Academic journal article Shofar

Heschel on Israel

Academic journal article Shofar

Heschel on Israel

Article excerpt

This paper attempts to present Heschel's thoughts on the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, examining the demands and goals that he set for himself and the Jewish people as a result of the Six-Day War, observing how well Israel has lived up to these ideals since then, and asking if they could be further fulfilled and/or critiqued.

Since I am writing these lines from Jerusalem where I have lived much of the last seven years, I thought it appropriate to reflect once again on Heschel's writings on the land of Israel and on this city of Jerusalem in particular. This can be a hazardous task, since I write as a Christian and therefore as an "outsider" to the Jewish faith experience. The full significance of this Land and this City for Judaism will necessarily elude me. I can only attempt to re-present Heschel's own thoughts as accurately as possible on this central aspect of his Jewish faith. In particular he describes how much a return to the Land has meant for Jews through the millennia and how their absence from the Land has been the basis of their sufferings and hopes, their dreams and disappointments, their yearnings and prayers. I want to examine the particular demands and challenges and goals that Heschel set forth for himself and the Jewish people as a result of the events of June 1967, and to what extent these ideals and challenges have been fulfilled over these past 40 years. Finally, we might ask to what extent these ideals might yet be further fulfilled and/or critiqued, using that prophetic voice which Heschel expressed so well in his writings and embodied in his life.

An Echo of Eternity

I begin appropriately with his Israel: An Echo of Eternity,1 which expresses so well the euphoria he experienced on returning to Israel in 1967. The military conquest of Jerusalem was for Heschel a miracle, a sign of God's fidelity, of God's presence, and of God's continuing revelation. It is an event that for him is of enormous religious and historical significance.

Heschel devotes a major section of this work to Judaism's "engagement" (or betrothal) to the land. This is central to his thesis: from the period of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era until the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948, the land of Palestine was never a national home for any other people, never an independent political state. Rather it was caught up in a "legacy of desolation" that Heschel attempts to categorize as a swamp in the north and a desert in the south. Jews alone regarded Palestine as a homeland, as part of their self-identity, as a political entity worthy of independence.2 Jews alone waited for the renewal of their life in the land of Israel. Non-Jews must acknowledge this unique aspect of Jewish existence.

For Heschel this millennia-old Jewish dream of freedom and independence in the Holy Land was audacious and unprecedented. It was built into the very faith of Jews, a constitutive element of their humanity. Every Sabbath as they prepared to unroll the scroll of the Torah, Jews all over the world would pray: "Merciful Father, deal kindly with Zion, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. ..." Love for the land was an imperative, a dimension of Israel's covenant which it dare not betray. To abandon the land would be the equivalent of abandoning the Covenant, denying the Bible, repudiating the Torah, because for Heschel the central theme of Israel's biblical covenant is the promise of the land to Abraham. The meaning behind this covenant and this promise is still unfolding; we have scarcely scratched its surface. Jews live by this promise, a promise that has now become a command.

In many parts of the world the impact of the Bible, which has profoundly shaped western civilization, appears to be subsiding, and so there is a desperate need to restore the land and language of the Bible, and hence to restore the Jewish people to the land where the Bible was written. In restoring or redeeming the land, Jews are deeply aware that they are fulfilling their biblical covenant. …

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