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Vision of Greatness

A haftorah of dire straits and new directions

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(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; protesters photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images; poster: Franz Krausz via David Lisbona)

Summer is upon us, so allow me to adopt the heated language of film critics everywhere and claim that if you’re going to read just one haftorah portion this year, make it this week’s.

The Hollywood jargon isn’t entirely inappropriate. The scolding sermon in question, by the prophet Isaiah, has everything a blockbuster can hope for: Sex (“how has she become a harlot, a faithful city”)! Corruption (“everyone loves bribes and runs after payments”)! A happy ending (“Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness”)! Good luck getting all that from a bunch of brooding vampires.

Isaiah laments the moral depravity of his people and preaches justice and compassion. While his fellow Israelites engage in worldly pursuits, he devotes himself to ethereal visions. This is why this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Hazon,” or the Shabbat of the vision: As we prepare to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, we’re instructed to reflect on Isaiah’s divinations and chart our own course toward repentance and redemption.

And what’s true for Jewish people is even more pressing for the Jewish state.

For the past year, I have frequently used this column to tie the prophets’ ire to Israel’s contemporary woes. Too often, I was saddened to discover in the ancient rebukes sharp lessons for modern times. The lamentations felt fresh, as if the sinfulness and hard-heartedness that so pained Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest of their holy ilk were committed not in biblical times but just a short while ago. But this week, I wish to linger on no specific ill. This week, I’d like to think about vision.

It’s a strange thing, of course, to believe that a state must have a vision. The overwhelming majority of nations, after all, owe their existence not to some ephemeral organizing principle but to geographical proximities, historical consequences, and ethnic similarities. They inhabit contiguous slivers of land long enough to mine for shared cultures and common ways. They become nations the way animals become fossils, a centuries-long journey in which a once-living entity becomes an immutable part of the landscape.

Israel is not such a nation. Israel was founded on an idea. It came to be because generations of Jews looked back at the covenant between God and his Chosen People and decided that they could no longer wait for the Messiah to lead them to the Promised Land. They had a vision. Some called it Zionism, others mixed in elements of socialism or militarism or literature or labor or religion. But the Jewish vision hadn’t changed in millennia. It remained the same from the destruction of the Temple onward. The vision called for an independent and just Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the sort the Lord had in mind when he spoke, at Sinai, of a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. That was the vision that propelled scores to war and hardship, the vision in whose name I and so many others took up arms. And that vision, alas, is in peril.

The problem isn’t left versus right. It has nothing to do with Palestinian violence or the Iranian threat. It looms far above the petty concerns that fill up the pages of our newspapers and our dinner-table conversations. The problem is existential: Israel, I believe, has lost its vision.

How else to explain a nation that so desperately and candidly craves peace and yet time and again lends its unequivocal support to military escapades that gain nothing but calumny? How to account for a population that disagrees bitterly with the settlers’ zealous dream of grasping on to Judea and Samaria yet votes enthusiastically for those politicians who continue to build more and more Jewish outposts on the West Bank’s contentious hills? What do we say when no plan is in sight, no hope foreseeable, and the sole comfort comes from slinging mud at enemies, real or imagined?

These days, I can think of little else. These questions are at the heart of a new book I’ve co-written with Todd Gitlin—The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election—and I hope to have the opportunity to discuss them in greater length in the fall. For now, however, I can say this: The way out is further in. If—as Todd and I became convinced when researching our book—Israel wants to be a Jewish state, then let it be a Jewish state. Let it take Isaiah’s warning seriously and commit itself once more not merely to the mechanics of Judaism—its rituals and rigidities, its tired symbols and battered tropes—but to its wonderful and wild and vibrant soul, the same spirit that witnessed the birth of monotheism and made it its mission to tell the world of God and his mercy. Let it listen to the prophet and abandon its fantasies of might and money. Instead of accusing the world of hypocrisy for judging Israel by a different standard than the one habitually applied to other nations, let it cheer and reply that any nation that was forged in the crucible of divine election, that was founded on faith in being God’s favorites sons, has no choice but to accept double standards as a matter of fact. Let it learn to tell the difference between the malicious few who burn with hatred and the perplexed many who look at Israel’s actions and wonder—as every sensible and conscientious person must wonder—just what kind of future the Jewish state imagines for itself.

As we ponder these questions, let us praise the instruments of war or the pirouettes of peace, each of us according to her or his heart; for some the road might be clear, for others pebbled with the debris of broken promises and shattered dreams. But let us never stop thinking about our vision, and let our vision never stray far from that bequeathed to us from above. This summer, if you have only one thought of transcendence and fate, let this be the one.

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David M. Walker says:

I found this magazine by accident by reading a New York Times article by Alana Newhouse on “Who is a Jew”. I am Jewish by birth, my mother was Jewish, and my father was, well, I think a Catholic, but religion was not really part of my upbringing. (I have yet to step foot in a temple, yet I proudly consider myself Jewish, and openly display the Star Of David around my neck) I have always wondered why Israel would just keep on building settlements. I came to the conclusion that the governments only aim was to infuriate everyone else and do as it pleases. This was the impression I got from reading news article after news article about Israel and its policies. This article seems to put a new light on what the nation of Israel is all about. I never thought of Israel as an “idea”, but more as a nation born out of a need to tell the world that being Jewish is not a crime.(I was born in 1946, and have seen the horrors of what the Nazis tried tried to do all of us.) I find it very interesting that some of my negative thoughts about the building of unwanted settlements is shared by some of the citizens of Israel, that really is a surprise to me. I would have thought just the opposite about the population. I have just begun to explore this magazine and its articles. My faith as a Jew seems to be renewed by reading some of what has been written here, and although I may not agree with all that I read in the future, be assured that I will enlighten myself about what is my Jewish heritage and faith. It is something I have wanted to do all my life.

Dear Liel:

Another eloquent and fascinating essay! There are many writers on the parshot, the weekly portion, but yours are well above the average. You are correct that Israel needs to get its “vision” back. The road it is on right now is a dark one.

David Walker — if you are interested in talking with other adult children of intermarriage, we have an organization with a website online, The Half-Jewish Network. The website URL should appear on my comment.

Robin Margolis

Dear Liel:

My apologies for referring to your series on the haftorah portions (mostly Prophets) as “parshot” (the Torah portions)! My error.

Also, you may wish to give the citations to each haftorah that you discuss. Not every Hebrew Bible has the haftorah and parshot listed completely or fully. I know people can look them up online, but if you listed the exact book, chapter and verse in the Bible, that might help some of your readers.

Looking forward to next week’s essay,


I agree. Israel’s original chalutzim vision has been drowned in the Knesset realpolitik. I think that there are so many “visions” for the future of Israel that a clear consensus seems like an impossibility. In light of this circumstance, maybe the only coherent vision is an Israel where all Jews can coexist and prosper. That’s my vision.

And with that I’ll wish all readers here a good Shabbos. L’chaim.


Decisions, decisions . . . to point the finger or give the finger? Obviously the answer is at our fingertips. Thumbs up, Israel, if you have the courage to remove your hands from your eyes, see yourself as you are and make the change the
prophet asks of you. Then you win, hands down !

Some Hasbara statements needs to be clarified here.

1. The modern Jews cannot claim to be the “Chosen People” – because the great majority of them are not Israelites but Khazarians and Berbers.

2. The majority of the fathers of the state of Israel were born-Jews but in practice atheists. They never meant to establish a state based on Torah laws. There dream was a communist/socialist state which could provide an escape for the European Jews from centuries-old Christian persecution. Herzl did not have problem having such state in Uganda, Cyprus, Argentina or Sinai.

Recently, Howard Galganov in his editorial on his website cited some other “points” in support of Israel – none which has historical background.

rykart says:

Todd Gitlin.

So it’s to be a comic book, then?

Talking about “prophets and saints” – we have one in Toronto. He is Dr. Izzeldine Abuelaish, a Gaza-born doctor who cured thousands of Arab-hating Israeli Jew patients at Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. And what he got in return for his caring for the Israeli Jews – they killed his three young daughters in a rocket attack during 23-day invasion of Gaza Strip…..

virginia says:

We would have a more just and compassionate world if we really thought about the Biblical verse ” The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness therof.”

nan abrams says:

Response to Rehmat:”The modern Jews cannot claim to be the “Chosen People” – because the great majority of them are not Israelites but Khazarians and Berbers.” You have not been paying attention to DNA testing that affirms the connection of the Jewish people, whether from the middle east or Europe; we are all connected. There has been no connection found between Jews and Khazars — it was a theory that now appears to be unfounded. Berbers? Now there’s a new one. Do you mean the North African Jews? According to DNA testing, if I recall correctly, the North African Jews broke off at a different time –earlier I think–as did the Jews of Iraq, Persia etc. Your wish to separate us from our indigenous connection to the land will be unfulfilled because regardless of the earliest Zionist philosophy, the goal was to return to our home–and we did.

P. R. says:

Mazal Tov on your new book! Sounds great and I look forward to reading it. I’m in 100% agreement with this week’s commentary. How can we read the Prophets week after week, and not take to heart their message of self-correction, especially in the political realm, with so many lives at stake? Gevalt Yiddin! Improve yourselves!

rykart says:

Nan Abrams jumps to a very hasty conclusion about the genetics and completely overlooks the clear convergence of Israeli and Nazi patterns of thought.

As the wiki entry explains:

Ostrer (author of one of the studies) said, “I would hope that these observations would put the idea that Jewishness is just a cultural construct to rest.” However, geneticist Noah Rosenberg of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says that although the study “does not appear to support” the Khazar hypothesis, it “doesn’t entirely eliminate it either.”[4]

Shlomo Sand has contested the claim that his book has been contradicted by recent genetic research published in Nature journal and the American Journal of Human Genetics. In a new afterword for the paperback edition of The Invention of the Jewish People, Sand writes:

This attempt to justify Zionism through genetics is reminiscent of the procedures of late nineteenth-century anthropologists who very scientifically set out to discover the specific characteristics of Europeans. As of today, no study based on anonymous DNA samples has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews, and it is not likely that any study ever will. It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased! And it is all the more repulsive that this kind of research should be conducted in a state that has waged for years a declared policy of “Judaization of the country” in which even today a Jew is not allowed to marry a non-Jew.[22]

i find rehmet , nan abrams and rykart all throwing arguments at each other that have nothing real to do with the idea of the “chosen people” and discussing who is a “genetically true” jew as if this is what matters- what fasism do they all subscribe to/.
– chosen to do what? to be what? it seems that no one even bothers to try to define what they are talking about. the whole notion of “chosen people” is not essential to make jews follow an ethical calling, the notion of justice, buried deep within the religion, is what does that.
– you can convert to judaism and become of total bona fide jew, in a all halakhic senses, without having one single gene from a jewish ancestor- so what are those that talk about genetic lineage busy proving? all the khazars and whoever else converted became a totally “legitimate” jew when embracing abraham and sara as their “real” parents in a spiritual sense. this whole genetic proving is what the nazis where busy doing, because it mattered in their fascist belief system. please leave THEM and those who think in the same cathegories do that, just like shlomo sand says
– saying that this means that the identity of peoplehood is “invented” (=false) because of that is just as simplistic. In the bible, the lineage is detrmined to start with Abraham. Why not with his father terakh? – because abraham set himself a new identity by determining to adhere to a different god than his idol-maker father, and then raising his family in the same belief system, as well as his servants and all those who chose to belong to their family / tribe. They then stuck together and the group was recognized by others as a people. It is a mixture of true descendants and those who chose to belong to the same family as those descendants. This is the same kind of history that other nations have
-the story of Dr. Izzeldine Abuelaish is heart-wrenching. He still is, and speaks as a very special man and the state of Israel carries an unrepayable debt to him & great shame

Awesome, thats precisely what I was hunting for! You just spared me alot of searching around


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Vision of Greatness

A haftorah of dire straits and new directions

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