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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Threat or Promise?

December 1, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

Here at Shorashim, we have Shabbat morning services on alternate weeks, and on the Shabbatot in between, a study group of about ten regular participants. Over the years the study group has dealt with different topics; for the past several months we have been studying the service itself, and are presently working on the Shema and its blessings. Last week we discussed the paragraph after the Ve'ahavta, from Deuteronomy 11, which speaks of the peace, plenty, and prosperity that will be our lot if we adhere to God's commandments -- and the suffering we can expect if we stray after other gods.

Ever since I started coming to Israel, long before making aliyah, I have been troubled by this paragraph. For me, it raises serious questions about the meaning of the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel in the 20th century. To wit:

The traditional understanding of the drama of Jewish history is that God promised Abraham the Land of Israel as the homeland of the nation that would arise out of his descendants, and indeed, He then helped those descendants conquer the land, and promised King David an eternal dynasty in the land. It is to this reality of a sovereign people in their land, that the threat and the promise of Deuteronomy 11 applies. However, as the passage warns, failure to live by God's commands and to create and maintain a society based on His laws, led to the most terrible of punishments: war, loss of sovereignty, and exile. And the attempt at return and reestablishment failed, with a second exile in 70 CE. Ever since then, the official ideology as expressed in the prayerbook has been that we were exiled as punishment for our sins, and would be allowed to return when our repentance was complete and accepted. And so, over the generations, we prayed, and performed the mitzvot, and tried to create a Jewish community, wherever we were, that would show God that the time had come and that we were worthy of redemption.

At the end of the 19th century, the confluence of European romantic nationalism, modern secular humanism, and the traditional Jewish hope for redemption yielded a new movement: Zionism, which rebelled against the ongoing state of exile and sought restoration of our lost sovereignty by means of diplomacy, settlement, and ultimately war. The Zionist movement -- even its secular majority -- coopted the language of the prophetic promises of redemption, ingathering, and restoration, and saw the historical reality of modern Israel as the fulfillment of those biblical prophecies.

Those whom we call today the "ultra-orthodox" rejected this thinking, insisting that we must wait for God's initiative in redemption, and that modern Israel is at best just another nation-state, like Serbia or Costa Rica. 1948 was not a miracle, nor was 1967, and the government of Israel is to be treated like any other secular government.

The question is: if the ultra-orthodox are right, then Deuteronomy 11 is of historical interest, or helpful in being prepared for what will be demanded of us when the messiah ultimately comes, but in any case not presently relevant. If, on the other hand, the Zionist rhetoric is true and we are now living out the biblical promise of redemption, then shouldn't the biblical conditions of Deuteronomy 11 apply to the society we are building here? And if so, who gets to decide which interpretations of the mitzvot we must accept? And if we get it wrong, and build a society that is not just, merciful, and holy, but rather one in which injustice, cruelty, and profanity are taken for granted -- then what makes us so sure that we are not in for a third exile?


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