On Being Seventy Nations and One

Managing Director’s Note: all Contributing Scholars begin writing by answering the following question as their first post: Why are you committed to building relationships with those from different religious or ethical traditions? Their answer to this question is below.

Our sages teach us that there are seventy nations in the world (Babylonian Talmud Sukkot 55b). They derive this concept from Genesis, in which the list of nations which descend from Noah is tallied up to seventy. The relationship between these seventy nations and the nation of Israel is a frequent topic of rabbinic imagination, speculation, and polemic.

Usually, the rabbinic comments on this concept express the typical human fears of otherness and self-annihilation. However, Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, a 19th century leader of the Livorno, Italy Jewish community and a noted kabbalist, wrote in his “Israel and Humanity” that, “despite the ethnic differences intended by God from the beginning, all peoples participate in a single plan, and according to the spirit of Judaism, this interdependence assumes a form which perfectly expresses the idea of humanity as a single organism.”

The relationships between us – between individuals, between nations, and between religions – dare to acknowledge God’s providence as extending to all of God’s creation. The effort to form relationships which embrace Rabbi Benamozegh’s ‘idea of humanity as a single organism,’ matter because the whole that is created through them is so much greater than the constituent parts.

The organism that our human species is depends on the interaction of all of its systems, just as any living creature does. To sustain that life, to ensure the health of the human species as a whole, it is essential that we approach ourselves and each other as pieces in a great puzzle – one piece of which affords only a partial and unsatisfactory view of the world. Only when we put the pieces together, when we connect the different systems that constitute the human organism, when we work beyond our boundaries to develop relationships with each other – it is only then that we can conceive of ourselves as we really are – seventy nations, but one people.

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