A few years ago I was invited to participate in a conference on the subject of Israel and the other nations of the world. As it happens, I sat on a panel between two eminent Torah scholars who were asked to define the attitude of Judaism towards non-Jews. One of them explained, with liberal use of sources to back him up, that Judaism is nothing more than a type of cosmo-political humanism which views all mankind as brothers who were created in the image of G-d. The second one explained, also giving a number of sources, that Judaism is based on a hatred of the other nations, and on hostility towards anything that is not founded in Judaism. I found myself asking in reaction to the two contrary speakers how both of them could belong to the same Jewish religion and study the same sources but still come to such diametrically opposite conclusions.
The answer to this dilemma lies in correctly defining the Jewish nation, as was noted by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: “Israel among the nations is like the heart among all the other organs of the body” [Kuzari, Second section, 36]. That is, humanity as a whole is a single organic entity which includes all the people in a common fate, while Israel has been singled out as the “heart” of humanity. This means that Israel must be separated from the rest of the world in order to serve it best in its role of working towards “tikun,” mending the state of the world. When this broad viewpoint is chopped into separate pieces, the result is the two contrasting approaches that I heard in the conference.
The conclusion is that the fact that the nation of Israel is separate from all the others gives them a special responsibility for tikun, as is suitable for a firstborn: “Israel is My firstborn son” [Shemot 4:22], who guides his younger brothers through the correct path.
We are still left with a need to define the essence of the unique trait of Judaism, the inherent advantage of Israel. To define this trait according to a genetic criterion means to become involved in a racist approach. But this is not the case, since the difference between Israel and the other nations, which gives Israel the skill of prophecy, depends not on physical nature but rather on the soul. Thus, there is no physical trait which will prevent anybody from converting and obtaining a Jewish soul, no matter what nation he or she comes from. Even though the first generation of converts will not be able to be prophets, their children from the second generation and beyond can indeed become prophets.
The halachic basis for this approach is the fact that having a Jewish soul is not a condition for joining our unique nation. Anybody who wants to join us can do so, and whoever fulfills the requirements of conversion will receive a new soul. This is the meaning of the statement by the sages that from the time of Mount Sinai there is a storehouse of souls waiting for converts to take them, and that the souls of future converts participated in the events at Mount Sinai (see Shabbat 146a).
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Source: “THE ROOTS OF FAITH: Basic Tenets of Jewish Philosophy” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute). See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Noach 5777, issue 1646.