Rabbi Michael Lerner on “Israel as Idolatry”
Blind loyalty to Israel is the primary form of idolatry today in the Jewish world.
Go into any synagogue in the US or Israel and you can tell people that you don’t believe in God, don’t observe the commands of Torah, don’t observe the Sabbath, or even that you plan to be eating a pig sandwich on Yom Kippur and the majority of people will shrug their shoulders, and welcome you in. But dare to say that you think that Israel is violating human rights or, worse, that it really is just a political entity like all other political entities and does not have any particular claim on your loyalties, and you will be treated as though you had just spoken the greatest of Jewish heresies.
And that is what it means to be the god of a particular people — when critiquing it is seen as the one belief that you cannot critique without being dismissed as hurtful, evil or perverse. When Aaron facilitated the creation of the Golden Calf, he proclaimed “These are your Gods, O Israel.” Today, in word and deed, most of the synagogues in the world proclaim “The state of Israel is the ultimate holy God, O Israel.” Israel is the new idolatry.
It’s not hard to see how this happened. Jews used to believe in YHVH, the God who is the Force of Healing and Transformation, the God who proclaimed that “I shall be whom I shall be,” in other words, the force in the universe that makes people the transformation from “that which is” to “that which can and should be.” The central lesson of our exodus from Egypt, proclaimed in our Torah, was that the world is not fixed, that every system or oppression can be overcome, that justice and kindness can prevail against what appears to be overwhelming force and violence. The task of the Jewish people was to incorporate this understanding into our society and to share this message with the rest of the world: that everything can be transformed toward the good.
The task of the Jew was to love our neighbors and love “the other,” “the stranger,” and to care for the powerless, the widow, the orphan. Remember, our Torah kept repeating, “You were ‘the Other’ in the land of Egypt.”
It was a tough message to live by, and the Prophets over and over again promised the Jewish people that we would be thrown out of our land of Israel if we failed to do so. And yet over and over again, we Jews chosen to live by the logic of political and economic realism, ignoring the sacred charge of Torah, and de facto abandoning God for the allures of wealth and power. And the exiles from our land followed just as the prophets had warned.
For most of our history, Jews were torn between loyalty to the vision of a God who commanded us to live and spread the message that the world could be based on peace, justice, generosity, caring for others, stewardship of the environment, and loving-kindness both towards our own and towards the stranger (”the Other”) and the “common sense” idolatrous message of the larger world: that money and power reign and that it is foolish to be idealistic and self-destructive to pursue justice.
That idolatrous message overwhelmed Jewish sensibilities after the Holocaust. But that misunderstands the claim of the Jewish tradition. It does not claim that evil will never triumph — only that if we build a world based on love, generosity, kindness, etc. that we can eventually defeat the forces of evil. The Jewish people could not, of course, by ourselves, build such a world, and we are certainly not to blame for the failure of all the nations of the world after the First World War to try to rebuild Germany in a caring rather than the exploitive way that the Allies actually imposed, conditions that caused the reaction that were a precondition for the rise of Nazism. The Jewish people can only help promote a different kind of world, and cannot be held responsible if few respond to that call.
But we can be held responsible if we give up on our historic task, allow the Nazis the ultimate victory of redefining Jewish life so that it accepts the notion that only “power over” rather than “cooperation with and generosity toward others” can provide safety and security for us or anyone else.
Who can blame the Jews who lost faith in our own values after such a devastating manifestation of evil?
And yet, the direction of relying on power, momentarily quite sensible in the face of the Nazis, has in the long run undermined Judaism. The loving message that God had urged Jews to bring to the world was replaced with a new kind of militarist pragmatism. Israel, particularly after its 1967 military victory that gave it control over Gaza and the West Bank, became the central object of worship. Eventually, this new religion of “being realistic” pervaded the consciousness of Jews in both the neo-con and the liberal worlds, and the old message of a God that could transform the world if we lived in accord with that God’s outrageous teaching to “love the Other” and to pursue peace and justice was dismissed as “utopian” and, imagine the shame, “idealistic.”
No wonder then that the even-handed UN report that condemned both Israeli human rights violations and Palestinian shelling of Israeli cities during the 2008-2009 Gaza war was dismissed as biased or even anti-Semitic, though it had been written by a pro-Zionist Jewish jurist named Goldstone. You cannot criticize this idolatrous god called the State of Israel and live without harrassment in much of the contemporary Jewish religious world. While growing numbers of American Jews have supported Tikkun, Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, and now J Street — voices that have emphasized that it is in Israel’s best survival interests to change its policies toward Palestinians, and we at Tikkun have also pointed out that the demand for knee-jerk loyalty to Israel actually is one of the major reasons why many Jews born after the creation of Israel have become alienated from Judaism and caused a decline in Jewish continuity — only a very few prophetic voices have dared question whether the attachment to the political entity that is the State of Israel is an appropriate element in Jewish religion, at least until that State begins to reflect the highest values of the Jewish people and its rich and compassionate religious tradition.
Yet, it is never too late to return to the Jewish God of justice, peace, love, and compassion. That’s what the current Days of Repentance are meant to make possible. It’s still possible that this Yom Kippur (Monday, Sept 28th) Jews in synagogues around the world will once again return to their true God, and start treating Israel as it deserves to be treated — a normal political entity that houses many of our brothers and sisters, a state that deserves Jewish appreciation for all it has done to take in millions of Jewish refuges, but that is as flawed and deserving of criticism as every other political entity on the planet and is neither “sacred” nor in any way are religious Jews obligated to give it political support. That truth, already recognized by a growing number of secular Jews in America, must be publicly affirmed in the synagogues of America this Yom Kippur if our atonement is to be meaningful. One place to start would be to unequivocally affirm that Palestinians and Muslims are equally precious to God as Jews, equally created in God’s image, and equally deserving of sharing of the promise to Abraham’s descendents to inherit the land of Israel.