Ohr Lagoyim / “Light unto the Nations”

See the Introduction to Sacred Slogans for methodology and goals
Click here for a downloadable PDF source sheet

Sacred Slogans

Much of the Torah is particularistic, that is, for or about Jews exclusively. For example, we find particularistic sentiments such as like the Jews being chosen by God to be a treasured nation over all others1 or God giving the Torah to the Jewish people to the exclusion of gentiles.2 At the same time, there are also expressions of universalism, where the scope of Torah extends to the entire world beyond the Jewish nation such as Isaiah 2:1-4.3 

Following in a universalist mindset, there are those who claim that Jews have a national mission to become exemplars to the rest of the world, however defined. The sacred slogan behind this claim is that the Jews ought to be, “ohr lagoyim” / “a light unto the nations.”

This interpretation of “a light unto the nations” is by no means relegated to liberal Judaisms.  Even major establishment Orthodox institutions have adopted this universalistic aspect of a nationalist responsibility, as seen in this 2017 joint statement between the Rabbinical Council of America, the Council of European Rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel:

We understand our Jewish mission to include being a light unto the nations, which obliges us to contribute to humanity’s appreciation for holiness, morality and piety.4

Whether or not Jews do in fact have a national mission beyond keeping God’s commandments is outside our current scope. However, the question of what Torah means by “light unto the nations” and to what extent Torah concerns itself with what gentiles think of Jews is far more manageable and no less important.

Biblical Sources

The phrase “light unto the nations” is sourced from two verses in Isaiah: Is. 42:6, and 49:6.

Isaiah 42:5-9
This is what God the Lord says—the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light unto the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
ישעיהו מב:ה-ט
ה) כֹּה אָמַר הָאֵל יְקֹוָק בּוֹרֵא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנוֹטֵיהֶם רֹקַע הָאָרֶץ וְצֶאֱצָאֶיהָ נֹתֵן נְשָׁמָה לָעָם עָלֶיהָ וְרוּחַ לַהֹלְכִים בָּהּ: (ו) אֲנִי יְקֹוָק קְרָאתִיךָ בְצֶדֶק וְאַחְזֵק בְּיָדֶךָ וְאֶצָּרְךָ וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם: (ז) לִפְקֹחַ עֵינַיִם עִוְרוֹת לְהוֹצִיא מִמַּסְגֵּר אַסִּיר מִבֵּית כֶּלֶא יֹשְׁבֵי חֹשֶׁךְ: (ח) אֲנִי יְקֹוָק הוּא שְׁמִי וּכְבוֹדִי לְאַחֵר לֹא אֶתֵּן וּתְהִלָּתִי לַפְּסִילִים: (ט) הָרִאשֹׁנוֹת הִנֵּה בָאוּ וַחֲדָשׁוֹת אֲנִי מַגִּיד בְּטֶרֶם תִּצְמַחְנָה אַשְׁמִיעַ אֶתְכֶם
Isaiah 49:6
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light unto the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
ישעיהו מט:ו
וַיֹּאמֶר נָקֵל מִהְיוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד לְהָקִים אֶת שִׁבְטֵי יַעֲקֹב ונצירי וּנְצוּרֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהָשִׁיב וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם לִהְיוֹת יְשׁוּעָתִי עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ

The most critical point to make is that the Hebrew text does not actually say אור לגוים/ohr lagoyim but rather לאור גוים/le’ohr goyim which more precisely translates to, “a light of nations.” In fact, the exact expression of “ohr lagoyim” does not appears anywhere in Biblical or Rabbinic literature.

Furthermore, according to the Biblical text it is not the Jewish people who make themselves a “light unto the nations,” but God who causes the Jewish people to have this status through divine intervention. There is no commandment or directive for Jews to be a “light unto the nations,” as much as it will be the consequence of divine intervention.

According to Dr. David Ariel, this flagrant departure from the Biblical text was intentional:

In the eighteenth century, the founders of the Reform move­ment began to play down the role of the commandments and exalt the ethical dimensions of Judaism. The change in emphasis within Reform Judaism was evident in the renewed attention paid to the role of the Jewish people as “a light of nations” [Heb. le-or goyyim; cf. Isaiah 49:6].

In order to highlight this role, the expression was changed to “a light unto the nations [Heb. or le-goyyim]. ” Such a subtle shift stressed that Israel was not only to be a moral exemplar but to see its re­ligion as missionary, with morality as the Jewish mission. [Emphasis added]

What Dr. Ariel calls a “subtle shift” could also be described as, “revisionism:” consciously amending the text in order to appropriate Biblical authority.5

The distortion of the Biblical text is sufficient to dismiss the Sacred Slogan “light unto the nations” as it is popularly used, but I believe it is worthwhile to address the sentiment regarding to what extent Torah is concerned with how gentiles perceive Jews since this can create an internal tension. If there is a religious obligation to gain favor in the eyes of the gentiles, then religious authority has effectively been outsourced. Religious legitimacy would no longer depend on the texts of the Bible, but would be conditional on the validation of outsiders.

Concern for Reputation

In several instances in the Bible, we find appeals to God to take certain actions based on God’s reputation among the gentile nations. Moses twice prays to God to spare the Jewish people despite their sins because of what gentiles (particularly Egypt) would say about God. By the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses expresses concern that the Egyptians will say God, “in wickedness took the Jews out of Egypt in order to kill them in the mountains.”6 After the sin of the twelve spies, Moses’ claims that nations would say God, “was not able to bring his people into the land which he swore to them, so he killed them in the desert.”7

Moses invokes God’s reputation among the gentiles to save the Jewish people, the psalmist Assaf makes a similar appeal in the name of vengeance:

Psalms 79:6-11
Pour out your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge you, on the kingdoms that do not call on your name; for they have devoured Jacob and devastated his homeland. Do not hold against us the sins of past generations; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Before our eyes, make known among the nations that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
תהלים עט:ו-י
(ו) שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ: (ז) כִּי אָכַל אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ: (ח) אַל תִּזְכָּר לָנוּ עֲוֹנֹת רִאשֹׁנִים מַהֵר יְקַדְּמוּנוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ כִּי דַלּוֹנוּ מְאֹד: (ט) עָזְרֵנוּ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעֵנוּ עַל דְּבַר כְּבוֹד שְׁמֶךָ וְהַצִּילֵנוּ וְכַפֵּר עַל חַטֹּאתֵינוּ לְמַעַן שְׁמֶךָ: (י) לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ הַגּוֹיִם אַיֵּה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם יִוָּדַע בגיים בַּגּוֹיִם לְעֵינֵינוּ נִקְמַת דַּם עֲבָדֶיךָ הַשָּׁפוּךְ

The effectiveness of appealing to God’s reputation remains unclear. Moses’ pleas were answered affirmatively, though we do not know if God’s reputation was a factor.

In any event, these just a few examples where God’s reputation among the gentiles is considered something God ought to consider, or at least from the perspective of humans. I believe this is consistent with original meaning of le’ohr goyim where it is God’s intervention which elevates his reputation.

Jews as Role Models

The relationship is not entirely unilateral either. Just as God’s reputation can be elevated through his intervention, the Jewish people’s reputation can be elevated by obeying God’s commandments.

Deuteronomy 4:5-6
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
דברים ד:ה-ו
(ה) רְאֵה לִמַּדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוַּנִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהָי לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּאִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: (ו) וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה

This esteem from the gentiles is a consequence of observing the commandments, but reputation is not the telos/purpose of Torah.8

Concern for Reputation in Jewish Law

Jewish law sometimes accounts for how Jews are perceived by gentiles. One example is the prohibition of Hillul Hashem or “desecrating the name of God,” a transgression so severe that neither repentance, nor Yom Kippur, nor suffering can atone for the sin; only death can provide full absolution.9 Desecrating God’s name is not limited to violating commandments, but includes permitted behaviors which cause people to look upon Jews and Torah unfavorably.10

For example, according to Biblical law, Jews are commanded to return the lost objects of other Jews.11 This does not apply to returning the lost items of gentiles, such that according to strict Jewish law, a Jew who finds the lost object of a gentile is permitted to keep it.12 However, if not returning the lost item would cause a desecration of God’s name, then keeping the lost item would be prohibited.13 In this case, something which is technically permitted by Jewish law becomes prohibited solely due to the social consequence of how Jews would be perceived.

We find another example demonstrating concern for reputation among the gentiles among laws pertaining to converts. According to Jewish law, converts have no halakhic ties to their family but rather are “like a newborn.”14 Technically, this would mean that a convert who sleeps with a biological sibling would not be committing incest in the eyes of halakhah. However, such relations are still prohibited lest people say that the convert, “went from a higher level of sanctity to a lower one.”15 Maimonides employs this principle and suggests that converts are obligated to honor their parents, despite not having an inherent halakhic obligation to do so.16

Torah Takes Precedence

We have seen evidence where Jewish law takes the perception of gentiles into consideration. But all these examples follow a pattern of forbidding an otherwise permitted action. Restricting what is permitted does not contract existing law, as opposed to permitting (or requiring) what is forbidden or exempting what is obligated. When there is a tension between the perception of gentiles and following Torah, the obligations of Torah take precedence.

Nowhere is the rejection of gentile’s opinions more apparent than in the times of persecution. Not only are Jews not expected to satisfy the gentiles, but halakhah demands resistance, sometimes at the expense of one’s own life, rather than transgress even a minor commandment.17 Jewish history is filled with martyrs who gave their lives to continue teaching Torah in the face of government persecution, including R. Akiva,18 Yehuda b. Bava,19 and R. Hanina b. Teradyon.20 All of them ignored the government edicts in order to preserve Torah.

Even when there is no time of persecution, Rava distinguishes between a gentile who wants a Jew to violate a commandment to provide personal benefit and those for whom there is no benefit, but rather just wants the Jew to violate Torah.21

Beyond these examples, we find other sources requiring or praising distinctive behavior or thought. Torah explicitly commands the Jewish people to reject the laws and practices of the Egyptians or Canaanite nations in favor of keeping Torah.22 In the book of Psalms we find a rejection of the gentiles’ question of “where is God?” rather than follow their thinking.23 According to a midrash in the name of R. Huna, Jews merited being redeemed from Egypt for not changing their names or dress (among other things).24

Conclusions

Whether or not Jews do in fact have a national mission towards the gentiles is for now an open question, but if one does exist, we can definitively reject “light unto the nations” as the textual basis for it in the Torah on the grounds that it requires distorting the Biblical text without the imprimatur of the authoritative interpretive tradition.

This does not mean Torah is unconcerned with how Jews are perceived by gentiles. When there is no conflict with Jewish law, it would seem Jews ought to behave in accordance with the ethical norms of the secular world. But when these ethics require violating Torah, we are under obligation to follow God’s will over gentiles.

This has caused a great deal of conflict among those who try to balance religious obligations with modern secular sensibilities. If I may offer a parting homiletical thought, in the daily blessing before reciting the morning shema we pray that God should enlighten our eyes to his Torah to love and fear God, and we should not be embarrassed or ashamed.25 Certain actions Jews take may bring shame to the Jewish community, but Jews should never be ashamed of following God’s Torah.

Notes

  1. Deut. 7:6, 14:2
  2. B. Sanhedrin 59b. Cf. B. Avoda Zara 2b, also in the name of R. Yohanan.
  3. For one approach on universalism and particularism in Jewish texts, see Dr. Malka Simkhovitch’s “The Origins of Jewish Universalism: What it is, and Why it Matters.”
  4. Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate p. 13
  5. Some may object that Rabbinic texts are full of similar expositions which also depend on textual emendations. In fact, there is even precedent for the precise method used to shift from “le’ohr goyim” to “ohr la’goyim” in the form of “גורעין ומוסיפין ודורשין” – “we remove, add, and exposit” (B. Zevahim 25a). The merits of this objection depends on how one views rabbinic authority. For example, according to Maimonides, only the Sanhedrin has the authority to approve of legal exegesis through a formal process of deliberation and acceptance (Mamrim 2:1). It is impossible to know for certain which interpretations were created from whole cloth and which were received through some sort of oral tradition, and may depend on one’s narrative of how Jewish law develops. Cf. Robert Cover “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term — Forward: Nomos and Narrative.” This touches on foundational questions of authority regarding who has the right to do what which I discuss at length in my class series on the halakhic process. Also, see the Sacred Slogans entry on “70 Faces of Torah / These and Those are the Words of the Living God.”
  6. Ex. 32:12
  7. Num. 14:13-16
  8. R. Yehoshua B. Levi interprets this verse antagonistically, that the commandments will be a cudgel against the gentile nations in the world to come (B. Avoda Zara 4b).
  9. B. Yoma 86a
  10. B. Yoma 86a. The opinion of Yitzchak from the school of Yannai is that one’s friends are ashamed of his reputation. This could be interpreted as referring specifically to Jews, but the statements of R. Nachman b Yitzchak and Abaye appeal to people in general, which would ostensibly include gentiles.
  11. Deut. 22:1-3
  12. B. Bava Kamma 113b
  13. B. Bava Kamma 113b
  14. B. Yevamot 22a
  15. B. Yevamot 22a
  16. Hilkhot Mamrim 5:11
  17. B. Sanhedrin 74a
  18. B. Berakhot 61b
  19. B. Sanhedrin 14a-b
  20. B. Avoda Zara 18a
  21. B. Sanhedrin 74b
  22. Lev. 18:1-5
  23. Ps. 115:1-3
  24. Lev. Rabba Emor 32:5. For more on this midrash and its parallels, see R. Elli Fischer’s, “‘They did not Change their Names, their Language, or their Dress’: The Life-cycle of a Peculiar Midrashic Variant
  25. There is some minor variation between the Ashkenaz and Sephard versions. I say this only as a homiletical idea because the prayer could refer to the embarrassment one experiences from having sinned. See B. Berakhot 16b.

Send this to a friend