Rav Soloveitchik on the Proper Response to Resurgent Anti-Semitism II

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We saw the Moon in the Morning in the East, but in the Evening in the West:

On the Destiny of Contemporary Jews and Judaism:

Lessons from Jewish History in a Time of Crisis and Transition

An early Yahrzeit Lecture by Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik

Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring

Part III

Responding to the Newest Resurgence of Anti-Semitism

Part 2

The God of Israel and the God of the Hebrews

And afterwards Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh:  “Thus has Hashem the God of Israel said: ‘Let My people go so that they can hold a feast to Me in the desert.’” And Pharaoh said “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Hashem and I will not let Israel go.” And they said “The God of the Hebrews has been revealed to us, let us go on a three day journey into the desert and sacrifice unto Hashem our God, lest He afflict us with the plague or the sword.” (Ex. 5:1-3)

The response of Moshe and Aharon does not address Pharaoh’s objection. Pharaoh said that he did not know Hashem and thus would not let them go, and yet in response they repeat their request to let them go on a journey to serve Hashem. Furthermore why do they refer to “the God of the Hebrews,” rather than, as they originally did, “the God of Israel”?1

It would appear that Pharaoh, who did not know “the God of Israel,” knew “the God of the Hebrews.” For God appears to His people in two ways: to the edah He is revealed as the God of Israel, whereas to the machaneh He is revealed as the God of the Hebrews.

The “God of Israel” is revealed to the Jews as a result of their love and devotion to Him, derived from the patriarchal tradition passed down to their descendants. They experience the God of Israel when they safeguard the radiance of the Shabbos queen and the sanctity of Jewish family, when they live according to the written Torah and its oral tradition, and when their children sit at the feet of their teachers in shared longing to know the word of God, while they sing His praises for having given them His blessed and sanctified world,

But the “God of the Hebrews” is revealed to the Jews in times of fire and brimstone, when there are streams of tears and rivers of blood. The God of the Hebrews is revealed in a thoroughly profane and confused world, one in which Satan is triumphant and assimilation prevails, when the realm of the sacred has been defiled and the world is filled with rampant materialism and spiritual debasement. That God of the Hebrews appears when the Jew has rejected the God of Israel and turned against His Shabbos, His Torah, and His holy ones; when the Jew has turned against the chain of tradition and rejected the notion that we are an eternal people.

In other words, the God of Israel dwells in the midst of Knesset Israel, the holy edah that longs for its Beloved and values His Torah. But the God of the Hebrews (Ivrim) descends onto a persecuted and confused machaneh that has betrayed its faith and history by denying that it is a people that is lonely and alone, with all the world on one side (meever echad) and itself on the other (meever sheni),  never to find lasting favor in the eyes of its enemies.


There is no Escaping the God of the Hebrews

Can the God of Israel be expelled from His place at the center of the people of Israel? Indeed it is possible. For when Jews defile their tables and beds, desecrate the Shabbos, pollute their lives, and are indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Jews, then the God of Israel Who had dwelt within their tent goes into exile.

Can the God of the Hebrews be expelled from the dwelling places of the Hebrews? Certainly not. The events of the recent past have proved this. As long as a drop of Jewish blood flows in a Jew’s veins and as long as his flesh is the flesh of a Hebrew he will have no choice but to serve the God of the Hebrews, albeit with fear. For a Jew there is no avoiding the God of the Hebrews, Who aims His wrath against any Jew who rebels against him, and Who sets a trap for those who betray Him. No matter how high the assimilating Jew and his cultural achievements will rise, there they will encounter Him. No matter how far their socialist and nationalist longings might take them, there too His hand will come upon them.

When Moshe and Aharon came before Pharaoh and declared “Thus has Hashem the God of Israel said: ‘Let My people go so that they can hold a feast to Me in the desert.’” Pharaoh replied “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Hashem and I will not let Israel go.” What Pharaoh was saying was: “Do the masses of Hebrews in my realm serve the God of Israel in whose name you are speaking? Do they recognize the God of Israel and subjugate themselves to Him? Tell me Moshe and Aharon, does the God of Israel dwell within the tents of your brothers who only thirst for this-worldly pleasures and are consumed by sensory desires? Does the presence of that God hover over their intimate lives? Does their existence that is so consumed by finding a mess of pottage reflect the will of the God of Israel – or do your brothers reject the God of Israel Whom you would like them to serve? It seems to me that they refuse to serve Him or heed His voice, and that they reject the legacy of their patriarchs. Why then do you prophecy in the name of ‘the God of Israel?’”

The Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 5) relates that Pharaoh had in fact researched the Egyptian records relating to the various nations and their gods. He then said to Moshe, “I searched our records and found that there are many minorities in my empire. Among them, the Moabites, Amonites, and Sidonites are faithful to their respective gods, and are prepared to sacrifice their lives for them. But I have yet to find that the people of Israel truly serve someone called the God of Israel. They only want a God Who will serve their personal needs.”

At that moment Moshe and Aharon had to confess that Pharaoh was right, in light of the spiritual poverty of the Jewish masses. Therefore they henceforth spoke in the name of the God of the Hebrews, saying “the God of the Hebrews has met with us.” But we must understand how their use of “the God of the Hebrews” is connected to their subsequent words, “let us go on a three day journey into the desert and sacrifice unto Hashem our God, lest He afflict us with the plague or the sword.” The answer is that they were really telling Pharaoh: “You yourself must admit that even though they have rejected the God of Israel they are still subject to the will of the God of the Hebrews, for it is impossible for them to cast Him off. That is the only reason that you have been able to enslave them and impose your cruel decree to bathe their babies in blood. For were it not for the anger of the God of the Hebrews they would by now have successfully assimilated into Egyptian society, enjoying the melons and radishes of Egypt, having long ago forgotten that they are descended from the people of the God of Israel. Without the God of the Hebrews you yourself would not have descended as you have to the lowest rung of bestiality. Without the God of the Hebrews you would have acted like a normal ruler, and the children of Israel would have ceased to exist as a separate people. It is the God of the Hebrews Who decreed that the assimilationist impulse of the Hebrews would fail. For whenever they forget the God of Israel, it is the God of the Hebrews Who brings upon them pestilence and the sword, and eventually punishes those rulers whom He has used for this purpose. So allow them to go and worship ‘Hashem our God,’ i.e. to reconnect at long last with Hashem Who is the merciful God of Israel, so that they no longer need to be punished, and you no longer need to do the will of the God of the Hebrews and thereby incurring His wrath upon yourself.”2

To our great sorrow the modern Jew has responded to the terrible afflictions and catastrophes that have befallen our people in the recent past exactly as did the Jews of Egypt, i.e., as a machaneh, a camp of Hebrews serving the God of the Hebrews in a barren pragmatic spirit. It is an old story: mistaken leaders, a false religious ideology, superficial values that are bereft of any hint of the presence of God of Israel in their midst. The contemporary crisis has not led to deep introspection or a crying out to God. Nothing changes, what was in the past remains so in the present – a secular camp, holiness violated, brute fear, and the Shechinah in exile.


How the God of the Hebrews can be Defiled and then Purified

How beautiful are the words of Midrash Rabbah to Exodus 14:

Said R. Shimon: Great was the divine love revealed to Israel in that place of idolatry, filth, and impurity! This can be compared to a Kohen whose terumah fell into a cemetery, whereupon he said, “What am I to do? I cannot defile myself to enter the cemetery to retrieve it. I also cannot just leave the terumah to be further defiled there. Faced with such a choice, it is preferable that I become impure and afterward purify myself, rather than abandon the terumah to its fate.” So it was with our forefathers in Egypt. They were God’s terumah in the Egyptian graveyard, as it says, “there was not a house in Egypt where there was not one dead” (Ex. 12:30). God said, “I cannot leave my terumah in such a place. I shall defile myself to save them.” And it further says “I went down to save them from the hand of Egypt” (Ex. 3:8). It was for this reason that after bringing them out of Egypt God summoned Aharon to purify Him, as it says, “He shall make atonement for the most holy place (mikdash ha-kodesh)” (Lev. 16:33) and “he shall make atonement for the holy place (al ha-kodesh) (Lev. 16:16).

In other words, God descended from His glorious heavens to enter a world of judgment and turmoil, leaving His seat of mercy to sit on His throne of justice as the God of the Hebrews. This entailed a diminishing of His infinite glory. For when redemption comes to the world as an expression of divine love, the Shechinah is elevated, hidden lights burst forth to illuminate the cosmos, and all the world rejoices at the redemption of Israel. Such redemption represents the realization in the very midst of the edah of the idea of holiness. at such a time God is elevated and sanctified, His Shechinah is revealed from one end of the world to the other.

But such redemption (geulah) can only come about when those who are redeemed have devoted their utmost efforts to that goal as an edah. By contrast, a machaneh can only experience salvation (hatzalah).  And when God must defile Himself to save (lehatzil) His machaneh rather than abandon it, He must subsequently be purified. In Egypt, God was initially revealed to His people only as the God of the Hebrews insofar as they had forgotten the God of Israel. Thereafter He revealed Himself in the same way to the Egyptians, as a God of judgment. As a result the Egyptians were punished and had to bury large numbers of their dead, even though God does not relish the sufferings of any of His creatures. So too He did not welcome the song of the angels when His creatures drowned in the sea at His hand. This too was a case of “better that I am defiled than that my terumah be abandoned.”

Now who was chosen to bring such atonement for the defilement of God? It was none other than Aharon, acting as proxy for the Jewish people. Because God revealed Himself to them as the God of the Hebrews to save them, it was their responsibility as an edah to atone for His defilement by acts of sanctification, and in so doing to allow the God of Israel to reveal Himself once more.

“He shall take from the edah of the people of Israel two goats for a sin-offering” (Lev. 16:5). How profound is the pain of God in our own days when His beloved nation wallows in its blood! The same God Who in our days has revealed Himself to the people of Israel as the God of the Hebrews, is now revealing Himself with a strong hand and an outstretched arm against our enemies. He has descended even now from His heavenly abode to turn His fury on His enemies and bring vengeance on all those whose hands are covered with the blood of the righteous. In our day God has defiled Himself so as to save His terumah. The “Judge of all the world” has bestirred Himself to put on garments of vengeance. The God of the Hebrews is exacting punishment for the blood of the innocent that has been spilled by the evil and blood-thirsty tyrant who arose to overturn the entire world. He is executing vengeance in Poland, Lithuania and the rest of Europe. We give thanks to Him for directing His anger against that cruel and arrogant nation, even if He must be defiled. And as with Aharon, when our nation will be redeemed we will indeed bring purification in the Holy of Holies.3


Editors Postscript:

Exactly 70 years after the publication of this lecture, the words of the Rav have come back to haunt the Jews of the diaspora. In the years following World War II, Jews came to enjoy an unaccustomed respite from the newly discredited scourge of anti-semitism. Many felt increasingly accepted into the social, economic, and cultural mainstream, and they concluded that the dangers that had in the past brought Jews together in search of a protective machaneh had largely passed. As the Rav foresaw in 1943, however, this mentality would result in more and more Jews losing the motivation to remain within the confines of the camp, and make the necessary sacrifices to sustain what was, in their eyes, a redundant relic of the past. Like the Jews of Egypt, one might say, such Jews pursued their personal dreams and pragmatic aspirations at the expense of their edah commitments.

The results have become increasingly evident, reflected in a variety of surveys and studies, and most recently in the 2013 Pew Report titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Outside of the Orthodox community, the portrait is that of a community beset by soaring rates of intermarriage, widespread loss of Jewish identity in the younger generation, disaffection from organized Jewish life at every level, and growing Jewish institutional decay, as the machaneh loses its appeal and its viability.

And yet, to use the frame of reference of the Rav, such Jews cannot for long escape the God of the Hebrews. And indeed, with the passage of time the world is now witness to the unsettling reality of a resurgent anti-semitism, often thinly disguised as anti-Zionism, in the Middle East, Europe, South America, and yes, in certain quarters in the United States as well, particularly among the intellectual elites. Déjà vu indeed.

The challenge of our time will be to chart a path that will reflect both an enduring commitment to the ideas and practices that sustained Jewish life in centuries past, and a willingness to embrace and support the providential reality of the existence of a proud and ever stronger Jewish State at the epicenter of 21st century Jewish life.

In so doing, we will once again come to know and be blessed by the God of Israel, with the reconstitution of the Jewish people as a sacred edah, responsive to the call of the tekiah, and unified by a shared vision of Jewish life reflecting and embodying the best of our glorious past, while newly configured to meet the enormous challenges of a new age.


  1. The distinction between the God of the Hebrews and the God of Israel is also found in Kol Dodi Dofek (see pp. 370-371, 380), but the detailed analysis of these verses that is found here, and which forms the fundamental scriptural basis for the entire set of ideas that follows, is only developed here in this shiur. 

  2. This extended passage is remarkable for its placing the travails of European Jewry in an Egyptian context, both in terms of the respective histories of the Hebrews in Egypt and European Jewry in the modern era, as well as the respective fates of Pharaoh and Hitler with their allies and supporters. As noted earlier, this shiur was delivered at a time when the Allied forces appeared to be successfully turning the tide of the Second World War in their favor. 

  3. This passage is noteworthy for going beyond the mere notion that God’s name can be desecrated in the course of the affairs of man. Here it is God Himself, so to speak, Who is defiled, or better yet Who defiles Himself so as to save His people. Even further, the Rav puts forth the notion that it is the Jewish people that can and must reciprocate by “purifying God” so to speak, in due course, as did the Kohen in the Holy of Holies. This echoes the Rav’s philosophy that emphasizes man’s initiative and creativity in all things. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which the Rav here affirms that the Jewish people, having been redeemed by God from its enemies, can through its restored spiritual greatness purify and restore God Himself, so to speak. 

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is currently the editor of the soon to be published Revised RCA Siddur.

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