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Religion Library: Judaism

Modern Age

Written by: Marc A. Krell

Theodor HerzlWhile the reformers in Germany were attempting to respond religiously to the modern "Jewish Question," the Zionist movement led by the Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was articulating a political response. Although originally arguing that Jews should be emancipated with complete assimilation, Herzl later wrote in his 1896 book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), that the only pragmatic solution to the problem involving Jewish emancipation is not through a failed social assimilation as individual Jews in the modern state, but rather through a collective auto-emancipation as a nation in their own civil state. Ironically the Zionist movement affirmed two contradictory yet complementary ideals: normalization of the Jews as a people like other nations with their own state, and the uniqueness of Israel, a divinely elected community with an attachment to a sacred land.

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.


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