Over the course of history, the words of Balaam, “It is a nation that will dwell alone and will not be reckoned among the nations,” have become a slogan used by many philosophers and public speakers.
This pasuk (verse) has been explained over the years by many commentators on the Torah as a promise that the people of Israel will dwell alone, will not integrate into the nations of the world and will maintain their honor, identity and unique way of life.
Moreover, that the nation will live forever.
Ibn Ezra explained the words to mean that the other nations of the world do not connect and integrate with Israel. The Ramban, who lived in 13th-century Spain, explained that Israel will survive for eternity without any nation succeeding in vanquishing it, while the people of Israel will remain independent and not integrate into any other nation. This is also the spirit of the explanation presented by the Italian commentator Sforno. Rabbi Haim ben Atar, who lived in Morocco and Israel during the 17th century, wrote in his commentary Or HaHaim that the people of Israel would remain even after all of the other nations of the world had ceased to exist, and thus would dwell alone.
This trend continued through later periods as well. The Maharal of Prague in his treatise Netzah Israel expounded on the unique qualities of the people of Israel.
A singular and significant event took place in Europe during the 19th century. The Emancipation, which gave Jews rights equal to those around them, presented the Jews with the opportunity to integrate into European society. This right was first exercised in France during the French Revolution, against the backdrop of the slogans crying for equality, freedom and brotherhood, and later in other liberal countries, which followed in France’s footsteps and granted equal rights to the Jews and other citizens under the laws of the land.
Emancipation opened the gates of the ghettos and provided the Jews with the opportunity to improve their legal and cultural status. It also gave them the opportunity as individuals to participate in local economic, political and cultural activities.
Emancipation caused the Jews to enter new professions and areas of employment, to migrate from the rural villages to the urban centers, to adopt local social norms and fashion trends and to educate their children in non-Jewish schools. This movement caused the social, cultural and political integration of the Jews into secular society.
This period represented the watershed line in the transition of European Jewry from a closed and conservative society to an open and pluralistic one and served as the beginning of the division within traditional Jewish society as a result of the movement toward secularism and the rejection of the Jewish tradition and way of life.
Throughout Jewish history, the nations of the world were not interested in the Jews living among them and therefore did not permit the Jews to integrate. There were many instances when the Jews were expelled from various European countries. The Emancipation, which called for the Jews to live as equal citizens and granted them the opportunity to do so, generated three distinct reactions among the Jews.
First, part of Jewish society rejected it outright and in response to the movement around them elected to reinforce the existing “protective” walls and raise them even higher to protect against the influx of the revolutionary winds gusting in from the outside.
This school of thought championed halachic and cultural conservatism and supported cultural segregation. One of the leaders of this movement was the Hatam Sofer, who coined the phrase “hadash asur min hatorah” (the new is forbidden from the Torah), in other words that it is altogether forbidden to innovate, to integrate into modernity, to participate in modern activities, and a Jew must only support and reinforce what already exists.
The second school of thought among the Jews openly cheered Emancipation. A significant number of Eastern European Jews welcomed the opportunity to integrate socially, culturally, financially and politically. A portion of Jewish society, particularly the Jewish European intelligentsia, identified an opportunity to extract itself from second-tier citizenship and to free itself of the yoke of Jewish tradition and Halacha. These Jews adopted local fashion trends and customs and began to move their children from traditional Jewish schools to secular schools, to speak the vernacular and to acquire new professions.
This school of thought initially called for a dual lifestyle: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside,” although later this led to total adoption of a secular way of life. The Emancipation created the Haskala movement, which brought with it new hopes and dreams. In Germany, it was the intellectuals who brought about change and reform rooted in ideology and religious criticism.
On the other hand, in Hungary Neolog Jews were laypeople who pushed for religious reforms. Naturally, these people as well slowly moved away from their traditional Jewish lifestyle and ultimately integrated and intermarried with their gentile neighbors. This atmosphere even infiltrated the Talmudic academy in Volozhin and caused many of the yeshiva’s students to leave. The poet Haim Nachman Bialik, who was a student in the yeshiva at the time, described the atmosphere in the yeshiva in one of his most famous poems, “Levadi” (By Myself).
The poem describes the poet’s inner struggle between staying in the yeshiva and leaving it for the outside world.
The third school of thought taught that there was no conflict between life according to Halacha and living a modern lifestyle and therefore advocated for an amalgamation of halachic Judaism and values taken from the modern world. Moreover, this school wished to take advantage of modernity in order to further Jewish life. One of the standard bearers of this school was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who championed the slogan “Torah im derech eretz” (Torah together with the ways of the world). The burgeoning opening for social integration ultimately resulted in divisiveness within the community and the creation of different streams of Judaism.
Rabbis in the various European Jewish communities began to act against the second school of thought, which advocated welcoming the call for social integration and assimilation, and against winds of change that began to blow through the Jewish communities of Europe. They attempted to prevent, or at least mitigate, the interfacing of Jews with general society. During the 19th century, three rabbis in two different places in Europe rose up against these winds of change.
These rabbis used the verse “hen am levadad yishkon” (it is a nation that will dwell alone) and explained it differently than the classic commentary prevalent up until that time.
They turned the verse into a challenge to the Jewish community against the backdrop of the events of the Emancipation. Shadal, Shmuel David Luzzato, who lived in Italy during the Emancipation at the beginning of the 19th century, explained the verse as follows: “that will dwell alone” means that the Jewish people will live in a manner distinct from that of the gentiles and thus not deviate from the path of the straight and narrow.
As a result, God will stand by His people and grant them success.”
He identified the problem toward the beginning of the period of the Emancipation and therefore warned the Jewish People lest they be influenced and attempt to imitate the ways of the gentiles. Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, who lived in Romania and later in Russia) devoted significant efforts to the fight against the Haskala movement and his commentary on the Torah, HaTorah VeHamitzvah, includes many allusions to this struggle.
He reminded the Jews that the people of Israel are not the same as the other nations of the world, as the latter are comprised of a patchwork collection of peoples and nations forged throughout history, while the Jews remained distinct and unique, “alone.”
During the Emancipation, the head of the Volozhin yeshiva, which, as we mentioned above, was not immune to the winds of modernity, was the Netziv, Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Naphtali Berlin. In his struggle against the assimilation of European Jewry and the effacement of Jewish identity, he too employed the verse “it is a nation that will dwell alone.” In this commentary Ha’amek Davar Rabbi Berlin punctuated the verse differently and in this way explained it as follows: “it is a lonely nation, which will dwell, but among the nations, it will not be reckoned.”
In other words, when the Jewish People is alone it preserves its identity, when we follow in the path of our forefathers and the tradition we received at Mount Sinai and preserve our unique qualities, then we will dwell. The Jewish People will live honorably and quietly among the nations. However, when the Jewish people attempt to imitate the gentile way of life, to mimic gentile behavior and to assimilate into gentile society, then gentile society will not grant serious consideration to the Jewish People.
These statements by the Netziv turned the words of the verse into a challenge to the Jewish People to preserve its unique character and way of life, as it had accepted upon itself at Mount Sinai. The Netziv’s Ha’amek Davar was compiled over the decades of his leadership of the Volozhin yeshiva. As opposed to the other yeshivas, the curriculum at the Volozhin yeshiva included biblical textual study and the study of the weekly Torah portion was a staple of the study regimen. Every morning after the morning prayers the Netziv would deliver a class in the weekly Torah portion to the students of the yeshiva who were candidates for positions in local rabbinates. He attempted to provide the students with a real life- and current affairslaced flavor in his commentary, which he compiled over the years and ultimately put to writing in Ha’amek Davar.
In our times, in the democratic society and dynamic global village in which we live, the Emancipation is no longer relevant.
Today, the Jews have fully integrated into every country around the world and take an active role in all walks of life. We have recently experienced an additional significant change in that the Internet and various social networks have established and stabilized the global village phenomenon and enhanced its dynamic nature, so that people can now communicate quickly and directly with all corners of the globe. Today we see the development of a single and collective identity and language, which unifies people all around the world into one multi-cultural melting pot.
This phenomenon naturally erases individual identities, including that of the Jewish People. For this reason, the verse “it is a nation that will dwell alone” takes on that much more significance and meaning.
Today, the preservation of Jewish identity, the care for Jewish existence, for Jewish and religious continuity, is much more complicated and represents an enormous challenge to the Jewish People all around the world.
The author is a rabbi and chairman of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora of the World Zionist Organization.