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RHR 2008: Religious Jew, Seculiar Zionist: R' Art Green on Jewish Theology and Israel

The session entitled Religious Jew, Secular Zionist: Thoughts on Jewish Theology and Israel featured Rabbi Arthur Green (of Hebrew College rabbinic school; author of several books, among them Ehyeh and Seek My Face; you can learn more by reading Being Art Green.)

Note: Rabbi Green has a lot to say. He talks quickly. This is not a full transcript, but it's the best I could do; I offer it humbly with thanks to him and to you.

Edited to add: the full text of Rabbi Green's remarks is now available on the Rabbis for Human Rights website; if you want the full power of his remarks, please read the essay as he penned it!

Rabbi Arthur Green:

Sim shalom tovah uvracha...["Grant peace, goodness and blessing..."] Our ancient prayer for peace and our prayer for Israel are one and the same. We pray for peace, goodness, and blessing for us and for all Israel, Your people; we know God and address God from within that collective. That is Jewish prayer as it has existed since the earliest reaches of what can be called Judaism, back to the Second Temple era and from there linking back to the prophets.

While the pre-exilic prophets may have been speaking to a geographically-defined community, over the last two millennia we have been a trans-exilic community. The words of the prayer transport us to Mumbai, Argentina, Kishinev...and of course also Jerusalem, where many of us have most fully experienced what to is to be part of this people.

What is this Israel, the human community in which we come into God's presence? What has it to do with ethnicity, race, political reality? Can it be sacred and yet also partake in the categories of human interaction which are so problematic? Can a commitment to Israel amecha ["Israel, Your people," a reference to the Sim Shalom prayer he cited in beginning] have a place in this seemingly borderless age, one defined by a President whose identity, which we as Americans celebrate, is precisely about the breaking of borders?

We celebrate the diversity of life. While we may not be able to articulate a full theology of it, we understand it to be sacred, and to contain the stamp of God. God is there in the evolution of species. God is also present in ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity, which we celebrate. We play "world music," eat southeast Asian food or at least a poor kosher imitation of it, we travel across all the borders and read literature from around the world. We feel this is all good, enriching, even somehow containing sparks of holiness. But what of us, Israel amecha? What is left of our distinctiveness?

We post-Shoah Jews have abandoned the ancient claim that we stand at the center of human history. "Choose someone else for a while," as the poet Glattstein said in the early postwar years. Is there anything uniquely Jewish left in our vision of messiah? Is there a place for the survival of the people Israel? Or is our distinctiveness as a human group, like any other, the Roma or the Lao? Do we still have something to offer the world, or are we just exercising our national struggle for self-preservation along with everybody else? To what extent can that be sacred? As Diaspora Jews and Americans, where non-racialized ethnicities seem bound for extinction, what is our vision of the future?

Are we out there identifying ourselves as a minority, in a society where we're no longer listed as such? How do we assert our minority identity without undercutting the great gains we've made? Tough questions, none of which I can fully answer here. All of them are enriched and complicated by the fact that we coexist as Yisrael with another entity, Medinat Yisrael [the State of Israel]; one with citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, to which we are outsiders but to which we of course are linked. How do we begin to sort it all out?

I speak to you as a heterodox religious Jew. Heterodoxy does not claim to have answers to great questions or submit to a firm Shulchan Aruch code, but I call myself a religious Jew. My people is not just Am Yisrael [The Jewish People], but Yisrael Amecha, the community in whose midst I stand before God. My community was forged in the iron fortress of Egypt, an Egypt of collective memory more than history. It is there that we became a people; there to which God looked down and knew.

The people Israel is the people who lived through Egypt together, was redeemed together, sang together at the Rd Sea and has not forgotten. The other formative experience for us as Yisrael Amecha was standing at Sinai -- again, perhaps memory formulated later rather than literal history. We cried out na'aseh v'nishma, "let us do and let us hear," even before we knew all the details. As a religious Jew I still feel bound to that declaration. I do not know that God really promised anything, or whether the promises have been fulfilled, but I do know that we proclaimed ourselves God's people.

What does it mean to be Yisrael Amecha? That we seek always to erect a dwelling-place for God on earth. We are mishkan-builders. The midrash says the Shekhinah sought from the beginning to dwell on earth. Our job is to live in such a way that the divine presence will feel at home in our midst.

Our dwelling-place for God looks different since the Temple was destroyed. Indeed, our mishkan needs to be changed and renewed in every generation, as the Hasidic masters said so boldly. But its contours are these: it is a community which loves every human being. It recognizes the image of God in every person and goes to great lengths to help him or her share in that recognition. It's a community that loves studying commenting on and teaching the texts we have received, seeking out God's presence in words and teachings. It cares a great deal about children, the elderly, the intergenerational process of seeing life as devoted to the proposition of each generation sharing its praise of God with the next. Our mishkan is a community which takes responsibility for the survival of God's world.

I do not believe we are charged with the question of whether there are others who are doing this work. If they are, we should meet them and help them! But we are not God's gatekeepers and should not be in the business of giving out credentials.

Egypt and Sinai are the bedrock on which we stand. They may be augmented by later tales, but they should never be replaced by them. There are imperatives coming out of these experiences which still echo through us: welcoming the stranger, hearing the voice within the thunder, redeeming captives, resting and letting the soil rest. These are part of the collective priesthood to which I believe we, all Israel, are called.

The assertion of ongoing covenant will seem familiar to those who read Franz Rosensweig. And had I lived before the Shoah I too might have questioned whether the Jews should abandon their sacred calendar and grapple fully with history. I might have seen myself as a cultural Zionist, and not seen the necessity for a Jewish state. I would have shared with Judah Magnus, Martin Buber, and others the concern about the rights of Arabs in their own land -- as I still do. But the world did not offer us this luxury. After Hitler it became clear that we Jews needed both the protection and the pride of having a state of our own. Israel as a place of refuge became a necessity after the war, and it is still unthinkable to me not to have Israel as a Jewish state, a refuge for Jews facing persecution.

I accord the state no theological meaning. I am a religious Jew and a secular Zionist; I do not perceive the state to be the first flowering of our redemption, I accord no messianic meaning to the existence of a Jewish state. The scourge of antisemitism reached a point at which Jewish life in Europe became impossible; the Zionists were right in seeing this crisis coming.

Israel has been a tremendous success, one in which I take great pride. We know there's a voice against antisemitism in every world forum, and the world knows Jews no longer take it lying down. Israel has absorbed great immigrant groups. On the positive side, Israel has succeeded tremendously in revival of Jewish knowledge, culture, and creativity. Full comfortable Hebrew literacy is the key portal to that richness, and sadly even we Diaspora rabbis seldom achieve it. As a non-Israeli Israelite, I frequently visit Israel; I read Israeli literature, and I struggle to keep up with the endless productivity of my scholarly colleagues there.

To say that I accord no theological or messianic status to the state does not mean, however, that I refuse to find meaning in the fact of its existence. Here I need to say a more general word about my theology of history; I am not a believer in more traditional views of Providence. Once confrontation with the Shoah caused me to give that up, I could not resurrect it. But my disbelief in a God who causes these events to happen does not free me from seeking God in them when they do occur. If God is present in each place and moment, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, God is present too in the events of history. It is our task to find these events meaningful.

The Jewish people's return to Zion and the creation of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, at the very moment of the breakup of the colonial era in world history, calls us to think about what that means. The coming-together of these events in that moment tells us that a society created by Jews in what we believe to be a holy place has to be built on universal Jewish values. Our faith cannot permit a Jewish society to act as a colonial society. If it sounds to our ears as though Israel's founding might be too close for comfort to that description, it is our job as Yisrael Amecha to ensure that that does not remain the case.

Israel the state has become the greatest test to our values and heritage in many generations. The Talmud likes to describe Jews as bashful, compassionate, bestowing kindness. The new Jew of Israel is certainly not bashful, but are we still compassionate? Can we create a real state that treats every human being as God's image? To the extent that we do not, the failure is all of our failure, the failure of Judaism, not just the failure of Israel as a political entity. That is why we are and need to be so deeply involved in these questions.

Any discussion of this matter must be marked by compassion for all of the sufferers and with full historical awareness... History put us in an untenable situation. How could anyone expect the Jewish refugees from Hitler to stop and consider that their new homeland was being built at anyone's expense? The myth of "a land without a people..." fit the needs of the moment too well. But indeed it was not true, as the Jews who were already living there knew well.

For more than four decades now I have stood at the critical left flank of Israel's supporters, arguing a viable two-state solution to the problems of the Middle East. There is no long-term future for Israel outside the two-state solution. I therefore believe those who try to create facts on the ground to make that solution impossible are enemies of the future existence of Israel. Above all, we must recognize the full dignity of the Arabs with whom we are fated to share the land. This means accepting their narrative even when it conflicts with our own. And I believe this is the religious message we need to find in our generation!

...We have the opportunity to teach our truth. We can do this through generosity, compassion... through the conviction that the only way to live in a holy land and holy city is to share them with their other inhabitants... If we cannot find it in our hearts to do that, even in the face of real obstacles, we and our tradition will somehow have failed. So far, we're not doing too well.

We who believe in humanitarian Zionism have been too easily demoralized, too ready to allow that vision to fade. Most of all, we have reason to be concerned that our people not be overwhelmed by a Shoah-dominated view of the world... We take seriously anyone who talks about destroying the Jews or wiping Israel off the map; how could we do otherwise? But we cannot allow this vigilance to paralyze us, to render us unable to trust or move forward. Sometimes one has to take risks for peace, especially when the alternative is living forever in the bunker.

Most Palestinians are waiting for accommodation to reality, and are as frightened as we are of apocalypse. A two-state solution must be possible, and we -- Israel, the US government, and world Jewry -- need to be doing much more to make it happen. Israel will not be able to survive long as a garrison state...because such an interest is ultimately a betrayal of the best of Jewish values.

I write these words as a Jew who chooses to live outside the land... Some would say that my choice not to be an Israeli makes it illegitimate for me to express these views. But I cannot keep silent. All of us Jews, wherever we live, inherit the same name of Israel; we have the same prophets ringing in our ears. A threatened Israel threatens us all. I hope not to live in a world in which there is no state of Israel. There is no going back to life before 1933.

We Diaspora Jews differ from the Israeli point of view. Zionism has long viewed the wandering Jew as a tragic figure in history...while Diaspora Jews are proud of our cosmopolitanism! We are sometimes depicted by Israelis as overly mercantile, trying to buy freedom rather than win it honorably. Living too much in the mind, too little in body and soil.

This is not the place to debate the relative successes and failures of Zionism in creating the new Jew. Israel is clearly no longer a society based on the idealism of working the land. Secular Israeli values were shaped by a sharper break with religion than Jews who came to the west, but even there, the last years have brought an increased interest in religion. We are a single people, sharing a past and future as well as a cultural legacy of which we are all struggling to decide what we want to reclaim.

Many Israelis see our worldview as apologetic and naive, refusing to look at the precarious situation of the Jew. Their blatantly higher regard for Jewish life over the lives of others, seeking to make up for so many centuries of victimhood, often deeply offends what we as Diaspora liberals see as sacred to our Jewish values! We American Jews also live in a society deeply scarred by the mistreatment of a minority... so we find ourselves horrified that Jews could create a society in which we privilege ourselves over others. But despite these and other differences, we know we are one people, bearers of a single legacy, and we will have to find a way to live with one another as extended family.

...Young people in our community are now mostly 4th or 5th generation American Jews. They have no idea of what a Yiddish accent sounds like. They think gefilte fish was born in a jar. Immigration, Holocaust, even 1967 are history for them, no more. They share only vague traces of the ancestry I inherited from my grandparents who were raised in the 19th century! It is unreasonable to expect 21st-century Jews as though they had lived through 1945 or 1948.

We need a sense of higher purpose, of mission. For us rabbis, that sense is defined: we were shaped by Egypt and Sinai. But what of the many in this generation who cannot share this language, those for whom the poetry of Sinai is too lofty or remote? What can we say to them about why to remain identified as Jews? Such a why is needed. All the Birthright trips in the world will not take its place.

It is the essential content and values of Jewish life, even if secularized, which will stir Jews to remain involved. I propose that we see ourselves as proponents of the unity of all beings and the unique sacredness of all life. The first of these, we proclaim when we say shema; we are called the People who proclaim Your Oneness. The oneness of God means the oneness of existence. We are all limbs of the same cosmic body, inhabited by the same cosmic soul. We celebrate difference, but see through it to the truth that there is only One underlying us all.

The same is true for our faith in tzelem elohim. Judaism has an unswerving commitment to justice. Continued Jewish existence has to align itself with the demand for these and the concerns they bring forth. We need to exist in order to teach these ideas. These are deeply Jewish values, rooted both in our religious tradition and in our long history of suffering.

In some deep and mysterious way, Jews still want to be a mamlechet kohanim v'goi kadadosh, a kingdom of priests and holy nation, even those who don't let themselves use those words. It is our job as rabbis and teachers to support that, and to bring it forth.

Very brief Q and A -- only time for two questions...

I can't escape from the sense that the Zionist enterprise has become a racist enterprise. As you travel through Israel and see the treatment of Arabs in Israel, it all boils down to racism; that Jewish lives are privileged. Homes are demolished because we need a demographic superiority in Jerusalem. We don't want to give up the Jewish Negev so we don't give services to Bedouins. On this last trip to Israel, every place was touched by this racist exclusion, which is what Zionism has become. How do we deal with that now?

Among the pains we have to recognize is your pain in getting to a place where you say such things, because I know that's hard for you. But I'm not there; I wouldn't use the language you just used, though I recognize the realities you're talking about. I want to say, case by case, piece by piece, we have to fight this. Israel is there; the Jews of Israel are not going away. In anything like a one-state solution, I have a nightmare of Lebanon before me, Ashkenazim fleeing with European passports. This is why I want a Jewish state -- not including all of Jerusalem, not including the West Bank; we have created a horror in the West Bank, the Occupation is a blight and must be ended! Inside Israel, I know the realities you're talking about. I'm not willing to say that therefore Zionism is racism. There are enlightened people in some places of power. It is our job to work with B'tselem and RHR, step by step, to make Israel closer to what we can live with. Probably it won't happen in your lifetime or mine.

A concern back on the United States side. It is not only the case that this generation doesn't recall the shtetl; but all Jews are not from that tradition! And even now, we're going to have to grapple ourselves with the kind of diversity, for example, represented by adoptions which bring other races into our congregations; with continuing efforts in the GLBT community; I don't think that the sentimentalizing of my bubbe's world was ever sufficient, and it is ever less so.

I think you're right. The reshaping of that community happens initially often along religious lines; the joining of that community is often much harder and more subtle. The struggle to identify with the Jewish people can be a long and difficult struggle. But to the extent that we continue to identify as an ethnic group, not just a religious group, the core of that group will be those who identify with those memories and share them with others.

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