This Sunday we commemorate the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem, and the national spirit they embodied. It took two thousand years to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. Among the questions that might inform our commemoration of this 9th of Av is, what took us so long?!?
Two great scholars of the previous century addressed this question and their answers speak volumes about what it means to be a Jew and the nature of the world we live in. Both Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits saw cosmic forces at play in the rhythm of Jewish history. They both saw the return to Jewish sovereignty as connected to the renunciation of brute force as a means for achieving political ends. Rav Kook writes:
We left the world of politics because of circumstances beyond our control that nevertheless reflected our inner desire, to await a better time, in which it would be possible to run a nation without wickedness and barbarism — this is the time we hope for… But the delay is necessary, for we were disgusted by the awful sins of conducting a nation in an evil time. Behold, the time is approaching… we can already prepare ourselves, for it will soon be possible for us to govern our nation by principles of goodness, wisdom, rectitude, and divine enlightenment.” (Orot, pg. 14)
In Rav Kook’s vision, the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty and nationalism must coincide with a time when humanity has reached a state of deep moral understanding and sensitivity. Rav Kook, in his optimism imagined that the world was on the cusp of embracing this messianic ideal, and therefore Jewish nationalism was awakening from a self imposed slumber. After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, much of Rav Kook’s historical interpretation rings hallow.
Indeed, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, writing after the Holocaust and at the height of the nuclear arms race could afford no such optimism. Even so, he also saw a correspondence between the rise of the Jewish nation and the forgoing of power politics in the world at large. Rabbi Berkovits explains that in the post-Holocaust nuclear age, the renunciation of power is no longer a mere ethical ideal, rather, it has become a pragmatic necessity for survival.
In our days it has become a commonplace to state that man, having amassed so much power that he is able to destroy life and civilisation on a global scale, must learn to renounce power as a means of ordering or controlling relations between people and nations… The honest and wholehearted renunciation of the use of power and might implies a genuine embracing of ethical and moral principles for the ordering of the life of all mankind. This is no longer mere sermonising; it has become the “iron law” in the new phase of global history. Be decent or perish!” (Faith After the Holocaust, pg. 139)
To be sure, Rabbi Berkovits is no pacifist. He does not expect any nation to refrain from self-defence. Yet, the use of force must be measured and restrained to ensure mutual survival. Rabbi Berkovits goes on to explain that given the fragile state of affairs in the nuclear age, this restraint exemplified by the Jewish people through its history now takes on utmost significance.
Jews have survived as a homeless people through the long centuries, without political might and significant material power, while mankind pursued the illusion that human destiny is to be detained by exactly those factors which the Jewish people were lacking… From now on, mankind will survive by the same critical minimum of what in religious language we call “the fear of God” by which the Jewish people were able to survive to this day… The Jewish affirmation has become a necessity for universal survival.” (pg. 142)
The rebirth of the Jewish state coincides with the very moment that Israel can serve as a crucial paradigmatic nation that aspires to the ideals of the spirit and forgoes brute force to the extent that it is possible.
This year, as the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran looms over a worried globe, I wonder how. Berkovits would respond to our situation. Do the Iranian’s share the basic value of self preservation upon which R. Berkovits’ understanding is based? Is the renunciation of violence the call of the hour? Is the negotiation with Iran the epitome of the restraint he spoke of or is it mere capitulation that allows evil to rule?
While I am not sure of the answer to these questions, I still see Israel’s duty and destiny to model the responsible use of force in a dangerous world. May God give us the ability to live up to this charge and may we serve in this capacity as a light unto the nations.