What is the concept of "ohr lagoyim/le'ohr goyim" [a light to the nations], and how much should it be emphasized as an ultimate purpose of the Jewish nation/people, and/or the Jewish state of Israel? Did the concept exist before the time of the prophets, as an underlying, obvious, goal, or was it something new from those times? Is it something we are supposed to bring about on our own, and work for, or something that will naturally happen through miracles of G-d's will? What are the sources and the different ways of understanding it since the times of the prophets? -thank you! chag pesach sameach/moadeem le'simcha!
Your questions pertaining to the Jewish concept of the Jewish people as ‘a light unto the nations,’ are fundamental and deserve a response. From the manner in which you posed your questions, it appears that you already know the answers and are merely affording us an opportunity to review some of the important Jewish concepts related to this unique, yet largely unknown prophetic idea.
Judaism is both Biblical and Rabbinic. Yes, we are rooted in the written word—Scripture or Tanakh—yet we understand everything in our faith in terms of Rabbinic tradition—the Oral Torah.
The Jewish people often refer to themselves and are known to others as the Chosen People. This term ‘Chosen People’ may be a misnomer, as it is translated into Hebrew as ‘am ha-neev-har.’ Perhaps, this term and thought has brought about misunderstanding and jealousy. A more correct term is ‘am segulah’—a treasured nation.
Nachum Amsel directs his readers to a more correct understanding of the term ‘Chosen People.’ He writes, “There is a misconception among many Jews and non-Jews that because the Jewish people are a ‘chosen people,’ this implies the Jews must be superior to non-Jews and that non-Jews are inferior. The sources will reveal that nothing could be further from the truth.”
What, then, does the word ‘choseness’ mean? It implies that the Jewish people have a role in the world that is different from that of every other nation.”
Amsel’s words point us in the right direction. Much has been written on this misconception of the concept of ‘choseness.’ Dr. Max Kadushin and his wife Dr. Evelyn Garfiel, of blessed memory, taught that the term ‘Chosen People’ is not in fact to be found in Biblical and Rabbinic sources. Even the second berakhah (blessing) leading into the ‘Shema’—‘Hear O’ Israel’ that says, “Ha-Bo-her b’amo Yisrael b’aha-ha-vah—Who chooses His people Israel in love”—actually means “to love, to take delight in, to be pleased with, but very seldom to choose.”
There is a universal concept of God’s relationship to the entire world as Creator and then the particular relationship that God has with the people of Israel through Torah and Mitzvot (commandments). That particular relationship implies responsibilities. This is born out in the prophecies as found in the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah.
We must never forget that the very fact that the most central event in Jewish history, integral to the Exodus experience is ‘matan Torah’—the Giving of the Torah. Where does this revelatory, life changing experience happen? Not in the Promised Land of Israel/Canaan, but in the wilderness of Sinai. Why, because God and His Revelation are for all. God and His Revelation are not restricted to the Jewish people, alone.
The Jews are the method by which God brings all peoples to Him.
Let us look at the famous prophecy of Isaiah that first employs the term ‘ohr la-goyim’ or ‘l’ohr goyim’ (a light unto the nations). The quote from Isaiah is, “… [God says] I will make you a light unto the nations, so My salvation will reach the ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 49:6)
Speaking in more Messianic Times or End of Days, the prophet Zechariah proclaims, “This is what God of Hosts said: There will yet be a time when nations and inhabitants of numerous cities will come. The inhabitants of one will go to the other and say, ‘Let us go beseech God and pray to the God of Hosts. I will go, too!’ Numerous nations and multitudes of peoples will come to pray to the God of Hosts in Jerusalem and beseech Him. … and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:20-23)
This idea of the unification of humankind and a universal recognition of the God of Hosts or the God of Israel is fundamental to any understanding of the faith of Israel. It is not that the world becomes ‘Jewish,’ rather that of their own accord all peoples come to see that there is one, true God.
In fact, all Jewish worship services end on this note of the unity of all humanity with the Aleinu prayer. It is the most familiar prayer in the traditional Jewish prayer book—the Siddur. This prayer begins with the particular obligation of the people of Israel to worship and acknowledge God, but it ends with the universal hope and reassurance expressed in the prophecy of Zechariah in chapter 14, verse 9, “And God will be King of all the earth. On that day, God will be one and His Name one.”
The concept of or lagoyim has always been a complicated one for the Jewish community, both in terms of how we see ourselves and how others see us. It is essentially an offshoot of the broader idea of Chosenness, the idea that Israel was somehow chosen by God to have a special relationship with God and a special role in the world. In Exodus 19 God declares us to be a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests. Priests, for the Bible, are those members of a community who are imbued with greater holiness and serve as mediators between God and the larger group. We also have a story about why God would do this if God is indeed the Creator of the whole world. God tried to have a relationship with all of humanity, first naturally (Adam and Eve), and then through a Covenant (Noah), but each time ended up let down and betrayed. So God turned to a specific individual, Abraham, and appointed his descendants to share God’s love with all of humanity and essentially to be God’s emissaries to the world.
Thus the Torah sees the laws that God gave Israel as the height of wisdom and righteousness. Other nations, it says, will see how we follow the Torah and say, “That is truly a wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 4:6) In other words, key to the idea of our being Chosen is that God gave us the Torah and that, by observing the Torah, we are to demonstrate to the world that the greatest wisdom is to be found in drawing close to God and God’s teachings. This is the core of the idea that we are meant to be a Light to the Nations, or lagoyim. We are to show the world through our actions what God is about and to model for them the kind of uprightness that God truly desires from God’s creatures, i.e. humans.
This is clearly both a blessing and a curse. It is a privilege to be invited to be God’s inner circle, as it were, to be given a detailed blueprint for how to live in intimate closeness with God. But it is also a heavy burden. The idea of or lagoyim is a major focus of the Prophets largely in the negative – the consequences of failing to follow the Torah, in both its ritual and ethical dimensions, goes far beyond the damage to our own spiritual well-being. By sinning we destroy the connection between God and the world; we give the world exactly the wrong understanding of what it means to be close to God. The Prophets are in large part the authors of the idea that it is not enough for Israel to be as moral as other nations; we are to be held to a higher standard because we represent what humanity could be if, as Isaiah envisions, all nations turned as one to reach out to and serve God.
On the other hand, the idea of being an or lagoyim also carries with it the opposite danger, of becoming overly certain of our own righteousness. Rabbinics texts are full of statements disparaging other nations and depicting them as steeped in violence and immorality. Some of this surely reflects their own experience of the world - their most common interactions were often with foreign soldiers who were prone to abuses. But it also reflected the belief that the theology of Chosenness leads directly to the idea that the Torah is an inherently superior law source and that Jewish law by definition reflects the most perfect way to live in the world. Whatever we as Jews are doing, the rest of the world should be watching and seeking to imitate it. That they do not do so shows that they either cannot recognize Righteousness nor are simply not interested in it.
These two views of the meaning of being an or lagoyim have been expressed in various ways throughout Jewish history (and in Christian communities that have adopted this language), and can be seen prominently in our own world. On the one hand, we are continually wracked with anxiety about how we are perceived by others – any misdeed by a Jew is not just about him but is a shanda fur die goyim (a shame before the nations). On the other, most rabbinic writing of the last century has been guided by the often unreflective presumption that Torah is the sole source of “correct” morality and that any external sources of moral insight must be shunned as reflective of an inferior understanding of the world. Neither one, I would say, actually gets us so much closer to fulfilling our mission to serve as a moral compass and exemplar to those around us.
Nonetheless, the concept can be both relevant and deeply important to us in the modern world in two important ways. First, it should be a motivator to self-examination, a measure of what we should demand of ourselves as individuals and as a community. The notion that God expects us to model the ideal life of Divine service ought to be a challenge to us, a call to constant self-reflection. An exemplary life is static – complacency tends to be the enemy of goodness. True morality is a product of constant striving, of endlessly seeking ways to grow and to do. It is about clinging to an ideal vision of ourselves that we never reach but always approach. It should be an essential part of our thought to examine and refine even halakha itself, not to reject it but to actually enable it to more closely realize it own ideals. If instead of smug certainty we approached our own tradition with the critical eye of the Prophets, we would help it to grow more fully into the moral beacon it was intended to be.
Second, it is crucial to the sense that Jewish peoplehood is worth investing in and guarding. The Jewish community has for decades been asking how to ensure “Jewish continuity”, but we have terrible trouble explaining why. The most compelling answer is that we are the custodians of Torah, of a deep a rich tradition that has things of great import to teach the world about how we as mere mortals can strive to walk in God’s ways. This may be the true secret of Chosenness – the opportunity to continuously search Torah for the profound insights that can help to build a more perfect world.
While this phrase first appears in Isaiah, the notion is implicit at the very beginning of the Jewish story. Consider the moment at the beginning of Genesis 12 when the Holy One presents a threefold promise to Abraham. Critically, we learn that this (our) people is called Veyay B’racha – to be a blessing!
And that is our lifelong, centuries long commitment, privilege – and I would add – obligation.
Our purpose isn't just to exist. Rather it is to inform, inspire and uplift others, perhaps someday the whole world, to a vision of what is required of all humanity. Whether expressed in the urgency to become "a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People," or, equally, as a "Light to the Nations," we are commanded to bridge some of the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
By the way, one of the wonderful aspects of all these pronouncements is the absence of a definite article. Not that we are the as in only people who may be a light, but assuredly to be part of the people and purpose of Israel is to understand, embrace and live with the conviction that we must be a light. And even the most casual examination of our world indicates that work, our work is not yet done.
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