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01.07.2015 16:48    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashat  balak  

"There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations"

Taking World Opinion Into Account

There is practically no country in the family of nations as closely scrutinized by the rest of the world as the State of Israel. Day in and day out Israel is the object of censure, criticism, intervention and a strong desire to dictate to her how she should live, with whom she should get along, when she should go to war, and how she should assure the safety of her citizens.

In the face of such intervention there arises a dilemma as to whether Israel is obliged to fall in line with the countries of the world and be compliant with the decisions of international bodies such as the United Nations or the European Union, or whether, as a sovereign state, she is entitled to or even must ignore these? What is the proper path for a leader to choose? Should he categorically reject this intervention, or should he go along with it? And if he goes along with it, to what extent are we to allow other nations to intervene in the affairs of the Jewish people? Here I shall use the weekly portion to address, at least in the broadest lines, this important question.[1]

One of the arguments against Israel having to follow the recommendations of various countries of the world is taken from Balaam's blessing of the Israelites: "There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations" (Num. 23:9). This verse can be used in support of Israel acting independently and being bound solely by her own interests. But the Sages' interpretations of this verse indicate a different meaning. These range from interpretations that distinguish the people of Israel from other nations for the purpose of counting, meaning that Israel is not included in the reckoning of the number of nations,[2] to another interpretation that relates this verse to foreign relations of the people of Israel with other peoples and states, advocating that they be minimal,[3] or even to suggest that the people of Israel alone should inhabit the land of Israel.[4] Be that as it may, we have not come across an interpretation deducing from this verse that we should ignore the position taken by the rest of the world.

In apposition, close reading of Scripture on more than one occasion presents as the criterion for taking, or abstaining from, a given action the general rule, "Let the nations not say" (Ps. 79:10). For example, on two prominent occasions when the Lord in his wrath sought to put an end to the Israelites, Moses argued what will the other nations say? Namely: in the sin of the golden calf (Ex. 32:11-12) and the sin of the spies (Num. 14:14-24). In both situations Moses' argument was accepted and the result was that the Lord did not go through with His idea of wiping out the Israelites. This argument has been used as the prototype for arguments raised by the prophets, by which they entreat the Lord to have mercy on the people of Israel.[5]

Do the other nations have a leg to stand on to intervene in the affairs of the Jewish people?

The rabbis of the Talmud disagreed over how Roman influence in affairs of the land of Israel should be viewed (Tractate Shabbat 33b):

Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Jose, and Rabbi Simeon were sitting, and Judah, a son of proselytes, was sitting near them. Rabbi Judah commenced [the discussion] by observing, "How fine are the works of this people! They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths." Rabbi Jose was silent. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai answered and said, "All that they made they made for themselves; they built marketplaces, to set harlots in them; baths, to rejuvenate themselves; bridges, to levy tolls for them."

Rav Kook observed that the essence of Rabbi Judah's praise lay in his wishing to take things originating from other nations and derive from them what was essential, proper and good for the Jewish people.[6] If this nation gives advice and exerts its influence, then apparently its sovereignty over us came from Heaven. But can we learn from this that the duty of compliance applies only when the counselling nation is the greatest power in the world? Rav Kook answers this question elsewhere, stating additionally as the point of departure that certain abilities are lacking in the Jewish people but can be made up for by the gentiles, and that the Jews ought to accept from the world that which they lack:[7]

Concealed in the Jewish people is a wealth of worldly talents. But in order to unite the world in a general way, it is essential for certain aspects of these talents to be lacking among the Jews, so that they can be completed by the rest of the world and all the generous among the nations. Therein lies the place for Jews to accept things from the rest of the world.

No mention is made here of a specific people, rather of talents distributed among the nations and of the Jews having to adopt the special talents and aspects of each nation. For example, regarding the special talents of the nations of the world in matters of values and propriety, we find the following remarks in the Netziv's commentary on Song of Songs:

For they sit calm and quiet and contribute the wisdom of propriety by their stillness. Not so the Jews, who agonize and are swept away, unable to maintain such propriety, so much so that sometimes we, the Jews, must learn propriety from other peoples.

On determining the limits of intervention

Having seen that the opinion of other nations can have an impact on judgment and decisions, the question arises as to how far the impact of other nations' positions should extend. Can it override all else? When does consideration of world opinion become no longer relevant?

To answer these questions we must examine two historical sources: one, what took place on the eve of the destruction of the Second Temple, in the famous story of Bar Kamza, who according to legend went and informed the Roman Emperor that the Jews were rebelling against him. In order to prove his claim Bar Kamza asked the Emperor to send a sacrificial offering; if the Jews sacrificed it, that would show that they were not rebelling against him, but if they did not sacrifice it, then they were rebelling against Rome. En route, Bar Kamza put a blemish on the animal to be sacrificed.

The Sages deliberated whether to sacrifice an offering that had become blemished and was hence forbidden to be sacrificed, or whether for fear of the Roman authorities they should permit the animal to be sacrifices notwithstanding its blemish. Ultimately the stricter approach won out, refusing to sacrifice the animal that had become blemished; however this refusal became the catalyst leading to destruction of the Temple. Later on we find that this strict approach was criticized for showing a lack of wisdom in understanding the matter fully and thus leading to the destruction of the Temple, as we read in the Talmud:[8] "Rabbi Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land."

Alongside this source, however, we have an earlier source describing the decrees against the Jews in the Hasmonean era, among other things ordering the Jews not to circumcise their sons, not to observe the Sabbath, to engage in idolatry and eat forbidden foods (Maccabees 1:1). The continuation is well known: the Hasmonean revolt and the miracle of the oil.

In both instances gentiles asked or required us to transgress the Lord's command. But we must ask why the Hasmonean's behavior and their refusal to give in to the Greeks was considered a correct assessment of reality, leading in the end to the holiday of Hanukkah, whereas the behavior of the Sages and the stand taken by Rabbi Zechariah b. Abkulas were considered illegitimate, so much so that the destruction of the Temple was ascribed to them?

The answer apparently lies in the boundaries the Jewish people draw when it comes to criticism and intervention by the rest of the world. True, we referred to two cases where a foreign nation sought to interfere in the life of the Jewish people, but the first instance of the destruction of the Temple concerned public affairs, with the Emperor asking that a sacrifice be offered for him in the Temple, whereas the second instance of Hanukkah concerned private life as well, with the Greek rulers seeking to cause detriment not only in the public sphere but also to extend their hurt to the private sphere by imposing limitations on the ways of private life as well. This perhaps accounts for the criticism made in the case of the Temple, since flexibility is possible in positions of public concern, whereas in private matters a more definitive statement must be made. This distinction is also made in application of the principle that the law of the country is law:[9]

To be precise, [this applies to] that which does not contravene the laws of our Torah, but rather is not stated explicitly in our law; but to adjudicate in every matter according to the laws of the gentiles is against our Torah and surely should not be done in Israel…and even though we are taught that the laws of the country are law in every respect, to be precise [this applies to] taxes and customs of the law of kings, but adjudication of affairs between one person and another is quite plainly [not included], for that would make void all the laws of the Torah, heaven forfend.

So we conclude that Israel should not totally ignore the position taken by the nations of the world towards her; yet, at the same time, not ignoring does not necessarily mean accepting every suggestion or demand made of Israel. Careful consideration is always required, weighing all the relevant factors according to the circumstances of the case and the areas of attempted intervention.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Atty. Elishai ben Yitzhak holds an LLM from the Hebrew University, runs a law office and is an adjunct lecturer at Sha`arei Mishpat College. This article is in memory of Tehillah-Chaya daughter of Michal who died before her time. May she rest in peace.

[1] For further reading on this question see Amos Israel-Vleeschhouwer, Yahas ha-Halakhah la-Mishpat ha-Beinle'umi: Nituah ha-Pesikah ve-Nituah Tahalikhim (Doctoral dissertation, Tel Aviv University, School of Law, 2012); Amos Israel-Vleeschhouwer, "When the World Changes: International Law in the (Philosophy of) Jewish Law," New Frontiers in Philosophy of Jewish Law, Avinoam Roznak, ed., Magness, 151-186; Shmuel Sandler, "Likrat Teoriya shel Politika (Medina'ut) Olamit u-Medina'ut Hutz Yehudit," in Ha-Mesoret ha-Yehudit le-Doroteiha, Sefer Zikaron le-Daniel Y. Elazar, pp. 407-433 (ed. Moseh Helinger, 2011); Avi`ad ha-Cohen, "Lamah Yomru ha-Goyim?," in `Am Levadad—Moledet u-Fezurah, pp. 88-123 (ed. Binyamin Lau, 2006), Shabtai Rosenne, "Hashpa`at ha-Yahadut `al ha-Din ha-Beinle'umi: Tokhnit Mehkar," Hapraklit 14 (1958), p. 8; S. Rosenne, "Influence of Judaism on the development of international law," Religion and International Law (1999), pp. 64-94.

[2] For example, Sa`adiah Gaon, Kli Yakar, and Al-Sheikh in their commentaries on this verse.

[3] For example, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on this verse.

[4] For example, Sforno on this verse.

[5] For example, Joel 2:17: "Oh, spare Your people, Lord! Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the peoples say, 'Where is their God?'"

[6] Ein Aya, Shabbat, ch. 2, par. 263.

[7] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Orot, p. 152.

[8] Gittin 55b.

[9] Shakh (Siftei Cohen) on the Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, 73.39.

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