Zionism and the Varieties of Jewish Identification: Third Annual Evangelical-Jewish Conversation

Rabbi Noam E. Marans
Director, Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, AJC
Washington, D.C., June 14–15, 2011

Modern Judaism has its roots in nineteenth-century Europe, Germany in particular. As the physical and spiritual walls of the Jewish ghetto tottered and fell, Jews began to grapple with the intellectual implications of Enlightenment and Emancipation.

The enfranchisement of Jews began fitfully, raising many questions in the minds of Jewish leadership. Would reforming Judaism expedite normalization? As the doors of the world open to Jews, how can Jewish identity, history, culture and practice be preserved? What best insures survival of the Jewish people, adaptation to modernity or greater insularity? How do we keep our religious expression vital and relevant while scientific scholarship and rationalism are deconstructing the tradition?

Both liberal and conservative solutions emerged.

The Reform, or Liberal, movement that arose in Germany answered these questions by fashioning a Judaism that emphasized universalism over Jewish particularism and the ethical over the ritual. Reform made sweeping changes in synagogue architecture, liturgy and rabbinic oratory, all premised on the assumption that Judaism needed to compete with and in some ways even imitate elements of the religious expression of its neighbors.

Conservative Judaism, although not known by that name in Europe, sought to conserve traditions rejected by Reform. Thus at the 1845 conference of rabbinical reformers in Frankfurt, Rabbi Zecharias Frankel (1801–1875) protested the suggestion that German should replace Hebrew as the primary language of Jewish prayer. Frankel said, “The case of emancipation has nothing to do with religion, and no religious aspect should be sacrificed for it.” (Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, The Jew in the Modern World, first edition, 1980, p. 159). For more than a century this form of moderate traditionalism that came to be called Conservative was defined more by what it was not than by what it was—it was neither Reform nor Orthodox, but somewhere in between.

Since orthodoxy (small “o”) was the normative pre-modern Jewish expression, Orthodoxy (capital “O”) as a term did not exist until the process of reform began in Judaism. But Orthodoxy underwent its own balancing act as well. Neo-Orthodoxy, closely associated with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), blossomed in Germany as a reaction to both the stale “old Orthodoxy” on the right and threatening reform on the left. The old Orthodoxy, championed by Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762–1839), also known as the Hatam Sofer, declared “Hadash asur min ha-Torah,” meaning “That which is new is forbidden by the Torah.” Hirsch’s motto, in contrast, was “Torah im derekh eretz,” Torah together with engagement of the secular world. But Hirsch’s real sparring partner was Reform. While Hirsch could abide and even encourage the external changes promoted by Reform—decorous services, choirs and rabbinic orations in German—he rejected the Reform revolution that questioned the necessity to abide by halakhah, the centuries-old Jewish legal tradition.

Jewish denominationalism as we know it today, in size order—Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist movements—is primarily an American phenomenon. Israeli Jews are generally categorized as either religious or secular. The overwhelming majority of Jews who choose religious expression in Israel do so within the government-backed Orthodox establishment. The Chief Rabbinate is exclusively Orthodox. Non-Orthodox denominations struggle for official recognition and funding. In America, where separation of church and state precludes any established religion, there are a variety of expressions of Judaism, both denominational and non-denominational.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the denominations is the way they understand the nature of God’s revelation to the Jewish people, and thus the nature of authority for determining Jewish tradition and practice. In broad strokes, Orthodox Jews—from the so-called ultra-Orthodox on the right to the modern Orthodox on the left—believe that the written and oral Torah, that is the five books of Moses and the traditional interpretation of its meaning throughout the generations, are the literal word of God. Therefore, the authority of halakhah is absolute, unchangeable and divine.

Conservative Judaism accepts the binding authority of halakhah while interpreting its divine origin more metaphorically than literally, leaving it open to interpretive change. Rabbi Mordechai Waxman (1917–2002) popularized the phrase “Tradition and Change” to describe Conservative Judaism.

Reform Judaism understands Torah to be a work of human genius and encourages its adherents to become as knowledgeable as possible about the tradition. Ultimately, however, Reform wants its members to make decisions for themselves about their Jewish obligations. Reform leaders call this a “commitment to individual conscience.”

Reconstructionist Judaism, founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), began within Conservative Judaism and only later became a separate movement. It is both the most theologically radical and most uniquely American of the denominations. As articulated in Kaplan’s important book Judaism as a Civilization, Judaism is not a matter of supernatural revelation but rather a unique and distinctive civilization that includes a religious heritage, a culture, customs and folkways.

Clearly, the further you move away, denominationally, from a literal understanding of the divinity and authority of Torah and halakhah, the more latitude you give to change and adaptation. Notwithstanding this and other serious religious differences that divide American Jewish denominations, virtually all Jews in the U.S. and around the globe sustain a sense of peoplehood manifested through a shared commitment to Jewish history and tradition; an appreciation and dedication to the modern resuscitation of Hebrew, the Jewish people’s ancient shared language; support for the State of Israel; and concern for Jews who are in need wherever they may be found.

Zionism is not a religious denomination, but is yet another reaction to the dramatic challenge of modernity, fashioning a new form of Jewish identity after Enlightenment and Emancipation failed to live up to their promises. Beginning in Europe in the late nineteenth century, it marks the political quest for national self-determination by the Jewish people through the resettlement of the Jews in their ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel. Zionism’s roots in fact go back thousands of years, beginning with the Book of Genesis and the call by God to Abraham to leave the land of his birth and find a new homeland in Canaan, the Land of Israel. The connection to the Land, affirmed by a Covenant with God, continues with the patriarchal narrative and the painful sojourn in Egypt that sets the stage for the redemption and revelation recorded in Exodus, and culminates in the reentry into the Land under the leadership of Joshua.

In the face of destructions and exiles, Jews maintained a continuous presence in the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people in the Diaspora articulated and codified a longing for the Land of Israel that would be realized after nearly two millennia with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Zionism was revolutionary in rejecting Jewish political passivity. In the Diaspora, messianism was historically understood as waiting patiently for the Messiah who would alleviate the plight of the Jewish people and redeem the world. Zionism, in contrast, sought to empower the Jewish people to take matters into their own hands and return to the Land of Israel.

The three primary historic expressions of Zionism are political Zionism, championed most notably by Theodor Herzl (1860–1904); cultural Zionism, most closely associated with Asher Ginsburg, better known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927); and religious Zionism, perhaps best expressed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865–1935).

Theodor Herzl, father of modern political Zionism, came to believe that anti-Semitism was incurable so long as Jews lived as minorities in countries around the world. Only if they were normalized by having their own nation–state could their condition improve. Herzl solicited the support of kings, prime ministers, foreign secretaries, philanthropists and Christian clerics, arguing that Zionism, which would remove a divisive social problem from European life, was also in their best interest.

Ahad Ha’am criticized political Zionism on the ground that the Jewish people was hardly likely to migrate en masse to Palestine. He was more interested in reinvigorating Judaism, injecting it with a new vitality now that it had left the ghetto and faced the realities of the outside world. Zionism, he believed, could create a Jewish spiritual center in Palestine that would trigger Jewish creativity and thus inspire the Jewish world.

It is fascinating to revisit the 1897 debate between Herzl and Ahad Ha’am today, with 20/20 hindsight. Herzl, who believed that anti-Semitism was a disease surfacing wherever Jews were a minority, was both right and wrong. Yes, Zionism succeeded by providing a haven from anti-Semitism. Most aliyah, immigration to Israel, was motivated by anti-Jewish expressions and outbreaks in their countries of origin. Thus hundreds of thousands of Jews fled to Israel from Arab countries during the early years of the Jewish state and more than a million have arrived from the former Soviet Union more recently. Conversely, relatively few American Jews have immigrated to Israel, no doubt because American hospitability to Jews has been unprecedented in the history of the Diaspora.

But Herzl was wrong since Zionism and the State of Israel have hardly eradicated anti-Semitism. In fact, one could even argue that anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism have become new “legitimate” forms of anti-Semitism.

Ahad Ha’am was also both right and wrong when he argued that the focus should be on saving Judaism through the creation of a Palestinian spiritual center rather than fomenting mass Jewish immigration to Palestine. He correctly saw that Zionism provided the opportunity for a Jewish renaissance. The successful State of Israel, especially after 1967, contributed to a revival of Jewish identity throughout the world, particularly in the U.S., and fueled Jewish educational programs that have brought hundreds of thousands of young Jews from all over the world to Israel for infusions of Jewish identity. Some of the most creative Jewish religious ideas today emanated from Israel and made their way to the Diaspora.

Ahad Ha’am, however, was wrong when he predicted that Zionism could not become a mass immigration movement. With an assist from Hitler and from anti-Semitic Arab and Communist regimes, the Jewish community of Palestine, which constituted less than 1% of world Jewry at the dawn of modern Zionism, today makes up 43%. Israel is now the largest Jewish community of the world, having recently overtaken and passed American Jewry. It will not be long before Israel will be home to the majority of the world’s Jews.

Religious Zionism understood the movement as an expression of the will of God. Rabbi Kook saw secular Zionist leaders as the unknowing instruments of God’s redemptive powers, fulfilling the dream of the return to Zion. It was the job of religious leadership to imbue this secular movement with religious meaning.

Brief mention should also be made of Revisionist Zionism, pioneered by Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), who urged his fellow activists toward greater boldness in encouraging the immigration of Diaspora Jews to Palestine and less dependence on the goodwill of the European powers. He was the spiritual mentor of Menachem Begin (1913–1992) and the Likud Party, to which the current Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu (born 1949) belongs. Jabotinsky, committed to Jewish settlement on both sides of the Jordan River, was a forerunner of the Greater Israel camp that believes in the inherent right of the Jewish people to settle anywhere within the biblical Land of Israel.

The two meta-historic events of the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, particularly bind the Jewish people together today. American Jewry has assumed responsibility for educating its own and others regarding the horrors of the Holocaust and integrating its memorialization not only into American Jewish life but into general American life as well. There is a feeling that American Jewry did not do all that it might have to forestall the horror of the Holocaust. While this may be a misreading of what was within the realm of the possible for American Jews during the 1930s and 40s, it has become a clarion call for a community that sees itself as “first responders” to Jewish communities in need or in danger around the world.

Similarly, commitment to the State of Israel has had a transformative effect on American Jewish identity. Understanding the two-way street of American Jewish-Israeli relations is essential to understanding American Jewish life. On the one hand, American Jews feel an awesome responsibility to protect and defend the State of Israel. On the other, American Jews have been inspired by the creation, existence, and flourishing of the State of Israel in ways that have become essential to their own Jewish identities.

A couple of hundred years is not very much in terms of Jewish history, but the last two centuries have redefined the meaning of Judaism. The Jewish confrontation with modernity is far from settled, but the guideposts have been set: dramatic Jewish population shifts that accentuate the importance of American and Israeli Jewry, the creation and evolution of non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, and a Jewish State that, while still a work in progress, impacts significantly on Jews all over the world.