The progression of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel are “complicated”—a favorite descriptor of the many factors that weave the present reality. In a sense, our cohort has been invited into an internal family dialogue about continuing issues of Jewish peoplehood. It speaks to the openness of the American Jewish Committee and the Shalom Hartman Institute that they would trust American Christians to be good stewards of their insight.
Today we explored the tension between two perspectives on “home.” Some do not believe that one can achieve the full Jewish identity without undergoing the challenge and complexity of actually living in the modern state of Israel, while others believe that the experience of diaspora—being away from the land either voluntarily or involuntarily—is the essence of Jewish life.
The first perspective, which can be voiced by either religious or secular Zionists, ties Jewish distinctiveness to this historic land. Longing for home is inscribed in the Haggadah of the Seder: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Having arrived in Eretz-Israel (the biblical delineation of the geography) and founding the nation in 1948 portend the beginning of the flowering of redemption, as many put it.
This project of crafting a Jewish homeland is barely 65 years old—very young as nations go. Further, as in biblical times, the land was not uninhabited as the Zionists began to arrive. An Israeli Arab lecturer reminded us that his family had been here for 750 years (28 generations.) These people were at home, yet lost 72% of their property in the map-making of new neighbors, according to this version of recent decades.
The second draws from the prophetic tradition, enjoining the people of God to settle down and plant vineyards and seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) wherever the people have been scattered. And there are multiple examples of Jewish contributions to culture in the great cities opened up by the Roman Empire. This perspective (albeit disputed) contends that there are lessons learned as a persecuted religious minority that shape the Jewish character.
The role of Torah differs in these competing visions. The first assumes that Torah commands that identity and the land are forever intertwined. The second argues that the Torah, the word of God, is the true dwelling of the people, their true home.
All humans bear this longing for home, and it is an elusive quest. The human spirit transcends both geography and temporal spiritual pursuits. We were made for God and for community, and our restless hearts often miss the mediations of holy presence. As a Christian theologian, I believe we also long for the “city not made with human hands.”
Molly T. Marshall
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