Nehemia Stern has a PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University. His research focuses on contemporary forms of Jewish religious Zionism in Israel. Currently he is a Post-Doctoral Fellow and Adjunct lecturer in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ariel University in Samaria. We featured on the blog Dr. Stern’s MA thesis on Post-Orthodoxy and the changes of 21st century Orthodoxy in 2010 and the thesis is now available online
In a recent article of Stern’s, he showed how the direct turn to the Bible in Religious Zionist circles is parallel the early Zionist turn. The Bible is now being used as a direct source to debate conscientious objection to military service in which “Biblical texts are often intimately intertwined in particular social and political contexts that are “publically manipulated, pushed and pulled by diﬀerent social actors.” In his article, Stern compares the Israeli use of the Bible to the work of James Bielo in his studies of the Evangelical community in which Bielo shows the “social life of the Scriptures’” (2009). Working oﬀ his ethnographic studies of Christian Evangelical Bible study groups, Bielo argues that “the social life of the Bible” is not simply a matter of reading and exegesis but includes various forms of action in the world’ (2009, 160).
In his response below, Stern offer a variety of directions to think about this Evangelical and Religious Zionist convergence.
Christian and Jewish Religious Zionism: Between an ‘Oy Gevalt’ and a ‘Hallelujah’
By Nehemia Stern
Jews have been debating the fine line between ‘inter-faith’ and ‘intra-faith’ relations with Christianity since about the time Saul (later Paul) saw the light and fell to the ground on his way to Damascus. Currently, with the establishment and flourishing of the State of Israel, and the return of the Jewish People to their native lands, a conversation that was perhaps cut off prematurely has since reemerged, and with renewed vigor.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki forcefully argues that the relationship between Christian Zionism and Jewish religious Zionism is an intra-faith one that “expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared”. According to Wolicki, what is shared between Christian and Jewish religious Zionism is not necessarily a similar theological attempt to “understand and systematize” our understanding of God, but rather a focus on some of the same foundational Biblical and prophetic texts. Both Jewish religious Zionists in Israel and Evangelical Christian Zionists share similar ways of interpreting scriptural lessons as well as “the role that people of faith play in historical processes”. The return of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel is the precondition for this ‘intra-faith’ relationship.
As an anthropologist of religion who has specifically focused on religious Zionism in Israel, I have to ask: when does a close resemblance between two faiths turn into something uncomfortably familiar? Anthropologists love cross-cultural observations, so I’d like to make a few.
Both Christian and Jewish religious Zionists see in the reestablishment of Jewish statehood after 2000 years of exile a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. For Jewish religious Zionists this return creates an opportunity to refocus educational and religious attention to the biblical text itself. Rabbi Wolicki used the phrase Bible-believing invoking a Protestant sense of sola scriptura. Similar to evangelical Christians (and Martin Luther’s scriptural return), some Jewish religious Zionists directly engage with biblical stories and biblical characters in ways that sometimes marginalize accepted rabbinic tradition. In contemporary Israel this technique is called Tanach b’gova einayim or reading the Bible at eye level- reading the Bible outside of the traditional commentaries. Here the faults and foibles of characters like Jacob, Samson, or David are critical in understanding the Bible’s moral, social, or political lessons. This technique is controversial among some Jewish religious Zionists precisely because it forces the classical medieval biblical interpretations of Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra etc. to take second place to a straightforward reading of scripture.
In a recent academic article of mine titled The Social Life of the Samson Saga in Israeli Religious Zionist Rabbinic Discourse, I demonstrated how various groups of religious Zionists debate their own contemporary political differences through their interpretations of the Biblical tales of Samson. These ‘eye level’ interpretations I argued, are a textual method through which religious Zionists debate not just the narrative of Samson itself but also the very current political and moral questions surrounding issues like personal vengeance towards Palestinians, assimilation, and sexual impropriety. The social life of passages of the Bible becomes a means by which to justify or critique the violence of Israel’s contemporary Hilltop Youth. For example, a minor textual difference in how the Meforshim (the classical medieval Rabbinic commentators) read Samson’s final call for vengeance in Judges 16:28 can be used by more modern observers to justify violent acts of personal vengeance against Palestinians just as they can also serve as the basis for more statist responses to terror.
Evangelical Christians generally share a similar relationship with Biblical texts. They too seek an unmitigated experience of the Bible centering on a straightforward reading of the text itself. Their readings of the first few chapters of Genesis for example resonate with just as much political force in political debates surrounding issues of abortion, stem cells, or even educational funding for evolution studies. And I dare say, the consequences of these interpretations can sometimes be just as violent.
Indeed, the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and Religious Zionism may run even deeper than modes of biblical interpretation. As Rabbi Wolicki noted “the largest most vocal group” of Christian Zionists are dispensationalists. Dispensationalism isn’t a sect, a religious movement, or a denomination. Dispensationalism is a way of reading the Bible and interpreting history (which itself is always a way of commenting on the present and of predicting the future). In a nutshell, dispensationalism offers a progressive understanding of God’s role in the salvation of humanity, in which the end time is slowly revealed. Redemption becomes a gradually unfolding process that is divided into epochs or dispensations. In each, God presents humanity with a different road to salvation toward the end time. Humanity fails to fully realize the opportunity, is punished, which in turn begins a new dispensation.
For dispensationalists, the Jewish people are the agents through which this end-time process is meant to unfold, yet their specific contribution to salvation is up for debate. For some Christian dispensationalists, the Jewish rejection of Jesus’ messiahship critically hindered the ultimate redemption. At the same time, God’s original covenant with Abraham (and thus the Jews) was never nullified, making both the Jews and the Church two distinct and theologically legitimate entities. Whether or not ultimate the end-time salvation requires Jewish conversion is left vague for some evangelical Christians.
Those conversant with religious Zionist thought -especially as expounded by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, his son Tzvi Yehuda, and their many contemporary disciples – might see something familiar here. This messianic brand of Israeli religious Zionism views the drama of redemption (which admittedly, is somewhat different from ‘salvation’) as an overarching mystical and historical process. My favorite example of this kind of thinking can be seen in how Rav Abraham Isaac Kook gave historical, ethical, and redemptive significance to the mass slaughters of the First World War. As he wrote in the Lights of War, a collection of notes published in the years following the conflict;
We were thrown out of world politics by a force that had within it an inner will, until such a happy time when it would be possible to administer a kingdom without evil and barbarity. This is the era that we are hoping for. It is obvious that in order to achieve it, we have to awaken with all our strength, and use all the means that the era brings. Everything is in the hand of the creator, but the delay is necessary, for our souls are sick of the terrible sins of the kingdoms in this era. And now the time has come, it is very close. The world is becoming sweetened, and we can already prepare ourselves for that moment when we can manage our kingdom on the foundations of Goodness, Wisdom, Righteousness, and the clarified illumination of the divine.
For Rav Kook, the forceful exile of the Jewish People was one stage in a larger mystical and ethical drama. It allowed the renaissance of Jewish nationalism to occur at a time where the violence and barbarity that characterized the trenches of WWI, were coming to an end. Much like Woodrow Wilson’s ‘the war to end all wars’, the naivete of this prediction, doesn’t take away from its theological and ethical force. What Rav Kook is implying here, is that the Jewish People slowly move through a series of mystical and moral stages which ultimately lead to nothing less than world redemption. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the precondition for this process.
Interestingly for religious Zionists in the Kookian mode, the role of non-Jews is just as ambiguous as that of Jews for dispensationalists. Where do the nations of the world (including Palestinians) fit into the grand process of redemption? For Rav Kook were the vast casualty lists, the blight of war in general, or of Sin itself, just an unfortunate means to a better future? Can violence and suffering be so easily sanctified? For many religious Zionists these are open question with real world political implications.
Rabbi Wolicki was certainly consistent in questioning Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik’s non-messianic “interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles”. In contrast, mystical and messianic religious Zionism in the framework of Rav Kook offers a vision of redemption that is structurally quite similar to Christian Zionist dispensationalism. Rav Soloveitchik was extremely skeptical of these sorts of progressive messianic redemptive claims. For him, the State of Israel was less an outcome of mystical messianism than it was a pragmatic expression of a renewed Jewish power and political presence after the Holocaust – which itself was a sign of God’s continued love for his people.
Indeed, in my anthropological fieldwork I met many mystical and messianic religious Zionist rabbinic figures in Israel who criticized this aspect of Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. They felt his philosophy simply did not offer an uplifting worldly vision – something they were so used to hearing in Rav Kook’s thought. In their view how could one not see a progressively redemptive message in the Jewish drama of the twentieth century? These religious Zionist debates between followers of the ideologies of Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, are really two modes of viewing God’s hand in the tragedies and triumphs of his people in the 20th century, and they play themselves out in Rabbi Wolicki’s worldview expressed in his interview. It is curious though, that many who support a closer theological relationship between Christian Zionism and Religious Zionism come out of an American Modern Orthodox context, where Rav Soloveitchik’s skepticism towards messianic Zionism (and inter-faith dialogue) simply cannot be ignored.
Little ethnographic research has been done on how religious Zionists in Israel reflect on the similarities between themselves and evangelical Christianity. It is possible that some religious Zionists have intuited echoes of this intra-faith paradigm and these similarities have aroused a healthy debate regarding the relationship between Evangelical Christianity and religious Zionist communities in Judea and Samaria.
Not all mystical and messianic religious Zionists are as enthused by the close relationship – both pragmatic and philosophical – between their own communities and the many evangelical Christians who visit and volunteer within their West Bank communities. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Ateret Cohanim Rabbinic seminary for example has forbidden accepting monetary donations from Christian organizations writing that, “It is there ticket into the nation of Israel to convert us”. Indeed, Rabbi Aviner went further and claimed that American Evangelical Christians who support Israel politically, also “love our souls, and want to bring us to them. Politics – yes. Business – yes. Friendship – no. Money – no.”
Conversely, in 2011, a hilltop community adjacent to the settlement of Har Bracha, objected to the presence of Evangelical Christian volunteers living and working within their neighborhood. The Rabbi of that settlement, Eliezer Melamed however, has come out in support of these volunteers. “Judaism does not intend to cancel or destroy other religions but to raise them up to the source of Israel [presumably a universal kind of divinity] …there is a process of transcendence that has not been seen yet in Christianity. Therefore, with all of the necessary caution, it is our spiritual and moral duty to relate to this process in the most positive manner possible”.
There is this great scene in the Frisco Kid, where Gene Wilder playing Rabbi Avram Belinski had just escaped from being accosted and robbed by two highwayman. He’s wandering around tired, lost and hungry in the wilderness. Suddenly in the distance he sees a group of farmers wearing black hats and long black frock coats. He runs towards them shouting “Landsmen! Landsmen!”. A they embrace and begin to speak a similar Germanic language that is unintelligible to both, he sees a book with a cross. With an “Oy Gevalt”, Reb Avram promptly faints. Sometimes that which seems most familiar can also feel the most threatening.
Jewish and Christian religious Zionists share certain political goals and have a common outlook on social and cultural life both in the United States and in Israel. It’s only natural that an alliance advancing conservative principles and policy goals would form between the two. But the relationship that Rabbi Wolicki describes as “intra-faith” is a world apart from this kind of policy pragmatism. While he doesn’t like talking theology’, what he is actually describing are two extremely similar theological modes of understanding the divine role in the universe. It’s understandable that this might be worrying to some Orthodox Jews
I think there is much to be gained from a deeper engagement with Christian Zionism and with Christianity in general. Yet, I would however just like to offer a word of anthropological warning. Cultural dialogue is never a one-way street. It’s somewhat naïve to think that religious Zionists can open up ‘yeshivas’ for evangelical Christians, give presentations at churches, invite volunteers to live and work within Jewish communities without being at all being influenced by Evangelical Christianity. It’s never a one-way street.
Recently, a Neo-Hasidic research contact of mine in a Northern West Bank Settlement posted a Facebook status where he came out in favor of wishing Christians a ‘Merry Christmas’. “There is a brotherhood between us, and this shouldn’t alarm us”, he wrote. “I am happy to wish them a happy holiday, full of joy and brotherhood. That together we will move the entire world towards the eternal divine values of respect for others, love of man, and that we will defeat the darkness that covers the earth”. In this case who would object to the common values of respect and love for one’s fellow man? And what religious person would deny that these values have their source in some spark of divinity?
But here lies the catch. This formulation of common divine values assumes a common understanding of divinity. There is and will be increasing Christian influence from these Jewish- Christian contacts and commonalities. I’m not entirely sure that Israeli religious Zionism is ready for the immense repercussions that will come out of this. Religious Zionism can’t expect to influence, without something being reciprocated or transformed. What are we risking when our dialogue with Evangelical Christianity moves beyond pragmatism and beyond even abstract cross-cultural curiosity, to touch upon the experience of faith itself? Our answer might necessitate a little bit more of Reb Avram’s “Oy Gevalt”.