Faith Matters: Two Religious Perspectives on the State of Israel
On May 5, 2022, the modern Jewish state of Israel will celebrate its 74th anniversary.
From this momentous historical event, at least two religious ideologies emerge reflecting the notion of ‘Geulah-Redemption.’ This theological concept is grounded in 1) the opening words of the Decalogue in Exodus 20: “I am the Lord your God” and 2) the phrase “the beginning of the dawn of our redemption” rooted in the official prayer for Peace Composed by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
These two sentiments can serve as markers related not only to the creation of the state in 1948, but also to the Six Day War in June 1967 and its aftermath.
Both perspectives challenge us to assess a deeper appreciation and understanding of ‘Guulah-Redemption.’
Emerging from the euphoric atmosphere that followed Israel’s astonishing victory in 1967 after surviving the onslaught of the United Arab Republic seeking the destruction of the Jewish state, many religious Zionists perceived the victory as pyrrhic of Israel as nothing less than “the birth pangs of the Messianic age”. Yet with the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War just six years later, the balloon that held this messianic dream for so many was burst, leading to a new national self-assessment.
To this end, Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013) articulated two historical and religious paradigms that could potentially offer spiritual insight into how Israelis and Diaspora Jewry might view the contemporary state of Israeli affairs.
The first ideology emerges from the writings of 11th century Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi who formulated a messianic belief that the God of history who freed the Israelites from slavery is the same god who will ultimately establish messianic redemption for all. ‘humanity. We can label this as the ‘Exodus‘ model.
It is this powerful religious perspective that became the cornerstone of messianism for so many religious Zionists, especially after the Six Day War. As Hartman confirms: “In Israel today…religious nationalists regard Halevi…as the spiritual forerunner of religious Zionism”.
A second ideology focuses on the writings of Maimonides, (1138-1204) rabbinical scholar and physician to Saladin, who taught that from the creation story we learned that mankind was given the gift of intellect, c ie the ability to reason. It is this unique quality of reason that can truly explain Jewish survival.
How? Because Maimonides pointed out that to truly understand the biblical record, we needed to shift the focus from an event-based theology to a text-centered paradigm where we see the gradual implementation of a new doctrine of salvation: “Human initiative! We can call this the “Sinai model”.
Thus, Maimonides quotes the first words of the Decalogue (Exodus 20): “I am the Lord your God”. Period! Here, God is portrayed in dialogue with his chosen nation, a people who can help shape their own destiny.
Simply put: the “Exodus” model relies on God to actively intervene in the course of human affairs; the ‘Sinai’ model highlights the Jewish people taking the ‘bull by the horns’, using the human intellect to take their destiny into their own hands.
Yet most poignantly, in the final analysis, Rabbi Hartman makes a bold and unifying statement: “Tradition was wise in encouraging many different voices to speak within it…and any attempt by scholars to decide whether Halevi or Maimonides truly reflect Jewish tradition becomes incongruous. the end a confused and misguided enterprise.
So, reflecting on Hartman’s compelling analysis and using both the “Exodus” and “Sinai” models, I conclude with a story that emerged from those euphoric days of the Six Day War.
“It was a year later, in the summer of 1968, that I served as a counselor at Camp Ramah in California. As was the custom, all Ramah camps invited Israelis to serve in a variety of roles That summer, a young Israeli Defense (IDF) soldier named David, who had fought in the Six Day War, came to Ramah and served as a guard for the camp, and like so many others , we were eager to hear a first-hand account of his experiences the previous year in the Six Day War.
“He shared the following story stating from the start, a startling remark: ‘I’m not religious, I’m not religious! I was stationed in the Sinai desert and it was my squad’s responsibility to clear the abandoned Egyptian bunkers. As I approached a bunker I suddenly tripped and fell, and as soon as I stood up there was an Egyptian soldier in front of me with his gun pointed at me. I felt at that moment that my life was over and I heard the shot. The Egyptian soldier fell to the ground. My IDF comrade had killed the enemy soldier.
“’At that time we heard of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem and the capture of the Kotel, the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. Everyone was eager to get there as soon as possible. David looked at me directly and said: I was standing in front of the Kotel in my military uniform with my Uzi over my shoulder and I felt the presence of God envelop me and I cried. I cried from the bottom of my soul because I had never felt this feeling in my life.
As I look back now and reflect on this pivotal spiritual moment in the life of this secular Israeli soldier, the two religious paradigms emerging from the writings of Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides resonate with greater clarity. Torn from the jaws of death, for this young, non-practising Israeli soldier, it was God’s intervention that touched his soul with the gift of life.
Halevi was right! There is truth in the “Exodus” model if we allow ourselves, as so many of our ancestors did, to see the hand of God in history.
Yet Maimonides is also right. To materialize the abstract, this soldier used his intellect and free will to turn to worship allowing himself for the very first time to engage in spiritual dialogue with the ineffable, to connect to this miraculous moment that changes life.
As it was for him, it is also for us. God is the God of history who is transcendent, distant and miraculous. God is also personal and immanent, a God with whom I can connect with my intellect, and yet feel the warmth and beauty of the presence of the Almighty.
As rabbinical tradition relates: “Both perspectives are the words of the living God!