A Stranger and a Resident

The first patriarch, Abraham, introduced himself to the inhabitants of Canaan with the words, “I am a stranger and a resident among you” (Gen. 23:4). Are not these two term mutually exclusive? One is either a stranger, an alien, or one is a resident, a citizen. How could Abraham claim both identities for himself?

Abraham’s definition of his dual status, we believe, describes with profound accuracy the historical position of the Jew who resides in a predominantly non-Jewish society. He was a resident, like other inhabitants of Canaan, sharing with them a concern for the welfare of society, digging wells, and contributing to the progress of the country in loyalty to its government and institutions. Here, Abraham was clearly a fellow citizen, a patriot among compatriots, joining others in advancing the common welfare. However, there was another aspect, the spiritual, in which Abraham regarded himself as a stranger. His identification and solidarity with his fellow citizens in the secular realm did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness. His was a different faith and he was governed by truths, and observances which set him apart from the larger faith community. In this regard, Abraham and his descendants would always remain “strangers.”

Like other people, the Jew has more than one identity. He is a part of the larger family of mankind, but he also has a Jewish identity which separates him from others. Each identity imposes upon him particular responsibilities. As a citizen of a pluralistic society, the Jew assumes the social and political obligation to contribute to the general welfare and to combat such common dangers as famine, corruption, disease, and foreign enemies. Where the freedom, dignity, and security of human life are at stake, all people—irrespective of ethnic diversity—are expected to join as brothers in shouldering their responsibilities. These are concerns which transcend all boundaries of difference.

Years ago, the prophet Jeremiah counseled the Jewish inhabitants of Babylonia to “seek the welfare of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (29:7). In Talmudic days, Samuel of Nehardea promulgated the enduring rule that, in civil matters, the law of the land is as binding upon Jews as are the religious commandments of their own faith (Git. 10b).3 Even under the cruel oppression of Rome, Rabbi Hanina enjoined: “Pray for the peace of the realm, since but for the fear thereof, men would swallow each other alive” (Avot 3:2).

The Jew, however, has another identity which he does not share with the rest of mankind: the covenant with God which was established at Mt. Sinai over 3,000 years ago. All of Jewish history only makes sense in terms of the validity of this covenant, which entrusted the Jewish people of all generations with a particular national destiny and a distinctive religious heritage. This identity involves responsibilities and a way of life which are uniquely Jewish and which, inevitably set the Jew apart from non-Jews. It is particularistic, rather than universalistic. As fellow human beings, the Jew and the non-Jew are members of a broad-based fraternity. Jews, however, must often confront others and insist on their right to be different and not to be derogated. The political and social structure of society must not interfere with the religious, cultural, and social institutions which the Jew finds necessary to preserve his separate identity. Here, the emphasis is not on similarity but on difference, not on togetherness but on apartness.

There is an inevitable tension in trying to uphold the two identities. Many Jews maintain that the universal and the covenantal cannot be combined in our relation hip with other faiths. It is absurd, they argue, to claim unity in the secular realm, and the next instant to make an about-face by emphasizing our distinctiveness and separateness in the religious sphere. There is something contradictory and psychologically discordant in maintaining this dual role. They feel the need to choose between being human and being Jewish, and very frequently it is the secular reality which becomes their dominant concern. They become ardent supporters of humanistic and philanthropic causes and they passionately identify with efforts to enhance the moral and aesthetic quality of life, while neglecting the spiritual-religious element as far as they themselves and the Jewish people are concerned.

Among these one-identity proponents one can find many who persist in expressing an unabashed pride in their heritage. Their total immersion in secular affairs has not severed their Jewish connections. Yet they often tend to redefine their Judaism in universal terms, to dilute its aspects of distinctiveness, and to present it as not very dissimilar from the majority faith. Their reformulation of the theology, worship, and rituals of Judaism tends to de-emphasize the religious differences that are deemed to form barriers to full social and political integration.

Such misrepresentation of one’s identity betrays cowardice and self-delusion. In fact, both identities are compatible and in most instances, they are inescapable. The secularized Jew who either denies or distorts his faith is purchasing acceptance and integration into the general society at the expense of his intellectual honesty. There is something fraudulent and disingenuous in the effort to one’s roots and one’s soul. It scars the psyche and, in fact, is rarely successful. While this group loudly proclaims its exclusive human identity and its denial of all sectarian loyalties, the non-Jewish world adamantly regards all Jews, including the assimilated, as member of a separate and distinct community with its own specialized interests and concerns. The concept of a totally shared humanity is a utopian ideal which is rarely fully achieved.

Where Judaism Differs

From its very inception, Judaism has been strikingly different from other faiths. It has embodied ideas, a way of life, and aspirations for the future which set the Jewish people apart from other groups. Even a rather unfriendly observer, Balaam felt compelled to characterize the Jews as a “people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among other nations” (Num. 23.9).

There are three primary areas of distinctiveness without which Judaism would lose its essential character.

Commandments. These are the mitzvot, behavioral imperatives, which are derived from the Divine Will. They find their precise formulation in the Halakhah, Jewish Law, and have been codified by Torah scholars over the centuries. These commandments are very personal to the observant Jew and they reflect the inner mystery of Israel’s commitment to God. They have suggestive meanings and emotional overtones which are known only to the two partners of the covenant. To equate these mitzvot with the ritual observances of another faith is to belie the distinctiveness of both. To declare these mitzvot as no longer obligatory is to divest Judaism of its primary mark of singularity. Such acts of reductionism are basically fraudulent.

Doctrines. Judaism regards its dogmas and values as verities which are rooted in the Torah tradition and whose authority is ultimately Divine. Our theological and philosophical premises about God, man, and creation are uniquely Jewish and, through the course of centuries, have been preserved despite efforts at dissuasion, ridicule, and torture. We, in modern times, have not been authorized by our millennia-old history to revise these historical attitudes or to trade the fundamentals of our faith for the illusory pursuit of interfaith goodwill. Such would be a betrayal of our great tradition and would, furthermore, produce no practical benefits. A cringing readiness to barter away our identity will never evoke the respect of any who confront us. Only a staunch and unequivocal bearing, reflecting our firm commitment to God and a sense of pride and privilege in being what we are, will impress other faith communities.

Future Expectations. Judaism foresees and eagerly awaits the coming of the Messiah, the vindication of Jewish singularity and chosenness, the ingathering of the dispersed in the Holy Land, the reestablishment of the Temple, the universal acknowledgment of ethical monotheism, and the realization of world peace. These beliefs have sustained us for countless centuries in periods of trial. They are called eschatological expectations, since they represent our vision of the future which we anticipate with exultant certainty. Other faiths define their eschatological expectations in other terms.

Adopting the religious practices of others, the dilution of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological expectations would spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of our four-thousand-year-old history.

We have been critical of the one-identity proponents who choose the universal-human response at the expense of their Jewish identity. One can equally question the parochialism of those whose Jewish identity excludes any interest in the larger concerns of society and who seem to live insulated from all that is beyond their immediate group. In all fairness, however, we insist that this self-involvement is frequently due to the fact that, for centuries, the non-Jewish world has reduced its Jewish inhabitants to a subordinate level of bare toleration and has excluded them from equal citizenship and opportunities, regarding them, until modern times, as being bereft of noble instincts and creative abilities. Jews should not be held responsible for this cruelty and blindness, which precluded any possibility of their joining others in advancing the progress of society. When given equal status, they were always ready to fulfill the Divine challenge to “fill the earth and to subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). As demonstrated in most modern Western societies, Jews, when given the opportunity, have contributed far more than their proportionate share to the welfare of humanity.

The Confrontation of Jacob and Esau

The confrontation of Jacob and Esau, after twenty years of separation, has been interpreted by our Sages and commentators as a paradigm, guiding future generations of Jews in their relation to other groups. Many years earlier, the two brothers had parted under threatening circumstances and now, hopefully mellowed by the passage of time, the two old adversaries were about to meet. The text is remarkably incisive: “And he [Jacob] commanded those at the front, saying, When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, saying: ‘Whose are you and where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you?’ Then you shall answer that they are your servant Jacob’s: ‘It is a present sent to my lord, Esau, and behold he [Jacob] is right behind us’ ” (Gen. 32: 18-20).

Jacob anticipated that Esau would ask three questions of him and his family as they approached to take up residence in Canaan. “Whose are you?”—To whom do you pledge your ultimate loyalty? And where are you going?”—What objectives and goals do you seek for yourself in the future? Who is your God and what manner of life and discipline will He require of you and your descendants? These two inquiries relate to Jacob’s soul and spiritual identity. Consequently, Jacob commanded his representatives to reply boldly, clearly, and precisely that their souls, their personalities, their metaphysical identities, their spiritual future and social commitment were the private concerns of Jacob. “They are your servant Jacob’s,” and no human power may interfere or attempt to sever this eternal bond with God which had been established in the covenant with Abraham.

Jacob anticipated, however, that Esau would also ask a third question: “And whose are these [cattle, gifts, etc.] ahead of you?”—Are you ready to contribute your talents. capabilities, and material resources toward the material and cultural welfare of the general society? Are you ready to give of your oxen, goats, camels, and bulls? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? This third question is focused on secular aspects of life. To this question Jacob instructed his agents to answer in the affirmative: “It is a present to my lord, Esau.” Yes, we are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.

This testament handed down to us by Jacob is particularly relevant in our day when, after millennia of separation, various gestures of rapprochement are being made. The identical questions are implicitly being heard: “Whose are you? Where are you going? Whose are these before you?” A millennia-old history demands of us that we meet these challenges courageously and give the same answers which were entrusted to Jacob’s messengers several thousand years ago.

Interreligious Discussion and Activity

It is self-evident that meetings between two faith communities are possible only if they are accompanied by a clear assurance that both parties will enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom. No relationship even remotely suggestive of subordination would be tolerable. A democratic confrontation certainly does not demand that we submit to an attitude of self-righteousness on the part of the majority faith community which, while debating whether or not to absolve the Jewish community of some mythical guilt, completely ignores its own historical responsibility for the suffering and martyrdom inflicted upon the few, the weak, and the persecuted.

Two basic ground rules must govern such group contacts. First, Judaism is not to be regarded as validating itself in history by virtue of its being the precursor of another faith. Any suggestion that the historical worth of our faith is to be gauged against the backdrop of another faith, and the mere hint that a revision of basic historical attitudes on our part is anticipated, are incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion. Such an approach is unacceptable to any self-respecting faith community that is proud of its past, vibrant and active in the present, and determined to live on in the future, and which intends to continue serving God in its own unique way. Only a full appreciation of the singular role, inherent worth, and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.

Secondly, the discussion should concern itself not with theological but with secular matters of mutual concern. In the private religious realm, each faith has its own “words” and forms which are uniquely intimate, reflecting its philosophical character, and are totally incomprehensible to people of other faiths. The claims of supernatural experiences on the part of each group differ, and an attempt to achieve dialogue on this level can cause more friction than amity, more confusion than clarity, and thereby prove harmful to the interrelationship. The areas of joint concern should be outer-directed, to combat the secularism, materialism, and atheistic negation of religion and religious values which threaten the moral underpinnings of our society. As far as religion is concerned, we should be guided by the words of Micah (4:5): “Let all people walk, each one in the name of its god, and we shall walk in the name of the Lord, our God, for ever and ever.”

Our approach to the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character. We cooperate with members of other faiths in all fields of human endeavor but, simultaneously, we seek to preserve our distinct integrity which inevitably involves aspects of separateness. This is a paradoxical situation. Yet, paraphrasing the words of our first ancestor, Abraham we are very much residents in general human society while, at the same time, strangers and outsiders in our persistent endeavor to preserve our historic religious identity.


Excerpted from Reflections of the Rav, [Jewish Agency Publishing Department, Israel, 1979], pp. 169–177.