The State of Israel and Jewish Faith

Shalom Goldman: Photo by Jon RouBy Shalom Goldman

Today, the future of Judaism is inextricably linked to the State of Israel. My assessment is that that link will only grow stronger in the near and distant future. That Jewish communal life is linked to Israel is self-evident. My focus here is on Jewish religious thought and practice, areas in which the extraordinary changes that have taken place over the past half-century are only now becoming clear. If we look back four decades to how American Jewish thinkers approached the burning Jewish religious questions of the mid-1960s, we can get a sense of the magnitude of change.

In 1966, Commentary Magazine asked a group of American Jewish thinkers to comment on "the condition of Jewish belief." Thirty-eight people responded to the call, among them prominent rabbis and academicians from a wide representative spectrum of Jewish life. In the group were some of the emerging "stars" of the Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox movements -- Eugene Borowitz, Seymour Siegel, and Emanuel Rackman, respectively -- and one young scholar, Rabbi Zalman Shachter, who would later create his own movement, Jewish Renewal.

The two great questions that came up in their theological ruminations were 1) the question of Jewish "chosenness," a concept then becoming increasingly problematic in the great American melting pot; and 2) the concept of divine revelation as the basis of Jewish law and life. Within the secular and ecumenical trends then dominant in American public life, chosenness and revelation seemed anachronistic and irrelevant. The scholars in the Commentary symposium presented a wide variety of Jewish approaches to these questions. As topics for reflection, both chosenness and revelation were issues with long histories in the Jewish past, and it seemed that consideration of them would rule the Jewish future, at least as far as the theologians and scholars of Jewish texts were concerned. But they did not even mention the religious questions that dominate the Jewish religious conversation today. Foremost among them is the religious meaning of the State of Israel, and the wider context in which that meaning is expressed, that of Messianism.

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Looking at this document forty-four years later, the thing that struck me most forcefully is what is not mentioned in any of these scholar's reflections -- the religious implications and influence of the establishment of the State of Israel. I don't think that these thinkers were dodging or evading the issue. Rather, they were "rabbis" (in the pre-modern sense of "teachers," whether they were ordained formally or not); they were not prophets. And in the summer of 1966, only a prophet would have understood that the Jewish religion was already undergoing a process of transformation, one that would be rapidly accelerated by events which would transpire within a year of the publication of the Commentary symposium.

In contrast with the Christian and Islamic traditions, Rabbinic Judaism asserts that prophecy ended with the last three prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Hagai, Malachai, Zechariah) and that therefore Jews no longer have prophets; they have rabbis who preserve and interpret the traditions handed down at Sinai. We also have no Messiah, or more precisely, our Messiah is permanently delayed. As Franz Kafka put it, "the Messiah will arrive only on the day after he is supposed to get here." Over the centuries, claimants to the role of prophet and/or messiah arose, but they were rejected and marginalized by the normative Jewish tradition, and the followers of some of them -- Jesus and Shabbtai Zevi, for example -- founded their own sects or religions.

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.

7/12/2010 4:00:00 AM
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