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Parashat Vezot HaBrachah - Judaism: Religion or Nation? - Rabbi Meir Kahane

... from His right hand He presented the fire of "dat" to them. Indeed, You loved the tribes greatly, all its holy ones were in Your hands; for they planted themselves at Your feet, bearing [the yoke of] Your utterances. (Deut. 33:2-3)

...He became King over Jeshurun when the numbers of the nation gathered – the tribes of Israel in unity. (Deut. 33:5)

At Sinai, the first thing G-d commanded Moses to tell Israel was that they are a "holy nation". Not a religion, and certainly not just a people or nationality, but a great joining of both: a nation, a people - but holy. As our sages said (Mechilta, Yitro, BaChodesh 2) He called them a "nation", as it says (I Chron. 17:21), "And who is like your people Israel, one nation in the Land?" and He called them "holy", utterly sanctified, separate from the nations of the world and from their abominations. Israel are a holy nation, separate from all others. G-d commanded Moses to say this immediately before the Giving of the Torah, for it is the basis of the whole Torah, the definition of Israel.

Israel are not a religion, as so many of our fellow Jews unfortunately believe due to the exile. However much we examine the Torah, we do not find the word "dat" [religion], except for one time: - "...the fire of "dat" to them" (Deut. 33:2, see above), and there the connotation is clear: the law of the King, not just some worship cut off from the concept of nationhood. Neither in the rest of Scripture do we find this word, except in the book of Ruth, where "dat" clearly refers to a royal command. It most certainly does not refer to mere worship or faith such as that connoted by the word "religion". "Religion" means one faith subscribed to by people of different nations, the only connection between them being that faith, while they are tied by nationality to other people in their land who subscribe to other faiths. Israel most certainly reject that conception and view it as an abomination. G-d labeled Israel a "people" and "nation" to emphasize that no Jew has any tie to state, nationality or society linking him to any non-Jew. All of Israel constitute a single unit, a nation set apart.

We are not a religion or a kehilah kedoshah, a "holy congregation," but a holy, chosen nation, tied to a holy and special land by a duty to return to it and settle it. The curse of the exile which befell us almost two thousand years ago distorted the very definition of a Jew. The Jew sank in the morass of forgetfulness of the main concept of G-d's Torah – the definition and identity of the Jewish People, the centrality within Torah of nationhood and a land. The very fact of a prolonged, ongoing exile accustomed the Jew to live without a land, to live not as a nation but as a religion. In this way, the Jewish People, holy and chosen and separate, tied by their umbilical cord to the Land of Israel, were transformed into a religion and form of worship without any close, vital connection to a land exclusively theirs. Without a country and a government, it is only natural that all the laws of government and statehood, and inseparable and central part of G-d's Torah were set aside like irrelevant laws, a sort of Shulchan Aruch for the future, and in effect forgotten entirely with the "religion" awaiting the Messiah's advent. All the concepts of people and nationhood, of normal, natural life, of leaders and wars, were filed away and ultimately denied. The emphasis came to be on the limited laws of the individual. A point was reached at which the very concepts of a state, a nation, and army, natural life in the Land of Israel were considered hostile, "irreligious" concepts – Heaven help us!

Scripture describes Israel as a "goy", a nation, and as "kadosh", holy. By being both, Israel merit victory over their enemies and life on their land, as it says "[You must thus make the choice] to love the L-rd your G-d, to obey Him, and to attach yourself to Him. This is your sole means of survival and long live when you dwell in the land that the L-rd swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, [promising] that He would give it to them" (Deut. 30:20). The Jewish People are not a nation like all others, but a holy nation which accepts upon itself the yoke of Heaven, holy character traits and G-d's mitzvot. This contradicts the approach of those who have cast off their yoke and thought to make us a nation like all others, neither holy nor apart.

[As Rabbi Kahane explains in "Peirush HaMaccabee" on Shemot, Ch. 1:] G-d chose Abraham because of his behavior and his merits; He rejected his son Ishmael and chose Isaac, too, because of his merits; again, He rejected Esau and chose Jacob due to his behavior. So after three successive generations of tzaddikim, all the subsequent offspring of the Patriarchs could be considered spiritually fit. G-d could forge them all into a chosen, treasured, and exalted nation, who would be His emissary to the human race and a light unto all the nations, to teach them the correct ways which they should follow. As King David said: He forged [His covenant] with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and established it as a statute for Jacob, as an eternal covenant with Israel (Psalms 105:9-10). They could fulfill this task only in their own Land, in which they would establish an exalted State, an exalted society, separated from the other nations’ foreign culture. However, before Jacob’s children could fulfill this role, they had to evolve from a collection of families and tribes to a single, unified nation, heading for its ultimate destiny in unity. Similarly, this nation itself had to believe with perfect emunah that Hashem is the true G-d, that He is omnipotent, that He is truly the Creator. Therefore, the nation had to undergo a period of suffering and servitude and tribulations, to the extent that they would despair of ever being redeemed, since it would be inconceivable to them that anyone would ever be able to defeat the mighty kingdom of Pharaoh, the "great crocodile". And so, only after this nadir of subjugation and despair, G-d humbled the haughty and exalted the humble, destroying those Egyptians who did not know Hashem. His miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and the climax of knowledge of Hashem and sanctification of His Name at Mount Sinai, exalted and sanctified Him in the eyes of the world in general and Israel in particular. He appeared unto the entire Nation without exception, and forged them into a united Nation – His chosen and exalted Nation. This gave them their emunah in G-d and His greatness.

The Jewish People were conceived at the redemption from Egypt where they began to become a nation; born at Mount Sinai where they became a holy nation; and they achieved perfection when they entered Eretz Yisrael and at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal stood for the blessings and the curses. We must never forget this great Torah principle: Perfection for Israel requires four elements: nationhood, the Torah, the Land and the language. It is a source of endless trouble that we have forgotten this and have, thereby, strayed from the path set for us by G-d. [See the] great allusion made by our sages when they established this foundation in the Grace After Meals. Berachot 48b teaches: R. Eliezer says, "Whoever does not mention the 'lovely and spacious land' in the second blessing of the Grace, or the 'royal house of David' in the third, has not met his obligation." Nachum HaZaken says: "He must mention the covenant." R. Yossi says, "He must mention Torah." R. Yosef Karo subsequently ruled: If he does not mention both covenant and Torah in the blessing on the Land, even if he omits only one of them, we make him go back... If he does not mention the royal house of David in the third blessing, we make him go back. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 187:3-4)

Here in their greatness, the sages of Israel established and defined precisely who and what Israel are: a monarchic nation, sanctified via covenant and Torah, living in their own land. The different elements are interdependent. The Jewish People's link to a state is tied to the holiness of the covenant and the Torah, and vice versa. The history of the Jewish People and their fate and future – whether for good or for evil, G-d forbid – depend on Israel's being a holy nation that clings to holiness and purity and to the yoke of Heaven. It is thus, clear that G-d not only gave the Jewish People a special land, but also decreed that they must live in it. Living in the Land is not merely a right, but a duty that cannot be forgone. It is a mitzvah, a Divine decree, that we must live in Eretz Yisrael under G-d's domination, sanctifying His name, in order to create a holy state and society which clings to mitzvot completely and properly, uninfluenced by the alien, false culture of the nations.

Fortunate are you, O Israel: Who is like you! O people delivered by Hashem, the Shield of your help, Who is the Sword of your grandeur; your foes will try to deceive you, but you will trample their haughty ones. (Deut. 33:29)

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