Israel’s Light: A Response to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik

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Rafi Eis

After lying dormant for over a quarter century, nationalism again occupies a central place on the international agenda. The signs of its rise include the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., the Brexit vote in the UK, and its resurgence in Italy and Eastern Europe. Global elites are struggling to understand these sweeping new challenges to their desired post-national world. The particulars of each nationalistic movement differ from country to country and some of its manifestations are surely negative. The overall issue of nationalism vs. globalism, however, is an important one to Jews and Torah. A new book by Israeli philosopher and Bible scholar Yoram Hazony, and the critical response of New York Rabbi and theologian Meir Soloveichik, has brought the dispute between globalists and nationalists into the heart of the Modern Orthodox Jewish community and raises pressing questions about what role Jews and Judaism should play in an increasingly disordered political reality.

Hazony, who is President of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem (where I serve as Executive Director), recently published The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018), seeking to show that the Early Modern idea of a world order based on the principle of national freedom and self-determination arose historically from the writings of Moses and the Israelite prophets, and arguing that this biblical ideal is still our best option for world order today. This approach follows from his earlier work by bringing to bear the tools of philosophy and political theory in elaborating a traditional ethos of Judaism and Zionism for the contemporary era.

One might see Hazony’s book, which shows that Jews and Jewish sources can contribute much to the non-Jewish world, as a straightforward example of or goyim (a “light of the nations”). But Soloveichik, an eloquent thought leader for America’s Modern Orthodox community, sees the matter quite differently. In a lengthy critique published in Commentary Magazine (“Saving American Nationalism From the Nationalists,” October 2018), Soloveichik rejects the possibility that the Bible and the Jewish people offer a useful political model for America, Britain, and other modern countries.

The political ordering of the nations and Israel’s relationship with other nations are two foundational questions in the Bible. The independence and uniqueness of the nations precedes God’s call to Abraham (Genesis 10:1-11:9), and Israel’s impact on the nations of the world is part of God’s initial speech to Abraham (Genesis 12:3). It is therefore worth considering how Soloveichik arrives at his conclusion, the consequences that flow from his position, and the shortcomings that plague his perspective.

Soloveichik acknowledges that “there is no question that the most utopian proponents of European assimilation propound a perspective in tension with the biblical approach,” and that when the Bible “preached an eschatological vision, in which all nations recognize the God of Israel, it did so without assuming the assimilation of these nations into Israel.” He argues, however, that “Israel’s founding was noticeably different from the origins of other nations,” and that “if there is a central political message for Israel throughout the Bible, it is this: For Israel to deserve independence, it must remember that it exists for a calling more important than independence itself.”

To his initial question of, “Does the story of biblical Israel teach us that the independence of nations is an inherent good?” Soloveichik answers that it does not, since “Biblical Israel is a nation, but it is constantly reminded that the nation exists for the covenant, or brit, not the other way around.” He therefore concludes that since other peoples do not have such a covenant, “Israel’s story is thus not easy to compare to that of other nations,” thereby severely limiting Israel’s ability to be a model for other nations.

In order to define Israel’s national independence as just “a means to a covenantal calling,” Soloveichik claims that when Israel “enters the land, and takes on the trappings of a standard polity, it still has a calling higher than the state itself.” To emphasize that Jewish government officials are just “trappings,” Soloveichik claims that “the leaders of the tribes do not participate in the selection of their leader,” and that “Saul and David are anointed not by the people but by God.” Soloveichik similarly detaches Israel from its homeland. He accomplishes this by using the observation of theologian Michael Wyschogrod that Israel becomes a people by “pledging a loyalty to the God of Israel and to His Torah” in “Sinai before entering the Holy Land,” while for other nations “a people is born out of a soil which is its mother. The people does not pre-date the land.”

Moreover, Soloveichik doesn’t just disqualify biblical Israel as a model for the United States and other nations. He proposes that instead of learning from Israel and its Torah, America should rely on the teachings of the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. For Soloveichik, Locke’s universal-rights theory, as reflected in the American Declaration of Independence, is the “theory at the heart of the American idea” and “the covenant of America,” giving the United States its own “higher calling,” making it an “almost chosen people.”[1]

For Soloveichik, Abraham Lincoln is the exemplar of the Lockean-American ideal and the originator of the “almost chosen people” phrase. He cites Lincoln to the effect that America must bring its “great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come” by promoting the Lockean political system. Soloveichik concludes his essay with a prayer, in which he invokes not the vision of the prophets, but that of Lincoln: “In this time of national fragmentation and fevered debate, it is this vision—Lincoln’s vision—that, please God, may help us ‘achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’”

Israel’s Covenant

Soloveichik’s narrow understanding of Israel’s covenant leads him to deny the relevance of biblical Israel’s international vision to the other nations of the world. In similar fashion, his depiction of Israel’s freedom, polity, and homeland also stems from his conception of the covenant. Let’s see how these considerable difficulties flow from this one source.

Soloveichik spends little time explaining how he sees Israel’s covenant, which he describes as Israel “pledging a loyalty to the God of Israel and to His Torah.” God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will play a universal role is only vaguely and tersely addressed in the following lines, in which Soloveichik notes that “Israel existed and exists not only for itself, but for the unfolding of God’s plan on earth, so that all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

But Soloveichik does not tell us anything about what God’s plan is or how the other nations become blessed because of Israel. It seems that through fidelity to God and His commands, Israel will somehow enable the fruition of God’s plan for all of humanity. However, the process is left mysterious, even magical, as though working on an unseen metaphysical plane. For Soloveichik, the covenant seems to enjoin a set of commands that Israel must obey, but has little correlation to actions and events of humankind on Earth. This allows him to downgrade the very human elements of national freedom, government, and homeland.

In fact, however, the way in which Israel realizes its universal role is essential to Judaism. As many of our sources emphasize, Israel is meant to serve as a model nation for all others. Descriptively, the historical experience of Israel may differ from other nations. Prescriptively, however, impacting the nations of the world is precisely the purpose of Israel. Israel’s calling is to bring recognition of God and teach righteousness to other nations through influence and by example.[2]

Israel’s covenantal obligations are part of God’s initial promise to Abraham that “all the families of the earth with be blessed” through the “great nation” that his descendants would establish (Genesis 12:2-3). God repeats this universal promise to Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14). Each time, the promise assumes the existence of other nations. Israel will have a universal impact, but since the various nations will exist, the implementation will be different and particular for each nation, as will be described below.

How Israel is to become a blessing is made explicit by Moses as the Jewish people arrive at Mt. Sinai and prepare to enter into their covenant with God. In the first step of their initiation, God tells Israel that they will be a special nation, whose purpose is to be God’s “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As the descendants of Aaron are priests of God for the Israelites on the national level, the nation of Israel are, in the words of R. Ovadia Seforno, “to serve as priests of God internationally to teach the peoples of the world to call in God’s name.”[3] Israel’s laws and actions should inspire the admiration of the other nations who “upon hearing these laws shall proclaim, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people’” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Israel’s covenant should lead to the approbation of the other nations, who will then be drawn to follow the wise and discerning life that they witness in Israel,[4] and will therefore be blessed with their own flourishing lives.

Isaiah succinctly captures this mission:

Thus said God, the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and what it brings forth, Who gave breath to the people upon it and life to those who walk thereon: I, the Lord, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you a covenant people, a light of the nations—Opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. (42:5-7)

Notice, first, that God presents Himself here in universal terms, as the creator of the world and all of its people (“who gave breath to the people on it”). Second, Israel’s covenant with God is described as inseparable from its purpose, which is to influence the other nations. Finally, Israel’s influence on other nations occurs as a consequence of the modelling and education that Israel shines forth, and not through a mysterious or metaphysical process.

To be precise in our language, Isaiah says le-or goyim, as a light of the nations, and not the commonly misquoted and mistranslated or la-goyim, a light to the nations. The latter implies a paternalistic relationship, which devalues free choice, while the actual text means that Israel will embody the best of humanity to then influence humanity. The very purpose of Israel’s covenant is to bring universal recognition of God to all peoples of the world, so that their actions are shaped by a consciousness of God, while Israel also respects their liberty. Isaiah 49:6 concludes that God “will also make you a light of the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,” when all humans will then act in a more moral and holy manner.

Monotheistic belief and morality go hand in hand as Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes, “Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God, the God who stands outside the universe and creates it, made it possible for the first time to believe that life has a meaning, not just a mythic or scientific explanation” (The Great Partnership, 9).[5] For Israel’s prophets, kindness, generosity, comradery, fidelity, truth, justice, purity, and sanctity constitute the central elements of walking in God’s ways (Shabbat 133b, Sotah 14a). These messages are everywhere in the Bible. Israel must relate to and galvanize “the other nations to walk by [its] light” (Isaiah 60:3). Otherwise, it will fail in its covenantal mission.

In this respect, national independence is not just a “means,” and the branches of government are not just “trappings” of power. Rather, Israel’s higher calling is achieved through the national entity that it creates. When God promises Abraham and Jacob a nation, He includes a promise of a polity (Genesis 17:6, 35:11). This is exactly why the prophets, such as Isaiah 2:1-4, envision the other nations coming to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, to learn from God.[6] It is not sufficient for Jews to be spread out amongst the nations, influencing people from within. Rather, Israel needs to establish an independent state in which its people, religious teachers, and political leaders uphold the covenant.

To fully appreciate the purpose of Israel’s covenant in influencing the nations of the world, we should note that Isaiah’s framing of Israel’s election echoes God’s call to Abraham, which is preceded by Genesis 1-11. After God creates universal man with minimal rules, man descends into anarchy, leading to the Flood and Dispersion. The disastrous catalyst in both the Flood and Tower of Babel stories is human success. The powerful people kidnapped women as they pleased (Genesis 6:2), fueling the violence and chaos that lead to the Flood, while the invention of brick-making (11:3) enables the construction of the self-glorifying tower meant to keep all people in place. God’s punishments do not lead humanity back to the proper path. Instead, humans continue to create and abuse power. The explicit kidnapping of women by powerful men occurs three more times in Genesis. Egypt’s discovery of bread leads it to form feelings of superiority about their race, and they therefore abhorred breaking bread, their discovery, with peoples they considered inferior (Genesis 39:6, 43:32).

While God will punish humanity for their errors, He is unwilling to permanently alter their creative capacity or free choice. He won’t turn men into beasts or angels. These Divine gifts can be used to build a good society or a corrupt one, a generous one or a decadent one. This is where Israel comes in. Their mission is to demonstrate for all of humanity the outcomes of an elevated life with the hope that the nations will learn and emulate their ways.

The Bible, especially as represented in the Noahide covenant, obligates all peoples to live with a moral minimum. Instead of human choice, creativity and power being used to destroy others and engage in debasing immorality, humans are charged to use these capabilities for ethical and holy ends. This brings out human potential, which has still not peaked, and it can make the lives of millions more dignified, beautiful, and holy. Humans using their creativity and choice through a moral lens is a central component of how the nations of the world become blessed through Abraham’s descendents.

Israel’s covenant contains both expansive and restrictive elements to ensure the accomplishment of its purpose. While Israel shines forth its light, it is prohibited from forming an empire. Not only is Abraham told that other nations will exist, he is also told that his descendants will inherit a (small) country, not the Earth (Genesis 16:18-21). The borders limit their settlement because empires enslave and suppress the freedom of peoples. The Bible never commands the Israelites to proselytize, and non-Jews can attain a share in the World to Come by living a virtuous life (Maimonides, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 8:11). God wants the diversity of nations, “according to their clans and languages, by their lands and nations” (Genesis 10:20, 31) to exist and flourish.

Israel can therefore only play its role by living in this world and living in it better. The human creative capacity uses the basic moral principles to develop its philosophy about the right and the good of life and implement it.[7] This is in fact a central part of the virtue that Hazony ascribes to nationalism, a political vision that conceives of each nation “pursuing the truth according to its understanding” (p. 129). The competition among nations compels them to imitate “that which they regard as wise and useful and beautiful” (p. 132). In calling upon Israel to maintain the distinctions of nations, the Bible suggests that nationalism, a world of free peoples each living on its own land, is the best way for humans to achieve elevated existence. This is a universal message, and Israel is the messenger.

While Israel is charged with discharging a priestly role of service to God on behalf of others, the insights developed by each nation are unique and stand to benefit all nations, including Israel. As nations develop their own conceptions of the virtuous life, Israel is also supposed to learn from their wisdom (Eikha Rabba 2 s.v. Sareha). Israel is intended to catalyze and nourish this process.

In the Bible, the only nation that is recognized as having already developed worthy life aims, independent of biblical influence, was ancient Greece. It is for this reason that Greece, through its Biblical ancestor Japhet, receives preeminent status and blessing (Genesis 9:27). The Talmud relies on this biblical status to allow a holy Torah scroll to be written in an ancient Greek script, in addition to Hebrew (Megillah 8b), and this is codified in Jewish Law.[8]

We should reflect on this for a moment. The holy Torah scroll, which portrays God’s revelation and commands to the Israelites, and if dropped obligates fasting, attains its holiness when written in Israel’s native Hebrew or just one foreign script, ancient Greek. Written in any other language, the scroll lacks inherent sanctity. The Talmud thus indicates its approval of something in the character of Greek culture (Megillah 9b). While we cannot know for certain which aspect of ancient Greece was viewed so positively, we should note in broad strokes, that of the ancient civilizations, Jerusalem and Athens have made lasting impacts on Western Civilization, while Egypt, the Hittites, Assyria, and Babylon have not.

In sum, nationalism rejects empire and embraces particularism. It promotes a diversity of cultures and wisdom, which need to be kept within the bounds of biblical morality in order to lead to elevated lives. Israel’s covenant binds it to serve as an example to the other nations of a framework for a life well lived. Soloveichik’s critique of The Virtue of Nationalism stems from a description of Israel’s covenant that excludes its most important feature: Israel’s impact on the peoples of the world.

Covenant and Leadership

In light of the above, we will demonstrate how the issues of leadership, polity, and land are mischaracterized by Soloveichik, and we will describe them in light of the covenant outlined above.

In understanding the role of leaders in upholding Israel’s covenant, Soloveichik only highlights the times that leaders are anointed by a prophet. But he ignores the many more times that leaders are appointed by the people or emerge from amongst them without divine selection. Soloveichik does not grapple with the political teaching of the Book of Judges, in which most of the leaders arise without explicit divine appointment, vanquish the enemy, and bring peace to the land. In contrast, the divinely chosen Samson was the only leader to not bring salvation. While Samson kills many important Philistines, the Philistines continue to rule over Israel, as we see from the beginning of the book of I Samuel. Samson is the book’s final judge and its failure. Israel cannot override God’s divine appointment, but being hand-picked by God does not guarantee success, as demonstrated by the failures of Samson, Saul, Solomon, Jerobaam and Jehu.

If Israel’s existence and polity is purely for the sake of a mystical covenant, as Soloveichik seems to believe, and is not meant to serve as a model for the other nations, then the divine appointment of every leader would have been an optimal way of continually demonstrating Israel’s “loyalty to the God of Israel and to His Torah,” so that “it is constantly reminded that the nation exists for the covenant, or brit, not the other way around.” If, however, Israel’s covenantal calling is meant to inspire other nations, then it makes sense that its anointed leaders succeed or fail based on the choices of their own making, and most of its leaders will attain their position through the normal course of political events. In fact, Maimonides (Laws of Kings and their Wars, Chapter 11) does not require the Messiah to be selected by God. Rather, the Messiah’s religious and military successes give him the status of presumptive redeemer. Even the leader who ushers in the final, elevated state of human living emerges through normal political affairs.

The Nobility of Freedom

Soloveichik’s metaphysical view of the covenant leads him to misunderstand the inherent value of Israel’s independence. His view that Israel’s “liberty as a nation was and is not an independent end, but a means to a covenantal calling” is hard to square with the Jewish tradition. The Bible, especially Deuteronomy, warns Israel over and over that failure to uphold the covenant will lead to destruction and exile, which denotes the end of political independence. Israel’s political liberty, however, may not be an entirely “independent end,” but it is not just a “means” either. A number of the Jewish holidays celebrate liberty separately from Israel’s covenant, because of freedom’s inherent goodness.

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) expresses this tension between Israel’s freedom and its covenantal charge in depicting God as declaring to the Israelites that, “if you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial.” Accepting the covenant was a do-or-die moment in Israel’s history. The Exodus from Egypt needs to lead to Israelites accepting the covenant. Yet, instead of just celebrating the anniversary of the Israelite covenant with God, we celebrate the achievement of our freedom separately. Passover celebrates Israel’s freedom; Shavuot celebrates the creation of the covenant (Pesahim 68b).

In a similar vein, the poem Dayenu, sung by Jews at the Passover Seder, lists different aspects of freedom and our covenantal acceptance distinctly. Each is separately worthy of praise. Hazony points out that the Song of the Sea, which the Israelites sing after the parting of the waters, is a breathtaking celebration of national freedom. Soloveichik objects that in the song, “what Israel celebrates is God, who has made His power manifest to the world.” But this hardly challenges Hazony’s point. At the Reed Sea, Israel praises God for intervening in history by giving them freedom. God’s miracle threw the Egyptian horses and cavalry into the sea, fully freeing the Israelites. We should also note that at this point in the biblical narrative, Israel has not yet accepted the covenant.

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the successful Jewish revolt under Judah Maccabaeus against the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE, is likewise a grand celebration of the inherent value of national liberty. On the one hand, Hanukkah marks the first time that the Israelites gained complete independence in the Second Temple period. But on the other hand, these same Hasmoneans went on to install a non-Davidic descendant as the ruler of the nation, combined the priestly and political branches of government, led religiously corrupt governments, and ultimately invited the Romans to resolve the intractable civil war between the brothers Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus, effectively ending their hard-won Jewish independence.

The independence achieved through the Maccabean revolt did not end up upholding the covenant, but Jews worldwide still celebrate Hanukkah. The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) highlights that the miracle of the only remaining flask of oil lasting for eight days instead of one inspired the holiday.  Maimonides gives that reason (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah, 3:2) but first adds that that the reason for the holiday is that “Israel’s kingdom was restored for a period of more than two centuries” (3:1).[9] National independence, even when it is impermanent and does not fulfill the covenant, is nonetheless worthy of being celebrated throughout the generations, even after the dissolution of that state. This addition by Maimonides would be irrelevant in Soloveichik’s formulation that Israel’s liberty is nothing but a “means to a covenantal calling.” Israel’s freedom and every nation’s freedom is inherently valuable.[10]

Freedom from tyranny is the removal of evil and is not the same as living successfully. No freedom can ever be a final end in itself. We are always required to use our freedom to pursue positive action afterward. National independence, whether that of Passover or Hanukkah deserves a distinct celebration because it recognizes humanity’s exclusive status in creation. Humanity’s search for wisdom and its ability to act with moral integrity ultimately depend on this freedom. A strictly political deliverance, even without subsequent success, is therefore something to be grateful for—and so something that religiously attuned persons will thank God for.

This is not only true of Israel, but of all nations. Once free, all peoples need to make choices to live out their destiny. Some nations will make good choices and others bad ones. To paraphrase Emmanuel Levinas, freedom is difficult, and many societies have used their freedom toward decadence and barbarism. Peoples can lose their freedom through their poor choices. Israel’s covenantal shortcomings led to two exiles and it is now being given another opportunity to fulfill its covenantal mission. Freedom is unfulfilled, but still worth celebrating.

Israel and its Land

Soloveichik separates Israel’s land from its peoplehood in order to reduce the role of Israel’s land and polity in favor of its covenantal obligations. The Bible, however, goes out of its way to emphasize the centrality of the land to the people of Israel and the covenant. God’s continual promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is nation and land (Genesis 13:14-17, 15:16-21, 17:7-8, 26: 2-5, 28:12-15, 35:12). Sometimes the Bible places land before nation and vice versa. The covenants in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 assume the centrality of the land in the covenant.

Seen from this perspective, the special significance that Wyschogrod attributes to the fact that the Israelite people predate the land is flawed because it only looks at historical unfolding and ignores the place of the land in the covenantal promises. There is no such thing as fulfilling the covenant without the land, and some Biblical commentators (Rashi to Deuteronomy 11:18, Nahmanides to Leviticus 18:25) even suggest that performance of the commands outside of the land is just to maintain practice until the people return to the land of Israel, where the commandments “really count.” While these might be minority opinions, they highlight the indissoluble link between the land and the covenant. Covenantal fulfillment is never presented without Israel living on its land. The land and the covenant are not separate entities that can be split apart.

Due to the unity of covenant and land, the Bible describes the land of Israel in active terms to highlight its centrality to Israel’s definition and purpose. The land needs to make up its missed Sabbatical years (Leviticus 26:34-35), requires retribution (Deuteronomy 32:43), can become disgusted with and spit out its inhabitants (Leviticus 18:25-28, 20:22), and will remember its missing people (Leviticus 26:42) as a factor leading to the people’s return from exile.

For Israel, the land, and each year’s uncertainty of bounty, serves as an indicator of their relationship with God (Deuteronomy 11:10-12). In this sense, Israel’s relationship with its land is not just a unique covenantal feature of Israel. The motherland of each nation is integral to the formation its unique identity and wisdom. All land is different, and a nation’s empirical understanding of life and its search for wisdom will be impacted by the geography, weather, climate, abundance or scarcity of water, bountifulness of the land, and type of food that grows on the land. Egypt’s land, dominated by the Nile as a reliable source of water, conditioned a preference for farming and its attendant ethos, as opposed to the nomadic, shepherding one (Genesis 46:34). With a moral base, Egypt would have developed a better philosophy.[11] Land conditions the body, mind, and spirit of its people, and by definition it is particular and local.

This is exactly why Hazony’s description of each nation “pursuing the truth according to its understanding” is based on their experiences in their own lands, as a nation’s land plays a central role in creating a nation’s perception of reality. While an empire can provide security and economic prosperity, national freedom allows for the development of wisdom and better free living. This is why the Bible, even prior to Abraham, envisions each nation living distinctly on its own land (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31).

The Faultiness of Locke

Hazony sees the American founding as combining ideas from the Bible, English Common Law tradition, and thinkers such as Montesquieu, Hume, and Locke, whereas Soloveichik seems to see the United States as essentially a Lockean enterprise. I will not try to settle the historical aspect of this disagreement here. But regarding the substance of the issue, I do think it is worth thinking carefully about how closely Orthodox Jews should want to wrap themselves in Locke’s Enlightenment philosophy. After all, the Bible firmly rejects Locke’s notion that the human individual is by nature able to arrive at universal moral and political truths by means of autonomous reason alone. From the moment that man is created in Genesis, he is commanded to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a commandment which could not have been deduced from reason.[12]

Similarly, at the same time that man is commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, man is also taught that it is not good to live alone, and for this reason God creates Eve to be Adam’s wife. Conceptually, God imposes heteronomy and community on him. The autonomous individual, Locke’s vision of man, is precluded at the very beginning of the Bible, and therefore cannot be a proper foundation for building sustained wisdom and human flourishing.


While seeking to critique Hazony’s book, Soloveichik ends up making startling assertions about Judaism: he eliminates Israel from its aspiring status as a model to the nations of the world, denies the inherent nobility of national freedom, and downplays Israel’s connection with its homeland. These arguments run counter to some of the most central principles of the Jewish tradition. In contrast, Hazony’s book comes at a moment when the peoples of the world are searching for better understandings of, and organizing principles, for life. The biblical vision promotes a positive and constructive nationalism. This may actually be an opportune historical moment for delving more deeply into the political wisdom of Jewish tradition and for Israel to fulfill part of its covenantal role to be a light of the nations.

[1] Soloveichik acknowledges that the Declaration is not purely Lockean, but adds that “the Founders remedied what was lacking in Locke by adding biblical concepts to the Declaration.”

[2] The overall approach in this essay is largely based off of and is elaborated in Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s The Nineteen Letters and A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. One can certainly find the metaphysical view in the rabbinic sources. See, for instance, Midrash Rabba Genesis 12:3 s.v. ve-nivreu (both). Further, a number of commentators believe that Israel is supposed to impact human thought and action, but do not describe the process by which this occurs. For examples, see Malbim Genesis 12:3 s.v. yevorkhu and Maimonides, Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Positive Command 9. Soloveichik himself in Azure, Winter 5765/2005, p. 59 accepts the interpretation of Seforno that is quoted below. Soloveichik then adds that Israel is charged with “communicating the monotheistic idea and a set of moral ideals to humanity.” The remainder of that essay focuses on God’s love for Israel, but does not describe the process by which Israel fulfills its covenantal obligations according to Seforno. 

[3] S.v. ve-atem. This idea is stated explicitly by R. Abraham ben Ha-Rambam s.v. mamlechet on this verse, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch to Genesis 12:2-3, Netziv in Ha-Emek Davar to Exodus 12:51, Radak to Isaiah 42:6 s.v. livrit. A similar formulation on the individual level is made by Rashi Genesis 12:3 s.v. ve-nivrehu and 26:4 s.v. ve-hitbarkhu.

[4] R. Abraham ben Ha-Rambam Exodus 19:6 s.v. mamlechet cites his father Maimonides, who connects the priestly role of Israel and the Deuteronomic description of the nations viewing Torah law as wise, with Isaiah’s (2:1-4) vision of the nations coming to learn from God in Jerusalem, cited below.

[5] This is why the Bible describes ethical action as “yirat Elokim,” “fear of God.” See Genesis 20:10-11, 42:16-19, and Exodus 1:16-17.

[6] See also, for example, I Kings 8:41-43, Isaiah 56:7, and Zekhariah 14:16.

[7] Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind elaborates on how our underlying moral axis shapes our vision of the virtuous life.

[8] Maimonides, Laws of Phylacteries and Mezuzah, 1:19.

[9] See Maimonides, Commentary to the Mishna, Yoma 1:3, where he shows that he is aware of the Hasmonean deficiencies. This is based on a 1996 speech by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, available at

[10] Rabbi Amital applied this opinion of Maimonides to buttress the significance Yom Ha’atzmaut. While other Jewish thinkers have emphasized other positive aspects of the modern State of Israel, such as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his Kol Dodi Dofek, none of the Rav’s “knocks” would be pertinent to a view that only emphasizes covenantal fullment. It is difficult to know the compatibility of the Rav’s view with that of R. Meir Soloveichik.

[11] For a fuller treatment of the ethic of the farmer, particularly its positives and negatives, see Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, chap. 4.

[12] God does maintain, in a Lockean sense, that Cain is wrong to murder his brother Abel, even though he has received no explicit instruction against murder, since that should have been reasoned. This also lies behind God’s punishment regarding the Flood, the Dispersion, and the destruction of Sodom.


Rafi Eis is the Executive Director of The Herzl Institute and the Director of a semicha program at Yeshivat Har Etzion.