Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism

By Aviezer Ravitzky. Translated by Michael Swirsky and Jonathan Chipman

(University of Chicago Press, 303 pp., $17.95)

When it emerged as a political program for the Jews at the end of the nineteenth century, Zionism was a phenomenon for which traditional Jewish life was completely unequipped. It was new and it was perplexing, a movement that eluded categorization in the religious terms and the religious images of the past. It promised a political solution that was neither redemption nor exile. The sovereign Jewish state that was to be established by means of human action was radically different from the tradition al Jewish script of the messianic ingathering of the exiles that would be marked by a transformation of the Jewish condition and the human condition as a whole. And Zionism posed another perplexity to the community of the believers. It was, and it still is, a powerful vehicle of secularization. It attempted to shape Jewish identity by means of such worldly instruments as a shared language, a group loyalty, a land, and a common memory, which would together usurp the foundations of the traditional identity of Jews, the old identity based on commitment to Torah and Jewish law. Yet Zionism was not like the other secularizing forces of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For all its secularity, Zionism was reinforcing particularistic loyalties, and in its way it was allying itself--objectively, you might say--with the Orthodox camp in the war against assimilation. And so Zionism presented a more ambiguous phenomenon than the other rivals of tradition. The Orthodox leadership had to improvise a relationship to a movement that rejected its definition of the community and was nonetheless dedicated to its well-being, to its revival.

The religious community has been deeply divided in its reaction to Zionism since the beginning of this century, ranging from a complete rejection of Jewish nationalism as a satanic rebellion against God to its acceptance as a fulfillment of generations-old messianic expectation. This fascinating and rich spectrum of responses is analyzed in Aviezer Ravitzky's profound and important book. Ravitzky's book is a thorough study of the complicated ways in which a tradition is responding to a crisis that it did not foresee, with creative and contested re-readings of its categories of nationality, history, and messianism. In addition to its contribution to modern Jewish thought, Ravitzky's book is vital to the understanding of the current Israeli predicament.

One of the bitter ironies of Israel's history is that the Orthodox community, which was once an antagonistic observer in the heroic effort of state building, or at best a marginal participant, has become a major actor in Israeli policy. They once despised Zionism, but now the haredim--the ultra-Orthodox who constitute 5% to 7% of the Israeli population--are enjoying its fruits; their institutions are subsidized by the state and their leadership is attempting (and succeeding in its attempt) to influence Israel's public life. At the other extreme, the portion of the religious constituency that embraced Zionism as a messianic event gave birth to the settler movement known as Gush Emunim, or the Bloc of the Faithful, which has played a decisive role in Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and the Arab world. A community that is animated by a messianic understanding of Zionism is determining the future of a state that was created in part to break away from the mythic bind of exile and redemption.

Zionism was opposed by the Orthodox on two grounds. The first was their belief that exile from the land of Israel is the historical destiny of the Jews until they are redeemed by God. Thus Zionism was considered a Promethean rebellion, an attempt t o replace divine agency with human agency. It represented a failure in withstanding the trial of exile. The Talmud reads the verse from the Song of Songs--"I adjure you, O maidens of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by hinds of the field: do not wake or rouse love until it please [to come of itself]"--as an oath administered by God to Israel that the Jews not "hasten the end" and not force redemption; and this reading became the credo of the anti-Zionists in their advocacy of political quietism. In a typical passage, Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn, the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the turn of the century, wrote that "we must not heed them [the Zionists] in their call to achieve redemption on our own, for we are not permitted to hasten the End even by reciting too many prayers, much less so by corporeal stratagems, that is, to set out from exile by force." And in its attempt to replace the court Jew with the statesman and the soldier, Zionism was scorned, on more practical grounds, as a reckless adventure that risked the future of the nation.

Prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, there was a small migration of haredim to Israel; but such settlement of the Holy Land had only a religious meaning, and was proudly indifferent to a political meaning. Rabbi Amram Blau, one of the most extreme opponents of Zionism in the ultra-Orthodox world, declared in Jerusalem in 1947 that "our Holy Torah teaches that we should take no interest in the political realm while in exile, until the coming of the Messiah, may he come speedily and in our own day, and there is nothing in this position to antagonize our Arab neighbors....We have no interest in living in our Holy Land except to imbibe its holiness and to fulfill the commandments which can only be fulfilled here." This statement was mad e right before the establishment of the Jewish state. It suggested also that, unlike the Zionists' quest for political sovereignty, the haredi conception of the Jewish presence in the land would not agitate the neighboring Arabs and not jeopardize the community of Israel.

It is one of the great lessons of Judaism's responses to Zionism that the same tradition can produce radically different interpretations of the same events. Neither the Holocaust, which exposed the survival strategies of the Diaspora as a complete failure, nor the success of the Zionist movement in establishing a Jewish state against the predictions of the haredi leadership, caused any change in the relations of the ultra-Orthodox to Zionism. After the establishment of Israel, as Ravitzky points out, haredi opposition took a new form and emphasized a new argument: that Zionism, in providing an identity to Jews based on nationalistic elements such as language, ethnicity, and loyalty, posed a threat to the religious identity that defined the boundaries of the community through loyalty to Jewish law. For its Orthodox opponents, Zionism was seen as a powerful agent of apostasy. As Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of the second half of the nineteenth century, observed: "Regarding the `Zionist sect,' which has now banded and united together by force.... Have they not a bad reputation in their own places, and is not their purpose to uproot the fundaments of [our] religion--and to this end also to take control of all the Jewish communities?... The people of Israel should take care not to join a venture that threatens their souls, and to destroy religion, and is a stumbling block to the House of Israel."

After the establishment of the state of Israel, the haredi community in the Holy Land found itself living in a reality that it rejected. Ravitzky shows that the haredi community adopted two distinct approaches to the state of Israel. The more extreme group is the Neturei Karta, or "the guardians of the city," which was founded in Jerusalem in 1935, and consists of 10,000 Jews in Jerusalem and some tens of thousands in Europe and the United States. It views the success of Zionism as a temporary victory of diabolical forces in a mythical drama. For the sacred land attracts also the forces of impurity; danger and holiness go hand in hand. The members of Neturei Karta consider themselves to be the saving remnant, the last true Jews, the faithful who did not succumb to the seductions of power and worldliness.

The most difficult of all trials for the faithful was the Six Day War, which looked very much like a miraculous vindication of Zionism. Confronting the Jewish world as it was swept by the power of the victory, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebb e, and the most consistent and ferocious of the devout anti-Zionists, interpreted the war in this way: "How could anyone imagine that the Holy One, blessed be He, would perform miracles for idolaters? [Such a notion] is pure heresy. The only possible explanation is that this is the work of Satan and his minions....[Satan] is sparing no effort to deceive the world, for in this trial our redemption is at stake." The State of Israel is not a step toward redemption; it is evil's last stand. In the true redemption, it will be abolished: "It is clear beyond all shadow of doubt that the buildings put up by the heretics and apostates in our Holy Land will all be burned to the ground by the Messiah leaving not a trace behind ... and in their place the Lord, may He be blessed, will raise up for us other buildings sanctified by supernal holiness." Since Zionism has defiled the land, the State of Israel and its institutions have become the impure and the untouchable. The members of this radical haredi group prohibit any relations to the state. They do not participate in elections, and they avoid paying taxes or receiving funds for welfare and education from the state. They treat Israel's independence day as a day of mourning.

In its consistent resistance to the state, Neturei Karta is more respectable than the mainstream anti-Zionist haredim. The mainstream haredi movement participates in Israel's parliamentary life and is represented by the Agudat Israel party. Agudat Israel relates to Israel as to any other country, and its participation in Israel's political life is therefore restricted to the attempt to secure the continuity of the ultra-Orthodox way of life, with no serious interest in shaping the identity of the state. Ravitzky aptly describes this variety of anti-Zionist consciousness as "exile in the holy land." The transformation of Jewish political conditions, the settling of the land of Israel, did not bring the Jews out of exile; it just moved them to anot her address. As Rabbi Menachem Shach, the leader of the Lithuanian wing of haredim, declared: "The Jewish people is still in exile, until the arrival of the redeemer, even when it is in Eretz Israel. This is neither redemption nor the beginning of redemption."

To their critics from Neturei Karta who ban any contact with the State of Israel, the Agudah ideologues respond that they relate to the state not as to their own state, but as to any other state. In the words of Rabbi Meir Karelitz, "In all countries of the nations of the world, Jews would seek a shtadlan [intercessor, or special pleader] who would act on behalf of the haredi Jewry within government circles. Therefore, if there is a possibility of including within the government of Israel a shtadlan who will be on guard for the affairs of Torah Jewry, then this must be done unhesitatingly." Indeed, the political representatives of Agudat Israel have performed the role of the shtadlan quite impressively, maneuvering skillfully in the Knesset and extracting from various coalition governments generous state support for its educational and religious institutions.

A sense of homelessness at home: this is what has defined haredi culture since the establishment of the State of Israel. It is told about one of the brilliant leaders of ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel that when he saw an extremist from Neturei Karta cur sing the state of Israel, he said: "This man is a Zionist." How so? "In Poland or in Russia would he thus curse the authorities? He must feel at home." The most blatant manifestation of the indifference of the haredim toward the state is the exemption of yeshiva students from military service, which was granted to the ultra-Orthodox in the early years by David Ben Gurion. (He thought that they were a passing phenomenon and would soon be secularized.)

Needless to say, the haredi community also rejected the civil religion of the State of Israel, which has an impressive presence in Israel's calendar and public symbols. Independence Day and Memorial Day are not marked by haredi Jews. The flag and t he national anthem have no presence in their public space. The study of the history of Zionism--which is a central instrument for the creation of civic loyalty--has no place in haredi education. The haredi community attempted to establish enclaves of public space and education in the midst of a political reality that it completely rejected. It demands modest attire in its public spaces; it seeks to prohibit a desecration of the Sabbath (such as riding in cars) in its streets; it cultivates ideals of character for its yeshiva students that are completely different from the civic virtues of the Israeli citizen-soldier.

In the last decade, however, Israel has witnessed a complete transformation of haredi relations to the state. Haredi politicians have become involved in issues of state far beyond the preservation of their particularistic interest. In recent years, Agudat Israel has engaged in ongoing attempts to affect Israel's public life, and its politicians have taken firm positions on national issues. In the last elections, 97% of haredim voted in an unprecedented turn-out for Benjamin Netanyahu, a thoroughly secular candidate. The "Zionization" of the haredi constituency is a reason for anxiety among its leadership. "In the last seven years," claims Ha-Modiah, the main haredi newspaper, "haredi Jews have swarmed through the Knesset building--from all points of view a negative phenomenon. We must examine whether we have not begun to think that this is our building." Traditionally, the Agudat Israel members of Knesset, even if they supported the government, refused to serve in the cabinet. In the present government no haredi politician serves as a minister, but Meir Porush, the leader of Agudat Israel, is the deputy minister of housing; but there is no minister of housing, so Porush's deputyship is just a fiction. A haredi is running a government agency.

A central reason for the haredi integration into Israel's political life is the growing dependency of its members on economic support from the state. In the past, the economic life of the haredim was based upon a division of labor between scholars and other members of the community--mainly fathers-in-law, the merchants and the businessmen who supported the scholar's life of study. With the unprecedented expansion and near-universalization of yeshiva learning among haredi males, however, the generation of munificent fathers-in-law has disappeared. The state has become the father-in-law, the mechutan; and the haredi community is dramatically in need of state support. Thus the price of the establishment of the greatest yeshiva community ever to exist in Jewish history has been the "mechutanization" of the Jewish state. The predictions of Neturei Karta that Agudah's reliance on economic support from the state would result in becoming imprisoned, and identified with the state, have come true.

Yet there is a deeper reason for the integration of the haredim into Israel's life. The haredi leadership failed in its attempt to maintain the consciousness of exile within a Jewish state. Philosophically, it rejected the use of state power until the advent of the messianic era. Practically, it succumbed to the temptation of power. The haredi newcomers to the power game not only accepted and internalized the fact of Jewish sovereignty, they also threw their support behind the more militant trends of Zionism. The man who consolidated the alliance between the haredim and Benjamin Netanyahu was Ariel Sharon, a symbol of military power and not a man known for his devotion to the traditions of his ancestors.

The transformation of the haredi community from a marginal observer to a major player in Israeli politics engendered a deep moral and political contradiction. Haredim are now more and more part of the system that they delegitimate. Recently Judge Aharon Barak, the chief judge of the Supreme Court, offered a position in the court to Rabbi Shlomo Deichovsky, a religious figure know for his open-mindedness. Barak was responding to complaints that his liberal court is not adequately representative of the religious community. Deichovsky, who consulted the great rabbinic authorities of the generation, declined Barak's offer, arguing that it would be a desecration of God's name to serve with secular judges in the court. The incident revealed that, beyond the problem of representation, there is a deeper problem of legitimation. From the haredi standpoint, the Israeli courts, like the legislature populated by secular Jews, has no authority.

As long as the haredi community was a distant observer of the affairs of the state, the delegitimation of the state and its institutions was a coherent stance. Even avoiding the draft was in some way morally tolerable. But with the growing economic reliance of the haredim on state support, and with the growing attempts to affect Israel's public life, the old arrangement has been shattered. The big secular parties, Labor and Likud, who need the haredi vote for coalition purposes, are courting the h aredim; but relations between religious and secular forces in Israel are becoming extremely tense, with a widespread belief that they are on a collision course.

It is a sour and regrettable moment in the history of haredi ideology and modern Jewish life. The principled opposition to Jewish nationalism, and the attempt to counter the new Israeli ideal type with the figure of the yeshiva student, was an important moral and historical statement. The Jewish world would have been poorer without the haredi counterpoint. It served as a constant reminder of the price that the Jews paid for their worldliness, even if it was a price worth paying. Now, with the politicization of the haredim, Zionism gains nothing and Judaism loses a great deal.

The changes in the haredi ideology are only part of the complicated and tense relations between Zionism and religion. There is also the politics and the culture of the religious Zionists. They amount to ten percent of Israelis, and are represented by the National Religious Party, which has nine seats in the Knesset. Unlike the haredim, the leadership of religious Zionism embraced Zionism and participated in the effort of state-building. Ravitzky wonderfully describes the different ways in which religious Zionism responded to the haredi challenge.

The first response, and the pragmatic one, was articulated by Rabbi Yitzhak Reines, who founded the religious Zionist party Mizrachi in 1902. He dismissed the haredi criticism that Zionism is an attempt to force redemption. Zionism, Reines maintain ed, has nothing to do with messianism or a substitute identity for Jews; its aims were restricted to one goal, which was the improvement of the political condition of the Jews. Such a goal should be accepted by everyone, believer or unbeliever, who cares about the fate of the Jews. By neutralizing the messianic element, by defining Zionism in exclusively political terms, Reines legitimized cooperation between the religious and the secular on the basis of the practical and narrowly defined goals of Zionism.

Reines's view was the dominant one among religious Zionists until 1967. The National Religious Party of the 1950s and 1960s was an ally of the Labor movement, and its policies were centrist. Yet Reines's attempt to neutralize the mythic and the messianic elements in Zionism did not withstand the eschatological force of the historical drama of Jews in the twentieth century. The Holocaust, the birth of Israel, the Six Day War--destruction and rebirth, victory in the face of annihilation--presented a powerful temptation to apocalyptic interpretation. After the Six Day War, a completely different ideology of religious Zionism overwhelmed the youth of the religious Zionist world.

It was articulated mainly by Rabbi Abraham Kook in the 1920s and 1930s, and concretized by his son Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook in the 1960s and 1970s. It met the haredi challenge not by emptying Zionism of religious significance, but by endowing it with redemptive importance. The haredim are right that only in the messianic times will the gathering of the exiled be allowed, but they are blind to the fact that the messianic era has begun. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, who radicalized his father's messianic interpretation of Zionism, made the point: "No! It is not we who are forcing the End, it is the End that is forcing us!"

But how can the promised redemption of Israel be fulfilled through the actions of the secular Zionist heretics? Rabbi Abraham Kook, one of the most original Jewish thinkers of this century, provided the terms for such a paradoxical interpretation. A firm believer in progress, Kook saw messianism as the culmination of the teleological movement of history. His messianism was a messianism without a messiah. Deeply influenced by Hegel's philosophy of history, Kook understood the progress of historical redemption dialectically, whereby a higher synthesis of sacred and profane is created. And in his attempt to explain Jewish history, and to reinterpret messianism in Hegelian terms, Kook drew upon the cosmological and mystical symbolism of Lurianic kabbalah. The cosmos, according to the Lurianic teaching, is the result of a set of internal movements in the divine: God contracted himself so as to provide space for the cosmos, and Divine rays of light were sent to that space, but the vessels failed to contain them. The breaking of the vessels and the falling of the rays constituted a cosmic catastrophe. And so the cosmos awaits emendation. This emendation is a long eschatological mission, and it culminates in redemption.

All this dialectical and cosmological machinery was applied by Kook to the understanding of secular Zionism. Secular Zionism is a negation which seems, on its surface, to be heretical; but the ideological pathos of the Zionist pioneers, and their search for social justice and for renewal of the nation's life, are part of a complex dialectical movement toward redemption. The Zionists were breaking with the law in order to expand its horizons; and the overcoming of the narrow spiritual Jewish existence in the diaspora necessitated a shattering of boundaries. Kook, who immigrated to Palestine in 1904, described the pioneers whom he met in the following terms: "These fiery spirits assert themselves, refusing to be bound by any limitation. The weak who inhabit the world of order, the moderate and well-mannered are intimidated by them.... But the strong know that this show of force comes to rectify the world, to invigorate the nation, humanity, and the world...." Thus cooperation between the religious and the secular was legitimated by a notion of secular Zionism as an unwitting but admirable instrument in the engine of redemption. "There are people who do not have the slightest idea what an important role they play in the scheme of Divine Providence," Kook wrote. "They are called but do not know who is calling them.... But this terrible concealment will end with a great disclosure of lasting import."

Kook, who died in 1935, did not embody his messianism in a particular political program. The channeling of the messianic energies into a concrete political agenda took place years later, through the work of his son and his disciples, the leaders of Gush Emunim. The State of Israel was looked upon as a divine instrument, and its political travails were interpreted as steps in an irreversible messianic movement. And the main step in the redemptive process, after the establishment of the state, was t he Six Day War. In such a light, territorial compromise with the Arabs came to be perceived by the messianic right as a retreat in the scheme of salvation. As one of the leading rabbis of the religious Zionists put it, "all the attempts of the Gentiles t o arrest the process of our redemption are futile and will come to nought. All their plans, their idle talk of cutting away the inheritance of our forefathers, of chopping up our holy land and of harming the Lord's people, are in vain. None of this will ever happen."

By means of the settler movement in the West Bank and Gaza, young religious Zionists who were previously marginal to the Zionist effort began to feel that they were nothing less than the vanguard of Zionism. The Labor Zionist establishment, which h ad a soft spot for the idealism of the religious Zionist youth, and later the Likud government, which used them for defining the future borders of Israel, quickly found themselves to be prisoners of a hard-core ideological grouping. Even among the right, the religious Zionist group is numerically marginal--but it has been at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, exploiting its strategic position in the settlements in the territories. In its determination to use force--constantly testing the boundaries of the Israeli legal system--the settler movement became a political force that no Israeli politician could ignore.

Religious Zionism, then, was shifting toward messianism, and this shift was defining its terms of cooperation with the secular Israelis. The impact of this change upon Israeli politics is one of the cruel ironies in the history of Zionism. Secular Zionism, which was a movement that attempted to break away from the messianic script, became to a large degree dependent on the actions of the messianic latecomers in its midst. Gershom Scholem, a Zionist who was exercised by the price of messianism, pos ed the following question: "Can Jewish history manage to reenter concrete reality without being destroyed by the messianic claim which [that reentry is bound to] bring up from its depths?" It still remains to be seen whether religious Zionism itself can be awakened from the messianic nightmare, and whether secular Zionism can reclaim the possibility of a Jewish politics that is neither exilic nor eschatological.

In recent years, and in tandem with the deep changes in the haredi attitude toward the state, the terms in which religious Zionists justified cooperation with secular Jews have been corrupted. Rabbi Abraham Kook's promise that the secular Zionist rebellion was a paradoxical movement of "return" was never fulfilled. The children of the socialist pioneers did not return to Judaism. Secular Zionism produced a successful and comfortable middle class that showed no interest in intense historical and spiritual dramas. Worse, the heirs of the Labor Zionists began to be perceived by the religious right as an obstacle to the redemptive process. Yitzhak Rabin's agreement to territorial compromise with the Palestinians was interpreted as a betrayal, as a debacle of the eschatological process.

Rabin, the victorious general of the Six Day War and a major secular "instrument" of national renewal, came to be considered 30 years later by the extreme margins of religious Zionism as a "pursuer," a villain of Jewish law who was endangering the fate of the Jews. Of course, religious Zionists, the leadership and the community, were mostly appalled by Rabin's assassination. Yet in its slow and determined questioning of the legitimacy of Rabin's secular government, in its turning the political debate on Oslo into a religious war, in its forgiving attitude toward violence among its members, and in its presumption to have grasped the hidden meaning of history, the spiritual and political leadership of the religious Zionist right created the breeding ground for the assassin. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, who was a product of some of the central institutions of religious Zionism, is a terrible sign of the failure of religious Zionism to sustain a decent and stable cooperation wit h secularism in Israel.

And things are not getting any better. In recent months, the troubled relations between the religious parties and the state have exploded in the debate over the Law of Return and the conversion law. The Law of Return guarantees immediate citizenship to Jews if they wish to immigrate to Israel; and it includes converts to Judaism, who are also eligible for citizenship. While Israel accepts the Reform and Conservative conversions that are performed in the United States, the Orthodox parties want to pass a law that would grant the Orthodox court a monopoly on conversions in Israel. Such legislation would mean that Conservative and Reform conversions performed in Israel would not be recognized by Israeli law. The Law of Return is perhaps the most profound enactment of the idea that Israel is a homeland for Jews--and yet the attempt to delegitimate Conservative and Reform courts through state legislation amounts to a terrible alienation of large portions of Diaspora Jews, who deserve to feel at home in Israel. The attempt to resolve the deep disagreement among Jews about Judaism by means of state legislation will destroy the very idea of homeland, which is at the core of Zionism.

It is a moral and political absurdity that in their homeland Jews will have less religious freedom than in any other democratic country. Israel must strive to become a reality in which radically diverse ideas about Jewish culture may coexist. It is interesting that the Orthodox parties, despite their political pressure, cannot recruit a majority to support the conversion law. It is even more interesting that within the Orthodox camp there are attempts to find a compromise that will prevent the estrangement of the Reform and Conservative Jews. The majority of Israelis are searching for a new social contract between religious and secular in Israel, an arrangement that will take the state out of the business of imposing theological definitions by le gal coercion.

So the story of Judaism's response to the rise of secular Jewish nationalism is not a happy story. In the last 50 years, Judaism has had access to power for the first time in 2,000 years. The power was established by secular Jews in defiance of religious opposition. But the return to power is a test also of the religious community in Israel; and it is failing the test. The future of this entanglement will depend on the emergence of a new religious understanding that will challenge the previous terms that defined Judaism's relationship to Zionism. (Ravitzky is himself playing a significant role in attempting to articulate such a new understanding.) But this much is certain: the religious parties who attempt to use state power for the purpose of religious coercion will end up corrupting both the religion and the state.