Chavruta Newsletter No. 6
"Where there is no vision the people become unruly" Proverbs 29:18
February 2001
Shvat 5761

  Should We Recruit God in the Service of Cultural Zionism?

Michael Livni’s article “Hanukkah 5761 - A Cultural Zionist Perspective” sparked a debate within Chavruta. The dialogue between Michael Livni and Gidon Elad is reproduced in this newsletter. Is the “God Idea” essential in modern times as a symbol rallying the Jewish people around a belief in Zionism - a belief in what A.D. Gordon referred to as “life eternal (chayei olam)?”

Can any form of a “Vision for Israel” be developed given the obsessive concentration of many Israelis on issues of “life in the here and now” for themselves and their families? How can the Zionist endeavor ensure the support of circles in the “post-Zionist” generation who reached maturity toward the end of the twentieth century? What symbol can serve as a common starting point, even if that symbol will be interpreted in different ways?

It is worth recalling that in the Principles of Chavruta - Vision for Israel (see newsletter #1)* we declared:

“The God Idea, with all its diverse manifestations in festivals, Sabbath and everyday life, in the life of the individual and in communal life, constitutes an eternal and unifying focus for the Jewish people in its never-ending quest for Tikkun Adam, Tikkun Am and Tikkun Olam [the mending of the individual, the People and the world).”

Has the “God Idea” been so tainted in modern times by Halakhic Orthodox Judaism (and particularly ultra-Orthodox Judaism) that it can no longer have any place in democratic cultural Zionist endeavor? Justice Barak (see last page) notes the need to integrate the Zionist dimension and the Halakhic and traditional dimension within the framework of “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State.” But how?!

In these stormy times, where can we find the spiritual strength needed for a Jewish-Zionist society in Israel that is not committed to rabbinic halakhic authority? Could it be that the dichotomy that “God = religious” and “no God = secular” - a dichotomy on which many Israelis were raised over three generations - has become a stumbling block? Might it be that perpetuating this dichotomy serves only two types of Orthodoxy - the “religious Orthodox” and the “secular Orthodox?” It is evident that any attempt to interpret the symbol of “God” in order to promote cultural and democratic Zionism threatens the mental status quo of many among us.

The Editorial Board

  The “God Idea” and the “Secular Idea”
A Dialogue between Michael Livni and Gidon Elad

Gidon Elad

4 Tevet 5761 - December 30, 2000

Dear Michael,

Congratulations on your perseverance in publishing the Chavruta newsletters. This time, though, you managed to alarm me. What’s the problem? On the last page of the newsletter, you create a clear barrier between those who “adhere to the God Idea” and “humanistic/secular Judaism,” and state that “the spiritual strength of the Jewish people to survive and create” is possible only among those who believe in the “God Idea.”

The “God Idea” - A Rabbinic Formulation

I totally reject this assertion. This is an inherently rabbinic formulation, and one I would not expect to encounter among those involved in Chavruta, even if their goal is to reconsider the nature of faith in God, texts, commandments and ritual and to remove these from the control of the rabbinic world. (By the way, the use of the phrase “the God Idea” is vague. Is this identical to Herman Cohen’s intellectual “God Concept?” Why not simply refer to “belief in God?”)

It is one thing to determine in the principles of Chavruta - Vision for Israel (the last section) what its members believe; this binds only themselves. It is something quite different to negate movements and approaches that are close to everything Chavruta is trying to achieve in Israeli society. Are we not close to the Movement for Secular Judaism? Jewish secularism is still in an early stage of development. It is seeking its own ways through a fascinating process involving a large number of circles and frameworks in Israel. Does this not reflect a desire for creative spirituality and social innovation just as much as Chavruta? This reminds me of the way the various Socialist movements in Europe struggled against each other, while ignoring their real adversary. In our case, this real adversary is rabbinic Judaism.

Secular Culture is Not Merely “Legitimate”

Apart from that, secular culture is not merely “legitimate,” as you state in your article. It has been a fascinating phenomenon since the eighteenth century. One of its outstanding thinkers was the writer: Albert Camus. By way of example, see The Plague, p. 202.1

“In general,” said Tarot bluntly, “what interests me is how one becomes holy.”

“But you don’t believe in God!”

“That’s it. Can one be holy without God. That is the only real problem facing me today.”

“What concerns me is how to be a man.”

“Yes, we seek the same thing, but your ambition is greater than mine.”

“Do you know what we have to do for the sake of our friendship?”

“Anything you want,” answered R.

“To bathe in the sea.”

(Translated from the Hebrew edition, p. 202)

Adopting New Paradigms

Allow me to suggest that Camus’ “bathing in the sea” is nothing other than the need to adopt new paradigms of thought and new spiritual approaches that reach beyond the (rabbinic) paradigms that impose a sharp distinction between that which is sacred/divine/faithful and that which is spiritual/human. These paradigms are not necessarily equivalent to egotistical introversion on the part of the individual. Camus’ entire work The Rebel tries to make this message.

Thomas Moore: “When we allow our imagination to reach the depths of the spirit, the holy is revealed.”.2

There is No Super-Mundane and There is No Super-Human

But we need not go so far afield. Liberal cultural Zionism must not negate a bold attempt that is its ally, and that is expressed so succinctly by Prof. Eliezer Schweid:

“According to the modern secular point of view, human culture does not have super-mundane or super-human ideals whose realization is dependent on super-mundane and super-human authority. Rather, it itself, as a creation revealing all the properties, qualities and values unique to humans, constitutes its own ideal… An ideal or ideals are structural and significant components of the culture, as the expression of that which (in his own eyes) makes the human superior to the other creatures of nature.”3

Chavruta should move beyond the “God - No God” dichotomy, cooperate with spiritual and creative secularism, and present an alternative to rabbinic Judaism.

1. The Plague - (translated from the Hebrew, Am Oved, 1963, p. 202).

2. The Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, Harper-Perennial, New York 1994.

3. Towards a Modern Jewish Culture, Am Oved, Ofakim, pp. 13-14 (Hebrew).

Michael Livni

13 Tevet 5761 - January 8, 2001

Dear Gidon,

Firstly, thank you for your comments. They provide an opening for further discussion and clarification on the subject of the “God Idea” - a subject that is indeed charged for many in Israeli Jewish society.

One preliminary comment. I believe (and I am only expressing my personal opinion) that Chavruta - Vision for Israel was established in order to disseminate messages and ideas, and not merely as an expression of the personal belief of its members. And now, to the matter at hand.

The God - No God Dichotomy

Gidon, you wrote that I managed to alarm you. I have to admit that the feeling seems to be mutual. What bothers me is that you have adopted the “God - No God” dichotomy characteristic of “Orthodox secularism.” Jewish-Zionist culture must overcome this dichotomy. The new synthesis should maintain the unifying symbol of the People of Israel - i.e. the God of Israel. There must be a possibility to interpret the unique symbol of the God of Israel on the level of a universal Divine ideal, as the Prophets were able to do in their day.

The “God Idea” Does Not Belong to the Rabbis

Furthermore, the “God Idea” does not belong to rabbis only, or even to Jews only. For Martin Buber, for example, the “God Idea” appears as the “Eternal Thou” needed to realize interpersonal relations based on “Love thy neighbor” (“I - thou relations,” to use Buber’s terminology).1 In his book The Dynamics of Faith, the Christian theologian Paul Tillich speaks of the “Ultimate Concern:”

“The dynamics of faith are the dynamics of the Ultimate Concern that preoccupies man.”2 Tillich also saw fit to distinguish between true faith (the Prophets of Israel) and false faith (Hitler). Both Buber and Tillich were, it seems to me, attempting to interpret anew the essence of God.

I wrote in my article (and emphasized) that “the connection between the God Idea and rabbinic Halakhic Judaism is unnecessary. Indeed, this connection prevents many from coping creatively with the God Idea and symbols.” In my opinion, most rabbis who accept Halakhic authority believe in a God that commands, and would negate a term such as the “God Idea.” But what does it matter! In any case, I am not willing to grant rabbis exclusivity in defining the “God Idea,” or any other idea in Jewish tradition.

The Educational Challenge: Instilling Faith in Life Eternal

The challenge we face is not a philosophical one. Albert Camus cannot help us here. The challenge is to instill a way of life that connects life in the here-and-now with life eternal, in the spirit of the Cultural Zionism of the early Zionist pioneers. We cannot revive the faith of the pioneers through the symbols of Socialism. This is an educational challenge, and one that begins in early childhood. State (non-religious) education of all shades (including the kibbutz shade) does not provide symbols for recruiting to Zionist commitment. Thus the post-Zionism of life in the here-and-now fills the void. In the future, we will discuss educational strategy that integrates the “God Idea” (without rabbis).

I do not believe that Chavruta should place a barrier between itself and circles of secular (I prefer the term “free”) Cultural Zionism. They are certainly our close allies. But it is not sufficient that we jointly reject rabbinic Judaism and advocate democracy in Judaism. Within the framework of pluralism, we must propose our own diagnosis with the courses of action that follow. In my opinion, creative coping with the “God Idea” is essential to our spiritual future.

1 Martin Buber, Besod Siach (1923), Bialik Institute, Jerusalem 1980, Part 3, p. 57 (Hebrew).

2 Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, Harper, New York, 1957, Chapter 1.

The Last Word: Gidon Elad

Dear Michael,

I was glad to read your comments. You talk about “reinterpreting” what you term “the essence of Divinity.” You no longer speak of belief in God, but rather of the “Divine Concern,” and they are not the same thing. From a close reading of your remarks, I gather that if you do not accept what you term the “God - No God” dichotomy, then the “Divine Concern” is actually, from your perspective, the secular transmutation of the “Divine Essence.” It may even serve as “the Ground of Being” or “the Ultimate Questions” about life, to use Heschel’s terms.

In other words, a person may define themselves as secular and form part of a group of people guided by the “Divine Concern” - Yehudah Bauer’s group, for example, or those involved in Alma. Indeed, we are not engaged here in philosophizing, but in a search for allies in our struggle for Jewish change and renovation. “Finished, but not completed” - and not really finished either.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak

  The Values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State: A Zionist Dimension and a Halakhic-Traditional Dimension

The phrase “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” is a vague one…

The State of Israel forms the “realization of the aspiration of the generations for the redemption of Israel” (Declaration of Independence). A Jewish state is one whose values are those of liberty, justice, integrity and peace of the Jewish heritage.

A Jewish State is one whose values are drawn from its religious tradition, in which the Bible forms the basic text, the Prophets of Israel form the moral foundation…

This use of the phrase “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State” leads, in my opinion, to the conclusion that the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State have two main dimensions. The first dimension is the Zionist one. The second dimension is the Halakhic one, in the sense of the Jewish Halakha of the generations - the heritage of Israel…

It would be a one-sided approach to confine the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish State solely to the traditional and religious dimension… A scientific and objective approach must address the distinction between these various foundations, even though the purpose of interpretation should be to find a synthesis between them…

I shall leave the Zionist dimension for another opportunity…

From comments by Justice Aharon Barak

At the Colloquium held on August 1, 1997

The State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State

The World Union of Jewish Studies

Jerusalem, 5759, pp. 10-12 (Hebrew).

Editorial board: Chavruta - Vision for Israel, POB 1308, Eilat 88112.

Web site:

Editorial board: Editor - Dr. Michael Livni (Kibbutz Lotan); Osnat Elnatan (Kibbutz Tammuz, Beit Shemesh); Binyamin Maor (Hod Hasharon). Articles reflect only the authors’ opinion. We welcome typed comments and responses (maximum 250 words).

Chavruta will be glad to assist those interested in organizing discussions about issues raised in the newsletter. Please contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.