Only a few years ago, Religious Zionism seemed to be in trouble. The National
Religious Party had imploded and Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza
Strip. Shas, an ultra-Orthodox religious party that was a strange hybrid of the
Lithuanian yeshiva world and a Sephardi protest movement, could make or break
coalitions in the Knesset. While Religious-Zionist soldiers had become more
prominent in the elite units of the Israeli army, the Zionism of Rabbi Abraham
Isaac Kook and his heirs seemed to cower in the shadow of haredi authority.
Religious Zionism seemed to be a spent force.
Today, Religious Zionism is
making a comeback. Recent elections have seen the resurgence of the successors
of the defunct National Religious Party. The Bayit Yehudi party, under the
leadership of Naftali Bennett, has staked a claim in the governing coalition
with a dozen Knesset seats. Ultra-Orthodox parties, for the first time in recent
memory, have been shut out. Jews living in Judea and Samaria, whether religious
or secular, now have a voice to represent them. I only wonder whether this new
party can establish Religious Zionism as an authentic voice of Judaism in
Israel. The challenge is a daunting one.
Perhaps Religious Zionists can
learn new lessons from the movement’s founders. While Rabbi Kook and his son Zvi
Yehuda loom large in the messianic component of the movement, the future of
Bayit Yehudi might possibly reside in the rabbis who preceded Rav
The elder Kook was a latecomer to Religious Zionism.
Shmuel Mohilever and Rabbi Isaac Reines, renegades from prevailing anti-Zionist
Orthodoxy, were two of the earlier unsung heroes of Zionism. Both rabbis played
an important role in the development of Zionism in Eastern Europe before Theodor
Herzl and political Zionism came to dominate the movement.
A century ago,
many Jewish traditionalists censured the Zionist movement as a rejection of
Orthodox Judaism and as a revolt against the Torah. The forerunners of groups
like the Neturei Karta and Hassidic sects such as the Satmar condemned Jews,
especially religious ones, who embraced Zionism. Mohilever and Reines were
courageous: they understood that the Zionist movement, although in the main
secular, had an important goals in terms of aiding a Jewish people in
These renegade rabbis defended their embrace of
They argued that their opponents who demonized them for building
up settlements in Israel – before the coming of a Messiah chosen by God – were
mistaken. An ailing Mohilever could not attend the First Zionist Congress in
1897. He did, however, write a letter to Herzl and to those in attendance. His
words burned with prophetic urgency.
“A great fire, a fearful
conflagration, is raging in our midst,” the Russian rabbi wrote long before the
Holocaust, “and we are all threatened.” If the Zionists offered a haven to save
the Jews of Eastern Europe from pogroms and poverty, were “there such among us
who would spurn them?” For Rabbi Mohilever, the rise of the Zionist movement was
not a harbinger of messianic redemption. He supported the settling of Israel as
a fulfillment of Jewish law and Jewish aspirations. Mohilever defended Herzl’s
political Zionism as a vehicle to provide a refuge that would save the Jewish
people, save Judaism and save the Torah.
Rabbi Isaac Reines, a generation
younger than Mohilever, supported the older rabbi’s position. Reines argued that
“Zionist ideology” was “devoid of any trace of the idea of redemption.” Reines
founded the Mizrachi movement in Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” in 1902.
He wanted Mizrachi to ensure that Orthodox Jews would have a voice in the
establishment of a Jewish homeland. These rabbis – true heroes in the face of
intense opposition from their traditionalist colleagues – did not advocate
Zionism as a messianic movement.
Did they go too far in their declaration
that the modern Jewish state had no redemptive significance? The modern State of
Israel does have critical and relevant theological resonance – for the first
time in our history halacha must operate in a sovereign Jewish nation in its
land. The challenges for traditional Jewish law are significant and real.
Mohilever and Reines were certainly right – secular Zionism has provided a
structure for traditional Jewish life to flourish, even in the wake of the
annihilation of Jews and Torah in the flames of Warsaw, Vilna, Cracow and
We should not shun the messianic idea that is so central to Rabbi
Abraham Kook’s theology. Kook is the most original thinker to emerge from the
spectrum of Zionist ideology of a century ago. His recalibration in
understanding the role of Socialist pioneers as important actors in a national
and cosmic drama opened Zionism up to millions of religious Jews who would have
otherwise rejected the movement as the product of a virulent
But the weight on Israel as a proto-messianic state is
possibly too much for a modern-nation state – and a democracy – to bear. Rabbis
Mohilever and Reines were more modest in their theological ambitions. The Third
Temple should be central to Jewish dreams and aspirations.
messianic idea is such a potent force – if unleashed, it could raise havoc and
destroy the democratic ideals that drive the Jewish state. We cannot, as a
people, survive the sort of demoralization and disillusionment that almost
destroyed the Jews as a result of the failed Shabbetai Zevi messianic debacle in
the 17th century.
Let us move ahead with our yearnings and ideals intact,
but with supreme caution.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in
Boca Raton, Florida.