The Religious Significance of Israel: A Personal Love Story and Accounting

Posted on Apr 25, 2018

Speech to the 2018 Rabbinical Assembly Convention

The minute I realized that I’d be giving this talk three days after Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and three days before flying to Israel for a day-long yom iyyun sponsored jointly by JTS and the Schechter Institute, I knew that my subject this afternoon would be Israel and our relationship to Israel.

I knew as well that the tenor of my talk would be one of celebration rather than analysis or critique—and that my remarks would be extremely personal. The religious significance of Israel to me cannot be separated from the person I have been and the Jew I try to be, the Conservative Judaism I practice when I rise in the morning and when I go to sleep at night, when I sit at home with my family or publicly ponder the state of the world. I suspect the same is true for you.

You might say that this is a talk about why I said Hallel last Thursday, and what that Hallel meant to me.

I hope that this approach to the subject of Israel—part love story, part personal accounting—will stimulate each of you to think about the significance Israel holds for you, religious and otherwise, and why you feel about Israel as you do. 

Let’s be proud that we mark Israel’s 70th birthday together, as leaders of Conservative Judaism, partners to Masorti Jews in Israel and around the world, determined to do all we can to bring our energy and insight to the dream that began in 1948 and has yet to be fulfilled. 

I will start with a coincidence of dates that means a lot to me: the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration this past November, and the 100th anniversary just a few days later of Max Weber’s great address, “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” in English “Science as a Vocation” or “Scholarship as a Vocation.” I first studied that essay as a senior at Penn—page by page, sometimes line by line—with sociologist Philip Rieff. Weber’s meditation grabbed me forcibly at once, and to this day has never let go. 

This is the essay where Weber famously declares that the world has become “disenchanted”: that there are “no mysterious and incalculable forces” at play in our explanation of nature or history. Science, and objective scholarship of any sort, both of which are in German called “Wissenschaft,” are, he claims, essentially irreligious forces. We all know this, Weber declares. I was then and remain a person for whom religion means everything.   

I was also, even then, considering the possibility of making scholarship my vocation. Weber wonders aloud in the essay if Wissenschaft, as practiced in the modern university, can any longer be regarded as a vocation, given that any calling claims to add meaning and good to the world, and science had in his view robbed the world of ultimate meaning, and does not allow for knowledge of what is good and what is not. Could the study of religion serve faith rather than undermine it? Could Jewish studies help to strengthen Torah and the Jewish people? I needed answers to those questions. 

What is more, I came to the essay in the fall of 1972: the war in Vietnam was dragging on; I had a low draft number; and Weber was addressing students and faculty who had lost friends, family, and perhaps limbs in the trenches of World War I. The killing was still far from over when he spoke. Germany was in political chaos. Weber passionately called his audience to responsible political action. You can see why Weber’s essay touched me to the core. 

Last but not least, I was a Jew, and could not help noticing that Jews and religion kept popping up at key points in Weber’s essay in a way that jarred and challenged me. 

That is especially the case in the final two paragraphs of the essay. “To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man . . . the arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him . . . One way or another he has to bring his intellectual sacrifice—that is inevitable.” That passage aroused instant resolve or my part. My Judaism would not involve intellectual sacrifice. I suspect that many in this room have made a similar vow. I would serve God, as the Torah commands, with all my heart and mind, all my soul, all my strength. This striving after wholeness was and remains one of the things that makes me a devoted Conservative Jew. 

And then, in the name of intellectual integrity—Weber quotes from the prophet Isaiah. 

For the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles” (21:11). The watchman is asked, “What of the night?” and replies, “The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come. 

One can wait for clarity about the future before acting decisively, or one can act. Weber concluded his piece with a sentence that goes to the heart of my personal Zionist commitment and seems to explain his: “The people to whom this [prophecy of Isaiah] was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the conclusion that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day.’” 

I don’t know when I first encountered that same view of Jewish history as one of passivity and suffering expressed by Jewish historians such as Gershom Scholem, who on the final pages of his great essay, “The Messianic Idea in Judaism,” wrote about the “endless powerlessness” of Jewish history, but I do know that I absorbed it experientially exactly a year after studying “Science as a Vocation” for the first time.  

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, I had just arrived in Oxford for graduate study, and found myself surrounded by people who were either hostile to Israel or indifferent to its fate. The high culture of England, for all that I admired it, made me aware of my strangeness in that culture as a Jew. I felt it every time I walked the beautiful grounds of my 14th-century college or set foot in its gorgeous chapel teeming from floor to ceiling with statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and God the Father. 

I was, in many ways, in galut. The Israelis at Oxford and the Jews who cared about Israel found each other quickly that October of 1973. I resolved then that the next chapter of my life, whatever it would be, would take place in Israel—and by the summer of 1974 had decided, with Weber in mind, that my vocation would be scholarship that focused in some way on modern Jews and Judaism. So in the summer of 1975 I arrived in Jerusalem, trading England’s rain and clouds for Israel’s brilliant sunshine; leaving a culture I could never be fully a part of for one that embraced me with open arms; trading a self that could never be at ease in its surrounding for one that walked happily in shorts and sandals; and exchanging the study of religion from an outsider’s perspective, sociology, for the study of modern Jewish thought as a thinking modern Jew, in Hebrew, in the reborn Jewish state that two years earlier had been on the brink of destruction.

Two other memories of that period stand out when I reflect on the sources of my Zionist commitments to this day. 

One, which helps to explain my fervent political Zionism: the experience of flipping the dials of the radio late at night, when the only station on the air was Galei Tzahal. You’d hear Arabic, Arabic, Arabic, Arabic, Israeli Army radio, Arabic, Arabic, Arabic. The nimshal was inescapable. Only the army stood between me and people who wanted me elsewhere or dead. I am not a big fan of many policies of the current Israeli government, but the deeply rooted conviction that Jews have the right, indeed the obligation, to defend the state against forces that do not want it there, do not want Jews there, will never leave me.   

Let me share a source of my commitment to cultural Zionism more important even than reading through Kol Kitvei Ahad Ha’am in the National Library at Givat Ram, with Uhrbach, Scholem, and Ya’akov Katz at neighboring tables. The ulpan that summer of 1975 had a special track for those of us who placed out of the ulpan, aimed at fluency in speaking and listening to TV and radio. It was clear that Israel—not yet 30 and very much a nation of immigrants—highly valued its reborn language, and understood that love for Hebrew, at-homeness in Hebrew, was key to the success of the Zionist project and to our integration in that project. 

It worked like a charm for me. I will never forget the experience of Yehudah Amichai visiting the ulpan and reading aloud his poem El Malei Rahamim.   

Yeshayahu Leibowitz came and gave a talk in which he laid out his view of Judaism as halakhic obedience, and only halakhic obedience—and in the course of his remarks attacked Heschel’s book The Sabbath with scorn, because it proposed that our observance be motivated by personal meaning, which to Leibowitz meant that we were worshipping ourselves rather than God. 

I think I first read Schechter’s great statement on Zionism from 1906 in those years in Jerusalem, and understood from the inside, as it were, why he resonated so strongly to Ahad Ha’am and the vision of revived national spirit, a stance connected to a view of Judaism very different from that of Leibowitz. This was true no less for Finkelstein or Gerson Cohen, whom I read then and since. The experience of reading texts from a thousand or two thousand years ago, or three, in the original, in the land where some of them were written, is powerful—all the more so when one can discuss these texts in modern Hebrew with Israelis whose Hebrew canon also includes Bialik, Amichai, Rachel, and Dalia Ravikovitch. 

I wish more American Jews could share in this deep pleasure, this love for Hebrew and for Israeli culture. I understand why so many Conservative rabbis, seeking greater wholeness as Jews, made aliyah in the late 1960s and early 1970s; my wife and I made aliyah ourselves in 1984, for similar reasons. Masorti Judaism in Israel offers possibilities of wholeness harder to achieve when one lives in America, where one thinks and dreams in English, is shaped by a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and Christian in its values and assumptions, and where Jews constitute barely 2 percent of the population.         

Which brings me to the religious nature of my Zionism. I hold to what I call a Sefer Devarim Zionism, animated with a vision that the Torah wants to be lived not only in private spaces of home, school, and synagogue—or whatever other niches are left to us in modern, scientific, individualist states and societies—but in public. I want an environmental policy shaped by Torah, an educational policy, a health care policy, a foreign policy, a policy on how one treats minorities and refugees. 

Conservative Judaism is particularly well-suited to this adaptation of tradition to revolutionary, unprecedented conditions. This is our calling card and raison d’être as a movement. We have a major contribution to make to Israel. Not much of that application of Torah to the new Jewish public spheres of Israel was happening in 1975, and not much is taking place today. The voice of Torah is largely muted when it comes to providing health care or taking in refugees or treating minorities fairly. The kind of religious Judaism that does exercise power and real influence on policy is generally not one that makes me proud.

I want to zero in on this problem, which I, like many of you, have lived with my entire adult life, and which is an inescapable part of my relationship to the State of Israel—a place that, precisely because I love it so much, frustrates me so deeply. I know that similar frustration is preventing a growing number of young Jews from embracing Israel as I did, or accepting its embrace of them.   

When Leibowitz fulminated against Gush Emunim, I cheered him on. He saw the messianic vision of West Bank settlement as religiously dangerous as well as politically dangerous, and I think he was 100 percent right about that. Both threats remain, I think, and have only grown with the years, as resistance to the settlement project has been worn down by time and Palestinian intransigence. One hears less about overt messianism today than one did in those years, and we do not often hear settlers invoking kedushat ha’aretz (the holiness of the Land) to justify seizure of land and violations of human dignity. To me, as to Leibowitz, following Rambam, the holiness of the land is dependent upon performance of the mitzvot that the land makes possible. I attach the words reshit tzmichat ge’ulateinu (the beginning of the flowering of our redemption) to Israel as a fondest hope that I will do all I can to fulfill, not as fact or certainty. Many Orthodox Israelis and the secular political Zionists allied with them seem to have no such hesitations. 

Even Soloveitchik, in other ways a religious rationalist, exulted in Kol Dodi Dofek, written way back in 1956, that hester panim (hiding of God’s countenance) had ended with the partition vote of 1947 by the UN. God had been present on the battlefield with Israel’s soldiers in 1948, and again in 1956. This belief is widespread among Israelis, believers and non-believers alike. A significant number of Knesset members are convinced that they vote as God’s direct agents.

Heschel, even in the wake of the 1967 war, was far more circumspect.  He wrote in Israel: An Echo of Eternity

The presence of God in history is never conceived to mean His penetration of history. God’s will does not dominate the affairs of men. God’s presence in history is sensed in the correspondence between promise and the events in the relation to God’s promise that testify to His presence. Sacred history is the collecting of the threads of His promise.

The grammar is convoluted because the theology is so difficult. Note that Heschel makes no claims about the truth or falsity of God’s presence. He uses the language of “conceived” and “sensed,” but does say clearly—what believer in a just God could deny it?—that “God’s will does not dominate the affairs of men.” He would never declare that God is not involved in history but neither could he be confident about what God did or did not do on a given day. As he wrote elsewhere, “we are not God’s accountants.” Rav Kook the son, and perhaps Rav Kook the father, had no such hesitation. I read Heschel as saying that when things in history work out as God had promised and demanded through the prophets that they would, we sense God’s presence, and speak of divine providence. That to me is what Hallel is about. Or Mi Khamokha.  In Heschel’s words, I “collect the threads of God’s promise” and utter praise.

But this caution does not mean, as Leibowitz claimed, that Israel can have no religious significance, because—in his words: 

No state whatsoever, in the past, present, or any foreseeable future, in any society, in any era, in any culture, including the Jewish culture, ever was or will ever be anything but a secular institution. The function of the state is essentially secular. It is not service of God. The State of Israel of our day has no religious significance.

But: the Covenant at Sinai created a people, not only a faith. One cannot exist without the other. No Judaism without Jews. The brit goral (covenant of fate) component of Jewish peoplehood could not be denied in Jerusalem in 1975, two years after the war—and I think it cannot be denied today, not only in terms of the enemies who seek to harm Jews but the collective history that in so many respects shapes our options and behavior. When I rode Egged buses up and down Israel in the 1970s, I marveled at the connection I felt to people with faces and physiognomies very different from mine, and the sense of responsibility I felt, knowing I came from a more privileged section of the Diaspora. I have a parallel experience here in North America, experiencing a sense of connection to Jews I have never met before, reflecting on how much history and sensibility we share. 

The brit ye’ud (covenant of destiny) component was no less evident to me then, and is still evident to me now, for all that we Jews seem to be more and more at odds with one another. It seemed that every Israeli living room in the 1970s and 1980s was a site of active debate about what Israel needed to do to achieve peace, how Jews needed to treat people, what it meant to say that God was behind the Zionist project.

This debate over brit ye’ud continues—and thanks to the intervening 40 years of history, continuing conflict with enemies and the ingathering of Jews from the FSU and Ethiopia, my brit ye’ud vision, our brit ye’ud vision, is far less influential than it seemed in 1975. I doubt a majority of Israelis any longer shares my conviction that democracy is a Jewish value, because it is instrumental to safeguarding the dignity of human beings who like us are created in God’s image. 

I get the fact, and it does not make me happy, that what Israel does every day, what Bibi says every day, carries more weight as a statement of Judaism than what any rabbi or religious thinker says. This would be true even were Schechter and the Lubavitcher Rebbe still walking among us. 

I learned from Sefer Devarim, seen through the prism of Israel, that facts on the ground, uvdot ba’shetah, are devarim every bit as much as words on the page. They are what we teach our children, for better and for worse, what they are forced to meditate on when they rise in the morning and read the news, or go to sleep after viewing the latest episode of Homeland or Fauda

The religious significance of Israel, to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is despite Leibowitz’s dictum a fact of life, part of brit goral, that we cannot deny. We must not run from it. We must contest its meaning with all our hearts, all our souls, all our might. We must declare Israel’s religious significance a matter of covenant, not of messianism. Our brit ye’ud depends on it. 

There is a tendency these days to declare the battle lost—or, worse, to say it never had any chance of success. This saddens me. Ve-ulai, lo hayu had’varim me-olam, some say of Israel, drawing on the poem “Perhaps” by Rachel Bluwstein. “Perhaps it was never so.” The Israel we fell in love with when we were younger and it was younger, the one that was determined to fight hard and then compromise for peace, the Israel that knew it had to be both Jewish and democratic, the one that welcomed not only Jews of all backgrounds but Judaisms of all stripes, and had room in it for non-Jews and protected their rights and dignity—that Israel, we are told, is gone or never was. Oy Kinneret sheli, Oy Kinnerit sheli, he-hayit o halamti halom? (On my Kinneret. O, my Kinneret, Were you there or did I only dream?) 

On the last day of my most recent visit to Israel, this past winter, at a Ramah Shabbaton of all places, a former Israeli shlicha said to me, after hearing me talk in Hebrew about the growing gap between our two Jewries, “Professor Eisen, can’t you understand that the left is done for? The Israel that Jews like you want to see will never come to exist?” 

I tried to tell her that I am wary of any such certainty about the future, and utterly reject any such triumphalism. People say similar things all the time about non-fundamentalist religion being done for,or Conservative Judaism being done for, because we do not command the numbers or market share today that we once did. 

When I was in graduate school, the dominant view among sociologists, convinced by Weber and his school of thought, was that religion as a whole was done for. Modernization would inevitably mean secularization. That prediction too has obviously not come true.

My accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of Conservative Judaism looks a lot different from simplistic declarations of our doom as a movement. My accounting of Israel’s strengths and weaknesses looks a lot different than black or white thumbs up or down verdicts on its future. As Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum said in her speech, “Our Eyes Shall Yet See It”: 

The demands of the Zionist idea on the Jewish people could not have been satisfied by the mere creation of a state . . . Zionism was never only about creating a political refuge; rather it was about the effort to bring about an all-inclusive renewal of Jewish existence . . . 

The State of Israel today, like a house without a parapet, is a magnificent but very dangerous building that has only partially been constructed. 

Zionism has the potential to enlist the wisdom of our exiles, has the potential to decode the foundation of peace, and has the potential to traverse the road between exile and redemption . . . to restore what was lost to its owner and return the Shekhinah to Zion. 

I have to be honest and say that more than objective calculation is at work in my accounting when it comes to Israel, as it is in Tamar’s accounting. Love is at work. Faith is at work. I am so disturbed by Weber’s conclusion about “the people to whom [Isaiah’s prophecy] was said” because I have no doubt that this people is my people. It is not a myth, as some claim, not an “imagined community” but a reality for which I am grateful to the depths of my soul and which claims my allegiance. 

I am a Jew, a Conservative Jew, determined to fulfill the responsibilities under the Covenant of which I am reminded every time I read a page of our Torah and am ever thankful for that Torah and for those responsibilities. The State of Israel is prominent among those privileges and responsibilities in 2018. 

Hallel is an extended thank-you note to God for the chance to put Torah into practice in a Jewish state and not only in a Diaspora community—and to express thanks for the opportunities and work assignment that come with being a Jew in North America right now as well. 

In both places, a tiny people has been given the chance to do extraordinary things, and has done quite a few already. Even ma-asu ha-bonim, ha-ita le rosh pinah (The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone). Pitchu li sh’arei tzedek (Open to me the gates of righteousness). I will try to do tzedek in Israel’s gates, newly opened thanks to sovereignty to our widest efforts. Avo bam ve-odeh yah (I will enter the gates, and thank God).

Our generation of Jews will “meet the demands of the day,” as Weber put it. We don’t have a choice—and if you are a Conservative Jew you know it is a privilege, and often a real pleasure—to join with Masorti and other allies in Israel and around the world in keeping our vision of Israel alive and sustaining it by progress on the ground toward its realization. 

We find ourselves today, as the title of this week’s portion of the Torah declares, Aharei Mot, after so much death in the world, so much suffering, so much damage inflicted on the dreams of our youth. The command of this day, as always, is the one announced in the title of the other portion we read this Shabbat: kedoshim tiheyu. Be holy.