Israel at Fifty: Carnal Israel-The Future of Jewish Spirituality in the Age of Zionism

By Gopin, Marc | Tikkun, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Israel at Fifty: Carnal Israel-The Future of Jewish Spirituality in the Age of Zionism


Gopin, Marc, Tikkun


Judaism today is undergoing an existential crisis. Almost every form of Jewish spirituality, from Jewish scholarship to Jewish Renewal to Jewish organizations large and small, is intoxicated with the physical existence of the Jewish people, with the Jewish body, carnal Israel, and particularly with the body in its relationship to the earth.

After two thousand years, Jews are discovering what it is to exult in religious experience through land, through the senses and the body. What this has led to, what it historically has always led to in other religions, is the distortion of a rich religious tradition that has a deep set of ethical commitments to the stranger, in biblical language the gerim, those non-members of one's culture who happen to reside on the land as well.

The biblical prophets were aware that this level of intoxication with the land is poisonous. It's for that reason that their litmus test of spirituality was whether a Jewish population could balance a love of land with love of the inhabitants in the land-all of them-the poor, the non-Jew, those who had lost their land, among others. They required a balance between love of land and moral restraint, a stepping back from land intoxication, which is the essential message of the Sabbatical laws, the tithing laws, the laws of the Jubilee, and other forms of resource distribution.

At the beginning of our own century, Hermann Cohen, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of modern times, understood the danger that Zionism would re-ignite an intoxication with the land that would strangle Jewish morality. But Cohen had a hard time presenting his case in the light of the unrelenting persecution Jews faced from the 1880s onwards. Zionists made a strong case for criticizing a disembodied Judaism with only a moral/spiritual face. They didn't want Jews consigned to the fate that old Church doctrine had marked out for us, namely, to be a wandering, landless people, with only a spiritual message and with suffering our perpetual fate.

Today, the good news is that more and more religious Jews in Israel know that something has gone wrong with religious Zionism. To recapture our sense of religious morality, we must undertake a fundamental re-evaluation of our relationship to the land. From a strategic point of view, for example, land is increasingly useless. It is now clear that missile technology and the increasing possibility of nonconventional (chemical, germ) warfare has wiped away the security that used to come with land. In today's wars, there is no more battlefield. We must face the fact that this ancient use of land has become obsolete and that only a reliable relationship with good neighbors is the key to security.

The love of land is an essential human response to the world, a basic resource of life and spirituality. But it does not require ownership or sovereignty to function in that way. We became obsessed with land ownership in order to try to undo the persecution of previous centuries, to undo the pain of the past with one land grab. But land ownership cannot undo that damage. The past must be mourned, but should not infect the moral decisions of the present.

In the early part of this century, halutz (pioneer) Israeli identity was an empowering myth for most Jews. It was a new Jewish identity rooted in conquering the soil, in creating the kibbutz. In many ways, the Russian, American, and other Diaspora Jews settling on the West Bank have only wanted their turn at the halutz mythology, their turn at being the conquering pioneer. It has been for us the same sort of classic colonial identity that Americans found in settling the United States' western frontier. It is an intoxicating mythology, one that suggests that we can build an identity by settling and "taming" a wild place, that by owning land we can leave in the shadows the violent reality that gaining the land in the first place requires.

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Israel at Fifty: Carnal Israel-The Future of Jewish Spirituality in the Age of Zionism
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