The NPod column in question is about my favorite Jewish topic: the 'scandal of particularity', namely, that the Jews are God's chosen people. The great genius of the Jewish religion, by my lights, is that it takes truth and particularity to be intimately compatible. We are so accustomed in the wake of Christianity to think that anyone who thinks they know the truth is certain to insist that other people know the same truth (by force, if necessary) that we forget the Jewish example. And by 'we' I mean lots of people and particularly Norman Podhoretz, who writes of
the very Law that, through the instrumentality of God’s choice of them, would at the end of days be accepted by all mankind.
Immediately we have to ask whether this means that God in the fullness of time will bring everyone around to obeying His commandments or that God will permit his chosen people to kick much ass in the knowledge that one day everyone -- or at least whoever's still alive then -- will be as lucky as they are.
This is an important question because if you answer it in the more proactive and less providential way I have just poked fun at, you head toward what Strauss identifies as a great heresy of that rotten modern ex-Jew Baruch Spinoza. Of course I don't want to say that anyone who thinks Israel has a right to exist is a Jewish heretic. But I do want to acknowledge what Strauss says in his lecture entitled "Progress or Return?":
Spinoza denied the truth of Judaism. [...] "If the foundations of their religion did not effeminate their minds, I would absolutely believe that they might again restore their state, under auspicious circumstances, considering the fact that human things are mutable." [cite] This means that the hope for divine redemption is altogether baseless. [...] the first condition for entertaining any reasonably hope for the end of the exile is that the Jews should get rid of the foundations of their religion, that is to say, of the spirit of Judaism. [...] As far as I know, this is the earliest suggestion of a purely political solution to the Jewish problem: the substitution of a purely political solution for the miracle of redemption toward which men can contribute, if at all, only by a life of piety.
The crisis in Judaism caused by the Holocaust hinged on the inadequacy of a certain kind of passivity to flourishing, and opened a painful question about whether that passivity was inadequate because of an inadequacy of piety. I can't get into that here, other than to flag it and point further to Arendt and Rieff. Here I want to press on with Spinoza and Podhoretz. What would a mind inclined toward Spinozan political Zionism look for in the world?
in addition to the new state of Israel, there was also America, to which over a century ago Jews began fleeing by the millions from two great modern principalities that have likewise disappeared: the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs and the Russian empire of the Romanovs. These Jewish immigrants called America di goldene medineh, “the golden land,” and they were right. Of course, there was no gold in the streets, as some of them had imagined, which meant that they had to struggle, and struggle hard. But there was another kind of gold in America, a more precious kind than the gold of coins. There was freedom and there was opportunity. Blessed with these conditions, and hampered by much less virulent forms of anti-Semitism and discrimination than Jews had previously grown accustomed to contending with, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants flourished to an extent unprecedented in the experience of their people.
Thus it was that even before the remnant of one segment of the Jewish people had returned to its ancestral home, another portion had found another home in a new place and in a new world such as they had never discovered in all their forced wanderings throughout the centuries over the face of the earth.
So Pod says, and hurrah, as far as it goes. But then hear Strauss:
the attempts to solve the Jewish problem by purely human means ended in failure. [...] I do not believe that the American experience forces us to qualify these statements. [...] I share the hope in America and the faith in America, but I am compelled to add that that faith and that hope cannot be of the same character as that faith and that hope which a Jew has in regard to Judaism and which the Christian has in regard to Christianity. No one claims that the faith in America and the hope for America are based on explicit divine promises.
And then Podhoretz again:
If this is the conclusion [Charles Murray's, that the Jews are God's chosen people based on their scientifically-proven history of genius], however playful it may be, that a self-described Scots-Irish secular Gentile from Iowa finds himself forced into on the basis of the empirical evidence, who are we Jews to say him Nay? And if, on the basis of the same empirical evidence alone, and without necessarily relying on the evidence of things unseen that is provided by religious faith, we instead say Yes, then we are driven to join with those of our fellow Jews who, like Mayor Lupolianski, contend that “Jerusalem is not only an inseparable part of the Jewish nation, it is the basis of the existence of the Jewish nation.” And if we agree about the centrality of Jerusalem, we are driven still further: into a spirited rejection of the reprehensible post-Zionist and anti-Zionist ideologues who are only too eager to see Jerusalem divided yet again, or else transformed into the capital of a bi-national state that would eliminate the Jewish particularism of Israel, to be replaced not even by the fantasy of a universalist utopia but rather by an all too real Arab/Muslim particularism. And we are also driven into a rejection, though a much gentler one, of the position taken by certain Zionists who, however regretfully, are ready to accept such a division as the price of peace with the Palestinians.
The move away from Jewish theology and into ex-Jewish materialism is striking. Podhoretz appears to put his faith in the power of science as the only tool that God has given the Jews to succeed:
I still find it hard to make theological or even just plain logical sense out of the election of Israel—so hard, that I cannot altogether dismiss the old view of it as an oddity to Reason and a scandal to Theology. At the same time, however, I also find myself, if a little mischievously, beginning to think that if the idea of the Jews as the chosen people is taken not as a matter of faith that can never be proved, but as a hypothesis subject to empirical verification, it actually seems to make scientific sense.
A little mischievously! Knowledge will save the Jews, not faith; power will maintain their rightful place in the world, not authority; the spirit of Judaism is a sort of kooky mystery, whereas a bad Weberian scientific politics in servile relation to power is something we can really work with.
I find all this to be quite outrageous. It is one thing to recognize a complex tension and interdependence between reason and revelation; it is one thing to say that Israel deserves to exist in perpetuity for reasons both of this world and beyond. But it is quite another to say that the Jewish religion basically punts the question of how to live back to the Jews themselves, and that Zionism really must be a purely and exclusively scientific doctrine that understands politics as the application of a genius for power, with the use of American greatness as one of the biggest hammers in the toolbox. This may be a mild exaggeration of what Podhoretz is saying, but it might also be a depiction of what he's truly saying. If it is, then it seems apparent to me that Leo Strauss has long ago warned that such a position is not only contrary to Judaism but dangerous to Jews, an incomplete and even impious attitude.
I hadn't intended to wind up speaking in such a severe and controversial fashion, but is there any way around it? As always, I'm open to rebuttals, and remain convinced that Zionism is a fine idea so long as it's grounded and guided firmly by real piety in the Jewish faith.