The connection between Jewish nationhood and the Jewish religion goes back to God’s revelation to Abraham in Genesis, writes Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, and the two cannot be pulled apart now any more than they could be then:
Jewish particularism—the distinctive attachment and commitment to the Jewish people—is not an incidental component of Judaism, or a less-evolved, now irrelevant vestige of ancient days. It is its beating heart. Every biblical verse, every prophetic utterance, every talmudic discussion, every halakhic ruling, every prayer, emerges from, and assumes fealty to, the centrality of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel.
That said, from the beginning, Jewish peoplehood was a blend of both particular and universal impulses: “I have grasped you by the hand . . . and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations, opening eyes deprived of light” (Isaiah 42:6–7). Thus, God compelled a reluctant Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach the message of repentance and social repair. Our particular purpose was to represent universal moral values: “I have selected Abraham to do what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19). The urgency to do right compels Abraham to challenge God’s intention to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
[But] Judaism absent Jewish peoplehood is not Judaism; it is something else. Whenever Jews abandoned their ideological—or practical—commitment to Am Yisrael, they eventually drifted away.
Unlike every nation of antiquity that lived by our side, we did not disappear when our national sovereignty was dissolved. Miraculously and unprecedentedly, we learned to adapt and survive. But at no time was separation from the Land of Israel considered permanent. At no time did we abandon the dream of return. At no time did we consider dispersion to be a blessing. At no time did the rabbis sever Torah from Israel, or God from the people. At no time was tikkun olam—the universal demand to do what is just and right—ripped from the moorings of klal yisrael—the centrality of Jewish peoplehood. It was never one or the other.