Shavous – The Making of a Nation

“Israel is a nation and became a nation only through and for the Torah;  it possessed land and statehood only as instruments for translating the Torah into living reality:  This is why Israel was a people even before it possessed land and statehood; this too is why Israel survived as a people even after its land was destroyed and its statehood lost, and this is why it will survive as a nation as long as it does not lose its only inheritance, the sole foundation of its survival and significance.” 
Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch

This week the Jewish people celebrated the holiday of Shavous, the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai). This was the moment that a distinct Jewish people came into existence, one with defining qualities that differentiated it from the surrounding culture. This was the making of a nation.

This last sentence, however, is slightly misleading. A nation, following the modern definition, is a group of people bound together by a common land, culture and language. At Har Sinai, those conditions were met only because of proximity, they were never mentioned as prerequisites for carrying the title “Jew”. The only precondition was acceptance of the Torah. Period. Cultures, languages and territories are all things that can be violently wrenched from a people. Faith, however, is a far more tenacious entity.

On Shavous, it’s traditional to read the Biblical book of Rus (Ruth), which recounts how a Moabite princess converted to Judaism, later to become one of the illustrious ancestors of King David.

If I were to go to a Scot and say that I wanted to “convert” to Scottish-ism, they would probably, and rightly, laugh in my face. The Scottish are an ethnic/tribal group were belonging is based solely on ancestral heritage. I could no more become a Scot than an Inuit could become a Xhosa. It is solely a matter of birthright. There is no conversion to a race or ethnicity. The Scot or Inuit or Xhosa could very feasibly become a Jew, however. Exactly like me. Their race or heritage has absolutely nothing to do with whether they could be accepted for the conversion process. There is one absolute condition and only one. Wholehearted acceptance of the Torah and the One who gave it. German Orthodox thinker Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch stated unequivocally, “Land and soil were never Israel’s bond of union…”

The Zionist Enterprise has created a secular, nationalist identity that exists in and of itself. It has no normative content. In the process, they’ve robbed generations of Jews of the only thing that historically characterized them, exchanging an eternal mission for a cheap, bellicose nationalism. University of Montreal history professor Yaakov Rabkin once met a secular Israeli couple at a wedding on a secular moshav.

“’People like you have no problem adapting,’ they told me in terms bordering on reproach. ‘You can settle in any country you like, find a synagogue, a Jewish school and a kosher bakery, and there you are. All set! But we no longer have any of that. We are tied to the land and the language; we’re culturally trapped here. We’re hostages of our grandparents who wanted to create a new species, the New Hebrew individual, and deprived us of everything Jewish.’”

There is good reason the secular Israeli authorities never emphasized Shavous on its list of holidays. It wouldn’t have been useful. It contradicts the very essence of the state. A people whose entire existence is bound up in the Torah, where territorial concerns are of no concern? This would be too much to bear for a good nationalist.

Shavous is the day when Klal Yisroel (the community of Israel) comes together to commemorate the exact moment when the Jewish people came into existence. The giving of the Torah at Har Sinai is that watershed moment which influences all others in Jewish history. Without it, there is no Jewish people. There are just Zionists.