Once, after a business meeting I was asked this question by a Muslim engineer. A well-educated and highly intelligent person, he contributed his talents and knowledge to the common good of our society. His question was, I guess, common among non-Jews who live with us in the same neighborhoods and cities.
“Why do you Jews separate yourselves from the rest of us? Do you think you are somehow better than we are?"
B-H I did have an answer for him, and that answer I would like to share now with my readers.
Among the nations of the world, there are countless narratives about the creation of the universe and the beginnings of man. According to those accounts, creation of the world involved a whole assortment of different elements ranging from fighting gods to gigantic eggs, turtles, elephants and more. All of those fanciful stories describe different ways that the world supposedly came to be, and how humanity was first recognized as a people.
Lehavdil, the story recounted in the Torah, although for some scoffers may look equally fantastic, is in many ways different from the various other interpretations of creation. I will not dwell on the topic of briyas haolam – Creation itself in this essay; I will focus rather on one specific aspect of the Biblical account.
When you ask any Jewish kid attending a religious school the question: Which precept of the Torah is the most important of them all? He will probably answer, or even sing to you the song: "Umar rabbi Akiva, umar rabbi Akiva… Rabbi Akiva said: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' This is a great principle of the Torah.”
Well, it is impossible to disagree with such a statement. Love, or at least mutual respect, is the most highly admirable and desired characteristic for any G-d-fearing person in the world. I can safely say it is the most fundamental dogma in almost every modern religion. This so-called 'golden rule' became the foundation of human civilization and the tenet of most societies, not only in theory but surely also to a certain extent in practice. These days, relatively fewer people are being killed by other human beings than in times prior. (Although, on the other hand, today there are some men in possession of weapons with the ability to annihilate masses of people, and bring an unprecedented death toll upon the world.)
But…Talmud Yerushalmi, (Nedurim) brings a different opinion about which precept in the Torah is most important: "Ben Azzai disagreed. The verse 'This is the book of the descendants of Adam, whom G-d made in His likeness' (Genesis 5:1). This principle is even greater."
This is just a sampling of the sweet taste of our beloved Talmud. Rabbi Akiva tells us to love our neighbor, our brother, our friend. But is this dictum really an unshakeable statement? Indeed, someone might ask: Who is this neighbor that we should honor; who is this brother that we should love? According to some foreign beliefs, the answers to that question can vary. After all, if we all evolved from different chimpanzees, hatched from different eggs, or were born from different battling gods, then we don't really have that much in common with one another. We're not exactly brothers, are we? We're more like individual entities that happen to coexist on earth together.
But then came Rabbi Ben Azzai with his proposition.
All people are descendants of a single pair of parents. We were not created from different fighting gods who were ripped to pieces, as the Mesopotamian mythology describes. They were not built from different physical materials. We didn’t evolve from different species of monkeys under disparate trees. We are all children of one human, created by One G-d in His likeness.
How exceptional is this message!? How different from anything conceived by the ancient world.
In today’s reality, everybody claims the truth of brotherly love as his own. Christians, Muslims, and even members of religious movements that didn’t sprout from the Jewish root are proud of spreading this memorandum. However, it is the Jewish Torah which, as the first written sours in human history, teaches equality for all human beings with the narrative of Hashem's creation of Adam, the first father of humanity, from clay. The same clay was used in the birth of one man, and all of mankind. It is Jewish Talmud which places this precept as the most important of all verses in the Torah. And it is the Jewish nation to whom this Torah was entrusted.
Yes, we hold ourselves separate from the other nations and societies.
We work together with them. We live together with them. We have great interest in politics and other events concerning the countries in which we live. We are electing and sometimes we are elected. We pay what we owe to support a common goal. We engage in various projects which bring progress and prosperity to a broad society.
However, we have rules and regulation which do not allow us to be completely integrated with other groups of people in certain areas of life. And the reason for our separation is precisely this one: to upkeep this ancient Jewish teaching, that all people of the earth are descendants of the same parents. We are all brothers and sisters. Brotherhood is the reality for which we all wait, and for which we have a prophetic promise that will someday come true. It will come, however, only when we remember that this is what G-d entrusted to us.
If we wouldn't keep ourselves separate? If we wouldn't detach ourselves as a nation, from all the other societies, religions and civilizations in the world, then our story of truth; our message of morality; our belief in the oneness of creation would be lost. Without the Jews standing as pillars of the past, the future would soon be forgotten.