Bible Commentator

The State of Israel as a New Jewish Theology

Rabbi Moshe Reiss


I. Introduction:

A. Catholic Theology:

Nostra Aetate published in October 1965 was a revolutionary change in Catholic theology. Catholics theology believed that because the Jews rejected the ‘Savior” they were rightfully rejected by God and should be separated from humanity (statement written for but not authorized by Pope Pius XI due his death, quoted by Philip Cunningham  in his comment on Nostra Aetate). 1

This demonization of the Jews for deicide was why they were doomed to suffer to the end of time. This was the teaching of contempt. Jules Isaac personally related his theses – the Teaching of Contempt - to Pope John XXIII in 1960 and it may have influenced the Pope in calling Vatican II. In Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church accepted the validity of the Jewish covenant first declared at Sinai with God. Pope John Paul II declared the Jews as his elder brothers in the Jewish Synagogue in Rome.

Nostra Aetate expressed no interest in further efforts to baptize Jews, relegating the resolution of the Jewish and Christian disagreement over Jesus' significance and identity to the eschatological dawning of God's kingdom. It recognized as Gary Bretton-Granatoor noted a realization that the fullness of Christianity could only be revealed when examined through the lens of the Jewish experience that birthed it. No longer could Christianity see itself as the replacement of Judaism, but that which was inextricably linked to Judaism

There is little doubt that the Shoah, the mass killing of six million Jews – one third of the Jewish world – in Christian Europe was the ultimate genesis of Nostra Aetate. As Darrell Fasching stated it is difficult for a Christian not to be alienated from his tradition with his rapturous encounter at Auschwitz. 2 Is it still possible to believe in a resurrected Jesus given Auschwitz or does he sleep with his co-religionists. 3 Jesus second coming suggests that Christians believed he failed in his first coming.

Three years after the liberation of the killing camps and the discovery of the six million deaths the State of Israel was declared with the approval of the United Nations.

After recognizing the State of Israel in 1993 John Paul II came to Israel and in March 26, 2000 following the Jewish custom of inserting written prayers into the remains of the foundations of the Second Temple, he placed in the wall these words. "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

This act signified a climatic episode in the historic papacy of Pope John Paul II. His efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people culminated with this event. ''The church was honoring the Temple it had denigrated. It was affirming the presence of the Jewish people at home in Jerusalem. The pope reversed an ancient current of Jew hatred with that act, and the church's relationship to Israel, present as well as past, would never be the same'' (from James Carroll’s ‘Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews’).

This overture culminated with the Pope’s pilgrimage to Israel. They reflected his sensitivity as a holy man whose adolescent years were shaped by the Nazi destruction of the Jews in Europe, Jewish neighbors and friends of his who vanished in his eyesight. ‘Perhaps guilt-ridden and possibly tormented by engaging the Jewish people’ Pope John Paul II continued the overture of Nostra Aetate. (Adam Sharon, Book Review of ‘Conflict and Connection’, by Moshe Aumann, in Jerusalem Post, December 16, 2005).

The shift away from the pre- Nostre Aetate’s supersessionism was  articulated in a 2001 essay "Salvation Is From the Jews" (a quotation from John 4:22), by Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic priest who edits the journal First Things. Neuhaus argued that American Christians needed to relate to Jews in a new spirit not of proselytism but of mutual edification. Jews in America aren't just potential Christians, he argued. They are unique conversation partners with insights that may help Christians better understand their own faith. "The salvation that is from the Jews cannot be proclaimed or lived apart from the Jews. . . [W]e can and must say that friendship between Jew and Christian can be secured in shared love for the God of Israel."

It is not clear that American Evangelical Christians who seem to love Israel can say the same. Many of them believe that Jews in Israel simply brings Jesus return sooner when all will be converted to Christians. 

I have taught Catholics in University settings who stated that when Jesus returns he will be weeping as a result of his people’s cruelty to Jesus’ people. He will be circumcised, not baptized and seeking kosher food.

While Nostra Aetate discussed Buddhism, Hinduism and Moslems; there no conferences on the 40th anniversary held by Buddhism, Hinduism and Moslems.

B. Jewish Theology:

Did Jewish theology change as a result of the Shoah and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel?  The covenental promise was made at Sinai to all the Jews, present and future. A covenant is a contract; it has two sided obligation. Did the Shoah not require a response by God?

Can the establishment of the State of Israel be considered God’s response? If so is God re-entering the world?

Emile Fackenheim stated in ‘After Auschwitz” it is a major question whether the Messianic faith is not already falsified  - whether a Messiah who could come, and yet at Auschwitz did not come, has not become a religious impossibility."  4

The Jewish Messianic dream begins with First Isaiah: ‘They will hammer their swords into ploughshares’ (2:4), . . . ‘The wolf will live with the lamb, the panther lie down with kid, calf, lion, and beasts together with a little boy leading them (11:6) . . . and the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea’ (11:9).

Ezekiel begins with an apocalyptic war between Gog and Magog (Ez. Chapter 38). The Christian Bible ends with the Book of Revelation which is a continuation of the apocalyptic war until Jesus as the messiah returns to rule. The only difference between this and conventional Jewish messianic beliefs is the name of the Messiah. His Jewish name may be Yehoshua – the Savior.

Can the State of Israel be considered the beginning of Redemption as the Chief Rabbinate weekly prayer suggests? Those who favor the Great Israel Thesis, who opposed the Gaza disengagement and believe in expanding the settlements think so.

The birthpangs of the messianic age have been seen before; in the Great Roman War (68-72), the Bar Kohkba War (132-135) and in the false messianic activity of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676). Each of these resulted disastrously for the Jews.


The State of Israel is far from the messianic state; only approximately 40% of the world Jews choose to reside in Israel, and of these the vast majority  choose not to live in a Torah State. Peace between the lands people let alone wolves and lambs seems a long time perhaps centuries away. The Messiah as Maimonides stated a millennium ago continues to tarry.

Many Orthodox Rabbis and commentators denied that possibility. A prime example being Rabbi Moses Sofer (known as the Hatam Sofer – d. 1839) who denied the possibility even before Zionism became a national movement. The ancestors of Joseph Bar Soloveitchik (the great Orthodox Jewish theologian of the second half of the 20th century), including his great grandfather (his namesake) as well  Hayyim, his grandfather and his main teacher as well the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe Shalom Dov Schneersohn also accepted that thesis. The latter called Zionism a denial of Messianism or the secularization of Judaism. He suggested that active Messianism was the equivalent of denying the Torah and traditional faith. He saw it as a form of emancipation part of the Haskalah movement. While Baruch Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn considered Jewish passivity a negative trait the Rebbe and most of his associates considered it a positive trait. For him passivity was part of the quest for perfection. 5

The question we are posing is whether Israel must be either in “exile” or

“ the age of Redemption”;  the beginning of the messianic. Why are only are only the polar opposites being considered?  What if that is wrong that in fact there will be a process of going – slowly – from exile to redemption? Is a hybrid model possible? 6 According to the tenets of Orthodoxy No!

Maimonides said nothing would change – no miracles - when the Messiah came except a Torah state in Israel and the Temple would be rebuilt.

Despite that almost all commentators seemed to agree; it was all or nothing. According to the tenets of Orthodoxy No!

The one exception was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha’Cohen Kook, considered the first chief Rabbi of Israel (d, 1935). He considered the Zionist movement divinely inspired and a way to restore assimilated, alienated and secular Jews to the Congregation of Israel. He was not only Chief Rabbi but a mystic. By the time of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 Ultra-Orthodox Jews rejected the state as the beginning of Redemption while modern Orthodox considered it a remote possibility.

But with the success of the Six Day War everything changed.

Though Kook died before Israel's founding, his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982), adjusted his father's abstract ideas to Israeli political realities. His pragmatic-spiritual approach to Orthodox Judaism's relationship with the secular state of Israel focused on how the religious segment of Israeli society could advance the Zionist enterprise. A 1967 speech he gave a month before the Six-Day war became a rallying cry for the religious-Zionist camp. In tears, the rabbi complained, "My homeland is divided. Where is our Hebron? Are we forgetting about it? And where is our Nablus? Are we forgetting about it? And where is our Jericho? Are we forgetting about it?"

Kook's words took on an air of prophecy when Israeli forces wrested the West Bank from Jordanian control and placed the territory under Jewish control for the first time in two millennia. His speech marked a major turning point for religious Zionism, which began to define itself in maximal territorial terms.

Until his death, Kook led the struggle to prevent territorial compromise for peace. After the Six-Day war, he argued that it was a religious obligation for Israel to defend acquired lands. Land could not be conceded to the Arabs because it was given to the Jews by God. Accordingly, there were no Arab territories in Eretz Yisrael; no part of the land of Israel could be given to non-Jewish control. Although Kook had deep respect for the Jewish state and its institutions, he argued that Jews were obliged to object to decisions to evacuate settlements. Kook took his own words to heart in 1974 when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's first government decided to evacuate an illegal settlement at Sebastia, a biblical site near Nablus in the West Bank. Kook participated in the settlers' attempt to prevent evacuation, declaring to soldiers that "just as you will not be able to force me to eat pork, so you will not be able to evacuate me from here." Nevertheless, after one of the Israeli generals present in Sebastia spoke with him, Kook left without violence.

The settlers who opposed the withdrawal from Gaza are Kook's disciples. Like the rabbi, they view the State of Israel as the embodiment of both religious and Zionist dreams. The land of Israel, they believe, was miraculously returned to Jewish ownership and, therefore, they have a religious obligation to settle it.

1 Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1997) Pgs. 246-249.

2 Fasching, Darrell, J., Theology After Auschwitz, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1992) pg. 26.

3  Eckardt, A. Roy, The Resurrection and the holocaust (paper presented to the Israel Study Group, N.Y., March 4, 1978, quoted in Pawlikowski, John, Christ in the light of the Christian-Jewish dialogue, (Paulist Press, N.Y., 1982) pg. 17 in Fasching,Theology, pg. 27

4 E.L. Fackenheim, Encounters between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, Preface; Quoted in Charlesworth, Messiah, P.165.

5 Op Cit., Ravitsky, Aviezer, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious (Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1996), pg. 11-17.

6 Op cit, Ravitsky, pg. 1.