitments. They can freely develop their own particularity without fear of ridicule or discrimination. If all these phenomena we are looking at today are genuine signs of new tolerance then so much the better. I believe that tolerance is not even the right word. These are signs that Jews are as much part and parcel of the society as anyone else. We are not tolerated guests. We are integral members of the community.

How do we adjust to this new reality? What guidance does our tradition provide to us for these changed circumstances?

Let us look at the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. After many years apart Jacob returns to the homeland still fearing the anger of Esau. When they finally meet Esau embraces Jacob. This is the most famous hug and kiss in the Bible. Commentators wished to examine the nature of this hug. Is it the hug of the bear or the lamb? This is what the Bible says (Genesis 33:4):

Esau ran to greet him and hugged him. He then fell on his neck and kissed him and they cried.

We can look at the comments on this historically. Eighteen hundred years ago in the Rabbinic Talmudic literature there were varied opinions as to the genuine nature of this embrace. After all, Esau represented the power of Rome and later Christianity in the Jewish imagination. Rome had just defeated Jewish rebellions with great ferocity. Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai – who suffered at the hands of the Romans - is quoted as saying that it is an Halakhah, a known principle, that Esau hates Jacob. The kiss in this instance may have been a momentary lapse on Esau’s part from this pattern.

The great commentator Rashi [11th century] cites this remark. Rashi can be understood very easily for he too lived in difficult times witnessing the beginnings of the Crusades during which many Jews were killed.

Now we jump to the 19th century, to the commentary of Neziv. He is living during the age of Enlightenment and Emancipation of Western Europe which has not yet affected his own Eastern European milieu. Yet his comment is extremely positive.

“And they cried” – They both cried. This teaches us that Jacob too was inspired to love Esau at this moment. Similarly for future generations. At a time when the children of Esau are inspired by a genuine spirit to recognize the children of Israel and their noble qualities, then we too are inspired to recognize Esau for he is our brother. Similarly, [in the second century] Rabbi [Judah the Prince] was a true friend with Antoninus [a Roman General]. There are many other examples as well. (Ha’amek Davar, Genesis 33:4)

Neziv is not finished with this issue. In his commentary to the Song of Songs – called Metiv Shir - he elaborates(7:1):

“Return, return [the] Shulamit; return, return so we might look at you. What can you see in the Shulamit? We are like a company of dancers.”

The poet describes, in the spirit of Holiness, what the sages of the nations of the world recognize as the virtue of Israel and the benefit that they received while Israel lived in their midst.

In the future when the Blessed Holy One will be at peace with his nation, and will take them from their midst [to return them to their land], the nations will ask them to come back. They will say: Return, return Shulamit.

They will call Israel the Shulamit [which comes from the root shalem, complete] for they know that Israel helps to complete what is missing in the societies in which they live.

This is similar to our explanation to Genesis 34:21, the statement of Shekhem and Hamor: These men are peaceful [sheleimim] with us, and they will dwell in the land and do business there, and the land behold it is spacious enough for them.

My late father-in-law, the Gaon Rabbi Isaac, of blessed and righteous memory, explained this to mean that when they are with us we will be complete. For every society is missing various items that they must bring from afar. They also have various products in surplus that can be shipped to others. So there is a necessity to import and export. [They were saying that] the Hebrews [Jacob's family] are very talented in these matters. In this way we and they are complete together. This was understood in every time and place. Therefore, the wise of the nations called Israel by the name of Shulamit.

They add: return, return so we might look at you. There is another benefit when you are among us, for we see in you good ethical and moral traits and learn from you. Everybody knows that when the world was empty of knowledge and civilization and idolatry was rampant, Israel was already imbued with Torah and their wisdom shone like the sun. As time passed and Israel spread throughout the settled world, the nations began to learn from the Torah of Moses ways to improve their faiths. It is well known that the teachings of the two major faiths that dominate the world are products of Moses' teaching, as Maimonides wrote at the end of the Laws of Kings [11:4]:

[However, humans cannot fathom the thoughts (or, plans) of the Creator whose ways and thoughts are not like ours. All the matters of Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who followed him are only to straighten the path for the King Messiah and to prepare the entire world to serve God together....]

Furthermore, they learned much about civilization from Israel. The Prophet Jeremiah said [11:16]: The Lord called you a thriving olive tree. The Sages explained in Shemot Rabbah that just as olives light up the world [through their oil] so did Israel light up the world when evil was done to them and they were exiled and spread throughout the world.

Isaiah expressed it this way [42:6]: I the Lord have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep [or, form] you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light to the nations. Ve'etzorekhah, I formed you with a unique form through Torah and the commandments. Then, I gave you to be a covenant people, meaning, to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, that is, the kind of faith that is called a covenant, every person with their God....

So Israel is supposed to have a spiritual and moral impact upon the world, helping other nations achieve covenantal ideals. Other nations will learn from our Torah, foundation of our culture. However, there is another aspect of Israel's responsibility. It is also to assist in the cultivation of the earth as do other nations. Neziv continues:

Isaiah also says [49:8]: and I will preserve you, and give you for a covenant of the people, to restore the land, and to assign desolate inheritances to their owners....

This is another purpose: Israel must help the spread of human settlement in desolate places [and not just with the spiritual dimension]. For Isaiah had said earlier [45:18]: For thus says the Lord who created the heavens; God himself who formed the earth and made it; he has established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited....

There were many desolate places in the world which the nations had not settled. However, through Israel they were eventually inhabited and brought into human settlement.

The wise of the nations know all this. Therefore, they will ask us to stay in their midst so they can see our good behavior and diligent activities and they can continue to learn from us....

Israel is not yet convinced that the nations need her for after all Israel, Neziv says, may have more to learn from the nations than we can teach them. After all, in Neziv's lifetime of the 19th century, the European world was seeing many changes and advances in its culture. Science, technology, democracy and new forms of economic organization were apparent. So, therefore:

Israel now responds: What can you see in the Shulamit? Actually, from the fact that they have learned much from us they have now really surpassed us in the sense that they live securely and peacefully as they continue to develop their cultures in tranquility. Israel, however, is hounded and persecuted, so much so, that we must expend much effort on sheer survival while neglecting the ways of civilization. On the contrary, it is often necessary for us to learn knowledge and culture from the nations.

Neziv here recognizes that because of persecution, intolerance and segregation Jews have not been able to participate and benefit from these progressive tendencies. While Jews in Western Europe did benefit to some degree, the bulk of Jewry in Eastern Europe did not live in emancipated circumstances and were cut off from the products and privileges in Western society. The remedy is:

In this way we become 'like a company of dancers'. This means that just as one dancer dances and circles while the other dancer follows her lead and then they change roles and the second one takes the lead, so are we today. For now we must look at the cultures of the most enlightened nations for many enemies criticize us as being uncultured. We understand that this is correct. The troubles and persecutions caused our involvement with civilization to deteriorate. So we say to them: what do you see in us? On the contrary, we must now study from your most cultured people. But their sages say that we still need to learn from you as well.

And the dance goes on. This is wonderful image: dancers. Dancers get together to dance. After the dance they may or not see each other. Each goes his or her separate way and retains a separate identity. Each can choose to dance or not. When they are dancing they need each other to do a proper dance. Israel needs the world and the world needs Israel. There are important things to learn from each other. Together we will be complete.

If you recall Neziv's commentary to the Sinai revelation he considers it to be akin to a marriage between God and Israel. [Please see Parashat Yitro 5770 and Parashat Mishpatim 5770.] The purpose of the union is to bring blessing into the world as a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' It is not a plan for estrangement and isolation from the world but for engagement. So despite our 'marriage' our Divine partner wishes us to dance with the world and to bless the world in what we do. We have to be holy dancers.

Actually, Neziv is saying that Jewish segregation from Gentile society is not the ideal. It prevents us from doing the dance with our natural partners. If we were meant to dance it cannot happen from behind ghetto walls and legal discrimination. We must be able to engage and interact.

Neziv believes that the natural and desirable situation is an openness to the cultures around us. We can learn important things from them and they from us. The situation of exclusiveness and segregation is not ideal. It is better to dance.

Jews need the proper conditions in which to maintain a positive identity and commitment. When conditions change we must adjust our response to the environment. When the Messiah comes we will go back to our land and create a strong identity. But we will keep on dancing with the world.

June 1, 2011



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