Parshat Balak: Jews: Assimilation vs. Integration
Rabbanit Elisheva and Rabbi Binyamin Goldstein , Straus-Amiel shlichim, are the Rabbinical couple of the Jewish community of Modena and Reggio Emilia. Rabbi Binyamin is also teacher at the Rabbinical seminary in Rome, where he is grooming the next generation of Italian rabbis
“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall consider not the nations.” (Bamidbar 23:9)
“It is a people that shall dwell alone” – does this mean we should avoid assimilation, or does this also advise us against integration?
We are all familiar with Bil’am’s words which express the separateness of the People of Israel – a nation unto itself, one which has preserved its unique character traits throughout time. And yet this description of the People of Israel has been interpreted as both a blessing as well as a curse. (I recall a moment back in the 1990s when a certain politician, who was extremely enthusiastic about the peace process that was underway at the time, proclaimed with great festivity – “No more a nation unto itself!” I imagine he had read this verse as a curse…)
Notwithstanding the above, it is quite clear that Bil’am perceived the People of Israel as unique, a nation that does not share the same fate as that of the other nations of the world – merely to be born, to live, to grow and then to die. No, this nation is destined for greater things. Despite being a minority group among the Gentiles, this People will not assimilate and blend into the nations living around them, but will remain eternally separate, distinct in its nature, unique in its destiny.
Throughout the generations there were Jews who wished to assimilate (on a human level, this is quite understandable) in the hope of putting an end to what they perceived to be intolerable suffering. But these attempts were never successful (at least not collectively), which only goes to show that the words of the Torah are true for all times.
However, one might ask whether assimilation equates with integration. These two terms are usually perceived as denoting one and the same; however, in my opinion, there is a huge difference between them.
Assimilation usually refers to the utter and complete integration of a minority group into the general public, so much so, that after a short time (no more than a generation or two) the minority group has completely blended into the majority group and is no longer distinguishable in any way (except, perhaps, for a few folklore signs and symbols, which are mostly preserved for commercial purposes).
I think the best example of this would be the American melting pot. The first waves of immigration arriving in the New World from Europe in the 20th Century assimilated completely into the local population. I was astonished to hear from an American acquaintance of mine that Americans of Italian descent have preserved almost nothing of their Italian culture or language except for their original family name.
I think this is what the verse is referring to when it says: “It is a people that shall dwell alone”. In other words, it is a nation that does not assimilate.
“Integration,” however, refers to an entirely different situation: The minority group preserves its unique identity, language, religion and culture, but concurrently adheres to local customs and norms. “A people that shall dwell alone” does not refer to this situation.
Jews living in different places have always differed from each other in the clothes they wore, the food they ate and the language they spoke. This is typical of a minority group living within a local majority.
And so it happened that I heard the same piyyut [Jewish liturgical song recited during the prayer services] about the Binding of Yitzhak recited during the Yom Kippur service in a number of different places. When I heard it sung in the synagogue of the Lebanese Jewish community, it was sung to a typical eastern melody. However, when I heard the same piyyut sung in an Italian synagogue it was set to the tune of one of of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas.
It follows then that when it comes to assimilation, the Torah warns us against it and says – “It is a people that shall dwell alone”; however, as to integration – one might say “and the nations shall you definitely consider.”
The age-old Jewish community of Modena is a small one, and is situated in the center of Italy, half way between Milan and Florence. The city was the dwelling place of Rabbi Yishmael HaKohen, author of the Halachic responsa titled Zera Emet. Rabbi Yishmael HaKohen was considered to be the last of the great Italian Halachic scholars.
Currently, the community has no more than one hundred members; however, a few years ago the community had to choose between opening a museum or investing in a community rabbi, and an overwhelming majority voted for the latter, thus expressing their desire to continue functioning as a community.