Future of Judaism
The State of Israel and Jewish Faith
Thus the Messiah was delayed -- until the Zionist movement and the establishment of Israel suggested a new understanding of Messianism. For Messianism, banished by the rabbis throughout the two thousand years since the Bar Kochba revolt, had during the 20th century come back in full-force. The drama of the destruction of European Jewry and the subsequent (if not necessarily consequent) establishment of Israel provided an almost irresistible temptation to encourage messianic expectation and engage in messianic speculation. This was a temptation that American Evangelical Christianity embraced and that Judaism in all of its varieties and forms was not able to resist. While some Israeli scholars warned against the political excesses that might result from the heady mix of nationalism, religion, and Messianism -- and here I am thinking of the exhortations of Gershom Scholem, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Eliezer Goldman -- their warnings were for the most part ignored.
We are now living in the middle of this transformation of Judaism, and it is therefore very difficult to know where in the process we stand. But it is clear that 1967 was the pivotal point in the process. The symposium was conducted in the summer of 1966. The following summer, the summer of the Six-Day War, everything changed. The very name "Six-Day War" (provided by General Moshe Dayan) was coined to evoke the biblical six days of creation. A new world was being created -- not only in the geopolitical sense, but also in the ideological, mythic, and religious senses. Yes, the balance of power in the Middle East changed, as did the configuration of the U.S.-Soviet power struggle. But in terms of the history of religious ideas, the war's most unexpected consequence was to hasten the transformation of the Jewish religion from a text-based tradition of creative speculation to one of unshakeable certainty -- not in chosenness or revelation but in the sanctity and centrality of Israel, the modern state.
Today, forty-four years after that war, Israel is at the center of Jewish religious life. That concern about the State has been at the center of Jewish communal life has long been accepted -- a development that pleases many and dismays others. But now the centrality of Israel is at the core of Jewish religious life. As a prominent rabbi told me recently, "In next week's sermon I could question God's actions in today's world and no one would bat an eyelash. If I were to question the State of Israel's actions I might not get out of the synagogue alive. At the very least I would lose my pulpit."
My conversation partner was a Conservative Rabbi, but he could just as well have been a Reform or Modern Orthodox Rabbi.
How did this transformation come about? Not through some mysterious inevitable historical process, but through the intentions and actions of some very charismatic leaders. Through their influence, the "creation" (again, note the biblical word) of Israel and the "unification" of its "eternal, undivided capital," Jerusalem, have moved from the periphery of Judaism to its center.
If the State of Israel was the Messiah, David ben Gurion was its prophetic figure. But like Marx, Freud, and other modern prophets of Jewish descent, he prophesied the end of religion as we know it. In the late 1950s, Ben Gurion articulated his notion of "Israelism." In keeping with the assertively secular ideology of the most influential Zionist thinkers, Ben Gurion anticipated that Israel-the-place would replace Judaism-the-religion as the focus of Jewish life. Diaspora Jewry -- and here Ben Gurion's remarks were addressed directly to the Jews of the United States -- had to concede pride of place and influence to Israel. Jewish religious practice, which he and his fellow secularists considered an impediment to authentic national development, would be superseded by Zionism's achievement -- the State. The core rabbinic text, the Talmud, would be replaced by a return to the Bible -- a book long neglected by the rabbis in favor of the classical rabbinic texts.