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Reviving Religious Zionism

By Daniel Shoag

Today the term Zionism is oversimplified. Having once stood for a range of sophisticated and nuanced ideologies, it has taken on a popular meaning of blanket support for the Jewish State. Yet, with Zionism today facing intellectual assault, Zionists must clearly define their beliefs to defend them more effectively. This article will focus on a particular brand of Zionism—Religious Zionism—the ideology of those who support Jewish autonomy on religious grounds.

Arguably a rather large percentage of American Jews may be called religious Zionists. Many, if not most Jewish congregations in America pray for the State of Israel and refer to it as “Reishit Shmichat Geulateinu” or the “beginning of our redemption.” This prayer, as well as others, reflect the view that the Jewish State has value not only culturally or politically, but religiously as well. The religious interpretation of Jewish sovereignty is also unmistakably evident in the focus on the State of Israel in sermons and synagogue activities and in the religiously oriented celebrations of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day).

The religious approach to Zionism, however, has a number of powerful critics. One of the most eloquent and passionate critics of the view that the State of Israel has religious importance is the late Professor Yeshayhu Leibowitz of Hebrew University. An ardent Zionist, Leibowitz nonetheless believes that “the State of Israel of our day has no religious significance,” and he powerfully criticizes the existing lines of Zionist thought that attributed significance to the Jewish nation-state.

In this essay I will outline some of the existing major lines of Religious Zionist thought, summarize Leibowitz’s critique of these positions, and then propose a possible fruitful new direction for Religious Zionism.

Religious Significance

Much of American Jewry relates to the modern Jewish nation state as something “holy.” Conditioned as Americans are to view religion and state as inherently separate domains, it may seem strange for American Jewry to view the Israeli Knesset (parliament) as a religiously important body. Yet this is the only possible interpretation one could give to the prayers and verses found in the prayer books of most Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews across the country.

This significance is different too from the more general idea that the Land of Israel itself is holy, a long established Jewish tradition. There are numerous commandments pertaining to the land, but these commandments give significance to a geographic area, not a political body. Many American Jews consider not only the land religiously important but the political Jewish nation-state which governs the land religiously important as well.

Rabbi Kook

One of the best-known and most explicitly religious interpretations of Zionism was expressed, perhaps most famously, by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Kook, the first chief Rabbi of the pre-state Jewish settlement in Israel known as the Yishuv, was well known for his tireless efforts to bring together Israel’s secular and religious communities. Kook was also, however, an unabashed messianist who saw within the Zionist movement the redemption promised by the prophecies. Kook’s Hegelian thought premises that the end of history or redemption would follow the synthesis of secular Zionism and traditional Judaism. Kook believed that the great upheavals he saw in the world around him during World War I were the chaos which the prophecies predicted would precede the Messiah. Kook writes, “The time of the songbird has come…The present world war [WWI] is filled with deep, awesome, colossal expectations, combined with all of the vicissitudes of the times, which point to the Revealed End with the settlement of Eretz Yisrael.”1 Zionism and the future State of Israel were religiously significant for Kook, then, because they represented the manifest hand of God in history. To Kook, the State of Israel represented the herald of the Messiah, the beginning of redemption, and the work of the Lord.

Rabbi Kook’s son and successor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda ha-Cohen Kook, carried his father’s idea even farther in advocating that Israeli military and political decisions be made on the basis of the impending messianic age. In the words of Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel, the chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, “Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah’s greatness lay in his translation of the broad, deep teachings of his father into the language [of] action.” 2 The political ideology formulated by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah and his contemporaries at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva was unique in its stress on maintaining the entire land of Israel, including the territories conquered in the Six Day War in 1967. “The State of Israel is divine…Not only can/must there be no retreat from [a single] kilometer of the Land of Israel, God forbid, but on the contrary, we shall conquer and liberate more and more.”3 It is this ideology, created by the latter Rabbi Kook and premised on the new idea of messianic determinism, which spurred what today has become one of the most prominent faces of Religious Zionism, the settlement movement of Gush Emunim.

Leibowitz’s Criticism of Kook

This view of the religious significance of the state of Israel has been the subject of fierce and perhaps mortal criticism from Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a noted ethicist and professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

While professing great respect for the personality of Rabbi Kook himself, Liebowitz attacks the sage’s claim that the state of Israel represents the hand of God in history by simply pointing out that there has been no direct sign from God backing that claim. He argues, “All of us, therefore, having no insight into the designs of Providence, must exercise utmost caution before proclaiming events of the nature of military victory or national political deliverance as the ‘dawn of redemption’ or ‘the sprouting of our redemption.’”4

While many claim that the Jewish State’s successes are indeed a direct sign from God, Leibowitz points out that the Bible is rife with tales of great national victories won by men whom our tradition has nonetheless considered wicked.  For example, though King Yarov’am “restored the border of Israel from the entering of Hamath to the sea of Aravah” and “recovered Damascus…which had belonged to Judah in Israel,” he was still said to do “that which was evil in the sight of God.”5 In fact, the prophet Amos even curses Israel for the actions of Yarov’am, saying, “Yarov’am shall die by the sword and Israel shall surely be led captive out of their own land.”6

Having thus established that military and political victories are not, in themselves, sufficient proof of God’s work, Leibowitz then argues that “since the establishment of the state of Israel was not inspired by the Torah, nor undertaken for the sake of Torah, religiously speaking, its existence is a matter of indifference.”7 Taking this thought a step further, Leibowitz writes that “Zionism as an aspiration to political-national independence is a legitimate Jewish aspiration…but it must not be given a religious aura.”

“The category of holiness is inapplicable to the state,” Leibowitz writes. “Only God is holy and only His imperatives absolute.”8 To Leibowitz, in short, “the State of Israel of our day has no religious significance.”

David Hartman’s response to Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Leibowitz, in his attack on the idea of a “holy” state, does allow the possibility that a historical event, such as the creation of Israel, could have religious impact by providing opportunities for furthering Jewish practice. “In Judaism,” he writes, “each historical situation, every historical vicissitude and change, and even the historical process as a whole are treated not from the point of view of a specific religious-historical conception, but from the perspective of the religious interest.”9 Leibowitz believes that this doctrine of “religious opportunism” accounts for the differing political messages of the prophets, for each conveyed “only the absolute demand to serve God” while their attitude toward history “change[d] according to the changing implications of the historic situations for the observance of the Torah and the Mitzvoth.”10

Picking up on Leibowitz’s caveat, Rabbi David Hartman makes a vision of a Jewish state central to his religious perspective. Hartman sees the role of the state of Israel as the expansion of Jewish responsibility and involvement in the world, a concept central to his “covenantal” theology that emphasizes the activist aspects of man’s relationship with God. “By infusing Torah with the original Zionist passion for Jewish responsibility, we can renew the Sinai covenant once again in the conditions of modern Israel.”11

Yet, in spite of the ease with which the Jewish state fits in to Hartman’s broader theology, he is admittedly dependent on the loophole which Leibowitz himself provides. “One can religiously embrace modern Israel not through a judgment about God’s actions in history but through an understanding of the centrality of Israel for the fullest actualization of the world of mitzvoth,”12 he writes. Ultimately, it is this dependency which undermines Hartman’s approach. Leibowitz, well aware of his own qualification, still does not find the Jewish nation-state holy, despite its obvious benefit to “religious interests” because Judaism designates the ends as religiously important, not the means. In other words, while Leibowitz believes Israel might have a religious impact, he does not believe it held religious significance. To him, it is the religious equivalent of a pious Jew winning the lottery—it enables religious practice but is not meaningful in and of itself. Hartman, who wishes to set up the State of Israel as religiously important, never manages to overcome the difficulty hidden in Leibowitz’s loophole. Thus, while Hartman speaks powerfully about Israel’s role in expanding Jewish activism, he never manages to establish a stable base on which to ground his theory of religious Zionism.

The Rav: Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Option

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, commonly thought to be the father of American Modern-Orthodoxy, believes as Rabbi Kook does that the State of Israel represents the obvious hand of God working in history. While not nearly as messianic as Kook, Solovietchik believes that divine will was the only way to account for the seemingly miraculous events that enabled the State of Israel to be created. Thus, while Soloveitchik does not see the modern Jewish nation state as heralding the end of history, he does see religious meaning in the State of Israel as the direct creation of God. Soloveitchik spells this view out in his famous essay Kol Dodi Dofek (The Voice of my Beloved Knocks), in which he enjoins the American Jewish community to heed the miracles worked by God in the creation of the State of Israel. Soloveitchik even goes as far as enumerating what he believes to be the six major miracles that the Lord preformed when He “suddenly manifested Himself”13 in 1948, the year of Israel’s birth.

Yet, while maintaining his belief that the birth of the modern state of Israel is a manifest miracle, Soloveitchik also finds a halakhic basis for the religious significance of the Jewish State. Soloveitchik finds this basis in the commandment to settle the land of Israel (Yishuv Ha’Aretz), from which he extrapolates an obligation to create Jewish sovereignty in the land as well. “We said, this mitzvah is fulfilled not only by building up the country…but also by our sovereignty there.”14 Soloveitchik bolsters his position that the commandment of Yishuv Ha’aretz includes the notion of sovereignty by citing the biblical source of the decree15 and the commentary of Nachmanides,16 both of which can be read as advocating Jewish rule of the Holy Land. These traditional sources, the Rav claims, show that the mitzvah has long been understood as obligating Jews to pursue autonomy in the Holy Land.

Despite Soloveitchik’s attempt to couch his extrapolation in traditional terms, he was certainly aware that his reading an obligation to establish sovereignty into the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz was a major innovation in halakha, and one that broke with the traditional understanding of the mitzvah. In his major work on Zionism, Fir Droshes, Soloveitchik notes that although his illustrious and pious grandfather Rabbi Chaim of Brisk dreamed of “settl[ing] in the land of Israel…and fulfill[ing] the commandments pertaining to the land,”17 he was opposed to the idea of Jewish sovereignty. “His love of Zion and Jerusalem had no relation to the Zionism of Chaim Weizman,”18 Soloveitchik writes. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s prominent rabbinic family was far from neutral when it came to the issue of Zionism. Indeed, the Rav’s great-grandfather vigorously denounced the fledging movement as early as 1889.

It is surprising, then, that Soloveitchik pays so little attention to his halakhic innovation and its implications in his writings. There is no discussion of the legitimacy of his relocating of the locus of yishuv ha’arez from the individual to the collective, nor is there discussion about the validity of a corporate actor fulfilling a commandment issued to individuals.

Moreover, Soloveitchik does not discuss the implications that follow from grounding the halakhic nature of the state in the mitzvah of Yishuv Ha’Aretz. By so basing the state, Soloveitchik makes immigration to Israel, or aliyah, the primary goal of Jewish sovereignty, and he raises a standard by which we are to religiously judge aspects the Jewish nation-state. The elements of Jewish sovereignty that promote immigration are to be considered holy, those which do not are not. This dichotomy, I believe, does not fit well with the empirical religious valuations most Jews make about the State of Israel. For example, Jews tend to see Israel’s victories in 1948 and 1967, but not the fifth Aliyah, as religiously significant events. Soloveitchik’s method would also require Jews to strenuously oppose Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, which may not hold the status of the land of Israel according to the halakha. Lastly, one wonders how Soloveitchik’s method can hold meaning for the millions of Jews in the Diaspora who do not plan on emigrating. According to Soloveitchik, these Jews must find religious meaning in the State of Israel in that it facilitates their fulfillment of a commandment that they do not plan to fulfill. This method forces Diaspora Jewry to maintain a hypocritical approach to the state’s religious nature, and I personally feel that a better understanding of religious Zionism can be found.

Emil Fackenheim’s Moral Imperative to Self-Defense and the Beginnings of a Second Option

The formative years of Religious Zionism have come during a period of history in which the Jewish people have been forced to realize the dangers that lie in powerlessness. Emil Fackenheim, one of Judaism’s first post-Holocaust theologians, addresses the issue of the Holocaust by positing a “first priority” for the Jewish people, namely “safety of their children.”19 Fackenheim believes that Jews were “morally required to seek independence” and “safety” and that this requirement preceded any relationship the Jewish people would establish with either God or with the Christian world. Fackenheim articulates this need for Jewish self-defense in his famed six-hundred-and-fourteenth commandment, which emanated from the “commanding Voice of Auschwitz, forbidding the post-Holocaust Jew to give Hitler posthumous victories.”20 Fackenheim believes that this “commandment,” this moral imperative, was best fulfilled by the creation of a Jewish State. Therefore, Fackenheim writes, “except among the theologically or humanly perverse, Zionism—the commitment to the safety and genuine sovereignty of the State of Israel—is not negotiable.”21

Building on Fackenheim

While Fackenheim’s sentiments about the need for Jewish self-reliance in the form of a Jewish state are immensely popular, Fackenheim fails to locate a religious or divine source for his “moral imperative.” For Fackenheim, self-defense, and its manifestation in Zionism, are not religious values but rather things that precede religious value or stand outside of it. Thus Fackenheim locates the significance of the Jewish State in the Holocaust rather than in traditional Judaism: “solely because of the connection of the events…with Auschwitz did a military victory acquire an inescapable religious dimension.”22 Yet this need not be the case.

The Torah provides a religious locus for the moral imperative to Jewish communal defense in the book of Leviticus: “do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” Put in another way, the Bible commands Jews to defend one another. The lesson of the Holocaust, as Fackenheim notes, is that such defense is impossible without a nation-state and sovereignty. Numerous books, articles and publications have documented how the large, stateless Jewish community of the United States was forced to literally stand by as the Holocaust killed more than six million of its brethren.23 Thus, it may be possible to consider Zionism and the modern State of Israel as the collective Jewish fulfillment of the ancient halakhic charge not to stand idly by.

Identifying the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s movement toward self-defense also fits nicely with the stated aims of Zionism and the State of Israel. Israel’s Declaration of Independence cites the defenselessness of the Jewish community during the Holocaust as a “clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of [its] homelessness by reestablishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State.” The Declaration proclaims that Israel is the response to the Jews’ need for self-defense; that is, it is a fulfillment of their halakhic obligation toward self-defense.

Benefits and Challenges of the New Approach

The possibility of locating Zionism’s religious significance within the framework of the commandment not to “stand idly by” yields, I believe, a number of important benefits to those seeking a religiously relevant Jewish State. The primary benefit is, of course, the ability to celebrate Israel’s victories in intellectually honest religious terms. The War of Independence, the Six Day War and even Israel’s current war on terror can be seen as religiously significant acts through this lens as all were fought or are being fought for the purpose of defending Jewish lives. Looking at the modern Jewish national movement as the fulfillment of this specific commandment from God justifies the language used and the attention given to the State of Israel in most American synagogues.

There is, however, another equally important advantage to locating Zionism’s religious message within the context of this commandment of Lo Ta’amod. By placing the religious value of Zionism in the context of fulfilling a single mitzvah, onecan not only celebrate Israel’s victories, but can also classify what aspects of Israel are indeed religiously significant. In other words, by locating the religious meaning of Zionism within the commandment of Jewish communal defense, only the aspects of Israel that further that goal ought to truly be considered religiously relevant. Thus, one does not necessarily need to support policies to make the machinery of the state more compliant with halakha, for the machinery is not relevant because it enforces halakha generally but rather because it fulfills a single, discrete commandment. Zionism looked at as the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Lo Ta’amod can be religiously significant without the need to advocate a theocratical, halakha-enforcing state. More generally, finding the religious locus of the state within a single commandment allows one to designate as “holy” only the aspects of the state that fulfill that commandment.

Additionally, this new basis for Religious Zionism allows for a more stable approach to the existence of the Jewish State, I believe, than does the approach of Rabbi Kook. Kook’s view tempts one to view every mundane event concerning Israel as a highly charged part of the meta-historical drama of an impending Messianic age. This temptation could have disastrous consequences and is neutralized by defining Israel’s religious meaning in a non-messianic way.

This is not to say, however, that the new method is not without its difficulties. Reading a halakhic backing for the state out of a verse in Leviticus, like Soloveitchiks’ innovation, requires an active interpretation of the commandment at odds with the traditional reading. Even the fairly early commentary of Rabbi Shimon Yitzhaki (Rashi) interprets the commandment as applying only once a person is in the position to save a fellow’s life. That is, Rashi did not see the commandment as a blanket requirement for Jews to place themselves in the position to save their fellows. Yet, in a post-Holocaust world, stretching the traditional commandment hardly seems unreasonable. Other difficulties to be worked out include, again as with Soloveitchik’s approach, the transfer of the onus of the commandment from the individual to the community and the validity of a Jewish corporate actor.

Though this is merely the beginning of a new approach to Religious Zionism, I hope that this article will generate some new thought on the subject. Israel is under attack today not only physically, but also intellectually. It is incumbent upon us to find new and workable approaches to all branches of Zionism.

Daniel Shoag, Harvard Class of 2006, is from Beachwood, Ohio.


1. Samson, David and Fishman, Tzvi eds. The Teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook War and Peace. Jerusalem: Torat Eretz Yisrael Publications, 1996: 36.
2. Aviezer Ravitsky. Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism. Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1996: 123.
3. Ibid., p. 132.
4. Leibowitz, Yeshayahu. “Redemption and the Dawn of Redemption” (1971). Judaism, human values, and the Jewish State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1992: 123.
5. Scherman, Noson, ed. The Stone Edition Tanach. Brooklyn: Artscroll, 1996: 2 Kings 14: 23-25.
6. Ibid., Amos 8:11.
7. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “The Religious Significance of the State” (1975). Judaism, human values, and the Jewish State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1992: 214.
8. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “The Significance of Redemption” (1977). Judaism, human values, and the Jewish State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1992: 106.
9. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Ahistorical Thinkers in Judaism” (1980). Judaism, human values, and the Jewish State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1992: 96.
10. Ibid.
11. David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997: 285.
12. Ibid.
13. Soloveitchik, Joseph.. “Kol Dodi Dofek.” Fate and Destiny: From Holocaust to the State of Israel. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 2000.
14. Soloveitchik, Joseph. The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History and the Jewish People. New York: The Judaica Press Inc., 2002: 137.
15. Scherman, Num 33:53. “And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and swell therein.”
16. Nachmanidies writes that Jews are obligated to “possess the land…and not forsake it in the hands of others.”
17. Ibid., p.35.
18. Ibid.
19. Fackenheim, Emil. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994: 284.
20. Ibid. p. 299.
21. Ibid. p. 284-285.
22. Fackenheim, Emil. “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust: A Fragment” Commentary Magazine (August 1968).
23. An example of this literature is Morse, Arthur. While Six Million Died. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968.

This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

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The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh