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Contours of Religious Zionism

By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus and Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
October 2012

And the many peoples shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go to the Mount of the Lord, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.” For Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. ---- Isaiah 2:3

Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, religious Zionism contributed an important torah (teaching): nationalism and religion are both necessary for the rebirth of a nation. Nonetheless, the differences in methodology, personality and philosophy that existed before 1948 require further exploration.1

Illustrations are in order. Rabbis Yehudah Hai Alkali (1798-1878) and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) were religious activists bordering on the messianic who clashed with the authoritative rabbinical pietism, passivism and quietism of their day. Alkali spent his early years in Eretz Israel and then returned to his native Siberia in 1825, from where he advocated the preparation of the Land for later redemption. As early as 1834, he argued for Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, which became an obsession for him following the Damascus Libel (1840). His book Minhat Yehudah (1845) posits the rabbinical dual messiahs, Mashiah ben Yosef and Mashiah ben David, in modern garb. The First Messiah is the process (philanthropic, military, political) that acquires and sustains the Land, the atchalta di-geula/ “the beginning of the redemption,” which sets the stage for the ingathering of the exiles by the divinely appointed Second Messiah. For Alkali, the revival of spoken Hebrew as the language of instruction (teachers and students) and of the streets (boys and girls) is the conditio sine qua non for the dawning and the eschatological fulfillment of the messianic age.2

Kalischer’s book Derishat Ziyyon (1862) propounds the theory, by reference to scriptural and talmudic sources, that the messianic era must be preceded by the establishment of Jewish colonies in Eretz Israel through the cooperation of willing governments, the benevolence of wealthy Jews (the Rothchilds, the Montefiores, the Baron de Hirschs, etc.) and “agricultural self-help.” The latter inspired the Alliance Israélite Universelle to establish the Mikveh Israel agricultural training school near Jaffa and Petah Tikva, a Jewish agricultural colony.

Like a soul ablaze, the revolutionary religio-mystical philosophy of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, is grounded in kabbalistic particularity (“The People of Israel, the Torah, and the Land of Israel are One”) but soars to heights of universality (the whole earth, and all therein, is His creation). In Kook’s Weltanschauung, the love of God is fully demonstrated in the love for all God’s creation; the impurity of the Exile, a cosmic distortion, is corrected by the return to Zion, a cosmic restoration; no longer to cast our sight on a heavenly Jerusalem but rather to look to our own (religious and secular alike) efforts here below to make the earthly Jerusalem a fit place in which to live, an outpouring of divine “Light unto the Nations,” perfecting the world (tikkun ‘olam) through reconciliation, and achieving harmony and peace. Rav Kook’s intellectual sincerity and piety was one giant step in bridging the chasm between secular Zionism and the religious tradition.

Less philosophy and theology and more history and politics characterize the rabbinic calling (Reform), community service, and Zionist orientation of San Francisco-born Reform Rabbi Judah L. Magnes (1877-1948). Orator and writer, Magnes was a socially and religiously committed pioneer of American Zionism, who is best known as a founder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1925, chancellor; 1935, president) and for his humanistic, pacifistic plans of reapproachments between Arabs and Jews. However paradoxical and controversial were his positions, and sometimes misunderstood and misjudged, he remained his own dogged servant for his brand of Zionism in Judaism which was his self-imposed distance from American Reform and departure from the American Zionist establishment; his unswerving pacifism, uncritical faith in cultural enlightenment and progress, and commitment to prophetic Judaism embarrassingly abated by events in World War II; and the opposition that greeted his founding of Ihud “Unity” (with Martin Buber in August 1942) that called for the establishment of a bi-national state in Eretz Israel. He taught as he lived --- “a dissenter in Zion.”

Martin Buber’s (1878-1965) religio-cultural-mystical approach to Zionism, having its roots in Hasidism, which he discovered and interpreted for the West, is interlaced with his viewpoint on the nature of Man. His central question on the meaning of humanness is expressed in the recurring use of the word Wessen (essence, being, nature), which he understood in terms of two primary word-pairs: “I-You” and “I-It.” The I-You relationship is total involvement of self and other in intimacy, that is, sharing, empathy, caring, openness, and trust. The I-It relationship consists of self viewing other in abstract terms, resulting in possession, exploitation and distrust. The I-It pair permits the self to objectify the other, creating a state of manipulative dependency, and the I-You pair encourages an atmosphere of interdependence, permitting growth and respect. Only through genuine I-You encounters do people discover their humanity and, by mutually affirming and confirming one another, come face to face with the Eternal Thou. Thus, for Buber, Zionism is fundamentally social, consisting of interpersonal relations between the “self and other,” and the result is the nation’s communal experience as expressed in righteousness, justice and moral action. The faith in Buber’s strand of national religion gives rise to a new type of Zionist personality, in which the ideals of a nation and the interests of humanity coincide. For Buber, the deepest motive for Jewish presence in the homeland is in the religio-social arena, invoking and involving the cooperation of Israel and her neighbors on the basis of equality and brotherhood.

On the eve of Rosh HaShanah 5773, against the crises in the Middle East (terror and nuclear), and the Presidential platforms in America to have or not have “God and Jerusalem,” may the prophetic voice from Zion, written on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, become the realized hope for all humanity:

[A]nd they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruning-hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war no more. --- Isaiah 2:4


1 On religious Judaism’s contribution to ha’umah ha-yisraelit, see my review of Y. Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition in Modern Judaism 18.2 (1998). My comments on G. Shimoni’s The Zionist Ideology (AJS Review 22.2 [1997], 266-269) evaluates the major thinkers and venues of Zionist thought.

2 Alkali on Joel 3:1: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”