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Confronting Idolatry: God Is Central to Judaism — Not the State of Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld

In recent years, Jewish religious bodies, ranging from the Orthodox to the Conservative to the Reform, have embraced the notion that the State of Israel — not God — is, somehow, “central” to Judaism.  
In Miami, in 1997, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), a Reform body, adopted a platform which declared that Jews constitute a people with “innumerable ties” to the State of Israel, and that Israel serves “uniquely as the spiritual focal point of World Jewry.” In its May 1999 declaration of principles, American Reform Jews were encouraged to abandon the United States and move permanently to Israel.  
In its 1999 State of Principles, adopted in Pittsburgh, the Union of American Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) declared: “We are committed to the State of Israel and rejoice in its accomplishments. We affirm the unique qualities of living in the land of Israel and encourage (aliyah) immigration to Israel.”  
Move to Jerusalem  
The 27th World Zionist Congress, in 1968, adopted a resolution recognizing its “Jerusalem Program” as the official pronouncement of basic Zionist aims. The key element of this program is its first provision which affirms “the unity of the Jewish people and the centrality of Israel in Jewish life.”  
Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, announced that the headquarters of the Union would be moved to Jerusalem. He declared that, “Jews are a people. Neither we nor the non-Jewish world is capable of constricting Jews to a faith or a philosophy or a narrow-defined religious movement ... The State of Israel is restoring to world Jewry the characteristics of peoplehood of which the current emphasis on Jewish identity and ethnicity is a reflection.”  
From Israeli flags in synagogues to “Birthright Israel” trips sending young people on free visits to Israel to a host of Jewish organizations focusing on influencing U.S. Middle East policy — the center of attention within the organized American Jewish community has not been the traditional Jewish religious commitment to God but something far different.  
The fact is, of course, that it is religion which is central to Judaism, not the State of Israel, the Jewish people, or any other human entity or enterprise. Indeed, the substitution of a political creation — a sovereign state — as a virtual object of worship is clearly an act of idolatry. Many respected Jewish voices have been heard over the years making precisely this point.  
History Is Instructive  
In this regard, Judaism’s history is instructive. In Jewish tradition, two outstanding figures are credited with transforming a Temple-centered Judaism into a Judaism that was at once more personal and more cosmopolitan. The first is Yohanan Ben Zakkai, a Torah scholar who, trapped in Roman-besieged Jerusalem, contrived to flee from the rebels hidden in a coffin. Tradition holds that he gained permission from the Romans to teach the Torah at Yavne, a small town southwest of Jerusalem. He became an emblematic figure in the emphasis on Torah study, as opposed to the struggle for political independence. The Torah replaced the land in its physical sense and became, in the words of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, “the national territory.”  
The second outstanding figure was Judas the Prince (Yehuda Ha-Nasi, 135-219), revered as the compiler of the Mishna. According to tradition, he wrote down the oral Torah in the conditions that arose after the destruction of the Temple, when geographical dispersion of the Jews threatened to disrupt word-of-mouth transmission. He was a close friend of Antoninus, the Roman Emperor of the day. Judas the Prince settled in Tzipori (Sephoris), the Roman administrative center in Galilee; his residence, which has recently become a tourist attraction, was located in the center of the Roman town. Tradition relates that in his relationship with Roman authorities, Judas the Prince drew inspiration from the Biblical verses that describe the encounter between Jacob and his brother Esau.  
Conciliatory Attitude  
Professor Yakov Rabkin notes that, “Both figures, Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Judas the Prince, embody a conciliatory attitude toward any occupying power and point up the sharp difference between the patriots who perished in armed struggle or collective suicide, e.g. at Masada and Gamla, and the rabbis who fled confrontation, preoccupied as they were by the survival and development of Judaism and, by extension, of the Jewish people. There can be little doubt that the survival of the Jewish continuity owes much to these ‘collaborationist’ rabbis, who hold such a prominent place in tradition.”  
Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman, like many others, saw in Zionism a sharp break with Jewish continuity. Quoting the verse: “Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them” (Deuteronomy 11:16), he cites Rashi’s commentary, “No sooner does a man turn aside from Torah than he embraces idolatry.”  
While Judaism has placed man’s obligations to God at the center of its value system, inferring his obligations to the community from his relationship to God, the new civil religion which has emerged places the individual’s obligation to the State of Israel at its center.  
Ignored in the current sacrilization of Israel, is the genuinely unique contribution which Judaism has made to the world.  
Jewish “Gifts” to the World  
In his book, The Gifts Of The Jews, Thomas Cahill understands far better than many contemporary Jewish commentators exactly what the Jewish “gifts” to the world have been. He writes: “Because of their unique belief — monotheism — the Jews were able to give us the Great Whole, a unified universe that makes sense and that, because of its evident superiority as worldview, completely overwhelms the warring and contradictory phenomenon of polytheism. They gave us the Conscience of the West, and the belief that this God who is One is not the God of outward show but the still, small voice of conscience, the God of compassion, the God who ‘will be there,’ the God who cares about each of his creatures, especially the human beings he created ‘in his own image,’ and that he insists we do the same. Even the gradual universalization of Jewish ideas, hinted at in the story of Ruth ... was foreseen by Joel, the late prophet who probably rose after the return from Babylon: ‘And it shall come to pass afterward that I shall pour out my spirit on all humanity. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old people shall dream dreams, and your young people see visions. Even on slaves, men and women, shall I pour out my spirit.’”  
Cahill declares that, “The Jews gave us the Outside and the Inside — our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact — adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, progress, spirit, faith, hope and justice — are gifts of the Jews. ... If one is ever to find the spirit of God in human affairs, one must find it here ... Humanity’s most extravagant dreams are articulated by the Jewish prophets. In Isaiah’s vision, true faith is no longer confined to one nation but ‘all the nations’ stream to the House of Yahweh ‘that he may teach us his ways’ and that we may learn to ‘beat our swords into ploughshares.’ All who share this outrageous dream of universal brotherhood, peace and justice, who dream the dreams and see the visions of the great prophets, must bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that without God there is no justice.”  
Religion Not Static  
The Jewish religion was not static. Much of the Bible reflected an ancient worldview of tribal gods which were not the unique Jewish contribution to religion, but a holdover from the past. Thus, in the Book of Joshua, God commanded the Israelites to put all Canaanites, even children, to the sword. In the Psalms the poet regularly urges God to effect the brutal destruction of the poet’s enemies. This is hardly the god of the Prophets.  
In its early days, Reform Judaism stripped Judaism of those characteristics which served the idea of a separate “Jewish peoplehood.” What remained, and what they deeply believed in, was the Judaism of the prophets, a religion of universal and moral ethical laws from a God who was the God of all men, not simply of the Jews.  
Indeed, the early Reform leader Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise criticized the idea of Jewish nationalism and of an ethno-centric religion in these terms: “The false Messiahs who appeared from time to time among the dispersed and suffering remnants of Judah, had no religious purpose in view; all of them were political demagogues or patriotic fantasits with as much religious zeal as was deemed requisite to agitate the Jewish mind and to win the goodwill of the masses and its leaders for the proposed political end, which was the restoration of Jewish nationality and the conquest of Palestine. All of them failed miserably and left behind them plenty of misery for their thoughtless followers. And yet with that warning of history before them, the party of men called Zionists and the admirers of Dr. Herzl’s Judenstaat propose to do the same thing over in our days. ...”  
Israel’s “Centrality” Is Idolatry  
More and more thoughtfu1 Jewish voices — in Israel, in the United States and around the world — are increasingly using the term “idolatry” to describe the elevation of the State of Israel to the “central” position in Judaism.  
In 1993, 90-year old Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an eminent Israeli theologian, received the country’s most prestigious award, the Israel Prize, an award intended to recognize Israel’s best minds and deepest souls. Leibowitz’s views were described in these terms by Moshe Halbertal, writing in The New Republic: “For Leibowitz, the most fundamental principle of Judaism is the rejection of idolatry ... He denounces as idolatrous a traditional assertion regarding the essential sacredness of the land and the people of Israel. Since nothing human is sacred, religion, which is in the sphere of the sacred, cannot serve any human interest. The worship of God is the exclusive purpose of the commandments of the Torah and any other purpose ... even the purpose of the survival of the Jewish people, is an instrumentalization of religion and forbidden.”  
With regard to the religious zeal in behalf of an “undivided” Jerusalem, the respected Israeli author Amos Elon declares that, “In monotheistic terms it is probably idolatrous to consider a shrine or a city — let alone the preservation of a national or ethnic identity — as the ultimate goal of a religion.”  
U.S. a Better Place for Jews  
Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a respected scholar, was among the first to warn that pro-Israelism could not solve the identity crisis of the community. He declared that the United States was a much better place for Jews than Israel and pointed out the “irony of religious passions being lavished by mainly secular people upon a state, which, like all other states, is a contingent and this-worldly fact.”  
Daniel J. Elazar coined the term “Israelotry” to denote his contention that American Jews turned to worshiping Israel rather than the God of Israel. Immanuel Jacobovits, the late chief rabbi of Britain, bemoaned that, for many Jews, Israel became a “vicarious haven of their residual Jewishness, conveniently replacing the personal discipline of Jewish life.” Rabbi Eugene Borowitz said that “we cannot function as Jews by trying to live a vicarious Israeli experience on American soil.” David Clayman, a high-ranking American Jewish Congress official, noted that “fundraising was the key. You worshiped at the altar of Israel by contributing. Jewish observance was raising money, not going to the synagogue.”  
In his prophetic critique of Zionism published in 1929, Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret writes in “Three Unsuitable Unions,” that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a “spiritual center” was in contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.  
He writes: “As for building a ‘spiritual center’ for Judaism, such advocates reveal a failure to grasp the nature of Judaism. For Judaism at root is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a single territory ... Neither is Judaism a matter of ‘nationality’ in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the famous three-fold mesh of ‘homeland, army, and heroic songs.’ No. Judaism is Torah, ethics, and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah: ‘Its measure is greater than the earth ...’ (Job 11:9).”  
Spiritual Vision  
The “center” of Judaism, in the view of Rabbi Tamaret, is not a particular geographic location but can be found in its own spiritual vision: “... the true locus and center of Judaism is within the heart, within the heart of every Jew whose heart is of flesh, not of stone. Wherever on all this earth such a Jew is found, there is the place of Judaism.”  
The distinguished rabbi and academic Arthur Hertzberg, in his book Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (written with Aron Hirt-Manheimer), argues that the Zionist idea of making Jews a “normal” people is a rejection of the very uniqueness of Judaism and the Jewish mission: “The Jew ... lives in two dimensions — the now and the forever. Jews have lived within changing and often tragic circumstances, but their religion has lifted them up to another realm in which nothing changes. The holy days and the commandments that Jews observe are timeless. Historical events are fleeting. The Zionist settlement in Palestine is no more important to the continuity of Judaism than the revolt against Rome or the expulsion from Spain or the pogroms in Russia ... Chronology is irrelevant in the study of Torah; all of its divine teachings and interpretations are eternal values that transcend time.”  
Rabbi Hertzberg is not worried about Jewish “survival” and believes that what Jews should be asking is not how to perpetuate the Jewish people, but what God expects of them. If God still has some role for Jews to play, they will, in some mysterious way, find themselves able to do it. If there is no belief in God, or in Judaism’s uniqueness, there will be no Jews.  
More Important Than God  
Some Zionists openly proclaim that support for Israel is more important than belief in God. Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, for example, declared: “I would sooner pray among Jews who did not love God than I would among Jews who did not love Israel.”  
Referring to such an idolization of the Israeli state, Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, writes: “If Jewish prayer is better when confirming right-wing politics rather than love of God, how will we hear the prophetic voice we need to call the Jewish people back to its soul? Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So, too, the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.”  
The growing idolatry of the State of Israel, states Rabbi Marc Gopin, who teaches in the Department of Religion at George Mason University, “has led to what it historically has always led to in other religions ... the distortion of a rich religious heritage that has a deep set of ethical commitments to the stranger, in biblical language the gerim, those non-members of one’s culture who happen to reside on the land as well. The biblical prophets were aware that this level of intoxication with the land is poisonous ... They required a balance between love of land and moral restraint, a stepping back from land intoxication ... To recapture our sense of religious morality, we must undertake a fundamental re-evaluation of our relationship to the land.”  
A Universal God  
The 19th century founders of Reform Judaism rejected the notion of a God confined to a particular “holy” land and embraced, instead, a universal God, the Father of all men, and a religion of universal values, as relevant in New York or London as in Jerusalem. Early in this century, Hermann Cohen, one of the foremost Jewish philosophers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism would re-ignite an intoxication with the land that would strangle Jewish morality.  
Hopefully, the vision of a universal faith of ethical values for men and women of every race and nation which the Prophets preached and in which generations of Jews believed will once again become the real “center” of Judaism, and God, not the State of Israel,wil1 once again become the object of worship.  
Please feel free to forward your comments to my attention at either the address or e-mail listed below. We need and appreciate your continued involvement to ensure that our voice is heard. •  
American Council for Judaism,  
P.O. Box 9009,  
Alexandria, VA 22304.  

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