I read with great interest and much empathetic understanding Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman’s description of his personal encounter with my dialogue with my friend and colleague, R. Norman Lamm, z”l, and of R. Berman’s views of the broader issues of Religious Zionism touched upon by the dialogue (“Religious Zionism: Moving History Forward,” TRADITION 53:3).
The immediate practical issue that triggered our 1973-74 dialogue, in the journal Sh’ma [read here], was the phrase “Reishit Tzemihat Ge’ulatanu” (“the beginning of the flowering of our redemption”) in the prayer for the State of Israel. Today the issue has faded into the obscurity of habitual usage. Hardly anyone complains that this description of the State of Israel is out of place or “dangerous” nowadays.
As a guide to all future discussions involving the use of the emotive terms “messianism” and “messianic” be aware of the crucial difference between their application to “persons” and “dates” versus “events” and “periods of time.” To label the former as “messianic” is indeed dangerous as shown by history and deserving of the harsh comments made by the critics. Whereas, to say that the last two hundred years has been “messianic” or that the State is the “Reishit Tzemihat Ge’ulatanu” can in no way be so considered. In such cases there is no appeal to “special knowledge” or of “divine secrets” or predictions of the invincibility of Israel’s army. The reality that faces us today goes beyond “signs,” “omens,” or “end of time calculations.” A sovereign Jewish state of more than six million Jews living within the historical borders of Eretz Yisrael, with unified Jerusalem as its capital, speaking Hebrew and following the Rabbinic calendar constitutes, of and by itself, some of the main components of the restorative prophetic promises of redemption. These are realities clearly beyond the “beginning” and well into the “flourishing.”
Once the historic opportunity was created by the courageous decision for statehood, made by the secular leaders of the small Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael in 1948, Providence did not wait for Jews in the diaspora to voluntarily come home—as was the disappointing case after the Zionist declaration. According to Yehuda Halevi, the reason the Second Temple period never blossomed into a messianic state was because only a small number of Jews responded to the declaration. This time, sadly, Jewish communities in North Africa, Yemen, and Egypt, as well as the Holocaust survivors waiting in camps, sought refuge in the fledgling state. This was followed by over a million Jews from the Soviet Union once the gates were opened. This brought the Jewish population of the state past the critical mass needed to ensure a viable nation state.
Today the question of Aliya is no longer an existential concern for the State of Israel, having achieved, as we said, the necessary minimum for stable statehood. However, as R. Berman points out, for the Jew living in the diaspora, Aliya today remains one of the most determining challenges ever faced by a Jewish generation: The opportunity to freely choose whether to continue with a bifurcated existence with nationality in one pocket and religion in the other, or to enrich one’s Jewish identity and ensuring his Jewish future by joining the people Israel in the promised land as they renew their historic march towards becoming a “Blessing to all the peoples of the earth.”
Shubert Spero, Jerusalem
[Rabbi Shubert Spero is the Irving Stone Professor (emeritus) of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University. TRADITION recently published his 26th essay in our pages (“The Problematic Metaphors of Righteousness,” Fall 2021). His first appearance in our journal was 60 years ago with “Is Judaism an Optimistic Religion?” (Fall 1961)—sample his archived contributions on our website. We wish Rabbi Spero, who recently turned 98, continued good health and creative intellectual output.]