The uniqueness of a Jewish state
Korach | Numbers 16:1-18:32
Are Jews the same as everybody else? Should a Jewish state be just like all the other nations on the face of the earth? Founding Zionists of 100 years ago and more said, “Yes.” Jewish existence had been warped by centuries of persecution; only a Jewish state would normalize Jewish existence, providing a body politic like all others, complete with flag, army, national anthem, and even crime.
The Zionists weren’t the first to struggle with Jewish statehood. This week’s Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, so the traditional haftarah for the New Month is from the Book of Isaiah, rather than the usual haftarah for Korach, which is from the first Book of Samuel. That latter haftarah, more thematically linked to Korach, features the crowning of King Saul as the Israelites’ first monarch, despite the Prophet Samuel worrying that a human king will displace the state’s prior allegiance to its proper monarch, God. Just a few chapters earlier, the people insisted, “We must have a king… that we may be like all other nations” [I Samuel 8:19-20]. So Samuel gives in.
This age-old question of Jewish uniqueness returns with Theodor Herzl. With prescient optimism, his diary (Sept. 13, 1899) anticipates cleaning up “the filth that dishonors Jerusalem…. Then outside its walls there will rise the new city, modern Jerusalem.” But knowing first-hand the treacheries of statecraft, Herzl tempers his optimism with political reality: he concluded The Jewish State by admitting, “Jews in their own state will always have sufficient enemies, just as every other nation.” And so we have. This is the ancient Israelite monarchists talking, too. “The king will fight our battles,” they tell Samuel, because we want to be “like all the other nations” (I Samuel 8:20).
A direct line runs from the First Jewish Commonwealth of King Saul to the Third Jewish Commonwealth, the State of Israel today. Both cases must contend with “Realpolitik,” the realistic assessment of enemies intent on destroying us. Because real history knows real evil, we need descendants of Saul, leaders of the Jewish state who appreciate the threat of military might and build the capacity to “fight our battles…like all the other nations.”
What, then, about descendants of Samuel? Does Samuel too have modern-day descendants, or did his prophetic cause die out with Malachi, the last of the biblical prophets?
Here’s the interesting thing about that question. If you google “end of prophecy” you get countless entries about the prophetic prediction of the end of time, as if the prophets meant only to announce how human history will conclude, when, actually, they were mostly concerned about how human history ought to continue.
We Jews see our prophets as voices of conscience, not just doomsayers on the futility of the human project and the necessity to end it with an Armageddon that ushers in the end of time. The challenge of being human is how to live within history, not outside of it. Whatever awaits us after our death, this real world is here to stay, unless the kings destroy it because the prophets do not even get a say.
For us, then, although the biblical prophets are long gone, the prophetic voice remains — inherited, we say, by those who study Torah, which is to say ourselves. Samuel’s question remains: are we “just like other nations?” Should a Jewish state be just another sovereign blotch of color on a world map? Now, too, we need both Saul and Samuel: Saul to fight the nation’s battles, and Samuel to remind that very same nation that a Jewish state exists to be in league with God, covenanted since Sinai to pursue nobility, justice, and peace.
Even Herzl knew that. Echoing the prophetic demand that Israel be a light to the nations, he proclaimed, “The electric light, was certainly not invented so that the drawing room of a few snobs might be illuminated but rather, to enable us to solve some of the problems of humanity by its light.” Equally, as to the Jewish state, “the world will be liberated by our freedom, and whatever we attempt there for our benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all.”