Tradition Today: The biblical meaning of Zionism

Tradition Today The bib

Zionism and its accomplishment, the creation of the State of Israel, has been viewed in many different ways. For some the goal was to assure the physical existence of the Jewish people, providing a place of refuge in the face of anti-Semitism and persecution. For others it was seen as a method of preserving Jewish identity and culture in the face of assimilation and the diminished role of religious belief and practice. Others have emphasized a religious dimension. Among the latter was Abraham Joshua Heschel, surely one of the most important theological figures of the 20th century. Following the Six Day War Heschel wrote an entire book about the state, Israel: An Echo of Eternity. In it he wrote: "What is the meaning of the State of Israel? Its sheer being is the message. The life in the land of Israel today is a rehearsal, a test, a challenge to all of us. Not living in the land, non-participation in the drama, is a source of embarrassment... The ultimate meaning of the State of Israel must be seen in terms of the vision of the prophets: the redemption of all men. The religious duty of the Jew is to participate in the process of continuous redemption, in seeing that justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding." This approach is close to what I believe to be the biblical view of the importance of settling in the land, seeing it not so much in terms of how it benefits Jews in other lands or as a physical haven for Jews in danger, but in terms of its intrinsic value. The Torah envisions the creation of the Kingdom of God in the land as a necessary component of the fulfillment of God's divine plan. This is a utopian, not a utilitarian, concept in which Jewish sovereignty within the land becomes an end in itself. To begin with, the the Book of Genesis, which we are now reading, is the story of God in search of a people that will be God's people and actualize God's will on earth. It begins with the search for an individual. The first to be chosen is Noah, but his descendants disappoint and again one person is singled out for the task - Abraham. "I have known him so that he may command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment..." (Gen. 18:19). This is then passed on through Isaac and his son Jacob, after which all of Jacob's progeny become the bearers of this promise and this task, becoming a people - the children of Israel (Jacob), the people Israel. The task assigned to that people is reiterated over and over again in the Torah and is best summarized in the prologue to the Decalogue itself: "If you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My particular treasure from among all the peoples, though all the earth is Mine. And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). The ultimate purpose of this was enunciated clearly by Isaiah: "On that day shall Israel be the third, with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth. Whom the Lord of hosts will have blessed, saying, 'Blessed be My people Egypt, and Assyria the work of My hands, and my heritage Israel'" (19:24-5). An analysis of the Torah, the people Israel's constitution, shows that the narrative of the Torah is basically the story of how Israel got to the land and what they were to do there. It is entirely the story of a journey. Take away the chapters that deal with getting to the land and you would have a very brief book, ending with Genesis 11. According to Judaism's most authoritative traditional commentator, Rashi, even those chapters were including only to indicate that, as the Creator of the world, God had the right and the power to allocate the land of Canaan to whomever He wanted. The granting of the land is not simply the gift of a place to live. As Amos points out (9:7), God has taken other nations out of captivity and given them lands. In the case of Israel, the land is there as a place where they can live according to the terms of the covenant and actualize the commands that God gives to them. As Heschel wrote, "To abandon the land would be to repudiate the Bible." The centrality of Israel, then, lies primarily not in providing a safe place for Jews but in being the focus for the realization of the Torah's ultimate goal, as reiterated by the prophets and reaffirmed in rabbinic literature: God has found this people and appointed them His people and they will be able to fully fulfill God's will only in the land, the end result of which will be the establishment of the Sovereignty of God on earth. In the post-emancipation days of the 1800s there were attempts by certain Jewish groups, eager to establish citizenship and equality for Jews in Western Europe, to reinterpret Judaism in such a way as to eliminate the place of the land within Judaism. Slogans such as "Berlin is our Jerusalem" were coined. Zion was eliminated from the prayers. The irony of these misguided reformations is bitter and obvious. Today the centrality of the land to Jewish belief has been restored and with it the responsibility of those who live there, those who govern there and those who look to it to make certain that its meaning and its promise are fulfilled. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.