Rabbi Daniel F. Polish
What Christians should know about Jewish identity
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We live in a remarkable moment. After 2,000 years of distrust and enmity between the Jewish and Christian communities of faith, we have seen them discover dramatically new ways of encountering each other. Of profound consequence for Jews were the separate visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to the State of Israel. Why is this so?

Around the world, representatives of the two communities regularly meet with collegiality and true friendship. Jews and Christians have collaborated on a range of social issues, and in formal dialogue they have engaged a remarkable breadth of issues in mutual respect and candor. Among them are Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” the Good Friday prayers in the revived Tridentine rite and the 2009 note of the U.S. bishops on evangelization and mission. We have exchanged cultural histories of martyrdom and of the Holy Land, and together we have developed a film series for congregations, “Walking God’s Paths,” intended to educate adults of both our traditions about the practices and beliefs of the other.

Yet in the midst of the growing comity, the two communities stub their toes on a single issue: the State of Israel. Too often Israel has become a painful wedge in the deepening understanding between Jews and Christians. On this subject we seem to talk past one another or, worse, speak different languages. That failure of communication causes pain to both groups.

Certainly there are instances of clear communication when Israel is discussed constructively. But often the conversation between Jews and Christians does not reflect the reality that Israel and the issues it brings in its wake mean profoundly different things to Jews and Christians.

To me, as a Jew, Christian discussion of Israel seems to exist in the realm of social issues and foreign policy, deprived of spiritual significance. For Jews, however, even Jews who take issue with policies of the Israeli government, Israel carries very different significance. When believing Jews hear believing Christians speak of Israel, they do not hear those Christians express appreciation for the extent to which Israel plays a fundamentally spiritual role in the lives of Jews.

Love, Pain and Miscommunication

What is at stake in this miscommunication is of great consequence for the relationship of Jews and Christians. A story that Martin Buber attributes to the Hasidic master Moshe Leib of Sasov captures the conflicted feelings in this relationship. Moshe Leib told of overhearing some peasants at an inn. After much drinking, one of the peasants asked another, “Do you love me?” His companion replied, “Of course I love you; I love you very much.” To which the first retorted, “You say you love me, but if you really loved me, you would know what pains me.”

I have been pained by the actions of religious communities that have been partners of the Jewish community in dialogue. One is the embrace by many Protestant denominations, though few American Catholics, of the 2009 “Kairos Palestine” document. This statement by Palestinian Christian religious leaders condemns Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands “as a sin against God and humanity” and declares “nonviolent resistance to this injustice is a right and a duty of all Palestinians including Christians,” but in doing so it sets out an offensive disconnection between Jews and the Land of Israel as the cradle of our civilization.

Then there was the Vatican’s tepid rebuke of Exarch Cyril Salim Butros, a Greek Melkite archbishop from Boston, who declared at the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops of the Middle East at the Vatican in October 2010: “The Holy Scriptures cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands…. We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ…. There is no longer a chosen people—all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people….” This came 45 years after the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions,” which opened a new age in Jewish-Catholic relations rooted in our common biblical heritage.

No less distressing was the theological prologue of the draft statement of the Middle East study team of the Presbyterian Church; the prologue seemed to seek to disconnect Jews from their own historical past and deny them their self-understanding. In stating that Jews have no intrinsic connection to the land of their historical experience, and in making relative their association with it, the document creates a picture of Jewish identity in which Jews can hardly recognize themselves.

All of these communities of faith have histories of dialogue with the Jewish community, yet all seem unaware (I would rather assume ignorance than indifference) of the profound nature of the role that Israel plays in the spiritual lives of Jews. For Catholics, the offense these incidents gives to Jews ought to be a special concern because they seem to deny Jews their own experience of Israel. The 1974 Vatican “Guidelines for Religious Relations with the Jews” proposed that Christians “learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in light of their own religious experience.” For Catholics, then, Jews’ own perception of the religious significance of the modern state of Israel ought to have a certain weight in how Catholics respond to developments there.

First a caveat: It is important to stress that for Jews the emotional gravitational pull to Israel has nothing to do with the actions or policies of any Israeli government. It is felt equally by those who applaud a particular government or set of policies and by those who despair of that government or policies. Something more profound is going on.

Second, an appreciation of what Israel means to Jews cannot imply that Israel is beyond criticism. There is enough to criticize about actions of the government of Israel. Jews who do so are often belittled as “self-hating”; Christians who do so are often dismissed as anti-Semites. These accusations are often profoundly wrong in both cases. The challenge for Christians who want to speak to Israel’s shortcomings is to begin with an awareness of the role it plays in the emotional lives of their Jewish friends and partners in dialogue and to address the realities of political Israel in that context.

Facing Jerusalem

The power that Israel exercises over the emotional lives of Jews finds physical expression, for me, in a compass I once saw whose needle pointed not to the north, but consistently in the direction of Jerusalem. One of the leaders of Reform Judaism (whose career began at the time when the Reform movement was virulently anti-Zionist) stipulated in his will that his gravestone be inscribed with a quotation from the Medieval Spanish-Jewish poet Yehudah Halevi, “My heart is in the East and I am in the West.” What is the nature of this magnetic pull that Israel exerts on Jewish hearts?

On the simplest level, the power that Israel exerts over Jews finds a parallel in a poignant reminiscence by Barack Obama in his book Dreams From My Father. He writes of his first visit to Kenya: “all of this while a steady procession of black faces passed before your eyes…for a span of weeks or months you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched…. Here the world was black, and so you were just you.”

Replace the word black with the word Jewish, and you have a vivid articulation of what the Jew feels when in Israel. It is a kind of exhaling, even when you did not know you were holding your breath. The most assimilated Jew can relate to this sense of being surrounded by people who bear the same label as you, who share something profound and fundamental with you. Even Jews far removed from their identity will speak, often in wonder, of the intensity of the feeling of being at home.

On a deeper level Jews resonate with Israel in terms of the collective life of the people. No Jew of any age is unaware that our lives are brands plucked from the fire of the Holocaust. Consciously or not, for all Jews Israel embodies the notion of resurrection. The arbiters of Jewish religious practice cannot have been oblivious of what they were conveying when they established Yom HaShoah/the day of commemorating the holocaust, exactly one week before Yom HaAtzma’ut/Israel’s Independence Day—both of them in the season of rebirth and renewal. Can any organism survive the loss of one third of its corpus? Though it is painful to say so close to the events, I suspect later generations will embrace the idea that the people of Israel would have perished from the trauma of the Shoah had not it been given a new handhold on life by the project of reclaiming its ancient home.

Post-Independence Jewish Identity

The existence of Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew, whether one lives there or not. This was intuited in 1948 by the poet Karl Shapiro:

When I see the name of Israel high in print

The fences crumble in my flesh; I sink

Deep in a Western chair and rest my soul….

This very redefined sense of self may have made it possible for Jews to participate more comfortably in interfaith dialogue and, paradoxically, engage more unfetteredly in cultural and political life. Today they feel a part, not apart.

Israel possesses an incarnational dimension. It embodies the totality of the experience and the message of the Jewish people. When Jews visit Spain, they find it beautiful and charming, but Spain’s history is not theirs. Even though the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492 is a traumatic memory for all, Spain is not essential to Jewish identity in the way Israel is. It does not talk to them of how they came to be as they are.

When Jews visit Israel, its landscape and historical sites speak in more intimate terms. It is the embodiment of the Jews’ collective past, situating us in our history and evoking its meaning. One might almost say that Israel functions for Jews in the same way that Communion functions for a Catholic. Toward the middle of the 20th century, the leaders of the Soviet Union famously denigrated Jews as rootless cosmopolitans. The existence of Israel annuls any possibility of understanding Jews in that way again.

Israel offers Jews something they have not had since the year 70, the last expulsion from the land and the inception of its existence as a diaspora people: what the philosopher Emil Fackenheim calls “the Jewish return to history.” Fackenheim implies that the existence of a Jewish state offers Jews the chance to apply the teachings of their tradition on a broader plain than they had when they were a marginal, pariah people existing at the sufferance of others, acted upon but denied the opportunity to be actors on the world stage. A Jewish state offers Jews the chance to be no longer the pathetic inheritors of an attenuated tradition of diminishing significance. It offers them the opportunity to be part of a people charged with expressing its culture in ever new forms, a living, dynamic organism rather than a static, petrified museum piece.

The Pain of Historical Existence

That call to re-enter history evokes and explains the pain many Jews feel when that state does not succeed in embodying the ideals of the inherited teaching, when its Jewishness is merely one of demography rather than character. Theodore Herzl, the “Father of modern Zionism,” famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” But the dream of Israel that animated those who built it and animates Jewish aspirations for it still, is not of a “normal” state like all the others, a state whose shortcomings are to be accepted as the “price” of realpolitik in a “dangerous neighborhood.”

Asher Ginzberg, who wrote under the pen name Achad Ha’Am, dreamed of a Jewish state that would embody the millennia-old values of the Jewish people. This state would be a light to the nations in the way it conducted its collective life, a state that offered a vision of what every state might be. That dream gives us permission to be pained by the distance between what Israel might be and what it is at this moment. That dream challenges us to right what is wrong. And that dream moves our engagement with Israel beyond simple “support” to profound, life-encompassing commitment.

For the Jew, then, engagement with Israel is bound up with our past, present and future; it is beyond the realm of the political. It is a relationship we cannot expect non-Jews to share. But we hope that our Christian friends and dialogue partners will speak and act in ways that reflect an awareness of how much that engagement means to Jews.

Rabbi Daniel F. Polish, a frequent contributor to America, leads Congregation Shir Chadash in New York’s Hudson Valley. His latest book is Talking About God (SkyLight Paths Publishing).

Comments

JOHN DESMOND | 4/11/2011 - 3:39pm
I am surprised and disappointed that AMERICA would pubish Rabbi Polish's essay without an accompanying counter-view.  Rabbi Polish's argument that Jewish identity is intimately bound up with the land of Israel is certainly true, but his claim that this emotional bond has "nothing to do with the actions and policies of the Israeli government" seems naive.  His attempts to easily separate Jewish identity from political realities smacks of exclusivism and nativism. 

No rational person disputes Israel's claim to the homeland established in 1948.  But when the leaders of the state of Israel, supported de facto by many devout Jews throughout the world, systematically destroy Palestinian homes, expropriate their land, control water and food supplies, and build a garrison military state against their neighbors, such actions are very much a part of the "dream"of a future greater Israel. 

What would Rabbi Polish say to a German in the mid-1930's, or a Serb or Croat in the 1990's, who claimed that their spiritual/emotional tie to their homeland was "beyond the realm of the political," as he claims for present-day Jews?

Maria Leonard | 4/9/2011 - 3:30pm
Daniel Polish claims to be "pained by the actions of religious communities that have been partners of the Jewish community in dialogue."  He then identifies the 2009 Kairos Palestine document as one cause of the pain.  This document, subtitled: "A Moment of Truth; a word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering" describes the pain of Palestinian Christians who have lived in Israel/Palestine for the past 2,000 years and who now experience injustice and occupation.  In no way does the document minimize the suffering of the Jewish people in the past; rather it simply requests justice and dignity for all...Israeli and Palestinian alike...Jew, Muslim, Christian and non-believer.  This document, signed by the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, unfortunately has not had wide distribution in the churches in the United States.  However, it should be read next to Rabbi Polish's article.  It can be accessed on the internet at Kairos Palestine. 
9854218 | 4/9/2011 - 5:40am
Daniel F. Polish's heartfelt sentiments regarding the State of Israel ("A Spiritual Home," April 11) merit attentive and sympathetic reading. I wish, however, that he had not taken offense at the Kairos Palestine document, a Palestinian Christian manifesto calling for justice, peace, and love among all the inhabitants of the Holy Land, and embracing all ethnicities and religions. Rabbi Polish complains that Kairos Palestine "sets out an offensive disconnection between Jews and the Land of Israel as the cradle of our civilization." I do not see this "disconnection" anywhere in the document. Nowhere is there any challenge to Israel's right to exist in peace and security within its pre-1967 borders. The injustice that the document decries is explicitly identified as the 1967 (and subsequent) occupation of Palestinian lands, with the expansion of the settlements (illegal under the Geneva Convention) and the concomitant usurpation of land and water resources. Kairos Palestine even states, "Our message to the Jews tells them: . . . we are able to love and live together." I cannot imagine a more irenic document, given the oppression that the Palestinians are currently suffering. The Palestinian Christian leaders who have endorsed Kairos Palestine should be commended for their generosity of spirit.
CHARLES HAMMOND FR | 4/7/2011 - 11:20am
As an American Christian, I support an Israeli state.  I do so, realizing, as Rabbi Polish hints, that I do not fully grasp the essential meaning of an Israeli state for the Jewish people.  However,  neither do I adhere to the anthropocentric view that God takes sides in military conflict.  The problem with the original Promised Land is that it was already occupied, requiring a military campaign of conquest and expansion.  But before we throw stones at the Israeli government in the present conflict, we should look at our own historical backyard.   The idea of a "manifest destiny" was used to push back, and outright exterminate, the native dwellers of the Americas, to make room for us.   Now, the descendents of the original Native Americans are relegated to isolation and poverty.  The historical beginnings of both the U.S. and Israel are mired in the perception of a God-given right to resort to military violence.    The outcome is always short-lived and ineffective.   A solution can only come with inclusivity and non-violence.
Keyran Moran | 4/7/2011 - 2:12am
The RCC and Judaism (now under its proper name Zionism)  have experienced many a harsh ambivalence and even antipathy.... on both sides.

The RCC has learned to cozy up to all rightwing powers, notoriously so in WWII. Now I am afraid the above Love-Fest shows the extreme straits that the bishops find themselves in. They know how to read the 90% vote in the congress denouncing the Goldstone Report on the slaughter of the innocents (of 410 children).

All of this cheek-to-cheek trance-dancing reminds me of the lines from Shakespeare:
" O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, thou shouldst know how many FATHOM DEEP I am in love."

David Smith | 4/5/2011 - 5:07am
Thank you, Rabbi Polish.

Both logic and empathy compel all of us, I think, to accept and embrace Israel.  It's when you move beyond those fundamentals that thoughts and emotions become muddied.  Part of the mud, certainly, is an anti-Jewish impulse that seems not to die, and part is realpolitik, which denies any value beyond the immediately pragmatic.  Part, also, is an arrogant righteousness that demands the sacrifice of one people to please another.  This latter is, I think, particularly pernicious.
richard benitez | 4/4/2011 - 4:10pm
Upon reading this article, my concern was why the Rabbi's main point was that christians "seem unaware of the profound nature..." My puzzlement is why the Rabbi is reminding catholics (and others) of that which is no obvious and so expected. This was underscored in my brain upon my unexpected reading recently of "the children of the ghetto ", Israel Zangwell. written in 1892. (brillant book!). as a serious catholic person, i've always felt very much welded to the jews by spiritual inheritance and by historical reality. Can't imagine any jew, secular or religious, not having a deep identity with israel.
NORMA NUNAG | 4/3/2011 - 5:14pm
Thank you so very much for this heartfelt, moving and touching piece, Rabbi Polish.  As I have written in another blog,  if we can share our pains, griefs, and sorrows, with one another, we will recognize and understand that we belong together as human beings.  And it is in our humanity that we know for sure that we were created with dignity and deserving of respect.  And it is also in our humanity that God meets us. 
Frederick Hill | 4/3/2011 - 4:55pm
This article put in perspctive the historical and religious/spiritual roots of Judiaism.  As the Rabbi points out there is much more than politics at work in Isreal, but it appears to me that his article his arguement could equally be said about the Palistininans.  With both (and Christans) laying claim to the land, I wonder how Jews, Palistinians and Christian (to a lesser degree) will resolve this morass.  Yet the violence only perpetutes more violence and another generation grows up feeling persecuted.  May Jerusalem (Isreal) find a true path to peace.
Patricia Marshall | 4/2/2011 - 12:57pm
Thank you so much for writing the article. It gives me much to reflect on.  I am Roman Catholic and have many Jewish friends and have worked with them.  I know how important Israel is to them but it was not explained as eloquently as you stated it.  I have a better understanding.  I have encouraged a Jewish friend of mine for some time to go visit there.  I think it would be a powerful experience. I will share your quote,  "It is the embodiment of the Jews’ collective past, situating us in our story and evoking its meaning."   We share your history in the Readings of the Old Testament and I pray for Israel and that there will be more open dialogue.  I am reading Bonhoeffer's biography which is giving me more insight into what took place in Nazi Germany and that we have a responsibility to speak up when we  see evil and where there are injustices.  Thank you again for keeping the diaglogue open and educating us about the Jewish people.  I will pray for the State of Israel and its people.  I am disturbed with what is going on in that region.
ROBERT OCONNELL | 4/2/2011 - 12:12am
"Shabbot Shalom" - and "Thank you!" 

I especially like your statement that "Israel possesses an incarnational dimension."

In regard to the government of Israel, I wonder if the rest of us could let the people of Israel govern themselves.