Aleinu and Genesis: Against the Twin Idolatries of Universalism & Ethnonationalism

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan


Orthodox Jews have recently become more politically active and prominent, both in Israel and in the United States, and this has largely—but not exclusively—involved support for “ethnonationalist” political movements that promote the kinship bonds, language, culture, and traditions associated with peoples that first founded polities on particular lands.[1] But does the Torah endorse ethnonationalism?

In his recent book The Virtue of Nationalism,[2] and in his advocacy for “national conservatism” as the intellectual banner for a biblically-inspired nationalist politics, Yoram Hazony argues forcefully that the answer is yes. More specifically, he points to God’s call to Abraham, at the opening of Genesis 12, as the foundation stone for this brand of nationalism. As Hazony stated in his closing remarks at the 2019 National Conservatism conference:

People say (Trump’s) ‘Make America Great Again’ is just a slogan… I say, ‘Have you ever heard of Ronald Reagan?’… And it’s not Ronald Reagan who invented the idea of making America great again, of making a great nation. He was hearkening back to a tradition … three thousand five hundred years (old), to the beginning of Genesis, to God’s speaking to Abraham…. God, creator of heaven and earth, the first thing He has to say to Abraham, is: I will make you a great nation. [3]

The strength of Hazony’s argument hinges on the contrast between God’s call to Abraham and the previous story, that of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As reviewed below, the tower-building project anticipates the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century in the way it rejects the past for the present, God-made nature for human-made technology, and the individual and national for the collective and universal. Furthermore, God’s call to Abraham repudiates the underlying ideology of the Tower of Babel project—what Hazony calls universalist imperialism–as idolatrous self-worship.

But accepting this interpretation does not entail that the Torah embraces universalism’s counterpart, ethnonationalism. To the contrary, I suggest that our tradition is equally emphatic in rejecting ethnonationalist ideology as idolatrous. The key supporting evidence lies in a biblical exegesis that runs beneath the surface of one of the most common prayers in Jewish liturgy: Aleinu. Aleinu demonstrates the Torah’s rejection of political projects that are overly devoted to past precedent, overly focused on what seems natural, and overly committed to national distinctions. 

Given Aleinu’s well-known condemnation of non-Jewish peoples who “bow to void and emptiness and worship gods who do not provide salvation,” it is at least somewhat ironic to regard Aleinu as a denial of ethnonationalism. But Aleinu’s highly universalistic conclusion should tip us off to the possibility that there may be more to this phrase than meets the eye. In particular, I suggest that the specific terms that Aleinu uses for non-Jewish peoples (“families of the earth” and “peoples of the land”) direct us to look deeply at how the covenantal promises by God to the patriarchs in Genesis 12 compare with the description of the postdiluvian rise of nation-states in Genesis 10. When we reread these chapters using the same principles that Hazony uses to analyze the contrast between the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12, we discover a powerful polemic against ethnonationalism hiding in plain sight.

In short, we will see that the Torah is not so much against universalist imperialism or against ethnonationalism as it is against extremism of either variety.[4] Instead, and as represented by the way Abraham’s mission integrates elements of each, the Torah exhorts us to strive for balance between the two sets of competing principles.

The Idolatry of Imperialist Universalism

Various scholars have characterized the Tower of Babel story as an “anti-pagan polemic.” [5] After all, any careful reader of the biblical text should recognize the tower as a symbol of idolatry. Within the Hebrew Bible itself, this symbolic link is perhaps best illustrated by the life of Gideon, the smasher (g-d-‘) both of towers and of idols (Judges 6-8).[6] From the standpoint of the ancient Near East, the tower represents the ziqqurat that was central to Babylonian religion: the supposed “gate to god,” Bab’el.[7]

But the anti-pagan polemic is implicit rather than explicit. This has the effect of suggesting that idolatry is a symptom of social and political ills that are visible if we look carefully.

A close reading by Hazony and others of the Tower of Babel story suggests two problems with the project.[8] First, the tower-builders focus on collective identity (“let us make a name for ourselves”; “one language for all” and “few words/ideas”) to the exclusion of national or even individual identities (no individual names are mentioned). Second, the tower-builders seem taken with the technology they have developed (bricks that they forge from control of fire and by developing bitumen as a substitute for mortar) vs. using what is natural (stone and mortar) as part of God’s creation.[9]

A third troubling aspect of the tower-builders complements the first two problems: they are focused on the present and pay no regard for the past. The memory of God’s vengeance during the Flood does not impede their plan. Accordingly, the Tower of Babel story opens with “And it was” rather than the Bible’s more typical phrases used to mark a narratological transition (“And after these things”). This suggests a new story that proceeds heedless of any lessons or constraints the past may offer.

The political takeaway from the Torah seems to be that when a group of people believe that they can renounce the past and build something completely new, using tools of social control that may wipe out individual expression and established traditions, they are in fact engaged in a dangerous form of self-worship that is doomed to fail. The totalitarian projects of the twentieth century come to mind.

As Hazony correctly notes, God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 stands as a fitting retort. In contrast to the builders of the Tower of Babel, Abraham is a family man who continues his father’s mission from Ur to Canaan.[10] He is a tent-dwelling shepherd who refuses to integrate into society or be dependent on anyone. And he is motivated by the prospect of having a “great name” (Genesis 12:2) for himself and his progeny, achieved by yielding to a project of God’s design rather than his own. The heart of this project risked social opprobrium by proclaiming God’s name (Genesis 12:8) when no one wanted to hear it.[11]

Aleinu’s Universalism

To this point, we have seen how Genesis 11-12 rejects universalist imperialism and that it embraces nationalism of a sort. I will now turn to the exegesis hinted by Aleinu to counter Hazony’s suggestion that the Torah specifically embraces ethnonationalism. Given its controversial opening that is often read as xenophobic, Aleinu appears an odd choice for this purpose.

To review, Aleinu is a gorgeous literary tapestry of biblical verses and allusions. Of unknown provenance, it was likely composed as part of the mystical heikhalot literature of the early first millennium CE and is perhaps as old as the Second Temple period. It entered the High Holiday liturgy sometime in the first millennium CE and became a standard feature of every prayer service sometime early in the succeeding millennium.[12] In recent generations, Aleinu has become one of the most familiar prayers (one of the first that children learn, with a standard melody used in liberal congregations and in modern Orthodox ones alike), one of the most ubiquitous (recited three times a day, at the conclusion of each prayer service), and also the most controversial.

To be clear, there is nothing remotely xenophobic about the second or third parts of Aleinu. In fact, as one proceeds through the paragraphs of Aleinu, the themes grow in universalist orientation. The third and final section is an extended vision of a future historical process by which all of humankind will come to purge itself of idolatry and recognize God as creator of the world and to establish the world under God’s dominion.[13] Based on references to Isaiah, our eyes are treated to the image of God serving as “king of all the land” because He has won not only Israel’s fealty but that of “all sons of flesh,” “every tongue.”

This third section flows logically from the second section, which (beginning with “As he extends the heavens and sets the foundation of the land”) describes God as creator and as Israel’s sole source of divine authority, and climaxes with a depiction of Israel’s triumph over its own struggles to shed idolatrous practices and worship God as creator and king (Deuteronomy 4:39; cf. 4:25-38).

The second section in turn flows naturally from the first section, which describes “our” (i.e. Israel’s) special mission (Aleinu=”it is incumbent upon us”) to “praise the master of all, to give glory to the shaper of creation… to bow (and prostrate ourselves and acknowledge) the king, king of kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He.”[14]

Aleinu thus traces a narrative arc whereby Israel, despite its own struggles in recognizing God as creator and serving Him as rightful king, succeeds in its national mission and anticipates an historical process by which other nations also recognize God as creator and king. Ultimately, God reigns supreme and the distinctions among the nations become unimportant. Strikingly, any mention of Israel is absent in section three. Moreover, given that the turning point from section two to three is a prayerful “hope” expressed to “you, Lord God” (that his “majestic power” become visible; “that idols be removed the land;” “that the wicked of the land be turned towards you”), it is even unclear whether Israel will deserve any credit for the ultimate success of monotheism.

But if Aleinu’s message is highly universalistic, it is puzzling why it begins with a seemingly illiberal opening—a discomfiting focus on how our ethnoreligion is superior to that of the “families of the earth” and “peoples of the land” who worship “emptiness and void” and “gods who cannot bring salvation.”

As is well known, this phrase was expunged from the liturgy in Ashkenazi communities in response to Christian authorities’ allegations that it was an attack on Christianity. Indeed, some Jewish communities endorsed this interpretation (and even added more specific condemnations of Christianity to it in response to Christian anti-Semitism), although the textual evidence doesn’t support this understanding.[15], [16] Nonetheless, the phrase continues to be controversial. While it has recently been reinstated by some Orthodox congregations in the last generation as a mark of religious freedom, many liberal American Jews remain highly uncomfortable with its seemingly intolerant condemnation of other peoples and their religions.[17]

How then do we square the seemingly illiberal opening of Aleinu with its universalist concluding message?

The key is to consider the highly specific language Aleinu uses to reference the non-Jewish peoples it is accusing of idolatry:

For He did not fashion us as he did the peoples [goyim] of the land [aretz] and did not place us as He did the families [mishpehot] of the earth [adamah].

Given how virtually every word of Aleinu is drawn from the Hebrew Bible, our task is to identify the biblical source for “peoples of the land” and “families of the earth.”[18]

It turns out that these expressions are relatively rare. Only nine verses in the Hebrew Bible deploy them, and only five of them are from the Torah itself (which the later verses likely are referencing). Strikingly, all five appear in the covenantal blessings of God to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob:[19]

“And Abraham will surely be a great and strong goy and all the peoples [goyim] of the land [aretz] will be blessed through him” (Blessing of Abraham; Genesis 18:18).

“And all of the peoples [goyim] of the land [aretz] will be blessed through your seed/descendants since you listened to my voice” (Blessing of Abraham; Genesis 22:18).

“And I will multiply your seed/descendants like the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all these lands, and all the peoples [goyim] of the land [aretz] will be blessed through you” (Blessing of Isaac; Genesis 22:18).

“And I will bless those who bless you I will curse those who curse you, and all the families [mishpehot] of the earth [adamah] will be blessed through you” (Blessing of Abraham; Genesis 12:3).

“And it will come to pass that your seed will be as the dust of the land and you will spread out westward, eastward, northward, and southward, and all the families [mishpehot] of the earth [adamah] will be blessed through you and through your seed” (Blessing of Jacob; Genesis 28:14).

If we want to reckon with Aleinu’s apparent illiberalism, we need to ponder these verses and consider their biblical context. When we do that, we see that the Torah uses these phrases when it wants to bless other peoples, and it sees Israel as an instrument for the delivery of these blessings. This orientation seems in keeping with Aleinu’s universalist message. Given that the original verses are so friendly towards non-Jewish peoples, it is doubtful that Aleinu’s offending line should actually be interpreted as offensive.

The Idolatry of Ethnonationalism

But we have yet to uncover why the Torah uses specifically these expressions of “families of the earth” and “peoples of the land.” To what exactly do these expressions refer? Moreover, if Aleinu does not set out to offend, why is Aleinu so keen to condemn these peoples’ religions?

Let us now go back to our earlier observation that the Torah’s discussion of the postdiluvian period may be designed to impart subtle lessons about the perils of idolatry. While the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 condemns universalism, the prior chapter, Genesis 10, explores families [mishpehot], peoples [goyim], and land [aretz], and thereby imparts subtle lessons about the perils of ethnonationalism.

Genesis 10 is divided into three sections, each of which chronicles one of Noah’s three sons’ descendants, who fanned out across the ancient Near East and Mediterranean and came to be recognized as distinct ethnicities and cultures, living in well-known states. There is virtually no narrative in this chapter and so we are apparently meant to assume that this all unfolded naturally and unproblematically. Each section ends roughly the same way, and it is reinforced by the summary verse:

“From these [children of Japhet] spread the maritime peoples in their land, each man according to his tongue, with their families and their peoples(10:5).

“These are the sons of Ham, according to their families and tongues, by their lands and peoples(10:20).

“These are the sons of Shem according to their families, their tongues, in their lands, according to their peoples(10:31).

“These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations in their peoples, and from these emerged the peoples in the land after the flood” (10:32).

The blessings of the patriarchs in Genesis 12 and referenced by Aleinu are clearly hearkening back to Genesis 10,[20] which provides a paradigm for ethnonationalism and serves as a strong counterpoint to Genesis 11.[21]

Where Genesis 12 emphasizes collectivism and universalism (represented most clearly via a lingua franca), Genesis 11 emphasizes the particularism of patriarchy, family, culture (“tongue”), and people. This is ethnonationalism par excellence

Moreover, where Genesis 11 emphasizes the present over the past, Genesis 10 is about the seemingly immutable legacy of founding fathers. Once a descendant of Noah’s arrives in a territory, that land just becomes that well-known nation-state thereafter.

And where Genesis 11 emphasizes human control of nature via technology, Genesis 10 is naturalistic. There is no narrative of conquest or settlement or of battling the elements.[22] A founding father must simply arrive in a land for him and his descendants to become one with it and live in symbiosis with it.

Genesis 10 thus represents the polar opposite of Genesis 11. To the universalism, now-orientation, and technology-focus of Genesis 11, Genesis 10 offers ethnonationalism, future-orientation, and naturalism.

At the same time, Genesis 10 and 11 are alike in a very important aspect. As Sarna puts it, “the appearance of idolatry is coeval with the rise of nations.”[23] That is, just as any as any ancient Near Eastern reader would have picked up on the tower as a symbol of idolatry, she also would have recognized that something was obviously missing from Genesis 10’s equation of family=land=tongue=people: Where are the local deities?

In Hazony’s language, the loud subtext of Genesis 10 is each nation’s well-known distinctive culture and (civil) religion. It was common knowledge that every local tribe had its distinctive deities, which were commonly thought to be well-attuned to the specific people, its particular land, and its traditions.[24] But just as Genesis 11 teaches us that the real problem with idolatry is that it reflects a form of self-worship, the same is true for Genesis 10. It’s just that where Genesis 11 critiques universalist imperialism, Genesis 10 critiques ethnonationalism.

Daniel Gordis has argued that Genesis 10’s “natural state of affairs” serves as a positive “ethnic-cultural” model for Israel.[25] But consider the nations whose origins are noted here. None come in for praise in the rest of the Torah. Furthermore, the nations that are discussed later–Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, Canaan, and Egypt—stand for immorality and idolatry.[26] It would be odd if the Torah were to describe Israel’s national and political origins as following the same (ethnonationalist) models of nations it condemned as morally corrupt. And indeed it does not.

Turning back to Aleinu, we find a tantalizing hint to this effect in its second line. When it draws a contrast with other peoples, Aleinu does not state “for we are not like the families of the earth, nor are we like the peoples of the land.” Rather, it states “for He [God] did not make us like the peoples of the land, and He did not place us like the families of the earth.” Aleinu is here drawing a sharp contrast between the model of nation-formation of Genesis 10 with the process of Israel’s formation that begins in Genesis 12. Genesis 10 naturalizes the connection between people and land. As with modern nation-states, it promotes the indigeneity myth that a piece of land naturally belongs to the “tribes” who happen to have settled it first. Israel’s narrative implicitly rejects this myth. Genesis 12 highlights how Israel’s formation was unnatural and involved divine intervention in the natural order of things.[27]

Just as God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12 repudiates Genesis 11’s universalist paradigm, it repudiates Genesis 10’s ethnonationalist paradigm as well. For example, Abraham is asked to migrate from one land to another and live life as a stranger who proclaims the dominion of a God who transcends place and relates to all peoples.[28] In addition, neither Genesis 12 nor the rest of Genesis identifies Abraham’s ethnic or linguistic heritage in any detail. Ivri, or Hebrew seems to be a term that outsiders use to refer to Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 14:13), and typically (at least in Egypt) to denigrate them.[29] The term for our nation comes from the third generation rather than the first and it is assigned based on Jacob’s achievement rather than by dint of his parentage.

Furthermore, consider that Genesis 10 makes no mention of the presence of minorities and the well-known challenges of incorporating them into an ethnonationalist framework. As in the nation-state system bequeathed to us by the nineteenth century, every piece of land is assumed in the first instance to belong to one people, one culture, one history, and one tongue. It is the model by which the Persian Empire governs in the book of Esther.[30] But Genesis 12 begins the story of a man who lives as a “stranger and sojourner” among others and yet still gains a foothold in land among them. It tells the story of a nation that emerges not from having arrived at a land first and naturalized its possession by naming it for its founding father, rather a nation that begins its career as an oppressed minority in a foreign land (Genesis 15:13).

Just as the Torah rejects the idolatrous artifice of universalism, it also rejects the idolatrous naturalism of indigeneity. This rejection permeates the Torah. “The entire land belongs to me,” God declares; we are always and everywhere “strangers and sojourners (Leviticus 25:23).” Deuteronomy for its part takes pains to emphasize that Israel’s hold on the land is tenuous and depends on its faithful and righteous behavior. Perhaps most notably, whereas land acquires the name of its founding father in Genesis 10, Israel’s land never takes on its name.[31] The Torah could have called it “Israel” had it wanted to. It chose instead to invite us to interrogate such naturalizing claims.


It seems clear then that just as the Torah is skeptical of imperialist universalism, it is also skeptical of ethnonationalism. When each set of principles is adopted in their extreme forms, the resulting political projects carry the stench of idolatry. The problem with such idolatry in turn seems to be less about denial of God than about denying the essential moral principles embodied by the other side of the political spectrum.

The risks of embracing ethnonationalism lie in how it denies what is universal about human beings, how its fealty to the past can prevent needed progress, and how it can naturalize as right what is actually a product of immoral human endeavors. On the other hand, the risk of pell-mell pursuit of utopian universalism lies in how it can snuff out dissent, how it can reject ancient wisdom in the pursuit of ever-changing visions of progress, and how it can push goals that are so unrealistic in their substance or timing that such pursuit generates backlash and disorder.

Nevertheless, while the Torah seems to be rejecting extremism of either variety, it seems to endorse each set of underlying principles. The Torah does have an important place for nations. It does have an important place for universal projects– for the natural as well as the technological, for rootedness in the past as well as innovative breaks with it. The challenge seems to lie in achieving effective balance, as reflected in Israel’s mission. As suggested by the arc of Aleinu, that mission is particular to the Jewish people but its ultimate message is universalist.

Finally, the Torah seems to be cautioning us not to be overly confident in pursuing political projects. This is part of what is striking about the ethnonationalist trend among Orthodox Jews—the confidence that the Torah has endorsed their views. In a recent Lehrhaus essay,[32] R. Rafi Eis criticizes R. Meir Soloveichik’s objections to Hazony’s promotion of ethnonationalism as a redemptive force:

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.

This is in fact an apt description of the narrative arc traced by Aleinu! Somehow in the aftermath of Israel returning to God (or in parallel with it?), the rest of the world finds God as well. What is our mission in facilitating this process? It is ultimately unclear because it is God’s affair, not ours. What seems quite clear though is that our mission lies not in embodying the model of “family of the earth” and “people of the land” but in critiquing and transcending this model.

[1] See Joshua Shanes,The Evangelicization of Orthodoxy,Tablet Magazine (October 12, 2020). See also Eytan Kobre, “Unmasked: The Phenomenon of Hyper-Partisanship in the Frum Community,” Mishpacha Magazine ( October 21, 2020).

[2] Basic Books, 2018.

[3] See

[4] Hazony claims not only that the Torah embraces ethnonationalism but that it rejects imperialism. But the dichotomy of (ethno)nation vs. (universalist) empire is a false one.  Consider for example the American doctrine of “manifest destiny,” which is at once nationalist and imperialist doctrine. Or consider how the Persian Empire promoted ethnonationalism, as reflected in Esther’s repeated equation of “province,” “tongue,” “script,” and “law” (1:22; 2:8, 2:12; cf., 8:9)—an equation that threatened a Jewish community that no longer abided by that equation due to exile.

[5] Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History (Schocken, 1966), 75.

[6] Nathaniel Helfgot, “Unlocking the Riddle of Abraham the Iconoclast: A Study in the Intertextuality of Peshat and Derash,” Tradition 43 (Fall 2010): 9, in his analysis of the intertextual connections between the stories of Abraham and Gideon are relevant here, and in particular his suggestion that Gideon inspired the midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols. Cf. as well Daniel Lifshitz, “A Ripe Old Age: Abraham, Gideon and David,” Lehrhaus (November 22, 2019).

[7] Sarna, op cit, 75.

[8] Various recent commentators have offered approaches broadly consistent with Hazony’s, with their shared interpretation in turn building on that of the Netziv (R. Naphtali Zvi Hirsch Berlin) and Pirkei d-Rabbi Eliezer 24:6. Exemplars include Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “From Adam to Abraham: The Fall and Rise of Monotheism,” in Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch, eds. David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, (Ktav, 2008), 19-48; R. Jonathan Sacks, “Noach (5768) – A Story of Heaven and Earth,” (2007); Daniel Gordis, “The Tower of Babel and the Birth of Nationhood,” Azure (Spring 2010): 19-36; Shai Held, “People Have Names: The Torah’s Take-Down of Totalitarianism,” Mechon Hadar Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas (2014); and Shalom Carmy, “Babel and Brexit,” First Things (June 2017).

[9] See Sarna, op cit, 71-72.

[10] Zvi Grumet, “The Revolution of Terah and Abraham,” Conversations: The Jewish Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (Winter 2013/5773): 168-74.

[11] See Menachem Leibtag, “Sifrei Toladot: The Backbone of Sefer Breishit,”

[12] Ruth Langer, “The censorship of Aleinu in Ashkenaz and its aftermath” in The Experience of Jewish Liturgy, ed. Debra Reed Blank (Brill, 2011).

[13] The last two verses that are said by most congregations throughout the year are later additions. The first of these verses, “The Lord (YHVH) shall reign for eternity!” is the concluding verse of the Song of the Sea, which Hazony positions as the Israelite national song of liberation or national anthem. Accordingly, the verse also appears at the conclusion of the Shema service, where it punctuates a focus on God as redeemer of Israel from Egyptian bondage. But here and elsewhere (the “Yehi Khevod”), the words are attributed to the nations of the world, this giving it a universalist feel. This universalist feel is reinforced by the second additional verse, which was added by the Arizal (R. Isaac Luria ben Solomon Ashkenazi): “God will be king over the entire world, and on that day God will be one and His name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9). A similar pairing of verses occurs in the climax of the pesukei dzimrah service.

[14] The words in parentheses do not appear in the edot ha-mizrah version of Aleinu.

[15] Langer, op cit.

[16] Besides the fact that it was likely composed at a time and place where competitive tensions with Christianity were minimal and may even have been composed prior to the arrival of Christianity on the world stage, the phrase is referencing various condemnations by Isaiah of Israel’s tendency to succumb to idolatry. See in particular Isaiah 30:7 and 40:9 for key references for “void and emptiness” and see 45:20 for “worshipping gods who provide no salvation.”

[17] Zev Eleff, “The Parenthetical Problem of Alenu, Lehrhaus (October 10, 2016).

[18] Soloveitchik, op cit, traces two other phrases in Aleinu (“sons of the flesh” and “wicked of the land”) back to these chapters in the Torah.

[19] The other four are II Chronicles 32:13, II Chronicles 32:17, Ezekiel 20:32, and Amos 3:2.

[20] Oddly, the term adamah (earth) does not appear in Genesis 10. However, since Noah is described as a “man of the earth” (9:20) in the story that sets the stage for this chapter and which describes the problematic transition in family leadership, “families of the earth” may essentially mean “families of Noah.”

[21] More generally, it appears that just as Genesis 1-3 present us with two creation narratives that express contrasting models of the human condition (what R. JB Soleveichik called “Adam I and Adam II” in his 1965 essay in Tradition, “The Lonely Man of Faith.”), Genesis 10 and 11 present us with two contrasting models of socio-political organization. More detailed analysis suggests that the four models cross-cut each other in that the “rightist” model and the “leftist” model each draw upon elements from Creation 1 and Creation 2.

[22] The only narrative snippet referring to a man who made his name is in a manner that leaves nature largely untouched: as a hunter. This story also provides an apparent counterpoint to Genesis 12 in various respects. It invokes the same Mesopotamian locations (Shinar, Babylon) and also hints at rebellion against God (“Nimrod”=” Let us rebel”). But rather than depict a nameless collectivity that uses technology to build tower and city (and the supporting agriculture that must have fed it), this is a story of a single man who appears to use nothing but his natural wit and strength to gain fame as a great hunter.

[23] Op cit., 68.

[24] See II Kings 17:24-41 for an extended treatment of the fallacious logic of such religion and how syncretic attempts to integrate national gods into worship of God are faulty.

[25] Op cit.

[26] Philistia is perhaps an exception, at least in Genesis. It fits the pattern in the rest of the Bible.

[27] Accordingly, the next line in Aleinu hints that Israel’s connection to land—symbolized by the words goral [lot] and helek [portion], which evoke the allocation of land in Numbers—is radically different from that of other peoples, whose connections seem more natural.

[28] See also R. Meir Soloveitchik’s observation (building on Michael Wyschogrod) that Israel is sui generis in developing its identity outside of its land. “Saving American Nationalism from the Nationalists,” Commentary (December 24, 2018).

[29] See Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Where is the Justice in the Tenth Plague?” Lehrhaus (April 18, 2019) and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Fellowship from Plague: Lessons from Passover, Lehrhaus (April 14, 2020).

[30] See note 4 above. Note that the book of Esther concludes by showing how the model can be broken. This is seen in how the king’s final edict is sent not only to “each province according to its script and each nation according to its language” (as the prior edicts are), but to the “Jews according to their script and language” (8:9).

[31] As I discuss elsewhere (Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “The ambassador’s misuse of the Torah, Jerusalem Post (May 21, 2018)) the term (Land of) Israel never appears in the Torah. Deuteronomy in particular makes many references to the land but never gives it a name except in one case where it is called Canaan.  See also Elli Fischer, “In God’s Country: The Zionism of Rashi’s First Comment, Lehrhaus (October 28, 2016).

[32] Rafi Eis, “Israel’s Light: A Response to  Rabbi Meir Soloveichik,” Lehrhaus (December 17, 2018).

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, an economic sociologist, is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His main current research project (from which several of his Lehrhaus essays, including this one, is drawn) is a book on the invention of the seven-day week. Ezra is teaching an online course on this topic at Drisha (, beginning March 3rd. He welcomes feedback at and he tweets at @ewzucker.