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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775

Redemption I

Galilee Diary #228
April 10, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

In the emotional public debate over the disengagement from Gaza, some of the loudest voices against withdrawal have been those of leading Zionist Orthodox rabbis. A century ago, of course, most Orthodox rabbis opposed Zionism, seeing it as at best a form of assimilation – rejection of Jewish religion in favor of imitating the secular nationalist movements of the time - and at worst a sacrilegious attempt to take the redemption into our own hands, instead of waiting patiently for the messiah. The possibility of being both Orthodox and Zionist arose from the innovation of seeing in the events of the 20th century the hand of God: in other words, the establishment of the state – and the surprising victory of 1967 – are indeed miracles, evidence that the redemption has begun. Hence, the official prayer for the state, sanctioned by the chief rabbinate and recited in all synagogues here that are not identified with the non- or anti-Zionist “ultra-orthodox,” begins with the words: “May the Merciful One bless the state of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption…”

There is something very attractive about this concept, especially in the shadow of the Holocaust. The inspiring realization of the Zionist dream, the ingathering of the exiles, the creation of a civilized democracy on the ashes of Europe and in the midst of an inhospitable (humanly and physically) desert, the revitalization of Jewish culture – all this certainly feels like the beginning of a fundamental change in the nature of Jewish life, the approaching footsteps of redemption. So much of what we have experienced seems to be the fulfillment of biblical images of ingathering and restoration, of dry bones coming to life, that it is hard to suppress the goosebumps that the above prayer arouses.

And yet, in recent years, this notion of the messianic significance of the state of Israel seems to have led to what feels to me almost like a deification of the power of the state and of the physical land itself. The biblical vision of the restoration of sovereignty, sacrifices, the boundaries of David’s kingdom, have somehow become (to my mind) disproportionately central, leading to an attitude that “the end justifies the means” that leaves me (and I think I’m not alone) increasingly alienated from this vision, and questioning the validity of the entire messianic understanding of the modern state.

And it leads to troubling thoughts about the other times in our history when important rabbis came to the conclusion that it was possible to decode history, and to know when the messiah would arrive – or that he had already. Perhaps the most famous example was that of Rabbi Akiba, who proclaimed Simon Bar Kochba, the leader of the second revolt against Rome (in 132 CE) to be the messiah. It turned out that he was wrong, and that Bar Kochba’s revolt was hopeless, depending on miracles that were not to occur, and leading to a bloodbath.

When Rabbi Akiba saw Bar Kochba he would say, “Behold, the king, the messiah!” Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta said to him, “Akiba, grass will grow from your cheekbones before the son of David will come!”

Palestinian Talmud, Ta’anit 68d

A recent conference of Orthodox Zionist rabbis declared the importance of rededicating ourselves to the belief that Israel is indeed “the first flowering of our redemption.” I can’t do it. I can only pray (and work) that it will some day become so.

Rabbi Zeira, whenever he chanced upon scholars calculating the time of the messiah’s coming, would say to them: I beg of you, do not postpone it, for it has been taught: three come [only] when they are unexpected: the messiah, a found object, and a scorpion.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a

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