A Proposal for an American Theological Zionism
Today could have been very different. According to ynetnews.com, the tunnels destroyed by the IDF over the summer had a purpose. Hamas intended to use them on the morning of Rosh Hashanah, to emerge into kibbutzim on the Gaza border in stolen IDF uniforms. They then intended to murder, to kill, to spread terror. Israel is ten hours ahead of us. It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to awaken to the news of such a slaughter.
It has been in general a summer of fear. Whether we talk about the recent conflict in Gaza, or the spread of ISIS, or the underreported destabilization of Libya, there is a lot to fear. We see a growing influence from around a shared extremest Sunni Islamic theology. It is a destructive theology, a perversion of Islam and true religion, that has no room for the other. Those who follow these perverted teaching murder anyone different, from Christian to Yazidi to other types of Muslims. We see Libyan followers of this ideology stealing whole airliners, possibly for use in future incidents aimed at major US or European cities. There is plenty to fear.
This was a summer when 3 Israeli teens were kidnapped and brutally murdered Hamas terrorist. Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah captivated the nation and the Jewish world as we all hoped and prayed for a rescue that could never occur because they had already been murdered.
The human tendency when we are afraid is to lash out, to swing back at those who want to hurt us. We mirror the violence aimed at us back at its perpetrators. This is one of the most effective weapons the terrorists have. If we emulate their actions, if we respond unthinkingly, they succeed in perverting our institutions of freedom and justice. They undermine our commitment to the sanctity of human life.
The Jewish response, by contrast, is to turn first to learning. It is in Talmud and the study of Judaism that we connect even in moments of fear and terror with our deepest values. That connection then helps inform our response. That way we can react as who we are, carrying our values with us, as we determine the correct response. First we think, study, learn. Only then do we act.
The text below comes from the Talmud and addresses directly questions of self defense and what it means to have sovereignty. Written over 1500 years ago, it can help direct our thinking as we respond to our moment. The text comes from B. Shabbat 63a.
The Mishnah has been addressing fairly dry legal questions of what can be carried on Shabbat. It is clear we can wear clothing and equally clear we cannot carry a backpack. Yet the boundary between wearing and carrying isn’t always clear. What about jewelry? What about those who carry a key on a necklace? Rabbi Lewis used to maintain that one could drive a car on Shabbat because once you put on the seatbelt you were wearing the car. So in the midst of this material comes an amazing Mishnah. The Mishnah asks: can we wear weapons of war on Shabbat?
Suddenly the Mishnah and Talmud have moved from the legal to the deeply philosophical. The question really is: to what degree is violence, war, bloodshed, a permanent part of the human condition? Can we imagine a world at peace, or does that conflict too deeply with our understanding of human nature? Here is the text:
MISHNAH. A man must not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear. If he does go out, he must make an offering.
Rabbi Eliezer says: They are ornaments for him.
The Sages, however, say, they are merely shameful as it is written,
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall they learn war anymore.”
TALMUD: Rabbi Eliezer said: They are ornaments for him.
It was taught: Said they [the Sages] to R. Eliezer: Since they are ornaments for him, why should they cease in the days of the Messiah? Rabbi Eliezer replied: “Because they will not be required, he answered, as it is said, nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”
Yet let them exist merely as ornaments? — Said Abaye. It may be compared to a candle at noon.
Now this disagrees with Samuel. For Samuel said, This world differs from the Messianic era only in respect to servitude of the exiled, for it is said, For the poor shall never cease out of the land. 6a
This supports R. Hiyya b. Abba, who said, All the prophets prophesied only for the Messianic age, but as for the world to come, the eye hath not seen, O Lord, beside thee [what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him].
The Mishnah forbids carrying weapons of war on Shabbat. Now I should introduce the caveat that this is when there is no clear and present danger. Life always takes precedence, so in a situation of war or immediate threat to life, weapons can be worn on Shabbat. Our Mishnah is talking about the case where we are secure. In such a situation, one cannot wear weapons on Shabbat. Weapons have no place in this Sanctuary in Time. Shabbat is a hint of the world to come, and therefore is of her nature antithetical to the wearing of weapons even if only for decoration.
Rabbi Eliezer teaches that weapons cannot be worn because they are ornaments. Such ornaments have no place on Shabbat. The idea of martial culture, where weapons can be worn just for their beauty, is antithetical to the Rabbinic construction of Shabbat. As the Talmud explores his explanation, it becomes even more clear that Rabbi Eliezer can imagine people who lay down their weapons. Nation shall not life up sword against nation means we can imagine a day in this world of peace. War and violence may sometimes be necessary, but we can imagine something different where weapons are merely shameful, where the wellsprings of peace make a sword as pointless as a candle at noon.
The Sages, however, see violence as a shameful human necessity. We might be able to imagine a future time of peace, but not as we understand people today. So weapons or war are put aside on Shabbat because Shabbat is a taste of the world to come. It is the hope and promise of might be in a Messianic era. At the same time, it is part of the sorrow and shame that is sometimes this world.
Then Shmuel makes his voice heard and says something remarkable. Shmuel says the Messianic era isn’t one of magic. Nothing will change in human nature; our hearts will remain as divided as they are today. Rather, all that will change is that Israel will be sovereign. We will be preserved from the shadow of exile. There is no difference between this world and the world to come save only the oppression of the other nations. That means sovereignty comes with responsibility. We can have a time where we in control of our political destiny but still need weapons of war. We can have a time when we are sovereign and have a standing army.
This source makes two key points. First, war and weaponry are necessary even though undesirable. The source is opposed to martial culture, to a celebration of violence and weapons, but aware of their human necessity in this world we inhabit. I learned recently how much Israel’s military is committed to this notion of the sad necessity of war. The IDF is conceived of as a “people’s army,” a French notion of a military that is connected with its citizenry. That is why active duty military go home every month. That is why reservists make up the bulk of the fighting forces. The military stems from the people. How can you commit war crimes and then go home to your parents? How can you be involved in atrocities and then tuck your son into bed? As an American, the first time I saw Israelis everywhere I went in military garb and with Uzis, it appears to me a militaristic culture. In fact, there is a much deeper desire to make this a people’s army- part of the necessity of life, perhaps, but not something to celebrate.
Second, sovereignty creates responsibility. If there is no difference between this era and the Messianic era save only sovereignty itself, then according to Shmuel we already live in the Messianic era. This is as good as it gets. And that means right now that Benjamin Netanyahu is the Messiah. Now, depending on your politics you can decide if this is good or bad, but whoever replaces him will also be the Messiah. It means the leader of the Jewish state. So it is on us to build this state, it is our shared responsibility to build and create it.
Often we complain of the double standard applied to Israel. I must admit: I would hope Israel is held to a higher standard than Hamas, than ISIS, than Egypt or Jordan or Western Europe or even sometimes the United States. My aspirations for Israel are immense because this is our only chance to build a place that can be a true light among the nations, what Doniel Hartman calls Values nation.
Towards that goal of building an Israel that matters, that we celebrate, I feel we need a new kind of Zionism for our era, an American Theological Zionism.
First is how we bring our American selves into our Zionism.As Americans, there is a question of how we talk to Israelis, how we talk to non-Jews in America, and how we talk to each other.
I believe we have something to share with Israelis. We as Jews have a stake in the land of Israel, and while that does not earn us a vote it does earn us a voice. Towards that end, I want to start with an anecdote that was glossed over this summer. It is the senseless death an Israeli Arab 14 year old, Muhammed Krakara. Muhammed’s father is a civilian employee of the IDF. He took his son with him to work as he was maintaining some of the fences on the Syrian border. That day in June some Syrians, who may have been rebels, shot at their jeep and killed Muhammed.
The nation at the time was appropriately captivated by the kidnapping of those three boys, praying and hoping for their release. Muhammed’s death did not excite popular opinion as much. At his funeral, not a single member of the Knesset attended.
As Americans, and as Americans who understand the strength and promise of a multicultural society, we can see why this was a mistake. There was an opportunity here to say that Israeli Arabs are Israelis. Further, from a purely PR perspective, this was a chance to say this violence and hatred of Israelis includes Arab Israelis. I wish someone from the Knesset would have gone.
Israel needs to figure out how to make space in a Jewish homeland for other peoples. Whether it’s Arab Israeli or Filipino guest workers, Israel needs to have room for all who live there. I think we as American Jews can help Israelis find a path forward to create a Jewish homeland that has a multicultural dimension.
Now, this conversation has to go both ways. As Israel matures as a state it become more foreign in many ways. It is our homeland, but also different in cultural and spiritual ways that as Americans are hard for us to grasp our understand. We need to enter that conversation directly. Ideally, we visit and we learn Hebrew. We ought to read Israel news sources like ynetnews.com that are free and available on the internet. We ought to watch Israeli TV and read Israeli literature. It takes effort to bridge the gap across continents and some of the effort has to be ours.
Second is how to talk to other Americans. As frightening as some of the events were over the summer in the Middle East, one of the most frightening events occurred here at home. The Presbyterian Church narrowly voted in favor of divesting from Israel. The IDF ultimately can keep Israel safe; economic isolation would be a disaster harder to fight. Let me tell you a story about this vote.
My wife Carol is a convert to Judaism. Her mother has always been an active Presbyterian. She was visiting us for Maytal’s bat mitzvah when this vote was getting ready to take place. She had a close friend who was a delegate to the gathering. We spent time together on line and on the phone with this woman. We helped her learn more about the overall context. She had never been planning to vote for divestment, but our conversations helped her become a leader in trying to defeat this repugnant vote. Though we failed, it shows what we need to be doing. We need to reaching out to our friends, co-workers and helping them to learn about Israel. There is so much misinformation. We have to be part of informing.
There is also a growing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment from the left. Many people here are active in left and progressive causes. That means this community has a real opportunity to fight this growing concern. We need to reach out those we know, who share interest in our causes, and help them understand that divestment only promotes more violence. That delegitimizing Israel is antithetical to peace.
Finally, how we talk to our fellow Jews. We Jews have been arguing about Israel since the Bible. Isaiah had the chutzpah to liken the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah. Jeremiah was repeatedly arrested for his condemnation of the Israel. So we have always had prophets calling us to a higher moral plane, demanding that Jews and Israelis behave with great moral integrity. By the same token, we have had other teachers like Jonah who value the Jewish people above all. Figure who want to protect the people and the nation. This conflict between defenders and prophets is nothing knew. Both come from a holy place of wanting a strong Israel that is safe and a true light among the nations.
Kol Emeth is a pluralistic pro Israel community. That means we have leaders in a variety of Israel related causes, some defenders, some prophets. When we talk to each other we need to listen, to hear the sacred concern in the voice of our fellow Jew. We need to make space for the integrity of this argument so that we can be strengthened by our shared understanding that truth is found in disputation.
There is also a theological dimension to Zionism that I will not give up. The Religious Zionist world uses the religious terminology in a strong way. Yet we have our theological voice as well. I continue to believe in a theological necessity for the land of Israel, and a sense that the Bible offers us a far more varied sense of what it means to be a Zionist than is often noted.
Israel is the promised land. God tells Abraham to “go forth to the land that I will show you.” Exodus is all about the redemption from Egypt and slavery to Israel. It is the particular place of our history, our hopes and our dreams. We are more connected there than to Uganda or upstate New York. This is the historic home of Israel, and this is our place today.
By the same token, that promise from its very inception has elements that promise peace and promise a shared narrative with others. In Genesis 13, we read of a conflict between Abraham and Lot. The Bible tells us that the land “could not bear them both.” Abraham, in an effort to promote peace, suggests they separate. He tells Lot, “if you go right, I will go left, if you go left, I will go right.” If you look closely at Abraham’s offer, he is telling Lot that if so chooses he can have the land of Israel, and that he, Abraham, will go to the Jordan Valley. Abraham so values peace that he is ready to trade land in order to get it.
Similarly, the fight between Isaac and Ishmael is more complex than we often note. Isaac, the grandfather of the tribes of Israel, fights with his older half brother, the father of the Arab peoples. According to the Midrash, Ishmael even tries to kill his younger brother rather than give up his place as Abraham’s heir. Abraham and Sarah send away Ishmael and his mother Hagar. If the story ended there, we would have nothing to say. Arabs and Jews will never get along.
But the story continues. Years later, when Abraham dies, the brother realize they have more in common than apart. They reunite to bury their father. The Midrash says that Ishmael repented and returned back to moral ways. This is a story of reconciliation. It is a story that suggests there could be a way for Arabs and Israelis to realize they have more in common than that which separates them. The story of Herzl or of Peres of two people living side by side and strengthening one another lives within the Biblical imagination.
There are many more such sources and stories. Our love of Israel ought to include a theological component, where we name Israel as the promised land, but a land with promise that includes paths towards peace and reconciliation.
Finally, Zionism. We need a Zionism that speaks of our place in America today, but also one that locates Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. I am in love with the land of Israel. Machane Yehuda is one of the great places on Earth because it brings together so many different Jewish food traditions from around the world. Whether its the Bulgarian restaurant, or the Zatar guy (he sells the best Zatar in Israel. I tell him I know, that’s why I came from Palo Alto to get it..), or the juice guy, its the true stomach at the heart of Jerusalem. The beaches in Tel Aviv is the one place in the world where you can get Kosher food at the beach – at least you can if search for it. There is learning and an intensity of Jewish experience in Israel found no where else in the world. It is truly the homeland for the Jewish people.
Israel is the place where the story of the Jewish people is being written. I think of Bialik’s essay Halakhah and Agaddah. Bialik identifies that halakhah is the crystallization of the agadaah, that law and legend interact with each other in a continual process like a river that freezes, melts, and freezes again. It is in Israel where the concentration of Jews and Judaism means that this process can happen. Our Jewish stories and selves continually interact with Israeli and Rabbinic law to more and more express who we are as a people. Only with this concentration of Jews can such a thing happen. This is where the practice and the story in concentration can be written. Israel is the center, the homeland. We look towards it even when we choose to live in other places. It calls upon us and we need it to be nurtured.
We want an Israel that matters. The Gerer Rebbi, the Sfat Emet, imagines inhabiting Israel as transformative. For him, Israel will become the soul of the world. Sovereign Israel has the chance to radically change the way everyone lives. Our hope is immense. Zionism includes a robust sense of Israel’s need to act, to speak, to send in fighter jets and ground troops. At the same time, it also includes a desire to build a society that IS different, and better, than anything else that has been. There is no difference between this world and the messianic era, say Shmuel. Its our job to build it. It’s not the magical.
Amid all the challenges of the summer, there were and are moments of light and hope. Abbas criticizing Hamas was one. A realization by Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Iran that their long term interests might be supported by a strong Israel. Yet to me the strongest most moving moment of the summer was the reaction of Rachel Fraenkel to her son’s murder.
As Rachel Fraenkel was worrying about her own son, a Muslim Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered by Jews in a revenge killing. In the midst of her own anguish, Rachel reached out the Khdeir family. She saw that what united them was stronger than what divided them. They were united by being mother’s mourning for their sons. And so she invited the Khdeir for a shiva minyan; she paid a condolence call on them as they buried and mourned for their son. She said the following, quoted from ynewnews.com:
“Even in the depth of the mourning of our son, it’s hard for me to describe how distressed we were over the outrage that happened in Jerusalem,” she said, speaking of the revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. “The shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, it’s against the basis of our life in this country.” She concluded: “We truly hope that very soon the peace and calm will come back all over our country.”
This is our hope for Israel, for what Israelis and Jews, can be. For Mothers who want their children home, who see what we can build. Who even in the midst of conflict and violence can yearn for peace based on shared humanity. We here as Americans are their partners in building and supporting this amazing place of possibility and of hope. Herzl once told us: if you will it is no dream. And we created the state. It is still true – if we hope, if we yearn for a strong Israel that matters, that is at peace with its neighbors, then it is no dream. I’d like to conclude by singing Hatikvah- the hope that unites us.
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.