What does American Jewry offer Israel and what can Israel learn from America? As my teacher Rabbi David Hartman has suggested, specifically regarding spiritual matters, both populations have a great deal to offer each other.
Since its inception Israel has stressed a God of history. The early Zionists privileged the God of the Bible over and at times against the God of the Talmud. In the Bible, God is intimately tied to historical political and military events. Such a God created great highs and great lows.
In some sense, the Bible is a manic-depressive book. One day God is happy with his people; the next day, He is angry with them. Having God in history allowed Zionists to give religious significance to the awesome events of 1948 and 1967. For the early Zionists, God was part of history and his people had the power to overturn history in biblical proportions. Zionism, for many, was a new revelation ushering in new forms of Jewish expression.
Though such thinking opened the door for a revolution in Jewish thought and life, allowing Jews to reconstruct their Jewish identities in creative and vibrant ways, Zionism also brought with it a dangerous mindset that has ultimately caused a great deal of harm to the country’s pursuit of peace and stability.
In contrast to the Israeli God of history, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud developed a God organized around Halakha (Jewish law). Hartman explains that this conception of engendered a sober religious outlook. This sobriety is expressed through the God of Halakha’s consistency and stability. In this framework, God is slightly more distant from mankind. Here, history is the domain of humanity. Not every military victory is a sign that God loves the victors, not every defeat is a sign that God is angry with the defeated. While such a worldview empowers humanity, at times it promotes a somewhat static and conservative religious life. By taking God out of history, the Diaspora-based sages removed the ability of people to claim new revelations and thereby to radically re-envision religious life.
For many, Israeli society can be too manic-depressive. Its citizens live on a spiritual and political roller-coaster. God, history, and politics are thrown together like a bad cholent leaving everyone feeling sick to their stomachs. On the other hand, the ennui and lack of social significance that permeates much of Diaspora religious life leaves many numb toward their Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. The truth is the Diaspora needs a shot of the revolutionary spiritual potential of a Zionist worldview, and Israel could use a good dose of the spiritual sobriety that permeates Diasporatic religious life.
While many Jews in the modern period rejected both the conception of God in and out of history, these two perspectives still offer us a productive way to see the spiritual strengths and weakness of both Diaspora (out of history) and Israel (in history) and, most important, how each can benefit from the other.