January 19, 2020

An Alienated People: Are the Jews Alone in the World?

When I lived in a quiet caravan in Gush Etzion, Israel many years ago, late into the night I would read works like Thoreau’s Walden and the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith. I came to believe that loneliness was a virtue. Solitude was an ideal, singleness was a merit, and Israel and Jews should stand alone. If not an existential realization, history should prove the point. Hasidic thought values the virtue of hitbodedut (aloneness), yet this is a contained spiritual practice, not a constant way of life. As I began to broaden my historical and philosophical perspective, I pondered: Is it truly good to be alone?

In describing the tragedies that overtook the Jewish people, the book of Lamentations 1:1 says, “Eichah yashvah badad hair rabati am” (How alone is the city once filled with people?). The verse speaks of mourning the destruction (and being “alone”) of a nation. Thus, being badad (alone) is not a positive value according to the Torah. God comments in Genesis that “Lo tov heyot haadam levado” (it is not good for man to be alone).

Indeed, Balaam was hired to curse the Jewish people, but he repeatedly blessed them. At first glance, it seems that one of his blessings is that Am Yisrael is an Am levadad yishkon (A people that dwells alone). Some suggest that this phrase is a blessing, but as we know, levadad (being alone) is a curse.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings two proof-texts to back this view. Firstly, in the Talmud, it is  stated that Balaam is one of only seven people who do not have a share in the world to come, while another Mishnah states that all the blessings that Balaam blessed the Jewish people turned into curses, with the sole exception of one  – Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishknotecha Yisrael (Sanhedrin 90a; Sanhedrin 105b). According to the rabbis, Balaam’s words are a curse, not a blessing, therefore it is a curse to be alone.

To many today, it is popular to say that Jews have no friends in the world, with certain parts of the community blaming all of our problems on anti-Semites. Those who argue that Jews are alone often suggest that Israel does not need the United States or the United Nations or anyone else in the world. It would be better to be completely self-dependent. On an individual, micro-level, some say they do not need family or friends to be happy and successful. The highest virtue is independence.

To be sure, much of Jewish history has taught us to be cautious. But our history not fully laden with tragedy and betrayal. We need not embrace a totally lachrymose theory of Jewish history. When we think we only have enemies, we only have enemies: a cruel tautology. We risk shirking our own responsibilities. All people have external problems and internal problems. When we place all the blame on external problems, we do not clean up our own shops to look properly at our internal problems. Even further, when we tell ourselves that we are alone, our self-defeating isolation becomes self-fulfilling prophecy

If Balaam’s statement is a curse, then levadad is negative and it is not good to be alone. But if it is actually a blessing, then we must understand levadad differently. Many commentators understand am levadad differently, explaining that it means Jews are indestructible. The Ibn Ezra explains that it means that Jews do not assimilate. Ramban suggests that being alone means that Jews maintain their own integrity. In short, to be a Jew is to have a unique relationship with God and Torah, not to be hated by all Gentiles and to live in isolation. To be holy means to be set apart, not to be alone. It is about us, not the other. To be sure, thinking oneself is special can easily slide into chauvinism if the notion of election and chosenness is not nuanced.

Moving from the national to individual perspective, there is a relevant lesson about leadership. Leaders, in many ways, are set apart, but they cannot be alone. They must be in partnership, solidarity, collaboration, and debate with people, and not be in isolation. Ron Heifetz, Harvard Kennedy School Professor of leadership studies, warns that un-partnered leaders are inevitably “assassinated.” If you rise to the front to stand alone, human nature (or group nature) is to critique or attack.

Our tradition teaches us the importance of a leadership style that builds bridges with others rather than isolates or alienates. The Kotzker Rebbe, the nineteenth century Polish Hassidic leader, asked why Joshua, and not Pinchas, was chosen to be the next leader of the Jewish people after Moshe. He answered that Pinchas was not chosen as the next leader because he was kannai (a zealot)—one who acts solely on inflexible beliefs, whereas Joshua had ruach Elokim, which Rashi interpreted to mean he possessed the ability to help people feel understood. True leaders do not act alone as a zealot (or act, learn, or live alone); they understand other people and other nations and have a relationship with them. We are not to act as an am levadad, but an am meyuchad (not alone but special).

In the twenty-first century, human destinies are interconnected, and connectivity and dependence can often be more advantageous and perhaps even more virtuous than independence. Embracing our need for others inspires humility. After all, Torah values family and community – mishpachah, chevruta, kehillah – unity of nation and solidarity in the world, the value of the collective and of encountering others. Our collaboration and partnership with other nations and faith traditions is not just strategic: It is a moral and spiritual commitment. As the late Israeli Prime Minister and IDF General Yitzhak Rabin said: “Israel is no longer a people that dwells alone. It has to join the global journey toward peace, reconciliation and international cooperation.”

We have much to share with other nations but also much to learn from them. In the twenty-first century, we must learn to transition from tolerance to pluralism and from co-existence to solidarity. Albert Einstein, who had every right to embrace isolation in 1934, nevertheless addressed schoolchildren with these words:

Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children.

This value can be learned through observing the experiences of birth and death. When a child is first born, the fists are clenched. The child was alone in the womb and does not think that he or she needs anyone. But when one passes away, the hands are open as if to embrace. After the end of a life, one realizes that we need friendship, family, love, and partnership. We learn from the experience of death that we cannot be alone.

Pablo Casals, the noted cellist and refugee from fascist Spain, said, “We ought to think that we are one of the leaves of a tree, and the tree is all humanity. We cannot live without the others, without the tree.” We as Jews have something very unique but we must never forget that we are still part of the human tree.

Many still claim that the Jews are at threat in America, but we must recognize that anti-Semitism is not the problem in America today that it once was, and to claim it is a unique problem is to unfairly use history as political capital. The FBI 2010 report on hate crimes recorded that nearly half (48 percent) were based on race, and that about 19 percent were the result of anti-gay violence. While hate crimes against Jews were predominant among crimes based on religion, it should be noted that crimes based on Islamophobia have risen even more dramatically. We need to psychologically address our past trauma rather than continue to impose history without nuance onto the present.

This does not mean the Jewish people should be passive in responding to acts of anti-Semitism, but we need to adapt in order to face the greater challenges we currently face as contemporary American Jews. Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism in the attitudes of young Americans, as Hannah Rosenthal, the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, noted: “In the United States, we have a history over the last several decades of people with differences getting together to fight for each other’s differences, whether dealing with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s movement, the labor movement, and the list goes on.” Sadly, this is not always true that these bridges are built but we should continue to strive for this goal.

It is crucial that Jews continue to identify with other minorities in America. Thankfully, this is mostly still the case. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2012 study, 70 percent of American Jews are in support of the DREAM Act, which proposes a path of American citizenship for undocumented residents brought here as children and now enlisted in the military or in college. Further, a strong majority of American Jews today believe that immigrants strengthen American society. About two-thirds of American Jews believe that Muslims are an important part of the U.S. religious community. Minority groups of all kinds remain vulnerable in America, and it is crucial that American Jews, a minority group that is protected in America today, not forget its roots. Sad as it is to think about, we have witnessed many religious Jews in America and Israel slide into feelings of xenophobia and isolationism. We have to strive to combat these feelings, which will lead to a different more optimistic and inclusive model.

As we look at the state of the world, we mourn the brokenness of our people. The Jewish people are scattered all over the world and too many are lost and alienated from their roots. We seek to rebuild Jerusalem on both an earthly and heavenly plane, to strengthen our holy nation, and realign ourselves with our core Jewish values. Rebuilding ourselves, however, cannot mean isolating ourselves from other good people in the world or idealizing a separatist ideology. We cannot mean that we seek out gentiles to support our interests without our true partnership and solidarity with them and their issues as well. Rather, the Jewish people must stand in solidarity with all people in the world who believe in the just and holy. Rebuilding our nation cannot be at the expense of repairing the world. They are inextricable. We do not, and should not, stand alone.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”