The Heart and Soul of the Jewish People
Rabbi Saul Zucker
I have read with great interest, and a deep sense of sadness, the recent exchange concerning the notion of the “superiority of the Jewish soul”. I must say that I understand what might cause one to say, “the Jewish soul is superior”; however, it is always important to check one’s own notions against the sources of our mesorah along with a clear analysis of those sources. There is no question that there are many verses in Tanakh and many passages in the Talmud and Midrashim that speak of the fact that the Jewish people are special and chosen. However, one must ask if the qualities special and chosen mean inherent superiority. The Jewish people were chosen by God to be a light for the nations (Isaiah 49:6), to model wisdom (Deuteronomy 4:6) and morality (Genesis 18:19). This is an awesome responsibility. And yes, it does result in the fact that the Jewish people are special (Exodus 19:5). But special due to the task we were given and the lifestyle associated with that task, not due to an inherently different soul.
There are areas in halakhah, such as Leviticus 19:18, that are designed to promote a sense of unified community within the Jewish people, a sense of “family”. This is to create a bond of shared responsibility, not a feeling of superiority. There are areas in halakhah, such as Numbers 19:14, that are designed to inculcate within us the notion that a life of wisdom and morality, as modeled by the Torah, is the height of human achievement. This is to create a paradigmatic lesson for all humankind, not a feeling of superiority. We have been charged with the mission of teaching the world, through word and deed. The soul of the teacher is not inherently superior to that of the student. Their roles may be different; their souls are not.
In this regard, it may be beneficial to study the introduction to the Sefer HaChinukh. The Sefer HaChinukh writes that the Jewish people were chosen from among the nations for the special responsibility of receiving the Torah. He further states that the tribe of Levi was likewise chosen from among the Jewish people to serve in the Temple and to teach. Now, I do not know of anyone who claims that the souls of the Leviim and Cohanim are inherently superior to those of the rest of the Jewish people. We must not mistake “chosen for a task” with “inherently superior soul”.
Along these lines, please permit me to address the letter quoted in last week’s issue from the Rabbi of a mainstream Orthodox website. He stated, “It is important to first quote Teshuvot Ba’alei HaTosefot Addenda 1:19, that converts are Jewish souls that were placed in the embryos inside non-Jewish mothers. Rishonim such as the Ba’alei HaTosefot usually do not write metaphors…” It is so important to check the original sources. First, the editor of the addenda to the Teshuvot himself points out at the end of the teshuvah that the source for this teshuvah is not the collection of the Teshuvot Ba’alei HaTosefot. He writes the one word “matzati” after the teshuvah, signifying that this responsum was not found in the original collection; rather it was found quoted by someone, elsewhere.
Be that as it may, the teshuvah’s focus is an interpretation offered by Rav Yehudah HeChassid concerning the midrash that “mashiach will come only after the souls are depleted from the body”. However, when one checks the Sefer Chassidim (siman 500), indisputably written by Rav Yehudah HeChassid, one finds an interpretation of that very same midrash, which is completely different from that quoted in the teshuvah. In fact, the Sefer Chassidim there clearly teaches that all of mankind is descended from the same ancestor, and he implies that there is no inherent difference between the souls of Jews and those of non-Jews. Finally, the teshuvah cited by the website’s Rabbi speaks of a “room in heaven called Guf…” Clearly, this is a metaphor, as there are no physical “rooms in heaven”. If so, a strong case can certainly be made that the rest of the teshuvah is metaphorical as well.
I write all of this to present the sources, in the interest of understanding Chazal’s view of our issue. (Again please note, as quoted in last week’s issue, that Chazal in Sanhedrin 59a state that a non-Jew who engages in Torah study related to the Noachide laws is akin to the High Priest). We must be concerned with truth, with our mission as teachers to the world (which, by the way, is contravened if the world believes that we hold ourselves to be inherently superior), and with our own middos. In this way, we can truly live the life chosen for us as the Am Segulah and the Or Goyim.