Nov 13, 2010

A Reflection on a Letter to the "J"

A Reflection on a Letter to the "J"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Today's J had a letter to the editor entitled "The real threat to Israel's soul" from Martin Wasserman (whom I don't know) in response to my essay "Zionism also needs to come from the left — right?" (The "J", Nov. 5).  Wasserman's letter reads as follows:

Rabbi Menachem Creditor claims that Israel's soul is threatened by what he disparagingly labels as "Jewish fundamentalism," those Jews who insist on obeying the laws given at Mount Sinai. ("Zionism also needs to come from the left — right?", Nov. 5). In fact, the real threat to Israel's soul comes from those Jews who have abandoned the laws of Sinai because they think they've found something better.  The modern-day "enlightenment" that Rabbi Creditor seems so enamored of has turned into little more than a variant of the idol worship that caused the nation's destruction in ancient times, being used to excuse and justify almost any type of human behavior.  The fact is, Israel cannot defeat its enemies by physical force alone, but neither can it achieve peace by surrendering portions of its territory to its foes. Israel can only prevail if it has the protection of the Almighty, and it can only win that protection by acknowledging His authority and following His commands, both in letter and in spirit.  The history of the modern State of Israel shows that the more Israel tries to run away from God and escape from its own heritage, the more numerous and powerful its enemies become.

I share my reflection, not as a response letter, but as an open reflection because, in a sense, Wasserman clarified every point I'd choose to make.  Additionally, a return letter would feed his anger (and others) and likely not increase the healthy Zionism I advocate.  The ensuing back and forth would simply feed the sensationalism of media "discourse."  I can accomplish more to strengthen a healthy conversation by continuing my work as a congregational rabbi and sharing my thoughts without limiting myself to sound-bite response letter.  So for now, here's a less-brief reflection:

When I point to the growing strength of a fundamentalist Jewish ideology in the Israeli government and its increasing influence on Israeli society (the same, I believe, could be said for the US), I point as a Zionist.  Theodore Herzl, the father of political Zionism, wrote "Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the earth's surface large enough to satisfy our rightful requirements as a nation. The rest we shall manage for ourselves."  That is the task at hand.  Managing the rest.

Herzl also wrote that "It is true that we aspire to our ancient land. But what we want in that ancient land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit."  Instead of focusing on the geopolitics, which are the first part of Herzl's Zionism (securing international legitimacy for the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own), I focus on the second half of Herzl's vision: actually building the national home.  This task is the harder one, one which means that we have to, as a People, engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh, self-examination.

Does Wasserman's assertion that "the history of the modern State of Israel shows that the more Israel tries to run away from God and escape from its own heritage, the more numerous and powerful its enemies become" ring true?  No.  The founding of the State was a secular Jewish triumph, and a challenge to a traditional Jewish theology.  Is the fight for Jewish Pluralism in Israel an escape from God and from Jewish heritage?  Of course not.  Wasserman's casual reframing of Israeli/Jewish history is the very manifestation of the problem we face in Israel as a global Jewish People.  Authenticity is our battlefield.  Who's narrative is "the right one"?  

When Wasserman writes "Israel can only prevail if it has the protection of the Almighty" I wonder if he has read Rabbi Irving Greenberg's "The Jewish Way", which describes the State of Israel as our re-covenanting with God after the Shoah shattered our earlier covenant?  Would the founders of the State of Israel, including Rav Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) have ever spoken (or believed) like Wasserman?  Or is the Judaism officially being presented by the Israeli Rabbinate a revision, an intentionally crafted creation-myth the state (again, similar to US politicians rewrite the founding of their country to authenticate their ideologies)?

It's not that there shouldn't be a place for theological framing of politics.  My own religious sensibilities are certainly influenced by what happens in the public sphere.  But labeling as "an escape from Jewish heritage" my call for Jewish Pluralism in Israel is a malicious attack, and a willful (or accidental) misreading of my words, let alone a deep misunderstanding of the reality of Judaism in Israel.  Basing Israeli policy, domestic or international, on any theology is a problem.

As Herzl wrote, "Those of us who are today prepared to hazard our lives for the cause would regret having raised a finger, if we were able to organize only a new social system and not a more righteous one."


Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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