Second in a Series (Part II)

Today Israel shows some return to the original sources of inspiration. Interest in the Bible is deeper than in the Talmud. Old Testament stories are taught from kindergarten on and the Israel Bible Study Association sponsors 400 study groups with almost 20,000 members. “The Book” is studied in the Hebrew University; whoever neglects this literature is considered uneducated. Ben-Gurion has said that even as The Promised Land is Israel’s physical homeland, so the Old Testament is her spiritual homeland. Further, he notes (with a measure of enthusiasm) that creation of the state “has been followed by an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for the Bible among its people and an intense nation-wide interest in biblical studies.” There is even a nightly Old Testament reading on the radio. People are searching out the Bible, especially its historical references to the nation. These references sustain the belief that God has preserved the Jews for a particular purpose, and desires them to remain a distinct Jewish community. Even the New Testament is now widely read. This fact is quite remarkable considering that merely to possess the New Testament has long been viewed as sinful. It is found not only in the Hebrew University but also in some Kibbutzim and in many homes. Tourist guides use it to explain sacred sites. Although the New Testament is regarded mainly as religious literature and mystery, the British and Foreign Bible Society is printing a new Bible edition that combines the Hebrew Old Testament and the New Testament. Tendency to question the New Testament’s historical reliability, actually (and ironically) rests often not upon special Jewish objections but on destructive critical views of liberal Protestant scholars from Wellhausen to Bultmann.

Except for the older residents, many members of the Kibbutzim do not observe religious services and some even serve non-Kosher meat. Religious holidays are kept, but not primarily for their spiritual significance. The Bible is studied mainly as a book of history, and religious traditions seem to have few adherents. While modern Jews are not disposed actually to deny the validity of the religious dimension, they rather “take it for granted” as an aspect of historical-cultural heritage. And the young men and women who at 18 begin two years of military service often become what is described as “fanatically nationalistic.”

Contemporary Jewish thought also tends to downgrade the importance of “inner theological faith” with its demand for personal decision. Instead it emphasizes “historical faith” in divine providence and a “legal faith” in “keeping the commandments.” The resulting emphasis on self-reliance rather than on supernatural redemption may also reinforce a quite humanistic messianism. “I read the Book,” said one driver, “but everybody must save himself.” He pointed to persecutions suffered by the Jews. Hence “only in self-help does God help us” reinforces a “works-religion”; confidence in redemption by natural means is more acceptable than exposition of supernatural Messianic vision.

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Putting aside for the moment the question of Messiah’s identity, we ask for evidences of spiritual awakening in Israel.

There are 430 leaders in Israel whose duty it is to practice as rabbis, and thousands who do not practice are said to have sufficient knowledge of the Torah and of Judaism to do so. The director of the Rabbinical Center, seat of the chief rabbinate, contends that “a tremendous religious revival is going on in Israel, in contrast to just a socialist search for a better world (as in the Kibbutzim) that first reacted against religion generally and saw no religious commitment inherent in the Jewish state. Director Maurice A. Jaffe now finds “a growing thirst after Hebrew knowledge.” Many Israeli pioneers isolated love for their people and for their state from any love for God; some of the Kibbutzim even substituted the firing of guns for the religious confirmation ritual. But Kibbutzim socialist procedures proved disappointing and left a vacuum in the heart and life of both young and old. The result, says Director Jaffe (who keeps a copy of How to Solve Management Problems near the Torah) is a growing return to Jewish values and knowledge, and in some respects even a return to Jewish religion. “People who haven’t prayed for 30 years are coming to synagogue; some 80 per cent attended services at least on such high holidays as the Day of Atonement and the New Year; some 90 per cent of the total population eat Kosher meat.” While Reform and Liberal Judaism are not prohibited, their impact seems thwarted in many ways; they stand “virtually no chance at all.” More than 40 per cent of Israeli children receive state religious education.

Other observers, however, are not convinced of Israel’s so-called religious revival. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor of Comparative Religions R. J. Zwi Werblowsky insists no confident verdict is possible until research specialists canvass the army, Kibbutzim, and the population generally. He notes the difficulty of distinguishing spiritual from cultural manifestations in Israel, where so many aspects of religious tradition have reappeared in modern cultural patterns. Except for the last century, the Jews have never had a strictly secular culture pattern; the new Israeli society therefore quite naturally assumed religious overtones. Whether, however, “sabbath observance” has any more religious significance in Israel than do Sunday blue laws for multitudes of Americans is difficult to determine.

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It must be granted, nonetheless, that many basic Jewish values do have unmistakable religious force. Determining what religious values function in society depends on how the essence of religion is defined. Professor Werblowsky thinks a “fair amount of traditionalism” is “not necessarily religious”; on the other hand he finds genuine religious commitments possible in nonstandard theological movements (including socialism). The Kibbutz notion of service, “a genuine drive for the redemption of society and self” by hard work, sharing, and justice, even its vision of “a new heaven and new earth” Werblowsky identifies more with Tolstoi than with the Old Testament. In Orthodox rabbinic Judaism as “a system of beliefs and behavior” Werblowsky sees nothing spiritually refreshing. The orthodox he considers “a small, militant minority” who interpret religious observance as an affirmation of faith. Since all Jewish families meet on Passover, however, the question of their regard for the sacramental life over and above social custom remains unanswered. Are degrees or amounts of observance a barometer of religious intensity or apathy? However unsatisfactory Professor Werblowsky’s “comparative religions” approach may be in its tendency to equate all religions, and especially to deflate the lofty distinctives of revealed religion, it raises basic and vital questions.

About 70 per cent of all Jews in Israel are “nonorthodox.” As such many would prefer a civil marriage. They must receive rabbinical marriage, however, since civil marriage is disallowed by law. When required by the law of the community, religious services at marriage and death are therefore no index of orthodoxy. Similarly, reading of the Old Tesament in basically antireligious communal settlements indicates the possible co-existence of virile anti-Judaism with virile Judaism. That one in seven marriages ends in divorce is simply accepted as a social phenomenon. All in all a great many Israelis seem vague and confused about religious ideals.

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The modern Jew is confused about the nature of Messiah. His answer to “who is a Jew?”—a question prompted by the 1961 Israeli census—is similarly ambiguous. Is being a Jew simply something ethnic? Is religio-moral character something quite irrelevant? Asked why the census questionnaire failed to anticipate the possibility of identifying a “Jew” by religion as well as by nationality, a representative of the Foreign Office replied, “We couldn’t care less (about his religion).” Premier Ben-Gurion, however, declared that a Jew is “one who believes the fifteenth Psalm.” Orthodox Jews insist that to modify the term “Jew” in any way whatever really evades complete and comprehensive identification. Orthodox Jewish rabbis are disposed to depict Israel as “wholly Orthodox, but with varying degrees of observance” (from total commitment to nonattendance at synagogue, and to nonobservance of traditions). To have a Jewish mother is Judaism’s established criterion of Jewry. On the other hand, Jewish free thinkers and nonreligionists wish to claim Jewish status by other considerations than acceptance of Judaism. Actually 70 percent of the population is non-Orthodox, a fact that complicates any religious definition of Jewry. If a nationalistic test alone is applied, are only Israeli Hebrews to be regarded as Jews?

The question “who is a Jew” with its physical-national and spiritual-moral implications occurred also in Jesus’ brush with the religious leaders in the first century. If descent from Abraham were merely a matter of physical being, Jesus asserted, “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Because the Jewish leaders rejected Abraham’s spiritual vision of justification by faith, and instead trusted in their own works, Jesus declared them more the children of the devil than the children of God and of Abraham (John 8:33–47). His essential point was that descent with its privileges is conditioned upon spiritual and moral conformity.

However tenuous it has been at times, the Jewish link to Judaism through 2000 years sometimes occasions the dismissal of all other religions as non-Jewish. Even the historic fact is obscured that Christianity and Judaism are related as fulfillment and promise. In the comprehensive modern definition of “Jew” the Christian Hebrew, curiously, is no longer considered a Jew at heart. This exclusion implies a peculiar judgment on Jesus of Nazareth, on Paul of Tarsus, and also on thousands of first century Christians. While formally in line with that of the Gospels, the modern comprehensive definition of “Jew” really represents a hardening toward Christianity. In modern Israeli terms neither the free-thinker, or Reform Jew, nor the Christian Hebrew is a first-rate Jew. And in a predominantly Jewish nation, the Arab Christian (who represents a substantial minority of the population) fares even worse ideologically despite the fact that the Proclamation of Independence disallows Jewish privilege over non-Jews, and pledges the state to uphold “the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race, or sex.”

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Any comment on the Eichmann trial must be prefaced by open confession that this mass murder of six million Jews remains a dark blot on Gentile conscience, and that Christendom (through indifference rather than intention) shares in the guilt. To score the Jew for not seeing in Eichmann everyman’s potentiality for declension is cheap criticism unless one first registers with sad heart the fact of this unspeakable injustice of the Gentile against the Jew. What may be asked is this: Granted that a comprehensive overview of Nazi atrocities needed rehearsal to prick world conscience, and that Eichmann’s trial was conducted with judicial dignity, to what extent are judicial procedures—established to ascertain and punish guilt—properly used additionally as an educational, publicity and propaganda technic? And what is the real lesson of the trial? Has it clarified the line between personal delinquency and official duty? More pointedly, has it brought Jew and Gentile in the shadow of the horrors of modern history to face afresh the biblical verdict on human nature? Or has it subtly promoted our self-righteousness by assuring us all that the human race is somehow less wicked if only we can rid ourselves of Eichmann?


Israel’s spiritual problem may be studied in several ways. Widespread revolt against her own orthodox traditions, and the consequent tendency to apply the messianic concept in novel and even secular directions is a theme reserved for a separate essay. Another facet of Israel’s spiritual predicament may be found in the unresolved—and unfaced—tension between the scientific and religious approaches to the nation’s history and destiny.

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The tremendous emphasis on scientific method and techniques is one of the compelling features of this tiny land of Israel. Some philanthropic American Jews, especially those of more liberal religious persuasion, view the Technion and the Hebrew University as a twentieth century compensation for (and even as recreation of) the lost glory of the Hebrew Temple. (Israel came to statehood in 1948 and now has two nuclear reactors in construction.) When one puts alongside the 7500 students in the Hebrew University and its branches—of which more than 1000 students are pursuing careers in science—the 3500 students in various branches of the Technion, and the 600 scientists, researchers and technicians at the Weizmann Institute of Science, he senses the intensity of this emphasis. The overproduction of engineers is not the worst side of this problem, although Israel has already begun to export her engineering graduates to other lands, and the concentration on university vocational rather than liberal arts education raises the question how such skilled and professional workers will eventually be absorbed in a tiny land.

But the larger problem is one of mood and spirit, of science’s implications for the national outlook. It is one thing to justify scientific concentration because Israel is a modern country. But what of Israel’s claim to a providential and spiritual mission? Students in the Technion get little exposure to the humanities; moreover, while some study is offered in the history of science, there is scant emphasis on the philosophy of science. The scientific mind is indoctrinated to seek a wholly mechanical explanation of reality in terms of natural causality.

Ben-Gurion and other leaders have indeed sought to inscribe the sense of divine providence deeply upon the mind of the people, but this conviction is hardly self-sustaining, and it is quickly dissolved in a predominantly sensate and empirical environment. Even Ben-Gurion considers the pantheistic determinist Spinoza one of the great heroes. May it not be that for a generation deeply dedicated to science Spinoza more than Maimonides will determine the spirit of Israel’s leadership?

Does failure to bridge the gulf between science and religion, and between religion and science represent a potential trouble-spot in Israeli ideology? Many leaders admit privately that it does, even while they concede that little is being done about the problem. Scientists at the Technion readily confess that mechanical techniques are inadequate to explain human personality even though this conviction may ride on the edge of humor. “The scientific model of a mechanical brain is usually masculine,” quipped one staff member, “because you can’t chart women on a slide rule.” But an even larger problem remains which the scientific enterprise in Israel quite ignores: The laboratory may produce a mechanical brain; almighty God alone can create a new heart.

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Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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