Parshat Ki Teitzei presents a seemingly harsh set of guidelines for inclusion within the Jewish people. Marriage is strictly limited to pedigreed Jews and, additionally, not all races are granted access into Judaism. Certain nationalities, such as Amon and Moav, are completely excluded based on past national misdeeds. Other nationalities such as the Egyptians are allowed to convert but must undergo a three-generation transitional period before marriage with fully pedigreed Jews is licensed. Full membership within the Jewish nation isn’t inclusive, but severely restricted.
To some, these restrictions appear bigoted and chauvinistic. The modern enlightened world has successfully created inclusive educational settings, workplaces and even families- embracing people regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. In an era of universal empowerment and equal opportunities, the very mention of nationalism is offensive to many.
Wariness and suspicion of nationalism has intensified over the past two centuries, as humanity has been exposed to the dangers of virulent nationalism. Western Civilization has repeatedly suffered at the hands of violent Fascist states which placed loyalty to State and national culture above the value of individual life. These States weaponized their societies to brutally suppress the outsider. The European continent in particular bore the major brunt of these Fascist regimes first in their confrontation with Nazi Germany and subsequently in their suppression under the dark cloud of Communist expansionism for 40 years. Traumatized by these horrific mutations of nationalism, much of the modern world and the European continent in particular harbors deep antagonism to the notion of nationalism. “All humans are equal” and society should aim, in the minds of these opponents of nationalism, toward a more pluralistic and embracing society unattached to local “tribal” identities.
This movement toward pluralistic universalism, was also abetted by technological advancements as well as scientific inroads. Advances in transportation and communication dramatically shrunk our vast world and dismantled the cultural barriers which, in the past, were reinforced by distance. The more we are exposed to different peoples and their cultures the more we expect ethnic differences to fade. Modern science and its mapping of human history, has attested to the genetic similarity of all humans as well as their common past. Much of our modern world, frightened by the perils of unbridled nationalism and convinced of the indistinguishability of humanity, condemns the “parochial” interests of nationalism.
Interestingly, recently various Western societies have sharply reacted to these liberalizing universalist trends by enabling far right nationalistic movements which once again attempt- in many cases through violent means , to purify their national heritage. These dangerous reactionary movements have further convinced many of the rampant dangers of nationalist identity.
However, the rejection of nationalism comes at great cost as national identity provides a crucial anchor for human development. Ideally, national identity provides “baselines” for core values. Although the development of identity is subjective and personal, certain primary core values are transmitted by “association” rather than independently absorbed. The gemara in Yevamot (79a) which describes Jews as merciful, modest and charitable isn’t just portraying a genetic reality. It is also recommending a national profile, which Jews should aim to adopt. The abolition of national identity has created a large scale identity crisis in the modern world. National identity provides an identity baseline which can then enable more personal development.
Nationalism also provides a sense of historical “verticality”; affiliation with land and people bonds us to our past and aligns us with our future. It allows our experiences to be informed and impacted by past generations while it attunes our decisions to our collective future. Without these national and historical anchors personal experience becomes “isolated” or trapped in the present, and our behavior can sink into selfishness and negligence. Life as part of a “line” of national and historical experience is more meaningful that life as an isolated “point”- unconnected to past and unconcerned with future.
Finally, a “common sense” of a national past yields a more firm sense of joint experience and mutual kinship. Those who share a common past feel an innate sense of community and common purpose. When the Rambam lists the motivation for tzedaka charity (Laws of Charity chapter 10), he stresses that all Jews are considered children of G-d; every Jew is a brother and if “brothers aren’t merciful to one another who else will care for their needs”? Despite the hardships of exile, Jews across the world have always enjoyed impressive unity, stemming, in part from our sense of common destiny.
Humanity is currently involved in an crucial struggle of ideas. It is searching for a healthy balance between inclusion and nationalism. Still scarred by the violent eruptions of racism and hatred in the name of nationalism humanity still harbors an unhealthy bias toward nationalism. The world is still seeking that delicate balance between these two important poles of inclusion and nationalism. Jews are mandated to extend welfare to an entire planet, but we are also meant to safeguard our national identity and our joint historical mission. The severe restrictions upon entry into Judaism and marriage with Jews listed in Ki Teitzei, are intended to help preserve that national identity.
At the conclusion of history we have returned to our homeland-aided by a process of secular nationalism or Zionism. Millions of Jews who aren’t classically religious have rediscovered their attachment to land, history and people. Though religious Jews yearn for a religious state we are gratified that our nationalist ambitions have been expressed. We value national identity, even if it is unaffiliated with religious practice.
Furthermore, our nationalist return is meant to instruct humanity at large. We live at the forefront of human history- defying toxic and harmful ideas while advancing beneficial values. Jews are involved in the battlefield of ideas just as we struggle on the actual battlefield of history. Our Zionist/Nationalist return to our homeland reminds humanity of the enduring value of nationalism. We demonstrate nationalism this to a world which remains skeptical of nationalism. So many opponents of Israel are driven by a disgust for nationalism. Our struggle to resettle our land isn’t only geographical but intellectual; we are here to remind the world of the value of nationalism.
By M Taragin