November 4, 2004
Theology of the Land
The gap between mainline churches and the American Jewish community is widening, as talk of divestment exacerbates long-standing differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sightings previously addressed whether divestment, in any form, from companies doing business in Israel is appropriate ("Presbyterians and Jews," September 30) and I won't rehash this point, despite its importance. But it's worth looking at how theological views on the relationship between religion and state contribute to the debate.
Differing viewpoints on religion and state as it applies to Israel surfaced at a recent Washington meeting between center-left Jewish religious and community groups and mainline church representatives. Put simply, the difference boils down to a theology of the land. Religious Jews, even liberal ones, subscribe to a theology of the land -- the land in question being Israel, of course -- and liberal Protestants do not. The Jewish view entails a Jewish patina to Israel's official character, if not its daily governance, that runs counter to the mainline Protestant ideal of a public square free of religious favoritism. As Paul freed gentile believers from the Law, so did he free them from the need to pray facing Jerusalem.
A liberal Jewish theology of the land need not include traditional Judaism's insistence that God literally promised Israel to the Jewish people. For non-Bible literalists, the Land of Israel is made holy as much by Jewish history and longing as it is by textual references. This sense of holiness -- which religious liberals distinguish from political questions about the land -- is evident in liberal Jewish celebrations of the three pilgrim festivals that coincide with Israel's agricultural calendar, in the multitude of liturgical references to Zion and Jerusalem found in the most liberal of Jewish prayer books, and in the obligation of liberal seminary students to study in Israel.
Moreover, liberal Jews understand the importance of the modern State of Israel to the global Jewish psyche. As Israel goes, so goes Diaspora Jewry's sense of psychological and physical security. For many, Israel is a tangible sign of God's everlasting covenant with the Jews. This holds even for liberal Jews who reject Judaism's traditional understanding of a covenantal relationship.
How is this compatible with liberal religious Jewry's progressive self-image?
An answer emerges from the perplexing question: What does it mean to be a Jew? For liberals, Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan perhaps answered that best by calling Judaism an evolving religious civilization, with Israel at its geographic and spiritual center. Judaism, the religion, heavily influences Jewish communal thinking, but one need not be religiously observant, and certainly not traditionally observant, to self-identify as a Jew or to strongly support Israel. That Jews were represented at the Washington meeting by religious and community groups underscores the elasticity of Jewish identity.
This is why even liberal religious Jews say Israel's identity as a Jewish state is more important then the mere existence of a state called Israel. This also explains why liberal Jews who decry the Orthodox stranglehold on Israel's religious life can also adhere to what, for mainline Protestants and others, seems like an impossible contradiction: a secular, democratic Jewish state.
Mainline Protestants rightly fear the heavy hand of state religion. In Israel's case, they fear what the religious settlers' messianic fervor means for Palestinians. Ironically, liberal Jews also fear the settlers' fervor because of the danger it poses for Israel's long-term survival.
Mainline denominations may well move ahead on divestment out of their sincere concern for the ever-worsening situation of Palestinians. Liberal Jews will fiercely dispute the facts, the gap will widen, and the historical cooperation between liberal Jews and mainline Protestants on a variety of American domestic issues will surely suffer. But it is certainly within the churches' right to follow their truth.
But, as mainline Protestants seek to impress liberal Jews with the need to address Palestinian suffering and their just claim for statehood, mainline Protestants need to understand that tactics seen as undermining Israel's long-term survival are, for religious Jews, tantamount to challenging a core point of Jewish theology, both traditional and liberal -- the theology of the land.
Ira Rifkin is a Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report and the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (2nd edition, 2004, SkyLight Paths).