What Jeremiah himself would make of the fact that two lines from the sixteenth chapter of the collection of his sermons that Baruch ben Neriah edited and which eventually made it into the Bible have become the centerpiece of a huge debate in an American presidential election, I can’t even begin to imagine. What he would make of the Reverend John Hagee, on the other hand, I think I can guess fairly accurately.
The Reverend Hagee, I must admit, speaks his mind. Unwilling—or possibly even unable—to keep from expressing himself clearly or forcefully, he is anything but a hypocrite who proclaims one set of truths while actually believing in another. And watching John McCain backpedal as he tries to disassociate himself from the reverend only underscores how ill at ease some of us are with people who actually do say what they think. But the Reverend Hagee’s probity is not the issue here…nor is the reasonableness of John McCain’s decision first to accept, then to reject, his support. It’s the substance of the reverend’s remarks I’d like to write about this week, and their implications for the way we ourselves view the issues in play.
The Reverend Hagee, I’ve written about before. The pastor of a San Antonio megachurch, John Hagee has raised millions upon millions of dollars for Israel. And he doesn’t just raise funds—he is also instrumental personally in winning political support for Israel among evangelicals. Most recently, he founded an organization called Christians United for Israel, which will gather in Washington this July for a pro-Israel conference that is intended to solidify evangelical support for Israel and to make clear to members of Congress the strength of that commitment. Of course, the Reverend Hagee is also a fiercely committed evangelical Christian himself…and, as I have written here before, at the root of his pro-Israel stance is the sense that the redemption of the world (as it is specifically understood in evangelical circles) is tied in with the fate of the Jewish people…and that part of God’s design for the world clearly includes the ingathering of our exiles in the Land of Israel. That much is incontrovertible.
I’ve raised the question from the pulpit of whether the reverend’s money is tainted. After all, at the core of his Zionism rests the hope that the Jewish people abandon Judaism and embrace his Christian faith…so being supportive of his efforts to support Israel is, at the very least, complicated for Jews who believe in our version of the future of the Jewish people no less fervently than the Reverend Hagee believes in his. But now I’d like to write about something else entirely.
I started by mentioning Jeremiah. In the sixteenth chapter of his book, the prophet frames his thinking about the catastrophe about to befall the Jews of ancient Judah by reminding them that the same God about to punish them with exile will also bring them back to the land and re-establish them there. The prophet begins by imagining that the day will come when people eager to give an example of God’s role in Jewish history will be less likely to mention the exodus from Egypt than they will be to mention the ingathering of the exiles in the Land of Israel. “For I will surely bring them back to the land I gave to their fathers,” the prophet declaims in God’s name. But before there can be redemption, there must first be exile. And the knows how exactly that will happen: “Lo, I am sending many fishermen to fish them out, and many hunters to hunt them out of every mountain and from behind every hill, and out, even, of the clefts of rocks,” he declares in God’s name. “For My eyes are on their ways and none can hide from My presence, nor will ever their iniquity be concealed from My sight. I will pay them in full, or even doubly again, for their sins, for they have defiled my lands.” And then the prophet continues with the famous text known to shul-goers as the haftarah we just heard in synagogue last week, the haftarah for Parashat Bechukotai.
Those ancient lines are the ones the Reverend Hagee seized upon in a sermon that has just now been published on the internet. Hitler, he deduced from his study of the prophet’s prose, was the hunter who ferreted the Jews of Europe out from their hiding places. And the role of the post-Shoah believer, therefore, is to give reality to the other half of the prophet’s prediction by supporting the Zionist initiative to create a new Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel, a place in which the exile will finally end. The reverend’s Zionism, therefore, is merely the logical outgrowth of his faith in the literal truth of Scripture: just as Hitler was merely playing his part in fulfilling God’s destiny for Israel, so must we all…including evangelical Christians eager to bring about the redemption of the world.
You are all probably more than aware of the firestorm of criticism that provoked. John McCain almost immediately disassociated himself with the reverend, rejecting his endorsement and distancing himself from his views. Most, but not all, Jewish groups expressed outrage at the pastor’s implication that the Jews themselves bore some responsibility for the Shoah or, worse, that the Nazis were merely carrying out God’s plan for Israel by serving as the hunters mentioned by the prophet. And the blogosphere is still spinning out of control. (Just google “Hagee, hunter, Hitler” and you’ll see what I mean.)
What makes the whole debate ridiculous is that no one with a real background in Jewish thought seems yet to have weighed in. And that is a shame…not because the Reverend Hagee isn’t entitled to his views, but because the prophet’s message—profound and deeply meaningful, even after all these centuries—has been almost totally obscured.
Jeremiah believed that the tension between unshakable faith in God’s plan for Israel and the belief that humanity is blessed with absolute free agency to do good or evil in the world can provide the energy necessary to propel the Jewish people forward on its path through history. When he refers to the Babylonian hordes coming to destroy the land as God’s agents come to punish Israel for their iniquity, he is not whitewashing their cruelty or their vindictiveness, nor is he imagining that they bore no responsibility for their acts. Reconciling irreconcilable truths is a fixation of moderns: the prophet’s system was simply to proclaim the truths he felt inspired to speak in God’s name and to let his listeners sort out how they all fit together. The Babylonians, he said, were going to hunt out the Jews of ancient Judah and send them into exile, but they too would eventually pay for their sins...and for their part in the destruction of the Holy City. And the exile itself would also end eventually, at which time Israel would finally be restored to its land. The Jewish ability, well honed over all these millennia, to accept history as God’s judgment without lifting the mantle of responsibility from the shoulders of the perpetrators seems not to be part of the Reverend Hagee’s repertoire. I suppose he can’t be blamed for that, but the simplistic arrogance of his remarks—that he personally “discovered” the real meaning of prophet’s words merely by perusing them in whatever translation he uses—combined with his apparent lack of interest in knowing or caring that we Jews have been struggling to reconcile that passage (and similar ones) with what we know of history and what we know of the human spirit (and also with what we know of the human capacity to descend into barbarism and depravity when motivated by genocidal rage), that is the bone that sticks in my throat.
Hitler was not God’s hunter. The Nazis were not God’s agents. It is the job of our generation of Jews to find a way to reconcile the reality of exile and the promise of redemption with the plausibility of aliyah…which has nothing to do with giving the barbarians a pass because it is ultimately God who rules human history. It is for God to mete out justice to the depraved miscreants who stopped at nothing to destroy our people. And it is for philosophers of history to attempt to unravel the relationship of the Shoah to the founding of the state of Israel. The great riddle that churns and roils at the center of the matter is the relationship between history and destiny, and between the way God governs the world no less forcefully than subtly and mysteriously.
The reverend ignited a firestorm of criticism by citing the Bible and then by saying clearly what he thought the passage in question meant. By mistaking ununravelable mystery for a simple statement of divine policy, the Reverend Hagee showed how distant he is from the complex, multi-layered approach to Scripture we have evolved over these many years. But to say that the words of Jeremiah cannot be brought to bear in the ongoing effort to explain the destiny of Israel in terms of its history—that also seems to me wrong and without foundation. In the end, I do believe, as do so many of us, that the founding of Israel sixty years ago was an event of almost unparalleled significance for the Jewish people. But to imagine that, somehow, that thought can be brought to bear to absolve the Nazis of full responsibility for their crimes is to the miss the point almost entirely: the prophet’s words remain eternally valid…but it is the exile itself that is the framework for coming to terms both with our past and our future, not the barbarism, brutality, or ruthlessness of our enemies among the nations of the world. (May 30, 2008)