Shortly after Rosh Hashanah this year, Jewish extremists torched a mosque in an Arab-Israeli village in the Galilee, damaging the building and destroying its holy books. Two days later, a rabbinic statement condemning this desecration of a house of worship on Israeli soil garnered the signatures of more than a thousand rabbis of all denominations within 36 hours of the document's publication. One of my former JTS classmates, however, explained with great disappointment why he did not add his name to this effort. This young rabbi sincerely wanted to express his Zionist support for a Jewish homeland defined by pluralism and tolerance, yet he feared that right-wing congregants would accuse him of aiding the "delegitimization" of Israel. I wonder how many other rabbis chose to remain silent in order to avoid an ideological conflict with community members regarding Israel.
In truth, religious and political debates over Jewish claims to the Land of Israel predate modern Zionism by many centuries. Some even find indirect reference to this issue in the very first word of Genesis. Rashi commences his classic 11th-century biblical commentary by quoting an earlier rabbinic tradition that asks why the Torah starts with the story of Creation rather than with God's first commandments to the Israelites, specifically those regarding preparations for the Exodus. This is because God "revealed to His people His powerful works, giving them the heritage of nations" (Ps. 111:6). Rashi then explains this verse as evidence to which Jews can refer if challenged about the Torah's narrative:
If the nations of the world should say to Israel: 'You are robbers, as you seized by force the lands of the seven nations (of Canaan)!' They can reply to them: 'All of the earth belongs to the Blessed Holy One, who created it and gave it to whoever was right in His eyes. Of His own will He gave it to them, and of his own will He took it from them and gave it to us.
In order to understand this comment, one must appreciate Rashi's historical context as well as the practical and theological concerns that inform his approach to biblical interpretation. First and foremost, we must recall that Rashi lived in France during the First Crusade, the decades preceding which saw increased persecution of Jews that fomented the Crusader Massacres of 1096. In addition to threats of violence, Christian animosity towards Jews in Western Europe often employed polemics disputing the legitimacy of Judaism's origins, including efforts to undermine Jewish claims to the Holy Land. Rashi's comment above responds to those physical and spiritual threats by reminding his audience of traditional Jewish beliefs that God's role in human affairs is not arbitrary, that God created the world with a plan to choose Israel for a special purpose and then led them to the Promised Land to dispossess nations unworthy of inhabiting it.
Rashi reminds us of the crux of biblical theology regarding the fate of all nations. Because God, according to the Torah, collectively rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, Israel was exiled twice from its homeland due to various sins. Indeed, that became a chief point of rebuttal to the theology that Rashi espoused not just from Christian antagonists but from anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom still employ that rhetoric today and refer to biblical verses that portended exile as a result of Israel's failure to uphold their covenant with God and its own laws.
While that fundamentalist view is only slightly further, intellectually, from my Zionist philosophy than is Rashi's, the overlap between their conflicting perspectives actually highlights the very tension I have felt recently. In fact, one of the prooftexts for Rashi's opening comment to Bereishit also lends support to the anti-Zionist argument. On Yom Kippur afternoon, our Torah reading concludes with several verses that warn of the consequences that will follow violations of the covenant:
Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves . . . But you must keep My laws and My rules, and you must not do any of those abhorrent things, neither the citizen nor the stranger who resides among you . . . So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. (Lev. 18:24–28)
This passage describes Israel's occupation of the Promised Land as contingent upon moral and ethical conduct rather than as simply a birthright. I understand this to mean that our support in the Diaspora for the State of Israel should involve less talk about our rights than attention to our responsibilities. Rather than seeing the Jewish homeland as something we deserve, perhaps we ought to embrace its statehood as a blessing that we must continuously earn.
I recognize that this language deeply challenges certain established Zionist views today, especially those of the "Israel right-or-wrong" camp. Some have even suggested that such opinions constitute a betrayal and an abandonment of our people's claims to a homeland. On the contrary, I know that I am far from alone in my thinking and that many of my colleagues express their Zionism similarly. As a recent extensive survey of JTS-trained rabbis revealed, my generation of Conservative clergy aligns, ideologically, as committed heirs to Labor Zionism, stressing the welfare of Israeli society and its citizens at least as much as security concerns.
In many ways, this debate reflects the dichotomy inherent in Rashi's own commentary. In response to the universal language of Genesis 1 describing the creation of the world, Rashi's opening comment addresses the particular concerns of his community. We would do well to follow his example in advocating for Israel through the lens of God's culminating act, the creation of humanity in God's own image. No other concept, to my mind, captures the Torah's aspirational understanding of what it means to be both a global citizen and a committed Zionist today.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.