Judaism and Zionism

By Goldenberg, Robert | Midstream, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Judaism and Zionism


Goldenberg, Robert, Midstream


The terms "Judaism" and "Zionism" are best understood as designating two distinct political/intellectual traditions ("isms") in the history of Jewish thought and action. Neither term can be defined precisely because both movements have been highly diverse over their respective histories and have meant different things to different adherents. In fact, any attempt at precision would be not only futile but also controversial and would be sharply rejected by some of those whom it purported to describe. On the other hand, each term does mean something: neither can or should be reduced to a vague sentimental loyalty.

It should not be taken for granted that the movements in question agree on any particular matter, or that they ever say the same thing merely because both speak for Jews. This essay will attempt to offer a working definition of each term and to explore the degree of overlap and the range of difference between the movements that they serve to name.

I

"Judaism" is the name of an ancient religious heritage. Its earliest writings are found in the collection of Scripture, though its most formative texts were compiled after that collection was complete. Its most central ideas are that there is only one true God, that this God has singled out one nation (namely Israel) from the rest of humanity by joining with that nation in a special relationship or covenant, and that this covenant takes the form of a revelation of God's will: how He wants that nation to live. By implication, conformity with the instructions thus provided will bring happy results but violation will lead to suffering.

Many questions are left unanswered in this bare description. We cannot tell what God is like. We cannot tell why God would have wished to enter a covenant with anybody, or why the people of Israel were selected. We cannot tell what the happy results, or the suffering, will be. We cannot even be sure that Israel had any choice about entering the covenant. It should therefore come as no surprise that each of these questions has received widely diverse, sometimes even contradictory answers over the history of Judaism, and that Judaism as such cannot be identified with any single one of these.

Judaism can be described in terms of the symbolic vocabulary it has tended to use in answering these and other such questions, but even so, the interpretation of these symbols has varied widely over time and place. Terms such as God and Torah appear everywhere, but not always with the same meaning. Jews have almost always abstained from the worship of gods other than their own, but the status of angels, demons, and the like has remained an open question. Celebrations such as the Sabbath and the annual festivals can be found all over Jewish history, but not always with the same rules or customs or explanations. Jewish males have almost always been circumcised, but again not quite always and not necessarily with the same understanding of the rite.

Certain implications flow even from the schematic description just offered. On the terms just described, Jewish identity is primarily a religious identity, that is, its meaning must be expressed through reference to God and the covenant. Moreover, in principle this meaning is not for the Jews themselves to determine: they may find it necessary to work out the details on their own, but its basic outlines have been imposed on them by the God whose will they have pledged to obey. Finally, since the covenant linked God with a people and not just a mass of individuals, this identity has an ethnic/national component as well.

Over the course of time, the dominant interpretations of these vague and schematic notions were drawn from the teachings of a particular set of masters ("the Rabbis"), and those teachings were eventually recorded in a vast literature centered on the Talmud and its commentaries. All modern forms of the Jewish religion are grounded in that literature, but no modern form is identical with the religion directly reflected there. …

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