Israel (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Generally speaking, the four great sectors of Judaism that constitute its spiritual anatomy are faith, observance, culture, and nation. 

This chapter is about to conclude, and everything we have spoken of took place in the biblical period. There are reasons for this. First, it was in biblical times that most of the great formative ideas of Judaism took shape; second, those ideas constitute the side of Judaism that is most accessible to outsiders for whom this book is primarily intended. If, however, this chapter were to create the impression that Jewish creativity stopped with the closing of the Hebrew canon, that would be reductionism of the grossest sort. Judaism cannot be reduced to its biblical period. What happened was this. In 70 C.E. the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem that the Jews had rebuilt on returning from their Babylonian exile, and the focus of Judaism shifted from the sacrificial rite of the Temple to the study of the Torah and its accompanying Oral Tradition in academies and synagogues. Thenceforth it was not the priests, who were no longer functional, but the rabbis (literally teachers) who held Judaism together, for their synagogues became centers not only for study but for worship and congregational life in general. Rabbinic Judaism grounded itself in the commandment to make the study of the Torah a lifelong endeavor, and Judaism acquired a distinctly intellectual dimension and character. Through the tradition of Torah-study as it developed in the Talmud, the mind was made integral to religious life and mental energies were introduced into piety. Study, including the kind of constant, unceasing questioning and the rigid sense of logic that pervades the Talmud, became a way of worship. In this complex, the Bible became a revealed text inviting and requiring interpretation, and interpretation, was raised to the status of revelation itself.

Rabbinic Judaism grounded itself in the commandment to make the study of the Torah a lifelong endeavor, and Judaism acquired a distinctly intellectual dimension and character. 

The rabbinic accomplishment of keeping Judaism alive for the two-thousand years of its diaspora is one of the wonders of history, but for the reasons that were given above we shall not pursue it here. Instead, having taken note of rabbinic Judaism, we shall jump the two millennia of the Common Era to close this chapter with a look at the twentieth century.

The rabbinic accomplishment of keeping Judaism alive for the two-thousand years of its diaspora is one of the wonders of history.

Judaism is the faith of a people. As such it contains, as one of its features, faith in a people—in the significance of the role the Jews have played and will play in human history. This faith calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct people. In the past Jewish self-identity posed no policy problem. During the biblical period the Jews needed to be separate to keep their distinctive viewpoint from being compromised by neighboring polytheisms. This was the basis of the repeated prophetic demand that the Jews remain a “peculiar” people. Later, especially in post-medieval Europe up to the French Revolution, the Jews were forced to be separate. Required to live in ghettos surrounded by walls whose gates were locked at night, they had no alternative but to live a life that largely turned inward.

Judaism contains, as one of its features, faith in a people—in the significance of the role the Jews have played and will play in human history.

Since the French Revolution the issue of Jewish identity has become something of a problem. With the emancipation of the Jews and their entry into the political, professional, and cultural life of the countries in which they live, the world no longer requires that their identity be retained. Nor is there the clear ethical discrepancy that once compelled Jews to remain aloof from their neighbors on moral grounds. Today, if Jewish distinctness is to continue, the case for it must be argued.

With the emancipation of the Jews and their entry into the political, professional, and cultural life of the countries in which they live, the world no longer requires that their identity be retained. 

Within Judaism itself the arguments differ. Some Jews adhere to the religious thesis of the preceding section: as God has chosen Israel to be a unique instrument for good, the shape and edge of that instrument should be retained. Other Jews argue for distinctiveness on grounds of cultural pluralism. A healthy individual identity depends on a sense of one’s origins, one’s roots. The inclusion of multiple heritages in a society is an advantage, for uniformity breeds sameness and diminishes creativity. Marx, Einstein, and Freud have contributed enormously to modern thought. It seems reasonable to assume that their Jewishness had something to do with making them great.

A healthy individual identity depends on a sense of one’s origins, one’s roots. 

If the argument thus far has carried weight and we have been able to catch some of the Jews’ sense of the importance of maintaining their identity, in what does this identity consist?

Not doctrine, for there is nothing one has to believe to be a Jew. Jews run the gamut, from those who believe that every letter and punctuation mark of the Torah was dictated by God, to those who do not believe in God at all. Indeed, it is impossible to name any one thing that of itself suffices to make one a Jew. Judaism is a complex. It is like a circle that is whole but divisible into sections that converge in a common center. There is no authority that says that a Jew must affirm all (or any one) of these sections or face excommunication. Still, the more sections one embodies, the more Jewish one will be.

Judaism is a complex. It is impossible to name any one thing that of itself suffices to make one a Jew. 

Generally speaking, the four great sectors of Judaism that constitute its spiritual anatomy are faith, observance, culture, and nation. Its faith has already been described. Jews approach it from intellectual angles that range from fundamentalism to ultra-liberalism, but the direction in which their faith looks is much the same. This can also be said of Jewish observance. Different groups of Jews vary markedly in their interpretation and practice of basic rituals such as the Sabbath, dietary laws, daily prayers, and the like. But however great the difference in extent of observance, its intent is the same—the hallowing of life, as that has been described. What remains is to say a few words about the other two components of Judaism; namely, culture and nation.

Generally speaking, the four great sectors of Judaism that constitute its spiritual anatomy are faith, observance, culture, and nation. 

Culture, denoting as it does a total way of life, defies exhaustive description. It includes mores, art forms, styles of humor, philosophy, a literature, and much else. Its ingredients are so numerous that we shall have to limit ourselves to three. Jewish culture includes a language, a lore, and an affinity for a land.

Jewish culture includes a language, a lore, and an affinity for a land.

Its lore is apparent, for much of it has spilled over into Western culture generally. There is an aura that surrounds the Hebrew scriptures’ characters and events that dwarfs Olympus, but for Judaism this is only the beginning. The Torah is followed by the Talmud, a vast compendium of history, law, folklore, and commentary that is the basis of post-biblical Judaism. This in turn is supplemented by the midrashim, an almost equal collection of legend, exegesis, and homily, which began to develop before the biblical canon was fixed and reached its completion in the late Middle Ages. The whole provides an inexhaustible mine for scholarship, anecdote, and cultural identity.

The Torah is followed by the Talmud and supplemented by the midrashim. The whole provides an inexhaustible mine for scholarship, anecdote, and cultural identity.

In addition to its lore, every people has its language and its land. For the Jews these are, respectively, Hebrew and Israel. Both are sacred for their associations. As it was in Hebrew and the Holy Land that Revelation came to the Jews, regard for that Revelation extended to those contexts. Jews conduct all or part of their prayers in Hebrew, and consciousness of the Holy Land enlivens their reading of the Torah and their study of rabbinic literature. It is one of the paradoxes of Judaism that during the two thousand years in which it crossed every national boundary and had no habitation but human hearts, it retained its passion for the land of its birth. Prayers for their return to Zion figured in every public service and every private devotion, including the night prayer after retiring. The toast, “Next year in Jerusalem,” carries so much hope and feeling that people other than Jews sometimes invoke it.

For the Jews, the language is Hebrew, and the land is Israel. Both are sacred for their associations.

In the opening pages of this chapter we quoted Edmund Wilson as describing Palestine as “mild and monotonous.” To the Jew this characterization seems incredible, for it is a wonderful land even physically. Much of its terrain is spectacular: the course from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea that falls 3,481 feet in thirty-five miles, the Jordan that cuts deeply through rock as it winds south from Mount Hermon, the spiny ridge that runs southward from Mount Carmel by the sea, the rough wilderness of Tekoah that runs southward into the desolation of the Negev in sharp contrast to the lush greenness along the banks of south Jordan. There are pinnacles of cypress that reach up like dark spires, “mountains that skip like rams, [and] hills like lambs” (Psalm 114:4), the Fields of Esdraelon that slope upward to Galilee in broad checkerboards of brown and green, and harbors deep with the blue of the Mediterranean, all bathed in a brilliant sunlight and limpid air that lifts the expectant spirit. History cries out from every city and hillside, storied in the past. A brooding sense of the ages is present everywhere, now as when the ancient Hebrew seer beheld, enthroned, the “Ancient of Days.” 

To the Jew Israel is a wonderful land and much of its terrain is spectacular. History cries out from every city and hillside, storied in the past.

But to speak of this land is to enter the fourth component of total Judaism, its nation. For we live in a century when, for the first time since their compulsory dispersion in 70 C.E., Palestine has been restored to the Jews. 

The reasons leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 are complex. Beyond the powerful religious pull toward return, the chief contributing motifs were four. 

  1. The argument from security. The 1938–1945 Nazi-instigated Holocaust in which six million Jews—one-third of their total number—were killed, confirmed for many a conviction that had been growing since the renewal of pogroms in Russia in 1881: that the Jews could not hope for security in European life and civilization. They needed a place where their wounded and terrorized, still fortunate to be among the living, might gather to breathe the air of freedom and security. 
  2. The psychological argument. Some were convinced that it was psychologically unhealthy for the Jews to be everywhere in minority status; that this was breeding in them a subservience and self-rejection that only a nation of their own could correct.
  3. The cultural argument. The stuff of Judaism was running thin and its tradition was bleeding to death. Somewhere in the world there needed to be a land where Judaism was the dominant ethos.
  4. The social, utopian argument. Somewhere in the world there should be a nation dedicated to the historical realization of prophetic ideals and ethics—a better way of life in its totality, including economic structures, than history had yet evinced. Long before the Holocaust, a small but determined number of Jewish dreamers, most of them in eastern Europe, longed for a chance to refashion society in more healthful ways. Beginning in the late eighteen hundreds, several generations of pioneers made their way to Palestine to forge a life in which they would be free to ordain all aspects of their existence. Debarred from agriculture in the lands they left, they hoped to give birth to a new humanity through a way of life built on the foundation of physical labor and life on the land. The kibbutzim, collective agriculture settlements, that they founded were an expression of that idealism.

But to speak of this land is to enter the fourth component of total Judaism, its nation. 

Whatever the reasons that have gone into her creation, Israel is here. Her achievements have been impressive. Her land reclamation, her hospitality to Jewish immigrants (a true ingathering of exiles) her provisions for the laboring class, her new patterns of group living, her intellectual and cultural vitality—all have combined to make Israel an exciting social experiment. 

The state of Israel has become an exciting social experiment. 

But the twentieth century has also produced two agonizing problems for the Jews. The first relates to the Holocaust. What meaning can the concept of a Chosen People have in the face of a God who permitted this enormity, they wonder. Some go so far as to ask if even their postulate of a righteous God continues to make sense. 

But the enormity of Holocaust has made many Jews question the postulate of a righteous God.

The other agonizing problem relates to the idealistic argument for the state of Israel that was mentioned. Having all but scripted the ideals of freedom and justice for Western civilization, if not for the entire world, Jews now find themselves withholding these rights—for security reasons, forced to withhold them, many Jews believe—from Palestinians whose territories they occupy as a result of the 1967 war. The tension between Palestinian national rights and Israeli security is acute and unresolved. 

Furthermore, Jews now find themselves withholding the rights of freedom and justice from Palestinians, whose territories they occupy, for security reasons.

Without presuming to answer these problems, we can appreciate the burdens they place on the conscience of this exceptionally conscientious people. Facing their gravity, they take courage in the fact that at least they are now politically free to confront them. As the Star of David waves over their spiritual homeland, the first flag of their own in almost twenty centuries, the dominant thought in the minds of the Jews is: Am Yisrael chai, The people of Israel live! How wonderful to be living when all this is happening.

At least Jews, for once, are now politically free to confront these problems. The people of Israel live! 

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