Without Eretz Yisrael, it’s just Unitarianism

Liberal Judaism and Zionism

By Vic Rosenthal

Many of my liberal Jewish friends have tried to disconnect their Jewish spirituality, ethics, ritual, and peoplehood from Eretz Yisrael. Although there are, of course, Orthodox anti-Zionists who think that only the mashiach can return the Jews to their homeland, the position is quite different: the liberal Jew believes that the Jewish state is simply irrelevant to Jewish life in the Diaspora. Some of them can even support the replacement of Israel by a Palestinian state. This essay is intended for them.

Eretz Yisrael is central to almost every document in Judaism. The covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people as detailed in the Torah is basically this: you be my people and observe my mitzvot and I’ll let you flourish in the land of Israel. Otherwise you will suffer horribly and be thrown out of the land, as happened to the idolatrous former inhabitants. Indeed, Tisha b’Av commemorates the most horrible event in Jewish history – the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the land of Israel. The Pesach Haggadah triumphantly asserts “next year in Jerusalem!” We pray facing Jerusalem in order to remind us, wherever we are dispersed, of the true center of our faith. The Siddur is full of references to the land and our yearning for it as Jews. How is it that a person identifying strongly as a Jew can push this all aside as irrelevant?

Reform and Humanistic Jews have de-emphasized traditional ritual as well as Shabbat and kashrut observance. Some (most?) Orthodox Jews will argue that this implies that they are practicing some other religion, not Judaism. I am not arguing this point either way. What is important is to realize that for liberal Jews, the essence of Judaism – which changed once from Temple ritual to synagogue prayer – has shifted yet again to center on tikkun olam by way of the observance of certain ethical mitzvot.

Interestingly, these mitzvot tend to be those that are congruent with the conventional secular progressive morality – and politics – of the day. For most of these Jews, the humanistic ‘mitzvot’ of secular morality are logically prior to those of Judaism; that is, only those mitzvot which do not contradict the preexisting humanistic point of view may be considered valid ethical principles. What is the place of Eretz Yisrael for these Jews?


It seems to me that many of them think that the physical Eretz Yisrael is no longer a necessary part of Judaism, just as the physical Temple sacrifices are not. This is not surprising when the Torah is not read regularly and so much of the traditional liturgy has been omitted, poorly translated, or replaced by modern platitudes. They are rarely exposed to the actual body of Jewish sacred literature, so they are not aware of the centrality of Eretz Yisrael.


The Reform movement has historically been ambivalent towards Zionism, with a positive evolution over the years. The “Pittsburgh Platform” of 1885, the founding document of American Reform Judaism states:


“We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”


Programs issued in 1937 and 1976 include statements much more friendly to Zionism, culminating in one on “Reform Judaism and Zionism” in Miami (1997):


“The restoration of Am Yisrael to its ancestral homeland after nearly two thousand years of statelessness and powerlessness represents an historic triumph of the Jewish people, providing a physical refuge, the possibility of religious and cultural renewal on its own soil, and the realization of God’s promise to Abraham: ‘to your offspring I assign this land’. From that distant moment until today, the intense love between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael has not subsided.”


However, it continues in a humanistic vein,


“…we, therefore, affirm Am Yisrael’s reassertion of national sovereignty, but we urge that it be used to create the kind of society in which full civil, human, and religious rights exist for all its citizens. Ultimately, Medinat Yisrael will be judged not on its military might but on its character…while we view Eretz Yisrael as sacred, the sanctity of Jewish life takes precedence over the sanctity of Jewish land.”


Although much of the leadership of the movement has become more Zionist, there are exceptions, and many of the rank and file Reform Jews are closer to the original Pittsburgh Platform than the later ones. Of course, non-affiliated Jews tend to be much less connected to and more critical of Israel.


The traditional Jew feels a strong connection to the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, almost an extension of his family. He will learn about it, support it, visit it, maybe even make his home in it. If he criticizes its government – which is highly likely – it will be from a standpoint of historical knowledge as well as true concern, the way someone criticizes a family member: with great care to keep such criticism within the family and toNeturei Karta in Iran avoid injuring Jews or Jewish institutions. At a time when secular Jews are at the forefront of anti-Israel expression, almost no Conservative or Orthodox Jews (other than a handful of publicity-seeking members of Neturei Karta who are on Arab payrolls) take an anti-Israel position.


For many modern American Jews Israel is just another foreign country. Therefore, they do not feel a great obligation to learn its history or to care about its fate. They do not feel a special obligation to protect it or to consider the consequences of what they say about it. And since their idea of the essence of Judaism is conventional progressive morality and politics, this is where they go when they make judgments about Israel.


And what a place to go! Since 1967 the progressive community has turned on Israel, by now taking it as an article of faith that the State of Israel was founded in an act of injustice, that the policy of the government of Israel is racist and inhumane, that the political party that dominatesJews for a Just Peace the government (at some particular time) is corrupt. In the conventional humanistic morality of today, there are no greater evils than these. So with no special connection or knowledge, bombarded by effective anti-Israel propaganda targeted directly at those with a liberal sensibility, it’s no wonder that so many Jews are found holding placards at anti-Israel demonstrations.


I am not suggesting that liberal Jews must become either Orthodox or Republican. I do want to make two suggestions to them:


Liberal Judaism is presently struggling with a lack of, for want of a better phrase, emotional connectedness. Some people call it spirituality, but it’s whatever generates excitement and attracts one to participate in the ‘religious’ part of synagogue life. Even if one is not prepared to adopt traditional practices, the Torah is quite accessible, and anyone who studies it cannot help but feel the emotional tug of their connection to the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Recent statements from the Reform movement indicate that the leadership understands this.


From the political point of view, the connection between progressive politics and an anti-Israel position is purely contingent, having its roots in the US-Soviet conflict of the cold war era, and the more recent exploitation of liberal human-rights concerns by Arab propagandists. Just as the answer to the problem of spirituality in Liberal Judaism lies in study, study – this time of history – can make it clear that a progressive point of view does not preclude a pro-Israel one.

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One Response to “Without Eretz Yisrael, it’s just Unitarianism”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I would add to this outstanding analysis a couple of points. One is mentioned in the article , at least implicitly, but cannot be emphasiszed enough. i.e. The ignorance of increasing numbers of Jews of traditional texts and sources. The connection of the Jewish people with Israel as Rosenthal rightly points out is strongly emphasized in all the major Jewish sources.
    Secondly, I tend to see the distancing by certain Diaspora Jews from connection with Israel as immoral action, escaping Jewish communal responsibility. I see it as a kind of moral cowardice.
    One remedy in my opinion is in ‘learning’ but not simply traditional learning from religious sources but rather from a more full study of Jewish culture and history.
    Another remedy I believe in strongly is the ‘experiential one’ of young Jews coming to visit and better know Israel in this way. Here of course ‘The Birthright’ program is to be commended for the oustanding work it does.