Commentary Magazine


Are We Israelis Still Jews?
The Search for Judaism in the New Society

Orthodox tradition, shaped by and for a people living apart, did not envisage the practical as distinct from the moral responsibility of Jews for the entire fabric of a society. Nor, indeed, did Reform Judaism. Today in Israel the existence of a Jewish state—raising inevitably the question, in what way Jewish?— adds a unique dimension to the problems of Judaism in the modem world. No one, perhaps, is better able to appreciate this crisis of faith in all its spiritual and moral complexity than Ernst Simon, Israeli philosopher and educator, who lectures at the Hebrew University, which he also helps to administer. This essay was translated by Moshe Decter from a much longer Hebrew version originally published in Luach Ha-aretz, an Israeli almanac.

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The late Jan Huizinga, famous Dutch cultural historian, characterized the latter part of the Middle Ages in this way: “Life was so infused with religion that, at any given moment, the separation between sacred and profane could have ceased to be meaningful.” This kind of religious situation may be called “Catholic,” where religion seeks to sanctify and control the life of the individual and the community on every level—eating, drinking, work, rest, the principles of community and state; love and war. History has shown us many such “Catholic” religions. But it has also shown us that they are likely to produce from within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. For the time comes when various spheres of life throw off the yoke of religion, assert themselves as autonomous forces, and absorb religion as they previously had been absorbed in it. In such critical periods, a new kind of religion emerges, the “Protestant” type.

The protest at the root of this new religion is twofold, being directed, first, against the decay of the “Catholic” religion, and second, against the attempts of extreme heretics to deny that religion—already lost to the community as a whole—is of any value even to the individual. The “Protestant” religion seeks to compensate for the loss of the “Catholic” religion by special emphasis on the individual, his direct relation to God, and his personal salvation by faith—essentially an individual act—rather than by good works, which are always social acts. In a thoroughgoing and typically “Protestant” religion, good works cease to bear the sanctified character of “sacrament” or “commandment” and become part of a sphere of cultural life called “ethics” that is wholly or partially detached from religion.

The contemporary crisis of the Jewish religion is reflected in three crucial phenomena: the collapse of the ancient “Catholic” Judaism; the weakening of the new “Protestant” Judaism; and the futile attempt to achieve a new spiritual vitality by attributing a Messianic purpose to the creation of the State of Israel in our own day.

“Catholic” Judaism came into being in the first centuries of the Common Era, in the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud; but its roots were already to be found in the Bible, particularly in the legal portions of the Pentateuch. Its inherent nature became most clearly articulated during its two greatest crises; the first crisis, the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) of the 18th and 19th centuries, shook the foundations of the absolute role of “Catholic” Judaism; the second crisis, the nationalism of the 20th century, put an end to it for all practical purposes. In both cases phenomena appeared that had been developing slowly, but in concealment, over centuries.

The breakdown of “Catholic” Judaism was reflected in its inability to dominate all the spheres of life. In theory, it never relinquished this total claim. But it had lost the power to translate it into practical activity. Orthodoxy today rules only in certain homes, schools, and synagogues. It has been forced to give up, for all practical purposes, its sway over commerce, technology, society, the army, and the state; for modern economics, technology, et al, are the products of a secular spirit. In modern times, religion generally, and the Jewish religion in particular, comes after the fact.

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I

The central concept of every “Protestant” approach is that of “culture.” It is no accident that this word (Hebrew: tarbut) —so current among Israel’s intellectuals, and endowed by them with the very highest spiritual values—does not at all have such a positive and elevated connotation anywhere in the Bible or Talmud. When the founders of the secular Hebrew schools of East Europe sought a term to distinguish their school system from the traditional yeshivot, they adopted the word tarbut. The new positive meaning of this term, which had been neutral or even negative before, was a function of its being a translation of the German Kultur, for which there is no real equivalent in Hebrew.

While the concept Torah testifies to a suprahuman, revealed source, the concept culture refers back to a human one; and it is precisely here that we touch upon the unique weakness of “Protestant” Judaism as against Christian Protestantism. The latter, it is true, likewise ran the risk, often, of having its teaching transformed into merely an aspect of secular culture, but the Protestant faithful knew how to distinguish in the teachings of their first Reformers and of the best of those who succeeded them, between religion and worldly wisdom—this, despite their appreciation of the latter. The chief historical reason for the ability of the Protestants to make this distinction lay in the fact that they still clung to the Bible as revelation, while rejecting the traditional interpretation of Scripture given by the Roman Catholic Church. They could, and did, base this attitude on the authority of the dogmas of primitive Christianity itself. Thus the Reformation could appear as a restoration of Christianity in its original evangelical form. Luther made Scripture the possession of all Christians when he broke the priestly monopoly on sacred and secular studies, and this constituted a religious “expansion” that compensated—at least in theory—for the Protestant transfer of universal temporal authority from the Church to territorial princes, and of the totality of worldly wisdom from priests to humanist university professors.

The modern liberal Reform movement in Judaism, coming as it did three centuries later, was unable to do likewise. It did draw secular and religious conclusions from the breakdown of “Catholic” Judaism, but these conclusions were, in the main and at bottom, only negative ones. While the Lutheran or Calvinist could claim that he was a better Christian than the Catholic, the liberal Jew of today generally knows that he is a less faithful Jew than his Orthodox co-religionist. The success of Reform Judaism brought a loss of faith in the authority and revealed nature, not only of the tradition, but of the Torah itself. And while Reform’s stress on prophetic morality was certainly on a high level, it failed to provide a substitute for that unique Jewish content given to everyday life by Orthodoxy. So the Torah became, for Liberal Judaism, only one of the many aspects of knowledge that were subsumed under the general heading of “culture”; indeed, it became the relic of a foreign culture in a foreign tongue.

A second reason for the failure of “Protestant” Judaism, in contrast to the success of Protestant Christianity, is directly related to one of the fundamental characteristics of “Catholic” Judaism: in contradistinction to Roman Catholicism, Judaism has no central institution that fixes the articles of faith obligatory for every Jew. As a colleague of mine once phrased it, there are Jewish dogmas, but there is no Jewish dogmatics. The reasons for this are extremely complicated and need not be gone into here. Religious philosophy, the philosophical interpretation and defense of Jewish religion, we have had aplenty. But systematic theology—the interpretation of God, the world, and man on the basis of the Jewish religion—that is almost completely lacking in the older Hebrew literature.

Now, a “Protestant” religion absolutely requires a theology. Insofar as it is a religion, it neither desires nor is able to content itself with a “cultural” Weltanschauung alone. Despite all its concessions to culture, it seeks a vantage point of its own from which to approach the world, and it can find this only in a theology. Christian Protestantism was able to draw upon the great tradition of Catholic theology, even when it attacked and differed with it. Not so Jewish “Protestantism.” The Jewish reformers who sought a Jewish theology were like children just learning to count. There was no one and nothing to assist them. Often enough, their attempts, in all their daring, looked to their traditional brethren like the behavior of a “goy studying Torah.”

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A Third factor that militated against the success of “Protestant” Judaism was the national character of the Jewish people. Saadia Gaon, when “Catholic” Judaism was in full bloom, could say, “Our people is a people only by virtue of its religion.” By the time of the rise of “Protestant” Judaism, the sentiment had become: “Our religion is a religion only within the framework of the nation.” But what of the individuals whose tie with the “nation” was on the verge of being broken, yet sought to guard their bond with the Jewish religion and even to strengthen it? These Jews knew, indeed, that Jews—unlike Christians—are born before they are made, but this plain fact no longer told them what it had told their ancestors. As they sought their individual paths to Judaism they became consumed by doubts as to whether the objective essence of being a Jew was capable of being attained in this subjective way. Yet they had no other.

They were rescued from this dilemma by Zionism—not all of them, but some, and even these only for a time, and superficially. For a while everything became clear: a great national movement had arisen that strove to “renew our days as of old” in the ancestral home, resuscitating the scriptural tongue, glorifying all the “sanctities of the nation,” and assuring every adherent a full Jewish life. But difficult questions, particularly religious ones, began to appear as the national movement neared its goal: what would be the character of the new Jewish society? And if a state were created, what would it look like? The internal conflicts within Zionism, held so far in abeyance, now became sharper and clearer.

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II

These questions now require immediate and practical solutions in Israel, but only “Catholic” Judaism has as yet found an official platform in that country. “Protestant” Judaism, though it has many adherents, has acquired no general religious voice, either organized or individual; it is thwarted by the alliance between official Orthodoxy, with its recognized institutions, and the indifference of the non-religious. On the other hand, responsible and dynamic “Catholic” Judaism in Israel is represented by two groups: the stubborn purists of the ultra-Orthodox Neturai Karta, and the circle around Dr. Isaiah Leibowitz, a lecturer in chemistry at the Hebrew University and one of the intellectual leaders of Israeli youth.

The Neturai Karta have lost all practical effectiveness by separating themselves from the state, which will not knuckle under to their demands. Dr. Leibowitz, like them, aspires to the “Catholic” ideal of a fully lived Jewish religious life. In his view Halachah, the prescribed practice, will cease being Halachah if it goes on relinquishing one area of life after another, and he demands that it reconquer all of them that it has lost. But to this end—and here he differs with the Neturai Karta as well as the Chief Rabbinate—it is incumbent on the Halachah to adapt itself to new circumstances and needs of which its ancient masters were ignorant: the needs of an independent state, a national economy, a complex technology, and military security. Jewish religion, according to Dr. Leibowitz, must produce new ways of life that the bulk of the community can live by—instead of demanding for itself and its Torah a sanctuary guaranteed by the secular and profaning work of Shabbos goyim.

The result of all this is paradoxical in the extreme: only “Protestant” Judaism, satisfied to save its own individual soul or that of its limited group, can allow itself today to remain conservative with regard to traditional Law, which may serve as a personal or social style, but no longer as the nation’s way of life as a whole. Meanwhile that “Catholic” Judaism which feels responsible toward the whole community is driven to revolutionary withdrawal—like the Neturai Karta—or to revolutionary reform. The principal difference between the withdrawers and the reformers lies in their attitudes toward the State of Israel: the former deny it but the latter affirm it religiously.

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The late Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, went even further and viewed the Return to Zion in his own days as a Messianic event. In his yeshiva at Jerusalem, so we are told, he established a small group of kohanim (descendants of the priestly caste) whose sole function was to study the Priestly Code, the laws of the Holy Temple and of the sacrifices—in order to be prepared for the great day when the Messiah himself would appear and the Temple service be reinstituted.

The full-bodied Messianism in Rabbi Kook’s system was connected with his highly original understanding of the problem of the relation between sacred and profane. As he saw it, the religious deterioration of the Chosen People in their exile could be accounted for by the shriveling of the secular seed that served as the source of life for the Holy. The economic, political, and communal abnormality of the Jewish situation in galut resulted in a surplus of holiness, so to speak, that remained untranslated into effective activity and creation. The great merit of the Zionist movement was to activate this fund of holiness. In this way, secular activity fulfilled, and continues to fulfill, a completely religious function. Said Rabbi Kook: “Worldly holiness which sanctifies the profane is the holiness that is in nature and it reveals itself in the Holy Land.”

Rabbi Kook was the sole rabbinical representative of “Catholic” Judaism to deal seriously with the fact of secularization in the life of the people, and to seek to restore the crown of the Torah to its ancient glory without turning his back upon the historical process of secularization. “Heavenly holiness is blessed according as the lower, secular foundation is informed with a pure spirit.” For “the holy must be built on a secular foundation.” Also, the realm of holiness expands as does the realm of the profane: “Spirituality cannot be achieved in our generation except through the fulfillment of the physical.” Thus sacred and secular do not conflict, but nourish each other, even though there is a clear distinction between them, as between foundation and higher level. The people and its land—they are the concrete basis for the true life of holiness.

The peculiarly problematic nature of this conception of “Messianism in process” was illustrated in the way it was received by the Jews of Palestine. Rabbi Kook’s approach led him to take an exceedingly tolerant attitude toward the halutzim, who had discarded the yoke of the traditional mitzvot. He saw them as tsadikim (“righteous ones”) despite themselves, and compared them to the workers in the Temple who had been exempt from certain injunctions. This attitude was, of course, readily accepted in Palestine, especially by the workers. But it was not understood in that quarter that this same attitude led Rabbi Kook to come out strongly in defense of individuals involved in alleged or real acts of terrorism, because of his profound conviction that no Jew was capable of such deeds—just as he refused to admit that the mitzvah of the redemption of the land by the halutzim could be performed by sinners. For him the Jewish nation was a corpus mysticum and all its members were sanctified.

Great as the Rabbi was, a grave danger inhered in such a political Messianism as his. Under the cover of a teaching whose intention is wholly beneficent, good and evil can mingle promiscuously. As Rabbi Kook himself said: “Just as the praise of the Lord rises from the righteous, so too it rises from evil men; just as it rises from Paradise, so too it rises from Gehenna.” The tragic conclusion of this doctrine of Messianism in process is evidenced in its most recent secular devolution: the coronation of the epoch of the new State of Israel as the “Days of the Messiah.”

The principal change to be effected by the Days of the Messiah, according to Jewish tradition, is the achievement of political independence as a means to moral and religious wholeness. To drain the concept “Days of the Messiah” of its ethical content and religious form, and equate it with strictly political achievement, would open the door wide to a danger that threatens every human action: the greatest of all such dangers—the stilling of conscience. After all, the freedom and urge to criticize assume that the state and its leaders can make mistakes—but Messiahs never do.

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A Completely different type of stricture must be brought against the position of Dr. Isaiah Leibowitz, who asserts that the religious crisis in Judaism requires “religious solutions” and “a new religious legislation.” In other words—reform. He demands the kind of “program that will both require and make possible its being acted upon by the whole of Israel, not a program restricted to a sect of Sabbath-observers within a framework of a Sabbath-profaning people.”

These words appeared in an article in B’terem, a staunchly Mapai fortnightly. One wonders whether the editors really grasped the basic intention of their guest contributor. For his program, while it would permit work on the Sabbath in necessary government and community services, in certain technological installations, and in economic, financial, and military activities, would require the state to enforce the observance of the Sabbath by all Jews, religious and non-religious alike. Dr. Leibowitz’s article does more to outline the basis for a clerical regime than does all the activity, or lack of it, of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. A clerical regime means a kingdom of priests without a holy people, as opposed to a theocratic state, which means a kingdom of priests with a holy people. A theocracy implies the wholehearted agreement of the bulk of the people in a great communal act such as the “we will obey and we will hearken” at Sinai, or the “pact” in the time of Ezra—an agreement to accept the Lord’s Torah and fulfill it willingly. A true theocracy is not based on force, whereas a clerical regime cannot survive without it. Dr. Leibowitz’s program is indeed a minimal program for the Orthodox minority, but if it were realized it would become, for the secular majority, a maximal program.

The only positive argument Dr. Leibowitz uses—this, to convince a secular audience—is his religious affirmation of the State of Israel. This supplies him with the Halachic principle by which to justify the reform he suggests, and with the link without which his program could not in any sense be considered “Catholic” Judaism. He writes: “The rabbinic prohibition of work on the Sabbath did not apply, as we know, to the service in the Temple—since it was the service of Israel, and not the work of any individual Jew for his personal needs or pleasure. We ought to consider, in all seriousness, whether the necessary services of a modern state should not occupy the same place in Halachah as did the sacrifices in the Temple.”

Dr. Leibowitz holds that the need to preserve a religious order in Jewish society is sufficient to justify a systematic reform of Halachah. But, granting that, is there not a grave danger that, in reconciling Halachah toto caelo with the needs of a modern state, Halachah itself may lose its character as a religious category by having its social role simply identified with its religious and moral ground? The requirements of security are quite legitimately defined by the statesman, but the man of Halachah must find the spiritual strength to reject decisions of state if and when they conflict with his religious principles. Thus it is not enough, by far, to undertake a revision of Halachah merely because it is required by the needs of a new polity: these very needs must themselves be founded on explicit moral premises. Dr. Leibowitz’s thoroughgoing legal formalism threatens to deprive Halachah of its religious burden. Anyone who undertakes to reform Halachah must assure himself above all that the firm and immediate ground of faith is not shifted away from under him.

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III

On The first anniversary of the death of Julius Guttman, late professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University, a group of intellectual, communal, and youth leaders took part in Jerusalem in a symposium on the prospects for a contemporary Jewish religious philosophy. Of the many views aired there, those on the pessimistic side made the greatest impression. The chief speaker was Gershom Scholem, whose negative argument ran as follows: Yesterday we had religious philosophy; tomorrow, perhaps, we may actually have theology; today we have neither. The state tore away the false mask that covered the crisis of Jewish religion. That crisis was laid bare. But there is hope that this nothingness may some day give birth to a new reality. Meanwhile we must wait, think, and learn.

But neither educational philosophy nor practical pedagogics can rest content with this abstract hope. While care must be taken to avoid the characteristic tendency of practical pedagogics to jump to premature and half-baked conclusions simply because immediate, practical decisions are required, this cannot justify passivity.

The philosopher can wait. Perhaps he is compelled to wait and to hope in order to be able to think and study. But children and their education cannot wait. “Meanwhile” they grow up and decide their own future and that of the state. While philosophers and pedagogues have been groping, a new generation has grown up in Israel whose contact with the Torah and with religion has come, not from original sources of piety and faith, but through a variety of one-sided interpreters, the bearers of wholesale secularization. A nine-year-old in a kibbutz who was asked, “What do you think? Who created the world?” answered with assurance, “The workers created the world.” A Palestine-born high school student expressed himself in this way: “Religion is a matter for fools and wise men, but not for us, the in-between.”

What we see here is the feeling of ease in being “in-between,” and the transformation of in-betweenness into an end in itself. The abstention implied by the notion of “we, the in-between,” seems to be characteristic of much of the youth of Israel, and is the result of the recent escape from the social and psychological conditions of a life led as a minority in exile. These conditions compelled the Jewish people to make special exertions, and by these exertions even mediocre minds rose to a higher level. But in the absence of such special effort in the realm of spirituality, religion is threatened, and while the “mediocre” now perform acts of heroism and pioneering sacrifice, action cannot compensate for a lack or weakness of thought, or for a want of individuality.

Recently, a sixteen-year-old sabra asked me: “What must I read in order to determine whether I am still a Jew?” Had a galut Jew, in the late 19th century or at the beginning of the 20th, posed the question of his Jewishness in this way, he would have been understood, in most cases correctly, to be raising a sociological or a nationalistic, but not a religious question. Zionism and the State of Israel, having secured the social and national conditions for an independent Jewish existence, have also made it possible to study the principles and commandments of the Jewish religion for their own sake—independently, that is to say, theologically—it being no longer either necessary or possible to base them on national needs alone. In the State of Israel the birth of a human being, as a son to his people, does not by itself make him a Jew. And so the history of Jewish religion has arrived at a new point of departure.

The sharp break with the heritage of the past, expressed programmatically in a scorn of the galut image of the Jew that verges on Zionist anti-Semitism, has reduced the role of tradition. As a very popular song among Israeli young people has it: “In place of yesterday we have a tomorrow.”

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IV

Even for those who hope to see a “Catholic” Jewish faith renewed, the Jewish religion in all its many forms has now become a deeply personal rather than communal question. The Torah, this “Catholic” Torah, this Torah of life that seeks to sanctify all of life, is known to us and yet lost to us; it is no longer “given,” it has become a thing to be chosen.

This paradoxical situation calls for paradoxical undertakings: Judaism is indeed a “Catholic” religion when viewed objectively; but in the present crisis we can approach it only subjectively, from a “Protestant” point of view. The difference between the latter approach and that “Protestant” Judaism whose deterioration I analyzed above consists in the clear realization that this individualistic approach is not an end in itself, not a legitimate construction of Judaism as such, but merely a not dishonorable means whose use is forced upon us by necessity.

So long as we remain in a situation of beginning and of transition, we have neither the possibility nor the right to link religion to the state. On the contrary, it is necessary to keep them as far apart as possible. Not merely to guarantee the secular character of a democratic state, but especially to secure a completely free approach to the problems of religion. But even the secular State of Israel must provide the Torah full scope for development and influence, by assuring it freedom of action. The religious home, the religious school, religious life as it is expressed rhythmically during the week, on Sabbaths and holidays, and especially the social experiments of the religious labor movements—all these merit a positive attitude on the part of the state. Their existence must be based on legal right and not on sufferance. Those who act upon this right will realize fully that the secular majority of Israel is not with them, but they are still entitled, nay obligated, to act upon it as a necessary condition for the strengthening of their faith. Once it was the faith of all Israel, and “there is hope” still that it will some day regain that status.

Toward this end there must be a renewal of the spirit of prophetic criticism. That spirit was not the special property of the era of the prophets: it belongs to all of us who are heirs to their words and students of their message. The prophets of Israel sought to enlist all of life, beginning with social relations and ending with foreign policy, under the banner of holiness. In the Diaspora this “Catholic” demand could not be implemented on the highest level, that of social law, because the Jews lived under foreign rule and were not responsible for the whole of public existence. So the prophetic call became only a matter of conscience, naked and shaky. With, and after, the first Return to Zion from the Babylonian Exile, Pharisaic Judaism, arising out of its prophetic predecessor, succeeded in translating the demands of conscience—which had formerly been addressed to the people through the mediation of individuals—into life forms that were addressed to the individual through the mediation of the people as a whole. It is in the light of this development that we can understand the rabbinic dictum: “The Man of Torah is superior to the Prophet.”

But in view of the destruction of those ways and forms of life, we must return, above all, to their original foundation stone: to the spirit of criticism by the prophetic conscience. Our aim must be, not the isolating of that spirit, as was the case with many “Protestant” Jews, but the evocation of the “catholicity” hidden in it, so that it may once more stamp itself on our whole life. Here there is no fundamental disagreement between such men as Martin Buber, for instance, and Rabbi Kook: both of them deny that Judaism is an isolated religious province standing separate within a larger secular life; it is, rather, a mighty experiment in the transformation of all of human life into one great sanctified whole. So long as the experiment goes on—that is, until final redemption—whoever truly yearns for redemption, in Rabbi Kook’s words, “will be able more keenly to discern the difference between sacred and profane.”

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In The land of Israel, we have been given the chance to sanctify certain areas of existence that had become secularized in exile. There lies, in this opportunity, a great hope—and a no less great danger. The hope is the sanctification of the profane, including the state; the danger is the profanation of the holy, including religion, through politicalization.

The only way to pursue such a course of hope is to adopt moral and religious criteria with which to evaluate what is done and what is left undone in our midst. Our positive attitude toward the State of Israel cannot be a “Messianic” one that obscures evils; it must be a critical one that reveals evils in order to correct them. We need men who will constantly ask disturbing questions about every aspect of our life as a people.

Frederick the Great in 1752, writing in his political testament on the instruction of the young princes, his sons, commands their teachers “to speak of the army in the same hallowed phrases as priests use in reference to Divine Revelation. . . .” Jews have always rejected this attitude and still reject it when they encounter it in another people. Shall we accept it now when a leading educator compares the “Kingdom of Priests,” which is the heritage of the past, with the “Kingdom of Soldiers” that has taken its place, and when he asserts that the future belongs to this latter?

It is here that we are called upon to utter our “Nay” with complete clarity. We can draw an a fortiori argument from Maimonides, who declared that no man can know the form of the Messianic Era. But we can all envisage what the form of those Days will not be and from this negation we can infer its converse. Judaism’s miraculous force of life lay in the “Nay” that it knew how to utter in the face of every call to redemption that did not fit the image of the true Redemption: Christianity, Islam, Sabbatianism, Communism. And by the strength of that negation, the People of Israel remained the People of Redemption and guarded the hope of redemption in an unredeemed world. To attribute a Messianic character to the State of Israel is equivalent to losing the criteria of true Redemption.

Above all, the individual Jew must begin with himself. In his last novel, Die Schuldlosen, the late Jewish poet and philosopher Hermann Broch uttered this indictment of those who, at ease with themselves, ignore the evil that is done before their eyes: “This indifference toward the suffering outside you is but the consequence of your indifference to the man within you.” The hope of the hopers is that we may be freed from this indifference to the man within us and outside us. And this hope is based on faith.

Not a few see in the history of Israel, and especially in the events of the last few years, the revelation of Him who “records the generations” and “orders the cycles of time.” These people who sense the approach of the Days of the Messiah can no longer discern the difference between holiness and profanation, or even between good and evil. By contrast, the faith of the hopers, of those who desire to remain Jews—or better still, who desire to become Jews once again— their faith remains strong and unshaken in Him who placed the true redemption of man in the future, in the Days of the Messiah and the World to Come. This is the faith in Him who made the distinction between sacred and profane.

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