"The Tzvi Yehudah tape" – that’s the name my son immediately gave the recording of John Hagee explaining the Holocaust as God’s way of forcing the Jews to return. He was referring to Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the spiritual father of the Gush Emunim movement.
Tzvi Yehudah Kook was the teacher of many of the rabbis who have continued to created the theology of the religious right in Israel – a theology in which all political developments point to approaching redemption and in which Jewish possession of the entire Land of Israel has been transformed into the supreme commandment. He is the central figure in propagating a radical, theologized nationalism as Judaism.
And my son is right: Tzvi Yehudah Kook gave practically the same theological explanation of the Holocaust as Hagee does: It was God’s way of forcing the Jews to return to their land in order to speed final redemption.
Aviezer Ravitzky, the brilliant scholar of Jewish thought, discusses this in his 1993 book, Haketz Hameguleh Umedinat Hayehudim (Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism) . Ravitzky quotes Tzvi Yehudah Kook as explaining, "The people of God was so attached to the impurity of the land of the gentiles that it had to be cut and sliced from it, with spilling of blood, when the time of the End came."
This was not just a passing thought; it was a doctrine he imparted to his disciples. Following the Six-Day War, a group of students from Kook’s yeshivah, Merkaz Harav, met with kibbutzniks who were conducting discussions with soldiers about their war experiences. The interviewers expected the same post-war melancholy and questioning they found among others who fought. Instead, they heard the students explain the war and the rest of history, including the Holocaust, as God’s plan:
The Holocaust was some sort of giant broom that sped immigration to the Land… As if the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to us, ‘Enough children, you’ve played what you wanted… Now I’ll move you to the Land.
(There’s more on this surreal conversation and its place in Israeli history in my book, The Accidental Empire .) Jonathan Blass, a rabbi of the Tzvi Yehudah school, laid out the same idea in an article (archive payment required) for the Jerusalem Report in 1992.
So this kind of thinking isn’t confined to the dark imaginings of one religion. Besides the obvious divisions between religions – Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism – there are another set of religious divisions: manners of religious thought, and religious responses to modernity, that cut accross faith communities. Hagee and Kook share a way of thinking, and are opposed to Jews, Christians and others who interpret their traditions in a very different manner.
Hagee has rather clearly argued that he came up with this idea in order to defend the concept of God’s omnipotence:
…all people of faith have had to wrestle with the question of why a sovereign God would allow evil in the world. After Auschwitz, this question became more urgent than ever.
Many people simply could not explain how a loving God would permit such horrors. After the Holocaust, they abandoned their faith in a sovereign God who intervenes here on earth… But I and many millions of Christians and Jews came to a different conclusion. We maintained our faith in a sovereign God who allows both the good and the evil that is in the world. We therefore search the scriptures for an explanation for that evil. We believe that the words of the Hebrew prophets… may help us understand the mind of God.
As God’s unappointed legal team, that is, Hagee and Kook have come up with this defense against the charge of divine negligience: He wasn’t negligient; He shared direct responsibility. He needed this horror. In some way, He wanted it to happen. The lawyers are announcing to the court: Our client pleads guilty to a more serious charge.
I think that anyone with faith can have faith that God doesn’t want this defense team.
The simplest response to this argument – and I’m stating it far too simply here – is that the greatest gift God gave to human beings is free choice. Being able to choose good implies that there is also the choice of evil. Evil means that the innocent are hurt. I’ll get back to this in a moment, but first I want to point out some other qualities of Hagee’s thinking, and in some respects of Tzvi Yehudah Kook’s thinking as well.
Hagee belongs to a stream of Christianity that claims to take the Bible literally. Read the text of his sermon, and you’ll find it hard to understand how the verses from Jeremiah that he cites could possibly be read literally as referring to the Holocaust. Such ‘literalists’ are constantly involved in decoding, especially of the prophetic books of the Bible: Where it says "hunter," read "stormtrooper, 1942." What they mean by "literal" is a belief that even the most poetic passage describes a specific historical event to come; that each word in the Bible has a one-to-one relationship with a place, person or action. These people literally don’t understand poetry.
But as Hagee says, they are reading the Bible for information. They want explanations. They come to the text in search for God’s plans. They want the confusion of life explained, straightened out. The explanation that they create is a myth: A grand picture of past, present and future, designed by God, in which human beings play parts that they don’t understand – unless they are the chosen few who know how to decode the Book. Since the tumult of modernity is particularly confusing, it has produced people in various faiths who want and find such explanations. They generate faith that history is headed in the right direction, directed by God. In the process, they sacrifice human responsibility for evil, and portray a God willing to use genocide to promote his means.
The opposite approach is implied in a text from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets , that I’ve quoted before :
Why should religion, the essence of which is worship of God, put such a stress on justice for man? Does not the preoccupation with morality tend to divest religion of immediate devotion to God?… Did not the prophets overrate the worth of justice?
Perhaps the answer lies here: righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history.
In Heschel’s approach, the reason to study the Bible (or any religious text) is not to search for God’s reassuring plans. It’s to find God in search of human beings, demanding that they act justly. Justice is God’s stake in history, but justice is performed by human beings.
The problem with both Hagee and Kook is that they suggest that we put aside our moral feelings and admire the divine machinery bringing a better world even if millions must suffer on the way. In their "defense" of God, they promote acceptance of injustice.
So once again we have a choice. We can misread verses as Hagee does, as Tzvi Yehudah Kook did, and sit back and believe that we understand what it all really means. Or we can read the verses as Heschel did, or as Martin Luther King did, and ask what we are supposed to do. This isn’t about faith versus secularism, or Christianity versus Judaism, or Islam versus Christianity. It’s about a division that cuts through religions, not between them.