Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Holy Nation

Parshat Yitro

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In their fundamental theology, untainted by modern, liberal thinking (the good kind), other major religions of the world claim that those who do not subscribe to their belief system, who do not accept their version of "faith," have no share in the world to come.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published interesting findings at the end of 2008. The subtitle of the survey results reads "Most Christians Say Non-Christian Faiths Can Lead to Salvation." While the "salvation" term does not speak of any understanding of Judaism, it is the belief in the soul's final resting place which is intriguing, for in a sense, those surveyed are using their hearts and minds to challenge their religion's dogma.

There is a debate amongst responders, however, insofar as what element of different religions brings about this heavenly result. Is it based on one's actions or one's beliefs? For those surveyed, it seems the jury is still out.

With this background, Judaism seems to be light years ahead in forward thinking, as the question of belief versus actions is no question whatsoever.

The original source (to the best of my knowledge) is the Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:1, which says "The righteous of the nations have a share in the world to come." While I don't believe the Tosefta coined the phrase "Chasidei umot ha'olam yesh lahem chelek l'olam haba" in that exact language, the term is used across the spectrum of commentators, including rishonim and acharonim, to indicate its intent regarding those people Yad Vashem honors, for example, the so-called "righteous gentiles."

Some contend that the true "righteous gentile" is a non-Jew who has accepted and lives according to the seven Noahide laws. Others suggest their righteous deeds alone are merit enough.

While I do not want to enter the discussion of "who is better?" simply because I believe no one is, I do believe our actions, most importantly, play a role in defining one's "righteousness." Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel teaches in Avot 3:17, "Study or discussions need not be the focus, because action is the focus."

In the verses leading up the spectacle of the Sinai Revelation, God tells Moshe to tell the people, "Now if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be My special treasure among all nations, for all the world is Mine ('ki li kol ha'aretz'). You will be to Me ('v'atem tih'yu li') a kingdom of priests and a holy nation..."

There are two entities that "belong to God:" All of the world, and this Israelite nation. As a result of being a "special treasure," Israel has the opportunity to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The implication is, however, that other nations are also considered a treasure.

Every religion has their own version of their own exceptionalism. Some ignore others' claims, and some choose to be offended by others' claims to be God's Favorite. Does it really matter, in the scheme of things, if everyone wants to think they're the best? As long as people allow others to believe as they want, to practice as they want, and to live in harmony, I don't see the harm of each group thinking they are God's chosen people.

Rabbi Obadiah Seforno writes on these verses, "You will be my special treasure, and that will distinguish you from the rest. As all the world is mine, and there is no doubt that the righteous of the nations of the world are very precious to me, your becoming a kingdom of priests is what will put you ahead of the pack. You do this through understanding and teaching every sect of mankind to call out in God's name... The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92a) says 'Just as holiness lasts forever, the nation of Israel, which is also holy, will last forever.'" (a Christian website) succinctly states what prominent Christian theologians have stated in the last century about Judaism: "As the first of the world's great monotheistic traditions and the source from which the others have sprung, Judaism has an importance that far exceeds what is suggested by mere numbers… Christians have much to learn from Jews, as the Hebrew Bible is the foundational document for their own faith."

We will continue to tout the moniker that God gave us. At the same time, we must act in a manner that helps us earn the title of "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation." The key lies in the actions we partake of, which stand as testimony to the world of what kind of people we are.

Shammai says in Avot 1:15 (two mishnehs before Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamaliel quoted above), "Say little and do much." Actions do indeed speak louder than words.

If we are to serve God and humanity in the role of this kingdom of priests we must continue to do more to deserve the title. As Rabbi Morris Joseph wrote in "Judaism as Creed and Life," "We therefore affirm, not that we are better, but that we ought to be better." This is our duty and mission, and the goal we must continue to set for ourselves.

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