Capturing the Imagination of the Jewish People

Progressive thinkers need to stop sulking and learn how to use Jewish language as a progressive force. Only then will they be able to agitate effectively for change.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

Two statistics, culled from the same recent survey, made quite a mark upon the comment pages of Ha’artez: 80% of Israelis believe in God and 70% believe that Jews are the chosen people. According to Uri Misgav, the first statistic indicates that Israelis are pretty stupid. After all, no enlightened and educated figure could believe in God in this day and age), and according to Gideon Levy, the second indicates that the average Israeli is a neo-fascist racist.

But, to me, these statistics actually say very little.

Israelis praying at Wailing WallCredit: Daniel Bar-On

What and who is God? One of my rabbis was accused of being an atheist by another rabbi. His response? "Well, in a sense, it’s true. I certainly don’t believe in the God that he believes in," he said. For any two Jews, there’s likely to be three views as to what and who God really is, so the consensus that 80% of Israelis believe in God could actually be a smokescreen for an incredibly diverse array of theological convictions.

Some of those theists might have an Aristotelian conviction that the nexus of cause and effect that we call the physical universe must have some uncaused cause standing outside of it. Some of those theists might be very subtle Wittgensteinians who know that, strictly speaking, all God-talk is nonsensical mumbo-jumbo, but rely upon it as the only way to show, somehow, what it is they vividly experience in their rare moments of revelation, even though they recognize that, fundamentally, language fails.

Some varieties of theism might be stupid and unthinking, but Aristotle and Wittgenstein were no pushovers. To tarnish all varieties of theism with the same brush is to engage in brutal oversimplification that belies any claim to philosophical literacy.

Rabbi Lord Jakobowitz argued, beautifully, that every nation is chosen by God. The Romans may have been chosen to introduce the world to the notion of the rule of law, the British to introduce parliamentary democracy, and the Americans to showcase the running of a liberal democracy with a racially diverse population. All of these nations have had their successes and their failures.

We too, the Jewish people, may have been chosen to bring our unique cultural assets to the table. This isn’t to adopt a shred of racism; it is to acknowledge a responsibility, to accept a calling. Some interpretations of our "choseness" may be exclusivist and xenophobic, but as Rabbi Jakobowitz demonstrated, that doesn’t have to be the case.

If you want to be a progressive political activist or commentator in Israel, fighting for justice for Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and fighting for the separation of religion and state, then you still need to know how to speak the language of the people. The language of the Jewish people is still to a great extent the language of Judaism. What this survey does tell us, more than anything else, is that only if you are "Jewishly literate" will you be able to capture the imagination of the Jewish people.

Progressive thinkers need to stop sulking about this fact and learn how to use that language as a progressive force. If they cannot speak the language of the Jewish people, then they will never be able to agitate effectively for change. Instead, they can only give up, emulating Elijah who - in his darkest moment - concluded that the Jews were beyond hope.

To think the statistics of 80% of Israelis believing in God and 70% believing that the Jews are the chosen people tell us anything about the intelligence or politics of the Israeli public is not only offensive, but lacks imagination. It lacks the capacity to envisage the wide variety of interpretations open to Judaism.

If you like, let Martin Luther King Jr. be an example. Was he an unintelligent bigot just because he spoke in the language of the Bible?

Uri Misgav started his article with a quote of John Lennon. I end mine with a misquote: Imagine there’s a heaven. Imagine that there’s a God who overflows with love for you and for every other living being. Imagine that He calls upon us as a community and upon you personally, to be a blessing; not a dogmatic preacher of intolerance, but a social activist for righteousness and justice. This is the sort of progressive language that actually has the power to move Israelis, because, thank God, overwhelmingly they believe in God.

Dr. Samuel Lebens teaches Jewish philosophy at Yeshivat Har’el in the Old City of Jerusalem. He studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.



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