Jewish Journal

Reinhold Niebuhr, Where Are You Now?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

February 18, 2014 | 2:01 pm

If you were a Presbyterian minister, or simply a Presbyterian in the pew, you might ask yourself the following question: is it good that a Presbyterian-sponsored anti-Israel document gets an endorsement from both David Duke and Iran? Wouldn't you be concerned about what is being promulgated in your name, and in the good name of your church?

I am referring, of course, to “Zionism Unsettled,” a congregational study guide created by Israel Palestine Mission Network, that is being promoted under the auspices of the PCUSA.

The document is a blatant denunciation of the state of Israel and Zionism. Its riddled with factual inaccuracies, outright slanderous lies, and misinterpretations of history. For a reasonable and gracious response to the PCUSA action, please read this piece by my old friend Chris Leighton. Chris is not alone. That means that we are not alone, either. Many Presbyterian leaders are very unhappy about this tilt towards anti-Zionism. 

What Christian groups are most likely to support Israel and Zionism? Various evangelical groups that support Zionism and Israel – groups such as Christians United For Israel. 

But for many Jews, CUFI's right-wing politics are treif. CUFI’s founder and CEO, Pastor John Hagee, has made unpleasant remarks about Roman Catholicism, Islam, and even the Holocaust that make warm relationships with most Jews somewhat difficult.

Others will disagree. Israel needs all the friends that it can get, they would say. This is no time to be picky. 

Are there no alternatives? There is, at least, one.

The only problem is that he died more than forty years ago, which makes his absence that much more poignant and powerful. 

I am talking about the Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Born in 1892, Niebuhr served a congregation in Detroit until 1928, when he became professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. New York geography buffs will note that Union Theological Seminary is only a block or so away from the Jewish Theological Seminary, which caused one Jewish scholar to quip that JTS’s motto could be “love your Niebuhr as yourself.” In fact, Niebuhr and Abraham Joshua Heschel were very close friends, and Heschel delivered the eulogy at Niebuhr’s funeral.

Niebuhr was what we would now call a Christian Zionist. But his Zionism was not based on some notion that the Jews needed to be back in the land of Israel in order for the Second Coming to occur. Rather, his Zionism was based on ethics and pragmatics: in the wake of the Holocaust, the world had an obligation to establish a refuge for Jews.

Niebuhr had resigned from the editorial board of Christian Century when the magazine failed to forcefully condemn Nazism. He had once supported the Brit Shalom vision of a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs, but he realized that this vision was unrealistic.

Niebuhr had once flirted with pacifism, but he soon realized that a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jews was unlikely. In 1957, he wrote in the New Republic: “Our new pacifism, which seems to avoid the danger of becoming involved in the ultimate global war by disavowing all local wars, actually exposes us to the danger which Chamberlain overlooked in Munich."

Niebuhr had that uncommon ability to criticize Israeli policies without condemning the entire Zionist enterprise. Already in 1957, he expressed his fears that the Chief Rabbinate would prove corrosive to Israeli religious life: “The religious Jews are Orthodox and to such a degree that, if they would have their way, they would fasten upon this essentially secular community political standards directly derived from the book of Deuteronomy, which would, among other embarrassments, make the life of a modern woman intolerable.”

I don’t believe in séances, and Judaism forbids trying to contact the dead. But if I did, I would go straight to a psychic or medium and ask him or her to conjure up Reinhold Niebuhr. We need him.

And while we are on the subject of Christian Zionists….

Arthur James Balfour was the chief architect of the Balfour Declaration. There are streets named for him in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. (Walk around the German Colony in Jerusalem, and you will find yourself strolling along streets named for British Zionists). "The treatment of the race has been a disgrace to Christendom," he wrote, and he saw the establishment of a Jewish state as an act of repentance.

And what was Balfour’s religion? He was nominally an Anglican. But his roots were in Scottish Presbyterianism.

As the current phrase would have it: I’m just saying...

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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