Jewish Sovereignty as a Theological Problem

By Joseph Dan

What Israel means to the rest of the world.

Since the advent of Zionism a century ago, there has been one point of agreement between haredi Jews and the great majority of Zionists: The State of Israel has no theological significance. Although haredim generally acknowledge that they and their yeshivot have derived great benefit from the existence of a Jewish state, many still view it as an affront to divine providence, deserving of harsh punishment from God. And the mainstream of the Zionist movement, for its part, relates to the state as a humanitarian political undertaking aimed at saving the Jewish people from the danger of annihilation and gaining official recognition in the international community. This approach is often accompanied by a dismissive attitude towards traditional Judaism and its “diaspora mentality,” and an express wish that Israel become a “normal” society—that is, a secular society along European and American lines. Thus, although the Zionist and haredi worldviews could not be further apart, they are nonetheless united in rejecting the State of Israel as a theological phenomenon.
In contrast to these two views stands religious Zionism, which seeks in many ways—some moderate, others more radical—to set the Jewish state within a theological context. Indeed, it often looks to religion to provide the basis for national policy. Yet although religious-Zionist parties are almost always in the governing coalition, they have never succeeded in becoming a dominant cultural force, and have not substantially influenced the opinions of either of the other two camps regarding Israel’s religious significance.1
These differing opinions undoubtedly have important implications for the character of the Jewish state. But a society still in the process of forging its self-image must also bear in mind how it is seen by the rest of the world. For in the final analysis, how we are perceived by others is an important component in how we view our own identity—and this is true no less for societies than for individuals. It is somewhat surprising, then, to consider how little attention Jews and Israelis have paid to the way non-Jews view the establishment of a Jewish state. At a time when religious movements are reasserting themselves in the Middle East and anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, it is especially important to understand Israel’s profound theological significance for both its friends and its adversaries.
In contrast to the perception of most Jews that their state is decidedly secular, for both the Christian and Islamic traditions, the very existence of a sovereign Jewish entity has great theological implications. Their ideas about Jewish statehood are rooted in the foundations of their faith, and in ways that affect their relationship with Israel on a day-to-day basis. Jews and Israelis would therefore do well to note the vast differences between their understanding of the state as secular, and the perception by others that it is a theological phenomenon par excellence.

To outside observers, the foremost distinction between Israel and other countries stems from what appears to be an implicit contradiction between Judaism and sovereignty. To Israelis raised on Zionism, there is no such contradiction: The Jewish people was sovereign in its own land for a thousand years before the onset of its long and unfortunate exile two millennia ago. To them, and to many other Jews today, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 represents not a creation ex nihilo, but instead the realization of an ancient Jewish idea.
Those versed in the Christian and Muslim traditions, however, are likely to think otherwise. For these religions, the juxtaposition of “Jewish” with “state” is problematic, if not patently contradictory. This opinion follows naturally from their understanding of Jewish exile: While for most Jews, exile was a political-historical defeat that was reversed through political-historical means, for Christianity, and to a certain extent for Islam as well, the exile of the Jews is a divine decree. In this view, Jews are denied sovereignty because they are Jews—that is, because they rejected the new gospel. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty therefore undermines the inner coherence of Christian and Muslim religious thinking, and challenges a fundamental premise of their faith.
From the beginning, Christianity acknowledged its Jewish origins, labeling heretical the tendency of some of its followers (particularly the Gnostics) to reject the Tora of Israel as the teaching of Satan. Indeed, the synoptic Gospels devote considerable attention to the prophetic verses of the Bible, and assign the prophets of Israel an important role in establishing the truth of Jesus. Moreover, the leaders of Catholicism went to great lengths throughout the ages to demonstrate that Christian faith is prefigured in the “Old Testament,” and that only the two testaments together form the foundation of Christian belief. Yet this consecration of Israel and its teachings also forced Christian thinkers to ask themselves how Judaism could have continued to survive after Jesus. Thus in the twentieth century, the Catholic Church—the most explicitly theological body with which Israel has had contact—made it clear that the establishment of a Jewish state contradicted theological positions dating back to the third century.
The focal point of classical Christianity’s attitude towards Judaism is the concept of “supersession,” according to which Christianity is the heir of Judaism, and the Catholic Church the heir of the congregation of Israel. Judaism, according to this view, is the Israel of the flesh, and therefore in essence false, whereas Christianity is the Israel of the soul. In other words, since the appearance of Jesus, only Christianity is the “true Israel” (verus Israel), while the Jewish people are, in some sense, illegitimate. The question for Christianity was, therefore, how it is possible to inherit the role and standing of a people that still walks the earth, and what form such a transfer would take.
The answer was based on the principle of reward and punishment. The Jewish people, it was argued, forfeited its status as the chosen people when it refused to accept the gospel of Jesus and brought about his crucifixion by the Romans. The punishment was the destruction of the Temple, the loss of political sovereignty, and the transfer of their birthright—the privilege of being bearers of the divine truth—to the Church. Thus we see prominent Christian theologians such as Augustine depicting the loss of Jewish sovereignty as the transfer of divine favor from Judaism to Christianity.2 The implication is that the Jews, either as individuals or as a group, could never again possess anything remotely resembling sovereign status. Indeed, not only must the Jewish people be refused statehood, but individual Jews should not be permitted to hold positions of authority over Christians. The debased Jew would serve as eternal testimony to his forefathers’ crime of rejecting the divine message.
Ironically, the concept of the Jew as witness often protected Jewish lives: In the medieval period, Christians were forbidden to harm the Jews or their property, since their testimony was considered vital to the demonstration of Christian truth. In keeping with this doctrine, popes and cardinals often rose to the defense of the Jews against those who threatened them. Nevertheless, Christians generally saw themselves as duty-bound to perpetuate Jewish inferiority and humiliation on account of their heresy.3 There were, then, two aspects to the traditional Christian hatred of Jews: One was a savage, homicidal hatred, such as that of the Crusaders at the end of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which sought to negate the physical existence of the Jews altogether; the other, based in Christian theology, accepted the fact of the Jews’ existence, yet denied their right to enjoy national sovereignty or hold positions of authority.
Against this backdrop, it is clear why the emancipation of Jews in Christian lands caused so much difficulty for modern Christian theologians. Emancipation accorded Jews the right to hold positions of power within the Christian world, a right they often exercised. The Church managed to reconcile itself to this situation by distinguishing between the Jew as an individual and the Jewish people as a collective: Christians could now grant civil rights to the former without recognizing the religious or political legitimacy of the latter.
The founding of the State of Israel shattered this system of beliefs. For Catholicism, an independent Jewish state bearing the name “Israel,” with Jerusalem its capital, was unthinkable. The Jews were acting as though their punishment had been only temporary. The resurrection of the nation that had supposedly forfeited its inheritance posed an unpleasant problem for its “rightful” heirs: If there were now two Israels in the world, which was the real one? By regaining its sovereignty, the Jewish people, who until now had been a witness to the truth of Christianity, in effect became witness to its untruth. Never before had Christianity confronted so immediate and powerful a theological conundrum. The establishment of the State of Israel may not have harmed the Church in any direct fashion, but it nonetheless dealt a major blow to the underpinnings of classical Christian theology.

From the

Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of KashrutThe most famous Jewish practice is really about love and national loyalty.
The Political Legacy of Theodor HerzlBefore the melting pot, a different vision of the Jewish state.
Star-CrossedRosenzweig and Heidegger: Between Judaism and German Philosophy by Peter Eli Gordon
Ziegler's FolliesThe strange story of one UN official`s dubious affair with radicalism.
Facts Underground 

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2024