A Jewish Response: An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists
by Rabbi Yehiel Poupko
October 12, 2011
Dear Dr. Gushee and Dr. Stassen:
I write to comment on your letter of September 19, addressed to “Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,” posted on the website of the Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Why should I write to you? After all, your letter was not addressed to me, nor to the Jewish people whom I serve. Yet, an important principle in interfaith, as in all relations, is to talk with someone before talking about them. Your letter has much to say about the whole House of Israel. Many of us have read what you have thought and written about us, and so we want to tell you some of our thoughts about your letter. It is my purpose in writing to achieve better understanding between us, and between the Jewish community and Evangelical leadership.
At the outset, some words of introduction. I am an Orthodox rabbi who serves as the Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Two of my four children and six of my twelve grandchildren live in Israel. I have wanted to see a Palestinian State since June 16, 1967. I am also the author of what may well be the first Jewish religious response to the ideology of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Rabbi Kook is the forefather of that Jewish ideology that holds that Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War constituted Divine guidance. In this belief, the victory of the Jewish people fulfilled Biblical prophecy and gained Biblical mandate through the defeat of a second attempt by Arab Armies to destroy Israel, reunite Jerusalem, and take control of many areas in the boundaries of Biblical Israel. To summarize a lengthy paper in one sentence: Judaism holds that there is no prophecy after Malachi (This is one reason why we are not Christians.). Therefore no Jew is permitted to look at any event in history or in nature and assert that he or she knows God’s intent. Absent the direct speech of God through a prophet, we have the voice of God in the mitzvot of the Torah that gives us the means by which to pursue lives of justice, righteousness, holiness, and purity, that we may fulfill our Divine responsibility.
I should also tell you about some of my conversations with Protestants, both Mainline and Evangelical, concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To that end, I am attaching two documents. Attachment 1, entitled “Guidelines for Conversations between Jews and Protestants on the Israel-Palestinian Conflict,” has a rather interesting history. Ten years ago, I went to the dean at that time, Richard Rosengarten of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, and said to him that I thought the Jewish community and the Mainline Protestants were heading for some difficult times because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That interaction resulted in a conversation group that produced the attached document. Among its signatories are Professor Martin Marty and Reverend John Buchanan, publisher of The Christian Century. Attachment 2 is an article I wrote that was published in Christianity Today. The article seeks to establish a firm basis for conversation with Evangelicals and Mainline Protestants that is free from theological extremes on the left or the right. Let me now turn to your letter.
I know that the Jewish people are not the addressee of your letter. Nevertheless, I write because you talk about me and my people. I am a Zionist. Not only that, I am a third generation religious Zionist. My grandfather was a part of the founding convention of religious Zionists in Vilnius in 1905. Your reference to Zionism as, “what goes by the name Zionism”, is less than courteous. This is a sacred word for us. Your use of the phrase ‘religious Jewish Zionists in Israel’ employs generalization where the precision of specificity is in order. This would be akin to my using the term ‘Evangelical’, as too many do, to refer to Bill Clinton, John Hagee, Joel Hunter, Pat Robertson, and Jim Wallis without setting forth the variety of differences among them. Before continuing with some brief notes on Zionism, a general framework is useful. Neither Christianity, nor Judaism, was theologically prepared for the Jewish return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland – and we are each just catching up. Christianity thought we would never return. That was incorrect. Judaism held that we would return only with the coming of the Messiah. That was incorrect. Theology often has a hard time with reality. I don’t want to begin a lengthy excursus on Zionism. Suffice to say there are five kinds of Zionism: political Zionism, socialist Zionism, cultural Zionism, religious Zionism, and revisionist Zionism. The smallest group was, and remains, religious Zionism.
For the majority of the Jewish people, the return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland and to Zionism itself, have no specific religious meaning. Eighty percent of the Israeli Jewish electorate, while living what can be called traditionally Jewish lives, are not theologically and theistically centered. For most of the non-Orthodox, Zionism is without religious significance. For the ultra-Orthodox, modern Zionism is surely without any religious significance. Parenthetically, is it not curious that while Zionism and the return to Israel do not have religious meaning for a majority of Jews, they have nothing but theological meaning for Christianity and Islam? Where most Jews saw no theological meaning, Christians and Muslims had nothing but theological responses. Often that response was, and is, hostile.
With the return to sovereignty in 1948, the Orthodox who to this day continue to hold on to the belief that the first coming of the Messiah of the House of David has not yet happened, and will happen in God’s own time, split into three groups. Since the Messiah is supposed to restore the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, the ultra-Orthodox said, this cannot be a religiously authentic or validated return, because it has happened without the agency of the Messiah. Another group of Orthodox looked at the return to Land and sovereignty and said that if tradition says that the Jewish people will be restored by the Messiah, and we have been restored to Land and sovereignty, we must be living in the Messianic Era. The third group of Orthodox Jews, the largest group, the group to which my family has belonged for nearly a century, looked at the return and said, while this is filled with immense religious potential, it is not the Messianic Era. The Messiah is not here. We do not need the still awaited Messiah to return to our Homeland. The State and the various governments of Israel are this worldly human phenomena. Attachment 3, an article that I wrote for The Christian Century, presents a Jewish religious understanding of our attachment ot the Land of Israel. It is the only current statement of Jewish thought about the religious meaning of the Jewish return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland which enjoys the endorsement of major Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Jewish thinkers.
The only Jews for whom Zionism and the return to the land of Israel have religious significance are some of the modern Orthodox religious Zionists. Religious Zionists fall into two groups: the pragmatic, whose theology is described in the above mentioned article; and those who see the Six-Day War constituting Divine guidance and the beginning (at the very least) of the period of the “footsteps of the Messiah” or the Messianic Era. You refer in your letter to “the number of religious Jewish Zionists in Israel” as “growing appreciably”. The followers of this ideology number about 125-150,000 out of six million Israeli Jews. As you well know, there are more Jews than this number living over the Green Line. Why do you not take note in your writing of the attitudes and thinking of the other 97.5% of the Jewish population of Israel? In addition, you fail to note that since 1989, a majority of Jews in Israel have favored a two-state solution and see no Messianist or theological reason to oppose that. You also do not mention that the entire ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, the Hassidic rabbinate, and a significant portion of the modern Orthodox rabbinate, as well as the Reform and Conservative rabbinate are opposed to this theology.
I don’t want to go into great detail about the political dimension of the conflict because the focus of my communication to you is the use of religious ideas of your letter. When you state, though, that the policies of the Netanyahu government are driven by a Biblical/Messianist theology, you are incorrect. Your letter fails to mention that Prime Minister Netanyahu has committed himself to a two-state solution. So have been his predecessors, including Ariel Sharon who told Tom Delay and Pat Robertson that the government of Israel makes its decisions based on what is good for the security of the State of Israel and its citizens, rebuffing their entreaty that disengaging from Gaza would be counter to Biblical prophecy. The Israeli Palestinian conflict is complex. It is too convenient an argument that a primary driving factor is Western Pre-Millennial Dispensationalists. It is not. Israel is a vibrant democracy and Israelis are motivated by many factors. They are puppets of no one.
Pre-Millennial Dispensationalism is an internal Christian affair and the subject of much intra-Christian debate. We the Jewish people are not and should not be a party to that conversation. However, too many Christians have made us a party to that internal conversation because most of what is written and said is about us. And neither party has talked with us before talking about us. We the Jewish people have become the theological soccer ball between two opposing Christian teams. Tragically, this is not an unfamiliar role for us. There is almost no Christian response to Pre-Millennial Dispensationalism that doesn’t say negative things about Judaism and Jewish belief. Your letter is no different. While your focus is not on supercessionist or replacement theology, you do transfer that theology, as used for two millennia against Judaism and the Jewish people, to Zionism and the State of Israel. Is there no way for faithful Christians who disagree with pre-millennial Dispensationalists to do so in a manner that says nothing about the promises made to Abraham and Sarah? Is it not possible to leave us out of your internal Christian conversation? Is there not a way to oppose pre-millennial Dispensationalist theology without using universalism as an erasure of the Jewish covenant? I know that Christians believe that with the coming of Christ all lands are holy. I know that Christians believe that they are now heirs to the covenant made with Abraham. I know that Christians believe the particular has been made universal. But many Christians today, including many Evangelicals, understand that the manner in which these beliefs are expressed in word and deed have brought hell on earth for the Jewish people. Can you not find a way to oppose pre-millennial Dispensationalism without saying anything negative about Judaism? Indeed, if you were to do so you might actually find a sympathetic ear within the Jewish community.
Let me now identify for you four items in your communication that demonstrate that you share one fundamental agreement with the pre-millennial Dispensationalists. You both believe that we the Jewish people are actors in your Christian drama, fulfilling roles determined by a script that you Christians have written; that we have no ongoing purpose of our own in God’s sacred history; that we are merely part of your story; and that we are not to be understood in our terms, but only in your terms. The four are as follows.
1) The trajectory of the canonical Old Testament moves inexorably toward and away from the Promised Land.
What do you do about the simple fact that all the passages of restoration in the Prophets are about restoration to the land promised to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and that that redemptive restoration is focused only on the Jewish people?
2) A literal reading of the text that assumes that the descendants of Abram are only the Jewish people faces a problem here.
You misread a fundamentally important and beautiful passage in the Torah. Ishmael and Esau and their children are indeed beneficiaries as descendants of Abraham. They are given land. They are not given land in the Promised Land, and they are not given roles as Patriarchs. They receive material legacy. Though they are not part of the family’s spiritual business, they are heir to its material estates.
3) You then go further, and quote Romans 4, that by faith non-Jews become Abraham’s descendants too: “The purpose of this is to make him the ancestor of all who believe.”
Now, many Jews believe that Christianity is a Jewish success story. We do not believe what you believe about Jesus of Nazareth. We do not believe what you believe about Paul. Nevertheless we do affirm that because of what you believe, you have pursued the study of the Torah, and have thus come to know and have relationship with the one God.
This use of Paul in Romans though, is problematic. The trend in Pauline scholarship today by Evangelicals, Catholics, and Protestants understands Paul as (forgive the use of the term) trying to have his theological cake and eat it too; trying to bring the gentile into the covenant and trying to maintain the Jewish people in that covenant at one and the same time. Please note, attachment 4, which is a copy of an article by Richard J. Mouw, entitled “The Chosen People Puzzle,” from the March 5, 2001 edition of Christianity Today. At the heart of this article is an idea that is absent in your use of Paul. Richard Mouw writes, “I do not see the apostle Paul as making a perfectly coherent case on the subject of the Jews.” Whether or not that is the case is a matter that only Christians can determine. However, what is clear is that the kind of Christian universalism expressed in your letter is part of the adversos iudaeos tradition. It has been used to erase any sense of the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people. You now transfer this to Zionism and the State of Israel. In the middle ages it was used to erase our faith identity, now you use it to erase our national identity.
4) At a theological level we are claiming … the Bible in the prophetic writings also teaches that persistent injustice on the part of Israel has evolved and can still bring God’s judgment which can extend even to war and exile. Israel’s remaining in the land depends on Israel now doing justice to Palestinians and making peace with its Arab neighbors that surround Israel. Indeed, Jesus as prophet and savior also prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because they did not know the practices that make for peace. (Luke 19:41-44) Jerusalem was destroyed forty years later. Do you not fear that it could happen again? Does not your love of Israel make you want to do all you can to prevent that from happening?
Before turning to the religious ideas in this excerpt, let me draw attention by comparison to a less important matter. You invoke “Jesus as prophet and savior” to assert that “Jerusalem would be destroyed” for not “making peace with its Arab neighbors.” The Christian world has taken profoundly important steps since 1945. It has undergone a veritable theological revolution since it enabled the destruction of European Jewry. (I hasten to add that the Holocaust is impossible without the Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people; yet the Holocaust is too enormous an event to be attributed exclusively to Christianity.) The Christian teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish people, while no longer flourishing in Europe or the rest of the Western world, has acquired a fertile seedbed in the Arab world. Here is a section of Article 7 of the Hamas Covenant.
Moreover, if the links have been distant from each other and if obstacles, placed by those who are the lackeys of Zionism in the way of the fighters obstructed the continuation of the struggle, the Islamic Resistance Movement aspires to the realisation of Allah’s promise, no matter how long that should take. The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said:
“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, (evidently a certain kind of tree) would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.” (related by al-Bukhari).
Hamas is one of Israel’s neighbors. What do you think Jesus would say to Hamas about this passage in their Covenant? What would Jesus say to Sheikh Nasrallah of Hezbollah? As you well know, Israel left both southern Lebanon and Gaza only to discover that Iran, led by Ahmadinejad has through the agency of Hamas and Hezbollah purchased a border with Israel. What do you think Jesus would have to say to Ahmadinejad? What frightens me so deeply about this passage in your letter is that quite simply it demonizes Israel. It demonizes Israel because you place the entire onus for conflict resolution upon the State of Israel and the Jewish people as if this were a conflict in some placid neighborhood of the suburban Midwest.
Now to the heart of the matter. You do not want Pre-Millennial Dispensationalists to use the Bible to determine and make sense of contemporary affairs. I could not agree more. Yet that is exactly what you do. You reach back 2,000 years into the New Testament. You take up the mantle and words of Jesus of Nazareth and you declare, 2,000 years later, that you have the authority to say to the Jewish people today in the State of Israel that what Jesus of Nazareth said 2,000 years ago about us and our “sinfulness” still holds true for the State of Israel; and that we will pay for our “sinfulness” as we have in the past. Surely you are aware that this position that we are guilty of an unrelenting career of “sinfulness”, that Jewish history is a trail of crimes, is part and parcel of the teaching of contempt for Judaism and the Jewish People; that it contributed to the Holocaust; and that it has been repudiated by many a Christian Church. Have we not paid in hellish ways for that kind of religious determinism? Are these not the very words that gave Medieval Christendom, the medieval Church, and the Reformation Church the warrant to oppress us? With this reference to the New Testament you have conflated 1st century and 21st century Israel. When you do that we see not the pursuit of peace, but continued Christian hostility to us. This is anachronistic – a lot has happened in those twenty centuries.
What you have done by this is what the Pre-Millennial Dispensationalists have done. You have taken a real, this worldly conflict that can only be resolved across the negotiating table by compromise, and transformed it into another chapter in the ongoing Christian apocalyptic confrontation with Judaism and the Jewish People. You both predict our end in a paroxysm of either Divine judgment or rapture.
And now let me conclude with a story. Some years ago I had the great privilege and pleasure of hosting Richard Mouw and David Neff in my home for dinner. It was a long and good evening. At one point, I turned to these good Christians, these good friends of the Jewish people, and said, “I wish you Protestants would be like the Catholics, who do not need any theology to explain the Jewish People’s return to sovereignty in the ancient homeland.” Their response was, “That’s what Protestants do,” to which I replied, “There are two main Protestant responses to the Jewish return to sovereignty in the homeland. One response is that we have returned to herald the Second Coming in a few short hours or days. The second response is that we have no right to a return, because with the coming of Christ all lands are holy, all people who come to Christ are holy, and the covenant made with Abraham is realized in Christianity.” I looked at them and said, “Can’t Protestants come up with something in the middle? Can’t there be a middle-ground theology? In one theology we have no right to be in the Land. In the other theology we are in the Land in order to soon disappear. Is there not another possibility?”
The matters about which I have written to you go to the very core of Jewish faith, self-understanding, and integrity. Indeed, they give expression to our deepest fears and to the beliefs that have sustained us for nearly 4,000 years. At the end of this lengthy note to you, my purpose remains the same, to develop better understanding and communication. I very much look forward to your response. Furthermore, I would welcome an opportunity, along with others, to sit and talk with you about these matters.
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic Scholar