Third in a Series (Part II)

The year 1960 marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Theodor Herzl, father of modern Zionism. In an illuminating commemorative address that restated Zionism’s philosophy and goals, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein of New York City recalled:

“When Herzl appeared upon the scene, with the publication of his Judenstaat (1895), he did not create ex nihilo. Wherever Jews lived, and the Jewish tradition was honored, the Land of Israel was regarded as the place to which, ultimately, all Jews would be regathered. All other countries were considered to be places of ‘exile,’ to which the Jews had been consigned by God in punishment for their sins. In the theological system to which Jews were committed before modern times, the ‘redemption’ from ‘exile’ would be accomplished by an act of divine intervention; the Messiah would come to initiate a new order of things, and the first act in this new order would be the ‘ingathering of the exiles.’ ”

As Eisenstein put it, traditional Judaism taught, 1. the dispersion was an expiation; 2. the end of exile would occur in God’s own time; 3. this release would be the work of a divine agent; 4. the restoration of Zion would introduce a messianic age; and 5. any attempt to “force the hand of God” by initiating redemption through human effort is blasphemy.

Breakdown of this integrated theological system, Eisenstein noted, began with emancipation of the Jews of Western Europe and America. Modern scientific thought weakened the foundations of a literal belief in some of Judaism’s basic postulates; and modern states, offering citizenship to Jews regardless of their creed, posed even more basic dilemmas. Jews no longer needed to regard themselves in “exile.”

Two new conditions, however, precipitated creation of the Zionist movement: 1. anti-Semitism reminded Jews that their “emancipation” was by no means complete, and 2. assimilation aroused concern that—despite anti-Semitism—“emancipation” might succeed only too well. Thus fears for security of the Jews and for the future of Judaism spurred men like Herzl to action.

Paradoxically, the action they undertook smacked of the very blasphemy their tradition had always decried. By taking matters into their own hands, the Jews were not waiting for the Messiah to restore them to the land. The Enlightenment had weakened their adherence to the orthodox interpretation of Jewish destiny, but not enough to destroy all continuity with the past.

The consequences, succinctly summarized by Eisenstein, were far-reaching. Of the five premises mentioned above, 1. was retained in a somewhat revised form, namely, that the dispersion was a calamity, particularly when it subjected Jews to persecution as a minority group; view 2. was rejected entirely, and 3. was reinterpreted in naturalistic terms. The “divine agent” was now conceived not as a personal Messiah but as a passion for justice to a people that had been wronged throughout a long history. Most of the early Zionist leaders were not “religious” in the conventional sense. Indeed, their tendency to reject anything theological as such might label them even “anti-religious.” Only in the broad cultural sense were they spiritual, dedicated, and self-sacrificing. They burned with a vision of a restored Zion from which “Torah” would go forth. Concept 4. was integral to this vision. Zionists as a whole truly believed that the age that righted an historic wrong to the Jews would initiate a new order of society. Those known as Labor Zionists went even further; they resolved to establish in the coming new state a utopian society that would incorporate the ancient ideals of the Prophets into the modern machinery of statehood. View 5. obviously met with complete rejection. Those who clung to tradition scorned the movement entirely; those in “neo-orthodox” groups compromised by saying that settlement in Israel had always been regarded as a mitsvah (commandment).

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Thus from its very inception Zionism recognized religious tradition, even though that tradition underwent partial reconstruction in terms of modern political and intellectual tenets. In fact, religious Zionists insist that, had the movement been merely “patriotic,” it would not have won universal support in the Jewish community.

But to accomplish its first objective, namely, to establish a legally-secured and publicly-recognized home for Jews who needed or wanted to come, Zionism took recourse to political activity. Therefore Western Zionism became identified for many as essentially political; since Nazism produced a mammoth refugee problem, Zionism represented a political cum philanthropic movement. In eastern Europe, more emphasis was given self-realization and cultural creativity as Zionist methods.

This survey helps explain why Israelis regard the emergence of the state as a “messianic token,” but also bypass the traditional understanding of Messiah (in the Orthodox sense of waiting for a personal Messiah). Messianism today is simply belief that history is purposively directed, that creation is the beginning of history, and its end the messianic age. Some identify this age simply as the climax of history, others as the world transformed into God’s kingdom.

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In this historical movement the Jews assign themselves a special mission. However universal its vision may be, Jewish messianism retains a nationalistic basis; only through Jewish national restoration will come the world’s restoration to super-national moral realities. As the meaning of messianism becomes secularized, then “the belief in Messiah” deteriorates to mere trust in enlightenment, in liberal ethical goals, even in socialism. In its wake, therefore, Zionism has left a mere moralizing of orthodox theological concepts and a disintegration of orthodox messianism. Emphasis on messianic character and messianic era lacks the reality of a personal Messiah. History is permitted its “messianic movements,” “messianic events,” “messianic moments,” and ultimately a “messianic age.” Ironically, therefore, current Zionist motivations for return to his homeland in effect have exiled the Jew from the orthodox Messiah; he misunderstands the kingdom of God as a national socio-political crisis instead of a spiritual-personal crisis. Human establishment of the new state and national sovereignty has derailed to marginal consideration the traditional expectation of the coming personal Messiah.

This modern spirit of self-sufficiency dispenses with special reliance on the Old Testament. To vindicate the state’s emergence as an act of divine providence, some Jewish interpreters specially emphasize nature and history and not simply the Torah as God’s avenues of self-revelation. Religious Zionists attribute Divine authorship to apparently natural causality. Israel therefore claims a redemptive mission that envisions perfection of the world, it is said, and not just fulfillment of a prophetic promise. Regathering the Jews in the new state can materialize an authentic Jewish civilization and culture to channel Israel’s mission among the nations. For the first time in 2,000 years Hebrews manifest in one locale all the prerequisites for shaping their own institutions and mode of life. Even if Israel cannot compete with the great powers technologically, she can offer ethical inspiration to the world by restoring her own historical values.

It should be observed, however, that alienation from the Old Testament prophets involves more than loss of hope in a personal Messiah; it threatens also the historic Jewish sense of divine covenant. After all, the crowning glory of Hebrew history is its early heritage of revealed monotheistic religion. If the Jews are to confront the world with more than modern social ideals, if they are to urge a renewal of old and respected values, presumably from Jerusalem as a spiritual center for international Judaism, then the validity of God’s covenant with their forebears requires more than mere inference from general history. Indeed, it requires vital faith in the prophetic word, in Scripture that commits Judaism to much more than the social present and demands new investigation of the messianic question. To represent Zionism as a direct successor of the historic messianic vision, or as bearer of the historic messianic motive has only short-lived and limited appeal. The unique divine claim upon the Hebrews springs from God’s self-revelation of “I, the Lord God.” That they are “a chosen people” the Hebrews cannot abstract from purely politico-social considerations. The consciousness of Jewish unity and mission can only prosper, therefore, on a deepening acceptance of the Old Testament vision of redemption.

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What Of Jesus Christ?

The turn of Jewish expectation against a personal Messiah, and exposition of messianism in post-biblical terms, may lead to fresh rejection of Jesus of Nazareth. Many Jews indeed consider Jesus a good man. But they seem unaware that such appraisal was impossible in the first century when commitment was either for the Messiah or against a messianic pretender. Scholars who debate the question of Messiah express their hostility in two significant ways: either they attack Christian sacraments by labeling their foundations as idolatrous, or they may reveal opposition to Jesus Christ by aligning themselves with some figure wholly alien to Judeo-Christian history. Professor R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, for example, reveres Buddha as the greatest of all religious figures.

One factor in this rejection stems from refusal to approach the messianic question except in relationship to national sovereignty. This issue in fact already influenced the first-century rejection of Jesus when the Jews still expressed messianic expectation in personal terms (“Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?,” Matt. 11:3; cf. John 1:19–25). According to Zwi Werblowsky, “Israel’s attitude toward the Church was automatically determined by the fundamental Jewish decision in favor of national continuity and history.” He considers this explanation of the rejection of Jesus more accurate than that “Judaism was confronted, in the person of Jesus, with a crise de conscience and finally decided against him.” That is, Jewish expectation so linked Messiah and national sovereignty that Israel’s concrete renewal on the world historical scene was to be “the sign” Werblowsky contends that Jesus himself recognized this link in affirming that “this generation shall not pass away” except the kingdom of God come (Matt. 24:34 actually reads “till all be fulfilled”). “Not only ‘this generation,’ ” adds Werblowsky, “… but many other generations passed by and saw nothing.” Jesus’ claim of fulfillment, he insists, is “denied by the sober consciousness of historical realities.”

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Approach To The Jew

The Christian view, it should be emphasized, does not ignore or rule out Israel’s political renaissance. Even Roman Catholics, whose church traditions have bound them to nonbelief in the restoration of the state of Israel, are now rethinking this issue. The Greek Orthodox church, too, has insisted for centuries that the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth forever plunged Judaism into a sorry meaninglessness. Any implication that all 19 centuries of Jewish history since Jesus’ death have been insignificant makes Hebrew spokesmen bristle. Except for amillennial thought, Protestantism finds providential and theological importance in Jewish developments. Protestant Christianity does not of course assimilate post-biblical Jewish history into saving or redemptive history. It tends, however, to interpret the return of the Jews and the restoration of the nation (even if in spiritual unbelief concerning the Christian Messiah) as an end-time development of prophetic significance. Since, however, many evangelicals couple this interpretation with an anticipated spiritual change of heart, certain Israelis consider this evangelical verdict a mixed blessing. Chaim Wardi, for example, thinks it “only to be regretted that this interest and sympathy are conditioned by the desire or the expectation of a more or less wholesale conversion of the Jews to Christianity. One should expect on the part of friends … a more disinterested interest.” One senses here the peculiar suspicion that explicit Christian concern for awakening among the Jews is something less than spiritual, and, perhaps an acceptance of evangelical overtures simply for their “prophetic bolstering” to recent Palestinian developments.

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The foregoing discussion should indicate, therefore, that the Christian approach to the informed Jew should not be confined, as so often in the past, to whether Jesus of Nazareth fulfills the Old Testament prophecies, and whether certain Old Testament emphases conflict with rabbinic Judaism. Many Jews, no less than pagan Gentiles, need help simply as fallen creatures in need of redemption. The Jew in Tel Aviv like the Jew in New York may be totally out of touch with Old Testament religion, since modern liberal ideals may represent the only spiritual context he knows. Quite different, however, is the spiritually-minded Jew. He wants to know what bearing the question of Messiah has on Israel as such, what it signifies for the Hebrew return to Palestine and for national restoration. To discuss Christianity only in terms of individual commitment with no reference to God’s operation in the human community of faith troubles the serious Hebrew. As Professor Simon has said, “Christianity is founded on the biography of a sacred personality. It is easy for the Christian personally to become a Christian, and difficult subsequently to become really identified with the community of faith. But the Hebrews began as a community at Sinai, and they are not disposed to inquire into the question of personal salvation independently of the question of the community.”

This word, of course, does not fairly express the New Testament concept of the believer’s relationship to the Christian community. It does indicate, however, that to address effectively many Jews requires more prongs of discussion than have ordinarily characterized recent Hebrew-Christian dialogue. Such conversation must re-explore the meaning of 19 centuries of Jewish suffering among the nations, must re-study New Testament intimations of God’s purpose for the Jew and of Israel’s place in the divine plan. Many Jewish leaders today deplore what both Orthodox Judaism and Christianity believe, namely, that the suffering of the Jews is punishment for sin and spiritual unbelief. “If there has been a ‘Christ’ among the nations of the world,” said one prominent Israeli, “the Jews have been the innocent who bore the sufferings of the guilty.” To concede that dispersion and persecution are a divine penalty for revolt against light carries the hard implication that Christianity is right. To deny juridical interpretation of Jewish history leads simply to the notion that by educating the dispersed Jew in all the wisdom of the Gentiles God was preparing him for an ulterior purpose, a national regathering for a Hebrew mission to the world. Jews who study the Talmud, however, cannot overlook the connection between punishment and past sin, a principle applied both to individuals and to the nation. The Prayer Book of the Hebrew holy festivals declares: “Because of our sins we have been driven from our land.…” The Christian witness must indeed affirm that no man can see the kingdom of God unless he is spiritually reborn, as Jesus warned the rabbi Nicodemus (John 3:3, 5). But it must also include the Lord’s reference to “times or seasons which the Father has put in his own power.” Christ s answer to the disciples’ query about the restoration of the Kingdom to the Jews (Acts 1:7), and Paul’s discussion concerning the place of the Jew in God’s plan are increasingly significant.

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Another method of attacking a messianic claim for Jesus of Nazareth is to discredit him as destructive of the Old Testament Law. Professor Werblowsky willingly concedes that Jesus was not “simply one Jewish teacher among others” but stands out as qualitatively different. In this way (argues Werblowsky) Jesus gave not merely a different interpretation of the Law, but he destroyed the Law. Thereby Werblowsky does not mean (as Christianity asserts) that by His sacrificial death Jesus himself met the claims of the Law and so nullified its power over those who trust him. Rather, Werblowsky charges Jesus’ teaching with a revolutionary element that implicity leads to rejection of Jewish religion. Werblowsky calls Jesus a messianic pretender with a messianic message typical of Jewish sectarian tendencies in his day. The Nazarene, he says, opposes sanctification through details of the Law, whereas Jewish life is totally regulated by these sanctifying disciplines. Even if there have been no sacrifices for 2000 years because of the destruction of the temple, the Jews recognize no distinction between moral and ritual law. Yet when Jesus justifies the disciples’ plucking grain on the Sabbath, Werblowsky charges him with acting on a non-Jewish premise: sanctification by the Spirit, and not by the Law. According to Werblowsky this vague Spirit-religion (or Christianity!) really dispenses with the Law, or reduces it to vague abstraction. By “destroying” the Law, Christianity thus threatens the Jewish organization of human life in which keeping the law is the service of God.

Even allowing for antinomian tendencies that have frequently plagued the Christian Church and allowing for modernism that repudiates law-religion in any form as sheer legalism, the fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus as one who abolished rather than fulfilled the Law (cf. Matt. 5:17) is still apparent. It recalls the Jewish insurrection against the apostle Paul and the charge before Gallio that “this fellow persuadeth men to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:12 f.). Rabbi Silver long ago granted however, that Jesus’ attitude ‘was expressed within the framework of the law” and that he sought “the correct ‘intensive’ attitude toward the existing law” (Messianic Speculation in Israel, p. 10).

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It disturbs the modern Jew nonetheless that even at 19 centuries’ distance Jesus of Nazareth must constantly be reckoned with. Unlike the false messiahs, Jesus has not passed into oblivion. The alternatives proposed by Gamaliel when Jews in the first century resorted to violence to suppress the apostles remain on record as an embarrassment. How is the continuing power of Jesus’ name explained? Since the modern Jew faces this question only in the context of ecclesiastical persecutions of his people, he is not disposed to ask if the Church after all is right. Most scholars, recognize, however, that to explain the vitality of Christianity involves more than merely the psychological readiness of the pagan world, or the genius of Paul. Hence debate focuses ever more clearly on Jesus of Nazareth himself. In this context, and in view of Jesus’ messianic claim, any Jewish intellectual tendency to call Jesus of Nazareth simply a good man appears an evasive tactic.

We Quote:

THE WORLD CRISIS—The character of the Communist challenge consists, first, in a conception of matter, man, society, history, government, and the supreme being radically different from and opposite to anything you and I and our ancestors have known for the last four thousand years; second, in the existence of a superbly organized political party … with an absolutely dedicated membership all over the world … actively working to bring every people on earth under the bondage of this philosophy …; third, in this party’s use of every conceivable means—war, revolution, subversion, infiltration, propaganda, intimidation, dictatorship, manipulation of the masses, smear tactics, character assassination, exciting the basest instincts in man, playing up differences and grievances between nations and peoples and races and classes—to attain its unalterable ends of world domination; fourth, in the fact that this world revolutionary thrust is backed by one of the most powerful military establishments in the world …; and fifth, in the fact that this world revolutionary force … has succeeded in extending and consolidating its iron hold upon at least a third of the human race.…

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The classical Western values of freedom, personality, excellence, rank, objective truth, faith in God, and the primacy of the spirit, are subverted both by Communist infiltration from without and by doubt and criticism by some of the best Western minds from within.… There are many influential people who preach, or at least are taken by, “peaceful coexistence,” and who appear to be prepared to settle for peace at any price and for what is falsely called “mutual accommodation,” where accommodation turns out upon analysis to come only from one side.…

Only as the total arsenal of political, moral and spiritual values are brought to bear … is there any hope of winning in this tremendous struggle.… If you are already converted to the materialistic standpoint of your opponent you will talk only in terms of … economic security and social benefits. The Communists lore to confine you within that round of ideas.… The greatest weakness of the Western strategy is its relative neglect of the intellectual and spiritual dimension. This is strange, because intellectual, moral, and spiritual matters are the greatest point of strength in the Western arsenal.…—CHARLES MALIK, former President of the United Nations and a Greek Orthodox layman, in an address to the Second National Conference of Southern Baptist Men in Memphis, Tennessee.

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