Michael Wyschogrod’s Messianic Zionism

Alex S Ozar. Journal of Religious Ethics. Volume 43, Issue 4. December 2015.

In this aspect of action processes are started whose outcome is unpredictable, so that uncertainty rather than frailty becomes the decisive character of human affairs.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (232)

The believer is not set at the high noon of life, but at the dawn of a new day at the point where night and day, things passing and things to come, grapple with each other.
—Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (21)

As Jews, we cannot be hawks. But neither can we be doves—we must be men.
—Michael Wyschogrod, “Peace: The Real Imperative” (7)

“Man is an illuminated being,” writes Michael Wyschogrod, “and the illuminated cannot really understand the dark”. Nonetheless, central to Wyschogrod’s theological project is the effort to draw attention to, and to on some level come to terms with, the presence of darkness in the Jewish view of life. Man always prefers light over darkness, because light, the lifeblood of vision and understanding, is the “great liberator.” It is true that “to some degree, the world reveals itself in smell and touch, hearing and tasting”—our access to reality is not exhausted by the visual—but it remains that “a dark world in which odors are smelled, surfaces touched, sounds heard, and flavors tasted but nothing is seen, remains a world that crowds man, that does not open itself but impinges upon him.” It is only light which finally “releases man” freeing him from the sensual world’s paralyzing embrace in revealing to his eyes the endless vistas of possibility radiating in every direction outward and beyond. Where the dark of merely tactile sense “turns man into a recipient of what the world wants to deliver to him”—he feels only what he is given to feel—light “bestows power because it transfers the initiative to man, whose gaze extends into the far distance”. Light is the animating core of all freedom.

But light alone is never enough, because it is only against the opaque, the impenetrable surface, that light is reflected back to our seeing eyes, “carrying the image of that which refused it passage” (Wyschogrod, 3). It is from this mundane observation that Wyschogrod derives a founding moral for his theological enterprise: “Illumination is therefore a dialectic with opacity, and because rationality is a form of illumination, the basic structure of rationality is thereby established. Reason thus requires the resistance of that which defeats it. Without meeting such opacity, reason would lose its contact with being and its light would become invisible” (3). Neither light nor darkness can be the last word in the story of man. Darkness must concede occasional clearings of light as invading strongholds against its dominion, because man is, by nature and by divine charge, an illuminated being. But light too is barred from full sovereignty, because man is also a body, and bodies are by nature dark (26, see also 256). Too much darkness and the spirit of man, his very personhood, is extinguished; too much light and reason loses all “contact with being” (3), leaving us with a world in which “no human existence is possible.” And so any adequate account of man must in some way or another felicitously incorporate the realities of both reason and “that which defeats it” (9)—both illumination and opacity.

I place these reflections at the opening of this essay because it is these reflections that occupy the opening pages and closing lines of Wyschogrod’s principal work The Body of Faith, and that compositional choice was, I suggest, an important philosophical statement. The book ranges freely across a broad array of independent topics—the nature of Israel’s election, the personality of God, Jewish ethics, Heideggerean ontology, Sartrean existentialism, and the distinctiveness of Jewish cuisine are a representative sampling—but each discussion in itself and the book’s argument as a whole are all to be understood within the governing framework of the light/darkness dialectic. The book’s literary structure thus gives expression to one of the work’s central convictions: the light of reason ought to be celebrated, but only insofar as it is felicitously, organically, comprehensively conjoined with that which defeats it.

A robustly messianic Zionism, as we will see, is the organic culmination of Wyschogrod’s theology and therefore also its fullest confirmation. Because humans are by nature both illuminated spirit and opaque body, rather than calling together a community of faith or limiting His presence to individual spiritual virtuosos, the biblical God chooses the united body and spirit of the people Israel as His one true people; the election of Israel is by design corporeal, carnal. From the carnality of Israel’s election follows its mandate to holistic participation in real‐world humanity and so to existence as a nation on the stage of world‐history. But nations have territories to which they are uniquely attached, and so Israel too must itself have a land of its own. Should then the people and the land ever come apart, the carnal election of Israel will tirelessly prosecute their ultimate reunification. This, for Wyschogrod, is Zionism—and this, for Wyschogrod, is messianism.

Proactive messianism is often regarded as a dangerous enterprise at best, a form of politics uniquely prone to fanaticism, violence, and general fundamentalist excess. To quote one contemporary scholar with (I trust) unimpeachable religious sympathies: “Where eschatology and politics are made to coincide, morality decrees its own dissolution” (Ratzinger, 60). For Wyschogrod, this charge is both on and off the mark. In articulating his messianic vision, Wyschogrod is pointedly aware of and open to engaging with that vision’s potentially amoral implications. Securing for Israel a full national existence, and the land to which that existence is tied, requires conquest, and conquest requires violence, be it just or not. God has called Israel to national life, and there is no national life, and certainly no flourishing national life, with the nation’s ethical purity wholly untainted. And so the light of messianic redemption, Wyschogrod argues, is ineluctably intertwined with the darkness of violence. But the dialectic works both ways: darkness too must never be allowed supreme reign over Israel’s mission and destiny. And so while violence cannot always be avoided, it must always be minimized. When violence does become necessary, it must be emphatically bounded and modulated by the guiding lights of compassion and justice. And because Israel’s messianic vision is rooted in both illumination and opacity, its status in the here and now is always tentative, ambiguous, and uncertain. Israel’s redemption is a promise whose fulfillment lies in an awaited future, and so long as that redemption remains incomplete, we must progress through the darkness with appropriate care and caution.

Wyschogrod’s political theology has to date received only minimal scholarly attention, but what efforts have been made hitherto appear to be coalescing around a surprising consensus. Leora Batnitzky has leveled the charge that Wyschogrod’s Zionism “suggests an absolute knowledge of God’s will and an ability to manipulate that will,” and as a result “tends toward a fanatical politics” (2000, 203). For Batnitzky, Wyschogrod’s emphatically messianic vision, and his apparent openness to the political implications of that vision, are a form of fundamentalist religion and the sort of absolutist, averse to compromise, and therefore potentially violent extremism that tends to follow from such fundamentalism; between Wyschogrod’s messianism and a fanatical religious politics there is no, or not enough, space. Accepting Batnitzky’s reading (though perhaps inverting her evaluation thereof), Meir Soloveichik has raised the possibility of an “evolution” of Wyschogrod’s position in this regard. For him, while the 1982 work The Body of Faith clearly embraces the messianic‐Zionist enterprise whole cloth, the essays collected in the 2004 volume Abraham’s Promise express considerable uncertainty and hesitation on the subject. There is hesitance in the latter work as to the righteousness and validity of the contemporary Zionist enterprise; such reservation, Soloveichik argues, is tantamount to renunciation. On this view, the Zionism of Abraham’s Promise is gun‐shy, and overall “anemic” (Soloveichik, 187), standing in “clear contradiction” to the robustly muscular, war‐ready messianic nationalism of Wyschogrod’s earlier work (208). According to Soloveichik, the early Wyschogrod is prepared to embrace the amoral violence inherent to national life in history, while the later revisionist version seems ready simply to exit the stage of history, transgressing the carnal election of Israel on account of a bad conscience and loss of theological nerve. For Batnitzky, Wyschogrod is viciously fanatical; for Soloveichik, Wyschogrod was once virtuously absolutist, but has since become viciously conciliatory.

But there is only one Michael Wyschogrod. From beginning to end, Wyschogrod has both (a) championed a robust, enthusiastically pro‐active vision of messianic Zionism, and (b) tempered that vision by accentuating the moral hazards native to it, by counterbalancing that vision with theological considerations pointing Judaism away from excessive attachment to the land, and by demanding vigilant attention to the sobering darkness that inexorably clouds reason’s grasp of present reality. Both strands of thought are fully present throughout Wyschogrod’s writings, early and late. This is to be expected, because Wyschogrod’s Zionism, in all its aspects, flows directly and organically from the central tenets of his thought more generally. Rooted in both body and spirit, light and darkness, it is Wyschogrod’s theology which provides for his characteristically forthright blend of faithful commitment to the promise of the land, on the one hand, and a healthy sense of that promise’s abiding unfulfillment, on the other. The result is an ambitious model for a theologically faithful and morally viable messianic politics—not as some fixed, magical formula, but as counsel for dynamically confronting an enduring challenge. The dangers of granting messianism purchase in political life are always great, but exercised with appropriate care, that allowance must be found worth the risk: “Shall the domain of the state be written off as the domain of the Devil, beyond the hope of sanctification, or shall it be seen as the most difficult challenge of all, which must be won for the holy precisely because of its remoteness from it?” (Wyschogrod, 68).

Understanding Wyschogrod’s Zionism, then, means exploring the ways his Zionism follows from his theology more broadly. Wyschogrod’s Zionism is ever attuned to both the robust rewards and the capricious dangers of real‐world action in history—attuned to both the light and the darkness ineluctably pervading the human situation—and that sensitivity provides for a richly messianic yet wholesomely non‐fanatical Zionist consciousness. Read rightly, it is a vision of hope ambitiously balanced between premature presumption and realist despair. Our itinerary, then, is as follows. We will see (1) how Wyschogrod’s messianic Zionism follows from his anthropology and from his corporeal understanding of Israel’s election; (2) how his Zionism is effectively modulated by his dialectical understanding of Israel’s nationhood; (3) how his theology conditions Zionism for the possibilities of worldly amorality and violence; (4) how his theology ensures that, Israel’s worldliness notwithstanding, its ethical consciousness remains ever central; and finally (5) how his understanding of Jewish redemption as hope for an as yet incomplete, on‐the‐way future effectively grounds his messianism in a responsible realism rather than a fundamentalist fanaticism.

Because the goal is to see Wyschogrod’s thinking on these matters as an integrated and unified whole, material will be drawn primarily from his main theological work The Body of Faith, with references to other writings introduced as appropriate for clarity and corroboration. Along the way, we will have occasion to clarify several points of Wyschogrod’s thought that have precipitated confusion among his interpreters. References to analogous motifs in the more canonical works of modern theological ethics aid in excavating the structure of Wyschogrod’s argument and message. Finally, locating Wyschogrod’s place in the larger story of modern Jewish thought helps to highlight his unique contributions to the record, and to the ongoing promise, of that story.

From Human Nature to Carnal Election

Wyschogrod’s most basic premise is always a thoroughgoing ontological monism with regard to the nature of humanity: The human person is not spirit alone and she is not body alone, nor is she some “coupling of the spiritual and the material”. She is, rather, a true “unity of spirit and body”. As such, should God wish to enter into a genuine relationship with a person as person—and it is the Bible’s most fundamental principle that He does—then that relationship, Wyschogrod reasons, ought to engage the whole of the human being, body and spirit together. Were God to speak to man’s spirit alone, He would be relating not to man but to some truncated or abstracted shadow thereof. And so where we might have expected God would choose for his elect enlightened individuals or a community of true believers, he scandalized us all by covenanting with a natural, biological family—the people Israel. Membership to the elect is then a matter not of faith, ideology, or custom, but of simple genealogy: descendants of Abraham are in, and pace the “theological‐biological miracle” (Wyschogrod, xix) of conversion, all others are out. While God surely could have done otherwise (we should not, after all, presume to limit His freedom), we can understand His election of a family rather than a faith as rooted in an affirmation of humanity’s bodily nature. Man is carnal, and so God’s election of man is carnal. Israel’s election is an accentuation and intensification of the human condition more broadly; to be a Jew is to be fully, exceptionally human. Wyschogrod’s monistic anthropology thus becomes a core principle of his biblical theology.

Because God elects the human person in the wholeness of her nature, that election must manifest in the wholeness of her experience. The call to holiness that is the hallmark and animating core of that election must therefore be heeded in all areas of human life, from the most sublime to the most mundane. And because God elects not only a biological individual but the entirety of a carnal people, a nation, that call to holiness necessarily addresses the people in the whole of its national life, and national life is most basically a matter of politics and history. Where Jesus in his preaching could “write off the political arena as the domain of Caesar,” teaching that salvation is found only through withdrawal from all things worldly, Judaism insists that redemption is fundamentally about national politics in real‐world history (Wyschogrod, 219). Redemption in national politics, of course, entails autonomous sovereignty—a subjugated nation is surely not a redeemed nation—and sovereignty in turn means territorial integrity. “The identity of a nation is most commonly derived from the land it occupies” and so the authentically national life of Israel must too find root in an identity‐granting plot of soil. On account of “the inherent concern of Judaism with the historical as the domain in which human redemption must come to fruition,” we conclude that “therefore the conquest of the land is necessary”. Securing sovereignty over its land is thus for Israel a culminating fulfillment of its election by God: to embrace Israel’s election is ultimately to claim for it autonomous rule over its historical territory, and to deny Israel that sovereignty is to rebuff the truth of its election.

Given the ineluctable vagaries of real‐world political life, the achievement and maintenance of sovereignty for any one people will often conflict with the legitimate aspirations of other peoples, and so for a nation to commit to the goal of sovereignty is necessarily to court the possibility of violence—a possibility which Wyschogrod concedes amounts to “the potential for conflict with the ethical” (220). “Pure ethics” of the sort propounded by Kant may afford the luxury of universal, exceptionless application, but that is because “pure ethics is nonhistorical” (217). Genuine life in history, which Israel must on account of its election embrace, inevitably results in ethical compromise of a sort that would, from the perspective of pure ethics, clearly qualify as injustice. And so it emerges that alongside its “unusual moral sensitivity, the Bible is also quite amoral,” the prime example being the command to eradicate the prior inhabitants of the land promised by God unto Israel (180). Beyond the limited cases of direct divine injunction, it is simply a reality that, “People who lead states—as we have learned since the emergence of the state of Israel—make difficult decisions that inevitably lead to the deaths of many, including many innocent” (180). The forfeiture of its ethical purity appears here as an unavoidable operational cost for embracing the project of God’s election. So long as the people Israel remain loyal to concrete national life in history, the ethical bright light of redemption will be shot through with amoral darkness.

For Wyschogrod, reason itself dictates against the formal, universalistic ethics of Kant in favor of an ethics “rooted in real relations with real persons,” persons that “do not appear abstractly, lacking position in relation to my position” (216). Because human presence always belongs to a particular, concrete place and time, it is “always perspectival, centered,” and so to assume a consciousness entirely independent of local particularity is to “embrace alienation” by denying regard to the reality of my identity (216). The simple facts of where I am, and who I am there with, are essential constituents to any humanly wholesome and “phenomenologically realistic” (216) ethical position. But if this is true of the human condition in general, it is all the more true of (and all the more pressing for) the unique existence of the people Israel, a people whose concrete, particular carnality stands in covenant with the Almighty. Such a people, if it is to be loyal to its divinely mandated identity, can afford neither the abstract principles of Kant nor the come‐what‐may pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount. As a participant in real history, Israel’s rationality must be an “embodied rationality” (13) and its morality an embodied morality, a morality definitively conditioned toward the fulfillment of God’s mission for His one elect nation. “Only the ethical incarnated in the Jewish people is Jewishly valuable as ethics” (222). That this may conflict with abstract ethics is simply the price to be paid—as the genuine unity of body and soul that is the human being, and especially as a human being chosen in his humanness by God.

Because God wished to see His elect people flourish in the fullness of their corporeal humanity, He chose for them a specific, concrete location—a land—upon which they were to engage in the enterprise of national life in history; “having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment” (Merleau‐Ponty, 94). Should the people ever become separated from its land, their exilic condition must of necessity be only temporary, because God’s eternal covenant with Israel dictates that Israel is to flourish in the fullness of its corporeal humanity, and that can only mean sovereignty over its one true native home. Carnal election coupled with exile, then, entails messianic Zionism. The people Israel must in the end return to its land. Wyschogrod applies this understanding to the relevant events in modern history and so to the contemporary situation:

The Zionist idea at first appeared in a perfectly secular and practical guise. Yet, perhaps from the very first, it was not difficult to detect messianic energies at work. However secularly disguised, a Jewish movement that spoke of the return of a dispersed Jewish people to its ancestral homeland … could not for long be interpreted without reference to the messianic idea. And as the Zionist enterprise began to assume a less theoretical and more material form, the messianic aspect of the enterprise became more and more apparent. (237)

It does not follow simply as a matter of logic from the promise of messianism that any particular event is the true fulfillment of that promise; even given the realities of modern Zionism, it would be consistent with that promise for its fulfillment to arrive in the thirtieth rather than the twentieth century, and this qualification will prove important as we progress through Wyschogrod’s thinking. Nonetheless, Wyschogrod here insists that the purposeful ingathering of Jews to their long ago promised homeland—and after all, they could have gone to Uganda—simply cannot persist free of messianic overtones (183). The convergence between the reality and the messianic vision is simply too great, and too poignant, to be ignored entirely. And so whatever else may be true of its modern manifestations, “From the broader point of view … Zionism must be read in the context of Jewish messianism and of the whole drama of exile and return as foretold by the prophets of Israel” (183). Zionism inevitably entails messianism.

This recognition, Wyschogrod stresses, is ethically hazardous. It is enough that Israel’s reentering the world of history, inviting Judaism out from the security of the sanctuary, inevitably means its becoming entangled in the “ambivalent world of pragmatic judgments, in which all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, dirty our hands” (234). That is true of all political life. But the people Israel, on account of its unique character and mission, faces a uniquely difficult challenge:

At this writing, the critical issue is Judea and Samaria, the territories that came under Israeli control in the 1967 war and that, in Arab opinion, must become the territory of a Palestinian state. Since these territories are an integral part of the covenanted land of Israel perpetually bestowed by God on the Jewish people, to the degree that the messianic‐biblical idea is operative in one’s understanding of contemporary Jewish history, the relinquishing of these territories is inconceivable, being contrary to the messianic thrust of recent Jewish history. (237)

Human imperatives are subject to negotiation and compromise; God’s commands are not. If the modern Zionist enterprise is a fulfillment of a divine, messianic mandate, then no competing interest may stand in its way. Before God’s terrible and mighty will, His enemies quake and melt into oblivion. Just as in the time of Joshua, God has commanded conquest, and God’s commands are not to be heeded halfway. And so, regardless of the opposition, and whether it seems to our minds just or not, we are compelled to press forward uncompromisingly Israel’s claim of sovereignty to its land. It is here, in the messianic fulfillment of Israel’s corporeal election, that the light of Jewish ethics reaches the opaque surface it cannot penetrate. Wychogrod is of course undeterred.

A Nation, But More than a Nation

Wyschogrod’s emphasis on the carnality of Israel’s election is his hallmark and the reason for his celebrity, and so that emphasis has to date enjoyed the better part of readers’ attention. But carnality, for Wyschogrod, is not the whole story of Israel’s election. Responding to the Gnostic tendencies he detects in Christianity and modern liberalism, Wyschogrod argues forcefully that human beings are in essence not disembodied minds or spirits. But to conceive humanity as wholly material is for Wyschogrod equally erroneous, because the truth of human nature is neither body nor spirit alone but rather a seamless unity of both body and spirit. And because God’s election is intended for the whole reality of human being, that election must indeed be corporeal. But it cannot be merely corporeal.

With his carnality, the human person is a “being with an identity and a world in which he lives” (66). God, Wyschogrod insists, wishes to honor that identity and world, and so He elects a natural family, charging that family with achieving holiness in the thick of sovereign national life upon its native land. To do otherwise would be to artificially impose a truncated, flattened human existence—to transgress against the essential nature and thereby the ultimate worth of humanity. However, Wyschogrod warns, “It is also true that simple, undialectical attachment to the natural can be incompatible with a hearing of the divine command” (67). Wyschogrod sees this counter‐motif written into the very foundations of Israel’s election:

Abraham is commanded to leave his land, birthplace, and father’s house and follow God to a place that he will show him. The man who hears God’s word is therefore wrenched away from his natural setting, from the bonds that tie him to his parents, brothers, sisters, and the whole world into which he was born and that gives man his natural security. (67)

It seems the grand project of Israel’s flourishing as natural people, fashioned by God to honor the given identity and character of the human person, requires that she first deny her given identity and character. It requires that she become a sort of disembodied spirit, renouncing all real‐world attachments. Wyschogrod recognizes the tension this presents for his broader vision. Indeed, “If the divine command went no further, if it merely instructed him to leave his birthplace … then the natural world would have been slain once and for all” (67). But the divine command does in fact go further, and the subsequent instructions and promise complete what now appears as a dialectical, developmental process: “After commanding Abraham to leave his father’s house, it promises to make a great nation of his seed,” with the result that “The natural is now reinstated, projected into the future instead of rooted primarily in the past, and, above all, sanctified as a natural community” (67).

It is the unique vocation of the people Israel to achieve holiness in the fullness of natural human life, but achieving that goal, Wyschogrod argues, requires an initial, preparatory stage in which natural human life is temporally renounced, denied. On his way to the promised land, Abraham must first relieve himself of all the concrete attachments that had hitherto constituted his personhood in order that his renewed immersion in natural life could now be of a sort “projected into the future.” He severs his past ties in order to strike out on an uncharted, uncertain path to “a place that God will show him, not a specified place but an unspecified, indefinite one” (103). It is only through liberating himself from the unreflective immediacy of his given material past that Abraham may now choose organic engagement with the natural as a conscious, purposive, and fundamentally open‐ended enterprise—as a matter of spirit. For Wyschogrod, human holiness is a dialectical product of detachment and attachment, self‐determining consciousness and inherited situation, the liberating light of spirit and the body’s constricting darkness.

The dialectical character of Abraham’s journey translates into a complex, dynamic relationship between Israel and its land. On the one hand the land is ineluctably essential to Israel’s destiny, such that Israel’s separation from it can never be permanent. On the other hand, it is a remarkable fact that Israel first “comes into national existence before it occupies the land” (221) from which it follows that residence in the land is not a sine qua non for Jewish existence in any given present. According to the biblical account, the formation of the people Israel occurs not in Canaan but in Egypt; it “becomes a nation on the basis of a promise delivered to it when it is a stranger in the land of others” (221). Before the people ever lays eyes on its homeland, the “awareness of being a stranger is burned into Jewish consciousness” (221). And so unlike the exhaustively “land‐bound identities” (220) of all other nations—the nations are who they are only insofar and so long as they remain attached their native land—Israel’s founding experiences equip it to transcend definitional confinement to any earthly particularity. Israel is the one nation in all of history whose peculiar character surpasses its territorial rootedness.

The gods of the ancient world, Wyschogrod recounts, were national gods, their jurisdiction extending throughout their nation’s territory but no further. An Assyrian citizen living on Assyrian soil owes his loyalty to Assyrian gods, but should he relocate to Greece, the logic of polytheism dictates that he realign his worship to the local pantheon presiding over Greece; polytheistic divinity and territorial politics are in this way mutually codetermining. It is into this theological climate that the Bible irrupts with the game‐changing declaration of the one true God:

The radical novelty of Hashem’s teaching was that his jurisdiction extended everywhere. He was therefore not the God of only one territory but rather of a people who were subject to him wherever they were. They could therefore become a people before they entered their land and could continue to remain a people after they were banished from their land, a feat not imitated by any other people. (220)

The God of Israel is the God of all, His sovereignty therefore universal rather than local. That is the central, revolutionary teaching of the Bible. And because the God of Israel is essentially universal, defying confinement to any boundaries, just so does His people Israel transcend geographic limitation. Israel remains the universally elect people of God wherever it presently resides.

This core monotheistic logic provokes an intriguing counterfactual speculation: “As a God whose authority is not restricted to any particular land, Hashem could have chosen a people permanently existing without a land perhaps as a sign that there is a God who rules not only over one territory but over the whole world” (221). Liberating Israel from territorial attachment by endorsing diaspora as its permanent, primary state of being may have been most conducive to the essential spirit of monotheistic teaching. But God, despite His universality, did bequeath to His people a land, and He does prescribe its residence upon that land as its rightful mode of existence. Apparently, God wishes to have it both ways: “It is as if Hashem also wishes to become a God of a land, but not as the other gods, whose authority is limited to the boundaries of their jurisdiction” (221). It is God’s will to realize his sovereignty in a universality‐inflected particularity. The result then is again a dialectical relationship between the nation of Israel and its national land: They are to unite with their particular, native soil, but they are to do so in such a way as to honor the universal character of their elected identity which in turn honors the universal sovereignty of the one true Lord of all. Their unique divine vocation is to flourish as a seamless unity of both rooted‐in‐the‐ground body and infinite‐horizons spirit.

What all of this amounts to is that for Wyschogrod, Israel’s sovereignty over its territory, while of immense, central importance, ought never be the nation’s be‐all and end‐all. Israel can, has, and (if necessary) will survive apart from its homeland, because its divine mission definitively transcends all earthly bounds. The people should indeed vigorously pursue union with the land, but since that attachment is to be understood as dialectical, the character of that pursuit should admit of potential conflict and compromise (220). The peculiar character of Israel’s election translates into a “curious ambivalence” (92) in its relationship to the land. The promise of the land is essential, but that promise’s fulfillment in the here and now is not, and therefore the question of sovereignty is not at any given time a matter of either/or absolutes. And because Israel’s existence is not dependent on the land, it bears the self‐reflective awareness that “it dwells on or lays claim to a previously owned land” (94) with the result of a persisting “bad conscience” (218) with respect to the sovereignty it acquired of necessity through force and violence. The picture emerging here is of a substantive but non‐fanatical messianic politics, organically animated by the cause of divine election yet genuinely receptive to criticism and competition and adaptable to the exigencies of the present hour.

Franz Rosenzweig, who has been referred to as “the Jewish thinker to whom Wyschogrod stands closest” (Soulen, 4), similarly appeals to the fact that “the tribal legend of the eternal people begins otherwise than with indigenousness”—the nation is born while exiled in Egypt—as indicating that for Israel, “being a people means something other than remaining in a land” (Rosenzweig, 319). For Rosenzweig, it is this unique refusal to link its destiny to its land that provides for Israel’s essential eternity alone among the nations. “The peoples of the world,” he says, “put forth their roots into the night of the earth, itself dead yet life‐bestowing, and appropriate from its permanence a guarantee of their own permanence”. Indeed,

the earth nourishes, but it also binds; and when a people loves the soil of the homeland more than its own life, then the danger hangs over it … that nine times that love may save the soil of the homeland against the enemy and also with the soil the life of the people; but a tenth time the soil remains as that which is loved more and the very life of the people pours on it. Ultimately the people, too, belong to him who conquers the land; it cannot be otherwise when people are more attached to the land than to their own life as a people. In this way the earth betrays the people that entrusts to the permanence of the earth its own permanence; the earth itself persists, but the people on it perish. (319)

True eternity, for Rosenzweig, cannot depend on external anchors such as soil, and so the Jewish people maintains a healthy existential distance from its land. Even there it never feels truly at home, choosing instead to stake its destiny in the people itself, in its community of blood. “We alone have put our trust in the blood and parted the land,” Rosenzweig concludes, and “in this way we saved the precious life fluid that offered us a guarantee of our own eternity” (319).

Wyschogrod, then, follows Roseznweig in asserting Israel’s unique independence from its national homeland. For both, the nation of Israel’s specially elect vocation is to become something more than a mere nation, to transcend its earthly bounds in reaching out toward eternity. What distinguishes Wyschogrod from Rosenzweig is his unequivocal insistence that, whatever may transpire in the course of history, ultimately Israel must be once again united with its land; exile can never be the norm. “Hashem is the principle of hope, which is not the ground but rather the future of Jewish history” (Wyschogrod, 168). It is true that redemption has not yet come and so exile remains a possibility. This is a reality the people Israel are uniquely equipped to navigate. But though it tarries, the redemption will one day come indeed, and redemption for Israel can only mean flourishing in the wholeness of national life, including autonomous sovereignty on its one native land. Wyschogrod’s messianic Zionism is dialectical and dynamic, and so it is prepared to engage the darkness‐suffused realities of any present. But it is a messianic Zionism all the same, and so its negotiations with present darkness are ever in the service of hope for a promised future’s light.

Compassion Always Runs Deeper

For Wyschogrod, Jewish life is an inherently political enterprise, and politics are always knotty, ambiguous, and ambivalent. In the midst of real‐world history outside the sanctuary, the purest light of faith and ethics is inevitably met by the impenetrable opacities of the concrete, contingent, and particular, and in that confrontation the light’s best this‐worldly outcome is a partial victory framed by partial defeat. If Israel then is to lead a genuinely historical life as a nation sovereign over its own land, it must be prepared to get its hands dirty, making the kinds of tough, lesser‐of‐the‐evils choices any state must make simply to survive. Sovereignty means conquest, and conquest means the possibility of violence: “People who lead states … make difficult decisions that inevitably lead to the deaths of many, including many innocent” (181). At its most basic, then, the nature of Israel’s election entails “the potential for conflict with the ethical” (181). It entails the ultimate inadequacy of any pure, abstract, disembodied ethics. Martin Buber put the matter sharply: “Life, in that it is life, necessarily entails injustice … there can be no life without the destruction of life” (169).

But for Wyschogrod this cannot be the whole story, because Judaism emphatically is concerned with the ethical; while it does not deny the reality of darkness, it can never forfeit its quest for illumination. Wyschogrod is no “realist,” Niebuhrian or otherwise. It is true that modern Jewish philosophers and reformers distort Judaism by speaking as if there were nothing to it but the ethical—“ethics is the Judaism of the assimilated” (Wyschogrod, 181)—and that the resurgence of Jewish national life betrays those interpretations of Judaism as pointedly inadequate to reality. But to swing to the opposite extreme would be no less erroneous, because it would be unfaithful to the spirit of Judaism, which has at its essential core the unyielding call to compassion and justice. Wyschogrod’s polemics against liberal Judaism’s excessive focus on ethics should be taken as just that: a polemic against excess. But no further. “The ethical,” Wyschogrod asserts, is “at the center of Judaism from its inception to the present” (191) and any faithful understanding of Jewish life must honor that abiding, essential centrality.

This does not mean the Jewish tradition has endured the millennia without development and change. The Bible, on Wyschogrod’s reading, is addressed to a people very much in the midst of real‐world life, and its teaching is therefore through and through “historical” (181), relating directly to the challenges of a nation pursuing its natural ends. Certainly the Bible does not assume its readers are of the sort to retreat into enclaves of spiritual pacifism: “In biblical Judaism, war is not missing. In fact, it is one of the major domains of revelation” (181). The Bible is at times “quite amoral” (180). Again, life entails injustice, and so Israel’s divinely mandated quest to flourish as a living, historical nation—the Bible’s most basic plotline—inevitably entails concession to the limits of morality. It is with the advent of rabbinic Judaism, born as Israel lost its land and sovereignty, that we cannot but notice a profound shift in orientation. “Rabbinic Judaism, in the main, is the Judaism of a people outside of history” (180) and so can afford to downplay some of its hardnosed political realism in favor of abstract ethical concern. The result, stated simply, is that compared to the Bible, “Rabbinic Judaism is far more irenic” (181); its redoubled ethical emphasis perhaps is best seen as a “preoccupation of the weak once state power has been transferred to the conqueror, who does not hesitate to oppress the weak” (191).

Wyschogrod acknowledges this shift away from the historical, real‐life Judaism of the Bible, and he counsels that the reality of Israel’s reappearance on the historical stage requires precisely an adjustment back to the biblical mode: “The ahistoricity of the rabbinic Judaism must now be supplemented by the historical Judaism of the Bible” (181). Wyschogrod is however no less emphatic in asserting that the result of that adjustment must not mean the rejection of the rabbinic ethical moment. This is in part due to what is for Wyschogrod the simple “nonviability of a nonrabbinic Judaism” (180) but more fundamentally it is rooted in Wyschogrod’s conviction that the ethical concern taught by the rabbis is the deepest, most basic message of the Bible itself. The biblical God introduced to the world the revolutionary demand to care for the widow and orphan, the weak and vulnerable, and His prophets spared no breath in calling Israel to redress its errors in creating a fair and compassionate society. And importantly, for the Bible, “The overwhelming power of the God of Israel does not eclipse the voice of justice” (180). It is true that later developments in Judaism would lend greater accent to the ethical, but that “process is continuous with the essential thrust of biblical thinking and its concern for justice and the protection of the weak” (191). To the extent, then, that Israel’s reentry into history diminishes the centrality of its moral concern, the result is necessarily “violence to the spirit of the tradition” (191).

It should then be unsurprising, to Soloveichik or anyone else, to find Wyschogrod, with his principled endorsement of messianic Zionism in hand, voicing substantial ethical reservations regarding the realities of modern Zionist endeavor. It is true, he says, that the Jews “have a God‐given right to live everywhere in the land, on either side of the Green Line. But not every right must be exercised, especially if the cost is the shedding of human blood” (Wyschogrod, 104). Messianic Zionism may be right in principle, but that principle might not be fully appropriate to present realities. And so “we have a choice. We can enforce our rights to the hilt and get sucked into more and more violence and killing or we can leave the enforcement of our rights to God while we deal with our misguided Ishmaelite cousins with love” (Wyschogrod, 106). Wyschogrod insists that he is “not a pacifist” (106). He is, as we have seen, robustly open to the potential violence God’s plans for Israel may ultimately require. Wyschogrod’s worry is simply that perhaps certain particular programs of violence—the present state of Israeli military engagement in the West Bank, for instance—are not in fact required in today’s present. Compassion and justice, after all, are central and essential to any authentic Jewish consciousness, and so all things being equal, our default ought not to be war: “If the only way we can obtain residence rights in Hebron is to become accustomed to shedding Arab blood, then we ought to opt for a less obvious form of messianism: non‐violence” (Wyschogrod, 106). Because he is not an outright pacifist, and because he most certainly does assert the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish quest for territorial sovereignty, Wyschogrod will countenance some violence and death as the inevitable cost of doing business, for Israel ought to have a state, and “people who lead states … make difficult decisions that inevitably lead to the deaths of many, including many innocent” (181). Even with all his qualifications registered, Wyschogrod’s remains a theologically and politically substantial, proactive Zionism. But we can say at least this: For Wyschogrod, if Israel’s recourse to violence has become programmatic and entrenched—if Israel becomes “accustomed to shedding Arab blood”—then Israel has yet to fully honor the voice of compassion that is the bedrock of God’s revealed word. The demand is not for purity, because real human life can never be wholly pure. Darkness there always is. We should not deny the presence of darkness, but we should never allow it to define us. “As Jews, we cannot be hawks. But neither can we be doves—we must be men” (8).

One is reminded of Buber’s efforts to legitimate military action as constitutive of the human political condition while establishing a strong “line of demarcation” beyond which violence becomes morally illicit. For Buber, healthy national life, as a concrete body in a world of concrete bodies, always requires power for its survival and flourishing. But the Jewish nation can only truly flourish insofar as its spirit achieves realization in and through its concrete existence, and so considerations of power, while necessary, must not enjoy the last word. As ever, Wyschogrod believes that Judaism means messianism and messianism means sovereignty and sovereignty means conquest, but here he cannot shake the conviction that, ultimately, “Nonviolence rather than residence in Hebron is the deepest layer of messianism” (Wyschogrod, 106). Not the only layer, but definitively the deepest. In the end, he “simply cannot believe that the messianic era will be preceded by the reality of Jews becoming accustomed to killing” (Wyschogrod, 106). Some violence is a necessity for any national life, but entrenched, programmatic violence is not, and so Israel’s becoming accustomed to killing cannot be a legitimate part of the Jewish messianic vision. Not hawks, not doves. Humans.

Wyschogrod does concede one point. Were a prophet of the Lord to appear and declare unto the people a “specific divine command” to, say, seize the West Bank and eradicate wholesale any non‐Jewish population therein, then Wychogrod would heed God’s word (704). While in so doing, he might be burdened with something of a bad conscience, as he says ancient Israel was in its conquest of Canaan, he would also take comfort in knowing he was fulfilling the sacred mission of the elect people Israel. It is indeed an important entailment of Wyschogrod’s theology that in principle the concerns of human conscience can be overruled by divine dictate. But in our day, Wyschogrod stresses, no such prophet has arrived. We have yet to hear God’s word addressing our situation, and the moral gravities involved dictate that we demand for any claim to that word a high level of verification—if for no other reason than that the ethical is itself the deepest layer of Jewish messianism. And more basically, while we ought to always remain open and alive to the possibility of illumination, that is the fundamental messianic faith of Israel, we must not forget our as yet unenlightened existence in the present, an existence in which we simply do not have all the answers. Rosenzweig counseled that “a ‘not yet’ is written above all redemptive union” (252). In the real historical present, Jewish theology manifests as a hermeneutic of uncertain illumination and not‐yet fulfilled promise.

In a 1968 symposium on “The Religious Meaning of the Six Day War,” Wyschogrod sounded a measured warning of caution:

Because we in our day do not have such a Word concerning the Six Day War we remain in the realm of ambiguity. What we have witnessed may have been the opening of the redemption or it may have been merely one further chapter in a story that has many chapters. … To make solid messianic claims and to tie the fate of Judaism to the fortunes of the State of Israel, for whose preservation and prosperity we all fervently pray, is simply unauthorized and therefore irresponsible. (Wurzburger, 10)

To preclude out of hand an interpretation of current events as messianic realizations would be to transgress against God’s election of carnal Israel. God promised His people a flourishing, sovereign national life upon its one true homeland, and God does not renege on His promises. The future, then, is certain. But until such time as we hear the Word, it is uncertainty which reigns over the present; authentic living toward the future means coming to terms with the ambiguities of the here and now. This reservation—that in the prophecy‐less present, all theological valence to history is at best uncertain—is a note sounded persistently throughout the full span of Wyschogrod’s writings. And so against Batnitzky, it should then be clear that Wyschogrod does not, and theologically could not, believe that with regard to Zionism “God’s will has been expressed in a clear and distinct way” (Batnitzky, 205) and would certainly deny that anyone has the “ability to manipulate that will” (203). Fanatical politics is not on the table. Wyschogrod certainly does believe that God’s will has indeed been expressed. God has informed us of his election of the people Israel and has promised to his elect people Israel sovereignty over its one national homeland—and that expression of will does entail substantial, determinate imperatives. The people Israel ought to pursue fulfillment as a real nation in real history, and the ethics governing that pursuit are necessarily “embodied” rather than “pure.” But absent a forthright command of God to the contrary, which has yet to come and which, we can justly hope will never come, that pursuit must not be allowed to become the dissolution of the ethical.

Far from a “clear contradiction” to Wyschogrod’s earlier writings, as Soloveichik would have it, these reservations flow directly from the organic whole of Wyschogrod’s theology. “We must not confuse promise with fulfillment,” Wyschogrod warns, “especially for man, who lives in time and for whom the future is shrouded in darkness” (69). To do otherwise, we might say, would constitute the theological vice of presumption. But despair and its counsels represent no less an infidelity to the God of Israel: “As the Lord of Being, he circumscribes being, not in the mode of nonbeing that must translate itself into violence but in the mode of the trustworthy promise, which is the power of nonbeing transformed into the principle of hope” (171). On Wyschogrod’s reading, Christianity is that faith which regards its salvation history as complete, and therefore something one can in the present behold, analyze, and adore in its entirety; the Christian has only to recognize that in truth, all is already light. Judaism, however, does not yet have before it a completed whole, because Judaism is in essence about real human living, and “life is a projection into the uncertainties of the future” (226). The people Israel is uniquely aware of the abiding darkness pervading human history, and precisely because it hopes to achieve worldly salvation in the future, it refuses to ignore the present world’s darkness. As the elect people of God, it is Israel’s unique messianic vocation to pursue redemption in confronting the stubborn opacity of the here and now—the present world where “the concrete instances of clashing rights demanding qualification, discussion, and patience will not go away” (23). Of course, in the end, it remains that “in this darker realm the full light of justice is rarely seen” (23). But surely that is no license to forfeit the effort.


In an article critiquing Wyschogrod’s stance on Zionism, Michael Walzer says that his real interest is in Wyschogrod’s moral and political arguments, and he is “interested in these arguments precisely because they don’t seem … to follow from or to depend upon his theology” (687). What I hope to have shown here is that, in fact, Wyschogrod’s moral and political arguments very much do follow from and depend on his theology. It is because God elected the carnal people Israel that Israel ought to pursue a flourishing, sovereign national life in its native homeland. Yet since Israel is to transcend mundane nationality in honoring its universally sovereign God, its attachment to the land must be dynamic and dialectical, and, in any given present, potentially conditional. It is because of God’s promise to Israel that we must remain ever alive to the possibility of messianic redemption, and our Zionism cannot be unaffected by that possibility. Yet because Jewish redemption is not complete but rather on the way, we must not pretend to certainty in practice. In the present, we must engage the real‐life ambiguities of the here and now while looking faithfully to a promised future. We proceed in the march toward redemption, and we proceed energetically, but we also proceed cautiously. Along the way, we never forget that for the people Israel, in its messianic vision as in all else, compassion always runs deepest (103). To realize the messianic vision of Jewish sovereignty will surely require some violence, but to realize the messianic vision by way of entrenched, programmatic violence is, until God informs us otherwise, to not realize the messianic vision at all. This, Wyschogrod’s Zionism, is the very model of a wholesomely non‐fanatical but robustly faithful messianic politics.

It is important to stress that, within a broad range, Wyschogrod’s thinking here need not entail any one specific political program. Paul Ramsey once remarked that “Christianity is not, like Judaism and other forms of religious ethics, a ‘religious civilization,’ it is rather a criticism of any civilization, religious or otherwise. … Christian ethics may claim to be relevant in criticism of every situation precisely because its standard derives from no particular situation” (44). Wyschogrod, I suggest, would on behalf of his Jewish ethics refuse the dichotomy. Jewish ethics, he would insist, does indeed derive from a particular situation, namely the situation of God’s having elected of the people Israel and promising unto them a specific swath of the Middle East as a national homeland. Yet that situation is not a rigid, fixed reality—one of Ramsey’s “religious civilizations”—but a living, dynamic, and fundamentally open ended vision of an on‐the‐way redemption, and so the ethic derived therefrom will speak to an array of possible paths forward. No matter the crisis and whatever the proposed solution, Wyschogrod’s Jewish ethics will supply critique and counsel, if perhaps not a single, fixed formula.

Wyschogrod does say in one place that out of aversion to bloodshed, “Reluctantly and with deep concern for the safety of Israel, I therefore support the peace process” (xxix). There is definitive, substantive content to Wyschogrod’s Jewish social ethics; he would decline a Jewish analogue to Niebuhr’s claim that “the ethic of Jesus does not deal at all with the immediate moral problem of every human life. … It has nothing to say about the about the relativities of politics” (Niebuhr, 39). The Israeli‐Palestinian peace process is indeed to Wyschogrod’s mind currently the one particular real‐world political arrangement best suited for the progressive incarnation of the messianic vision of Israel. Of course that endorsement is consistent with a wide array of policy proposals, and more importantly, it is couched in thoroughly tentative, provisional language: “I realize it may be viewed differently in the light of future developments” (Wyschogrod, xxix). And that, of course, is precisely the point. Ultimately, the high theory of Wyschogrod’s theology flows into dynamic engagement with the real‐world, pragmatic, ever‐shifting ambiguities of politics and history, because his central theological claim is precisely that the almighty God, in His infinite and mysterious wisdom, chose to elect a carnal people in the fullness of its living humanity. For those who act, “uncertainty rather than frailty becomes the decisive characteristic of human affairs” (Arendt, 232). Judaism is inherently worldly and historical, its most basic teaching that the light of redemption is to be sought in and through the concrete opacity of the here and now. Theology, for Wyschogrod’s Judaism, means real‐world politics. That politics must be ever attuned to Israel’s relentless hope for future redemption.

Man is an illuminated being, but in the as yet unredeemed present, light exists only in dialectic with darkness. Authentic human life, and therefore genuine Jewish life, is about striving toward fruitful engagement with that light and with that darkness.