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Religion Library: Judaism

Modern Age

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Herzl turned out to be a prophet in the sense that efforts by Jews to achieve full cultural integration after Emancipation never fully succeeded, nor did assimilation protect them from persecution. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime systematically deprived Jews in Germany and occupied Europe of their citizenship, forced them into ghettos, rounded them up, deported them to concentration camps, and finally murdered over six million of them.

The Jews had attempted to find a way to live in the modern state, while Hitler denied six million of them the right to live at all. Interestingly enough, with the exception of the Zionists, a majority of European Jewry up through 1933 and beyond still believed the solution to the Jewish Question lay in emancipation coupled with cultural assimilation or social integration. During the Holocaust, the Jews were perhaps victims of their own misplaced optimism in a modern state for whose actions there was no clear precedent in world history.

book cover, FackenheimIn 1948, Herzl's dream of establishing a State of Israel came true. Emil Fackenheim and other post-Holocaust Jewish theologians struggled to understand its connection to the Holocaust. Fackenheim argued that the Holocaust could not be understood as the necessary cause of the State of Israel, both for historical and theological reasons. It is historically problematic to make this claim, because Zionism was already a strong political and religious movement prior to World War II. Theologically, one cannot make this argument because it would make God out to be malicious by requiring six million Jews to be exterminated in order for the State of Israel to be established as a prelude to the messianic age.

Yet the two events are inextricably and fundamentally linked together in Jewish history. Therefore, according to Fackenheim, the establishment of the State of Israel must be understood as the most "authentic" human response to the Holocaust in order to preserve and rebuild the Jewish people after the destruction of European Jewry.

Fackenheim argues that in the post-Holocaust period, it is more important for Jews to be unified in order to prevent another Holocaust. This unity should take precedence over the cultural differences that remain among Jews. Yet this represents the unique characteristic of Judaism as a multiplicity of cultures rather than simply a religion. Jews after the Holocaust generally realize the significance of identifying with the Jewish people regardless of where they stand religiously or culturally, indicating the contemporary significance of Israel or Jewish personhood as a unifying factor transcending all other characteristics of Judaism. Yet it is important for Jews today to emphasize the rich, diverse culture(s) of Judaism as the reason to remain part of this community rather than defining oneself based on fear of the non-Jewish world.

This brings up the ongoing tension for the Jew today between particularism and universalism, raising the question as to whether Jews really have to deemphasize their particularity in order to integrate into the non-Jewish world. In this increasingly multicultural, post 9/11 world, the Jewish dilemma really serves as a model for the general predicament that all cultures face in terms of navigating the continually shifting borders between them.

Study Questions:
1.     What is “the Jewish Question”? What did its answers create?
2.     What was the Reform Movement? What response did it receive?
3.     Who was Zecharias Frankel? Mordecai Kaplan? What movements did they initiate?
4.     Why is the State of Israel important to Jewish identity?
5.     Describe the Holocaust. How are its effects still prevalent today?


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