Author Archives: Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

About Dr. Arnold M. Eisen

Arnold M. Eisen, Ph.D. is Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty in 1986, he taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University.

Religion Without State

Religion, Leibowitz argues, must conceive of itself as an end in itself; it must reject any view which makes its existence a means to other ends such as the morality of society or the authority of the state. It must rather be “totalitarian in the realm of values,” regarding all else in life as a means to its one end: knowing and cleaving to God. 

Given this irrefragable [indisputable] as­sumption, can the State of Israel have any religious significance? Jewish tradi­tion, Leibowitz suggests, offers two answers. The first, represented by Bahya ibn Pakuda (11th century) and Moses Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746), holds that religiosity is not dependent upon or influenced by any social situation. Even the people of Israel qua national-political entity is not needed for the Jew’s religious life, let alone the apparatus of a modern state. A second stream of thought, however, believes that perfection of the social and political or­ders is a divine demand, and so an essential part of Jewish religious life. Certainly the biblical prophets held this view, and so did Maimonides.

Nothing in the Sources

The problem, Leibowitz continues, is that no specific political program for a con­temporary state can be derived from such traditional sources. In fact, they presume precisely opposite conditions to those which apply in a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel. His argument is twofold. Neither Scripture nor Mishnah nor Talmud nor Maimonides knew of any Jewish state in the historical present. There was the state of the distant past, ruled by David and Solomon, and there would be the state of “King Messiah,” in some far-distant future.

The Conundrum of Religious Jews in Israel

A state created without direct divine intervention, in the space of time between Destruction [of the Temple] and Messiah, was simply not conceived. Such a state thus rep­resents a daring attempt to draw legitimacy from a tradition which never even considers the possibility of its existence. Moreover, the halakhah [Jewish law] re­flects that lack of consideration utterly and completely, presuming on every page of text either life among the nations in exile or submission to a Gentile authority in power within Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel].

Abraham Isaac Kook

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the Palestine mandate, among other achievements. He is considered one of the fathers of religious Zionism. The following article examines his Zionistic beliefs. Reprinted with permission from The Land of Israel: Jewish Perspectives, edited by Lawrence A. Hoffman (The University of Notre Dame Press).

Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], Kook wrote, was the spatial center of holiness in the world, radiating holiness vertically to the Jews who lived upon the Land as well as horizontally to other portions and peoples of the earth. The spirit of the Land was entirely pure and clean, while spirit elsewhere was mired in kelipot, or “husks” of impurity. The air of the land really did “make one wise,” as the Rabbis had said.

abraham isaac kookIn a typical elevation of sociology to theol­ogy, Kook argued that the Jewish imagination outside the Land had become stunted and even deformed. The cause was not merely assimilation to Gen­tile cultures possessed of far less light and holiness than Israel. In addition, the Jews had depleted over two millennia the store of creativity carried away with them into exile. During their absence, the flow of spirit had ceased; its gradual diminishing was responsible for the character of galut [Diaspora] life. Realizing these facts, the Jews had grasped the urgency of return. Moreover, since the entire world was poor in holiness and sunk in wicked­ness, it was utterly dependent upon the Jews for a renewal of light and spirit. Israel’s return to the Land would thus mark the end of a worldwide era of darkness and initiate the redemption of all humanity.

It is astounding to react such claims in a 20th-century work. In­stead of engaging in apologetic, Kook merely notes that the unique qualities of the Holy Land cannot be comprehended by reason. Once his assump­tions have been granted, however, they legitimate a powerful critique of galut life and galut Judaism, and sanctify political activities and concep­tions that would otherwise have been unacceptable. The Jewish spirit meant to guide the rest of creation had sunk to imi­tation of “the uncircumcised” Gentiles, while the Jewish body, sorely neglected in exile, had suffered a comparable impoverishment The full and varied character of Jewish life could not achieve expression, given oppression and exposure to foreign winds.

Modern Orthodoxy & the Chosen People

Samuel Belkin, president of Yeshiva University from 1943 to 1975, put the Orthodox position concisely when he averred that the Torah, as God’s law, must be scrupulously obeyed. Its truth and wisdom, the highest possible, are sufficient for all time. No more needs to be said. The authority of the Chooser, the uniqueness of the Chosen, and the content of the chosenness are all affirmed unequivocally. 

Chosen For Unique Obligations

Still, while other Orthodox Jews, less responsive to the gentile world and Jewish doubt, saw no need to justify the doctrine of chosenness, Belkin took pains to defend it.

“Our entire concept of election, of distinctiveness and separation, is based upon the greater degree of responsibility which the Torah places upon each one of us…Those who have, therefore, stricken the ‘atah bahartanu‘–the avowal of the doctrine of ‘chosenness’ [recited in the festival Amidah prayer]‑‑from our prayer book, have denied the raison d’être of the Jewish people as revealed in the Torah, and misinterpreted the Torah concept of distinctiveness or ‘chosenness’ which has nothing to do with superiority of race. It is rather a greater dedication to the moral precepts of the Torah, and the endeavor to live a highly disciplined spiritual life, which is the Jewish essence of kedushah (holiness).” 

Photo credit: Benjamin Stern

Belkin’s stress on the “moral” and “spiritual”‑-rather than on the ritual enforcement of “distinctiveness and separation”–seems well attuned to the objections to election which his defense sought to meet. While his rhetoric could be Reform, the content varies considerably from Reform’s “mission” or Kaplan’s “vocation” or the adherence to tradition carefully navigated by the Conservatives. The burden of chosenness is simply and precisely defined: obligation by and to the halakhah [Jewish law] which Jews received at Sinai.

Halakhic Man

One sees this clearly in the first major essay undertaken in America by the intellectual and spiritual guide of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903‑1992).