How Oct. 7 is forcing Jews to reckon with Israel (Noah Feldman, March 5, 2024, Washington Post)

To see how this happened, and to get a sharper view of the Jewish love-struggle today, dive with me into one subtype of Jewish thought: progressive American Judaism. This worldview, prevalent today among Reform Jews (37 percent of the American Jewish population), Conservative Jews (17 percent), Reconstructionist Jews (4 percent) and many unaffiliated Jews, finds its roots among 19th century Jews living in Germany who sought to reform Judaism along the lines of Reformation Protestantism. Looking back to the Bible, they found a God who loves not only his people but all the peoples of the world; who wants social justice, not ritualized obedience; and who teaches that to be holy is to love your neighbor as yourself.

The social justice strand of progressive Judaism transferred well to the United States. An iconic photograph, taken on March 21, 1965, sums up its essence. Seven people, arms linked, lead the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery: John Lewis, Sister Mary Leoline, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Fred Shuttlesworth. The Black men in the picture, all Southern ordained ministers except Bunche, a Nobel Prize-winning diplomat, are giants of the civil rights movement. Heschel, born in Warsaw in 1907, was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and later earned a doctorate in Berlin. After fleeing from Poland in 1939, he became a renowned teacher and scholar of Jewish mysticism affiliated with the leading Reform and Conservative rabbinical schools. His participation in the march, and the progressive beliefs that put him there, stand for a vision of God derived from the ancient Hebrew prophets and the most foundational teachings of the rabbis.

In the past half-century, the progressive teaching of divinely inspired social justice acquired a slogan: tikkun ‘olam, literally, repairing the world. The phrase echoed the much older Kabbalistic, mystical idea that in creating the finite world, the infinite God contracted, then shattered and broke into a multitude of shards. In the aftermath of that cosmic disaster, the ultimate, mystical purpose of the Jewish people is to repair the universe and the Godhead itself by redeeming the sparks of divine light that were lost or hidden in the process. As adapted by contemporary Jewish progressives, tikkun ‘olam has a this-worldly, concrete meaning. It calls for human effort, alongside God, to make the world more just.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the social justice vision of progressive Judaism acquired two new theological pillars: the centrality of the Holocaust and the redemptive narrative of the creation of Israel.

The slogan “Never Again” gave social justice guidance to the intuition that the Holocaust determined Jewish uniqueness. Jews must never again allow a Holocaust to occur.

Zionism, for its part, came to offer progressive American Jews a supplemental account of post-Holocaust redemption. The modern state of Israel had been born from the ashes of the Holocaust, so Israel redeemed the suffering of its martyrs. From destruction came rebuilding. And Israel’s existence would prevent another Holocaust from occurring by providing an escape hatch for diaspora Jews should antisemitic pressures make life untenable.

Progressive American Jews could thus integrate Israel into their theological picture of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

This pairing made some partial sense of the deaths of the 6 million. And it enabled progressive American Jews to organize for two main purposes: memorializing the Holocaust and supporting Israel. Today 16 Holocaust museums and hundreds of public Holocaust memorials exist in the United States, with more planned to open soon. The United States Holocaust Museum, built on almost two acres of land allocated by Congress near the Washington Monument, has hosted 47 million visitors since it opened in 1993.

It would be crude and inaccurate to argue that the role of the Holocaust in progressive American Jewish thought is to drive support for Israel. The lessons of the Holocaust museums are meant to be universal. Yet the idea of Israel nevertheless comes into complex interplay with the idea of the Holocaust in progressive American Jewish thought. In the Middle Ages, Jewish theology around martyrdom existed in a complicated relationship with Christian ideas, even as Jews were being martyred by Christians. Today, progressive Jewish theology also exists in a complex relation with American Protestant thought. Seen in comparative terms, the Holocaust might stand in for the passion and the state of Israel for the resurrection. The social gospel of tikkun ‘olam can sit comfortably alongside this implicit theology.

To be clear, no progressive American Jewish thinker ever consciously intended to re-create the theological structure of American Protestantism. God forbid.

Consciousness of the fact doesn’t matter any more than it did when we Reformed Catholicism or as we do so to Islam, Hinduism, etc. The point is that at the End of History Judaism is a religion, not a race. Clinging to the latter is Israel’s existential threat.