Sunday, July 6, 2014

What is Necessary for a Decent Religious Zionism

In the preceding post I spoke about Israeli religious Zionism today. I did not mean to say that all religious Zionists in Israel adopt the morality of the enlightened colonialist or that of the unenlightened tribalist.  That’s not the case. But sadly,  I cannot think of one Israeli-born and educated rabbi whose moral teachings fall outside that spectrum.  (Readers are invited to send me names, and directions where I can send my donation.)

Religious Zionism wasn’t always like this, and it doesn’t have to be. By “religious Zionism” I mean a Zionism that rests on a Jewish religious world-view. Since there are many “Zionisms” and many “Jewish religious world-views” that’s a very broad definition. “Religious Zionism” more narrowly defined is the belief that Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel has religious significance, that it is a Divine blessing, or at the very least a positive challenge, and not a curse or a punishment, or neutral. Even this is vague, because religious people will disagree over how God works in history, and how fathomable is his plan.  For some, the state of Israel is the beginning of the final redemption; for others it is the actual redemption; for still others, who are more modest in their claims, it is simply a very good thing for the Jewish people; we should see God’s hand in it, and thank Him accordingly.

I never was a statist religious Zionist. States have no religious significance for me, and although I believe that history is not neutral or indifferent, I am inherently skeptical about identifying God’s working in it.  So I was never even remotely attracted to the notion that the State of Israel was athalta de-geulah, the “beginning of redemption,” and I have always shared Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s characterization of the Gush Emunim/settler movement as a perversion of Judaism.

The more I became educated about the Palestinian Catastrophe, the more I became certain that it is as wrong to look for God’s hand in the establishment of the State of Israel just as it is wrong to look for God’s hand in the  Holocaust.  To attribute a religious meaning to either Shoah or Nakba beyond the admittedly deflationary idea that the response to both should be soul-searching and teshuvah/repentance, is inappropriate at best, sacrilegious at worst.  Of course, one can be happy in one’s lot, and one can be grateful for a Jewish home or homeland, and in that sense, the religious person will want to God to thank for that. If a drunk driver is the only survivor of a car crash for which he is responsible, he may thank God that he lives, even though he has caused the death of others.  But to see his survival as God’s“miracle”? Hardly.

Once I was asked whether I thought that the establishment of the State of Israel was a miracle.  Well, my God doesn’t make miracles that cost innocent people their lives, liberty, and land.  I am not interested in any god that has anything to do with causing the suffering of innocents. Worshipping such a god is idolatrous, in my opinion.  

Religious Zionism did not have to go down that route, and indeed, as I have written before, some of it did not. (See also here.) From the  beginning there were a handful of religious Zionists who were sensitive, sometimes more sensitive than the secularists, to what Zionism was doing to the natives of Palestine. They were educated in Europe, and so perhaps some religious Zionists would say today that they had a galut/exilic mentality. In any event,  they refused to have a Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs. And when they were unsuccessful in stopping such a state from arising, they protested the injustices committed in its  name.

What are the necessary conditions for a decent religious Zionism? (I say “decent” rather than “ideal,” lest I be accused of positing an unattainable high standard.)   The first condition is hakaret ha-het, the  recognition that we Jews have sinned, and continue to sin, against the Palestinian people. This is the greatest moral challenge facing the Jewish people today. The second condition is teshuva, returning/repenting, making amends for what have done, and what we do.  For a Zionist, that specifically means, in addition to addressing the needs of the Palestinians today, creating a political framework in the Land of Israel/Palestine that is a decent and fair political framework for all its people. Within that framework some measure of Jewish self-determination can be attained, but not at the expense of Palestinian Arab self-determination, and with neither self-determinations at the expense of the life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of all.  This is the attainable goal to which we can aspire, and insofar as one attributes to that goal religious significance, that is what religious Zionism could become, im yirzeh ha-Shem, insha’Allah, if God wills.

That is, if we will it.


Shaun said...

“ my God doesn’t make miracles that cost innocent people their lives, liberty, and land. I am not interested in any god that has anything to do with causing the suffering of innocents. Worshipping such a god is idolatrous, in my opinion.”
Did your god make sure that only the guilty Egyptians died or suffered during the Israelite exodus?
Did your god ensure that Joshua only slaughtered the guilty inhabitants of Jericho and the surrounding lands?
When you celebrate Chanukah are you sure that only guilty Hellenists were killed by the Chashmonaim?
Expanding on my comment in your previous post. It’s easy to claim liberal values and Jewish values are the same when they conveniently overlap. But often they don’t and you need to decide where you stand.

Jerry Haber said...

Shaun, please don't make assumptions. Did I say anything about the cases you mentioned. The answer according to the Bible is that there is no such thing as individual responsibility and those peoples were guilty. Had there been righteous in Sodom they would have been saved, and, indeed, the wicked as well -- because in that case the city would not have been justly destroyed. Now, I don't share those assumptions. I believe in individual responsibility. But show me where the Bible explicitly countenances the slaughter of innocents?

Jerry Haber said...

You seem to think that what the Bible says on its own is of relevance to a traditional Jew. You must have confused me with a Protestant or some Evangelical!

Sydney Nestel said...

You wrote: "“Religious Zionism” more narrowly defined is the belief that Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel has religious significance, that it is a Divine blessing, or at the very least a positive challenge, and not a curse or a punishment, or neutral."

1. It is my understanding that Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines, the founder of Mizrachi, did not believe in the religious significance of a Jewish State - other than to believe it was allowed. He supported Zionism because of the excessive suffering of Jews in the Diaspora, and because of the need to literally save their lives. Because of this, he was one of the few Zionist of his day who supported Herzl's "Uganda Plan". His argument against the Talmuds famous three nos, was that the condition that the Nations would not oppress Israel too much, had been broken.

2) I don't know if yo consider Leibowitz a Religious Zionist - but he was definitely Religious and a Zionist. He believed that the Jews had a right to a State, because all nations should have that right if they choose to exercise it. And, I believe, that he believed that the State had religious significance - as a test to see if the People of Israel had learned the moral lessons of Hurban HaBayit and 2000 years of Diaspora.

Jerry Haber said...

About Rav Reines, who, as you know, died around 1915. He saw very much religious significance in the return to Zion, and to Hibbat Tziyon, and he argued with the haredi anti-Zionists on this point. Uganda, he claimed was only temporary, and that the real goal was the Land of Israel.Yes,he was more pragmatic, but he was unbending in his adherence to religion and demanded of his followers to be the same. He saw modern Zionism to be a continuation of the age old desire to return to Zion.

Jerry Haber said...

Leibowitz considered himself a religious Zionist, and he saw the positive value in Zionism being the fact that the Jews were masters of their fate, and not subject to the subjection of the gentiles. Yet he did not see any religious significance to the state, which would be, for him, idolatrous or facist. He certainly opposed both the followers of Rav Kook, and the mainstream Mizrahi, which formed an alliance with Mapai, which allowed them to preserve the status quo in religion and state matters.

He did think that the Jews were being morally tested because of their new power, but that was not what he would call the religious significance of the state. Or so I understand him.

Geoff Kl said...

But show me where the Bible explicitly countenances the slaughter of innocents?


btw, questioning the hand of G-d being present in everything that occurs in this world, whether bad or good, borders on apikorses.

of course, not in your religion...which kind of looks like observant judaism, but actually isnt

its like the observant judaism of one dennis praeger, who has melded far rightwing ideology into what he thinks is judaism

you have melded far leftist ideology into yours

thats all well and good...everyone has freedom of choice

but you really shouldnt expect others to pay it any mind

CD-Host said...

Well, my God doesn’t make miracles that cost innocent people their lives, liberty, and land.

Wow. Your Jewish God first uses the term "miracle" in Exodus 4 when he's describing the process that will unravel ending in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, death of the firstborn. Or take Isaiah 8 where the signs and miracles are foreign armies being destroyed so thoroughly that the nations behind them will be broken. So it appears God disagrees with you about his properties. Shaun is quite right in his critique. Your counter argument about collective guilt is fine but then you need to hedge what you are writing in terms of collective guilt: that otherwise innocent individuals can be slaughtered because collectively their people incur collective guilt. You can't casually move from one moral frame to the other.

Its fine if you want a pacifistic, humanistic God. But don't call yourself Orthodox. The god you are describing is not the God of scripture.

Jerry Haber said...


There is one place in scripture (well, excepting Job), where the possibility of God killing innocents is treated. That is in the Sodom story, where Abraham asks, "Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?" I think you know what the answer is in that case. God does not kill innocents and He does not kill the righteous. Period. So if there are people that you and I might consider innocent, the Bible either does not consider them innocent or does not consider them to be independent persons. In the case of the first born of the Egyptians, the Bible does not consider them innocent or guilty; it doesn't consider them as persons at all, but rather as extensions of the wicked Egyptians. Ditto, by the way, for Isaac in the binding of Isaac story. The Bible -- according to pshat, the simple meaning -- has no moral qualm about Abraham sacrificing Isaac, because the young Isaac has no independent status as a person and only represents Abraham's survival, and so the command to offer Isaac as an offering, is really a command for Abraham to eliminate his own survival and posterity, i.e., his line.

Now you say you are not Jewish, and perhaps you are a Protestant, who reads the Bible literally. Jews, especially orthodox Jews do not. We believe it is the word of God, but we also believe that "the Torah speaks in the language of men", i.e., it formulates its stories and descriptions in ways that simple people of the time will understand. But as orthodox Jews, we accept other notions, such as there being 70 aspects of Torah, and one of them being rabbinic interpretation. So when the Bible says "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" or when it describes God in physical terms, or as having emotions, we understand that this is not to be taken literally, and our rabbis teach us this. Moreover, on ethical questions, we see that throughout the centuries, great rabbinic scholars have tried to explain passages which seem inconsistent with Torah morality as interpreted through the ages. The binding of Isaac is a perfect example of this, but there are others. The rabbis were struck by the apparent inconsistency of the Torah notion of "God visits the sins of the fathers on the children" with the notion that "If the fathers have sinned, should the children's teeth be set on edge?" They resolve it in various ways in the Talmud.

Had you been able to find a case where the God of the Bible says, "Despite the fact that these people are innocent, I will kill them", I could understand your point. Had He said that to Job, I could have understood your point. But he does not.

So when you say that the God of the Bible justifies the killing of the innocents, and you infer this based on contemporary morality, I think you have do a better job of that.

(By the way, there is a prohibition against learning Torah before noon today, so I hope that the above falls into the category of "Da' mah-shetashiv le-epikoros")

CD-Host said...

@Jerry --

I gave you two places where it is treated. Let's separate this out.
Innocent1 = people who personally haven't committed an evil act, regardless of what their group did.
Innocent2 = people whose group hasn't personally committed an evil act semi-regardless of what they've done personally

Our modern definition of innocent, especially among the left, is Innocent1 not Innocent2. When you claim that God doesn't kill the innocent in today's context that means Innocent1. Now you can believe that Innocent2 is the correct definition of Innocent and make moral claims based on this, but to do that you have to use words like "group guilt" at this point in English. You sentence would have to be something like "My God doesn't make miracles that cost members of innocent groups their lives". Since God most certainly has miracles that slaughter otherwise innocent individuals, i.e. innocent1. Innocent2 is not unreasonable definition, the morality of war crucially depends on primarily being concerned with Innocent2: the Iraqis did X, the Iraqis did Y.

But more importantly your claims in most of this blog depend on Innocent1 being the correct definition. Under Innocent2 Jews rightly can hold the Gazans collectively responsible for Hamas and then be unconcerned about killing children because those children are guilty of electing Hamas far more so than the first born of Egypt are guilty of Pharaoh's acts.

Further, Protestants don't read the bible literally. For example almost all them are much more comfortable with translation than corresponding Jews are, which is an immediate dramatic drop in literalism. My review of the Voice translation (focus is on a New Testament verse, the readership is Christian) covers this distinction between literalism and what Christian do:

What Protestants do reject are binding secondary authorities. For Protestants every legitimate biblical interpretation needs to be ultimately derivable from the bible itself with no appeal to secondary authorities. That's clearly not true for Jews who accept rabbinic authority. I certainly believe that Judaism twists scripture in places well beyond what the text could possible mean. But there are other places, for example laws regarding practice, that Judaism is quite literal where Christians Protestant and Catholics assume a very symbolic read. On balance I think you all are more literal that Protestants.

As for your example of Sodom it actually the opposite. Here Abraham holds to innocent1 not innocent2. He means individually innocent like Lot's family. He moreover argues that punishments shouldn't be meted out against innocents in the innocent1 sense. God himself agrees to do as Abraham wishes but then, as Exodus among other places shows, returns to his collective notions. This verses proves the opposite, again God has no problem with death of innocent1s as long as they are guilty2.