Judaism and modern Zionism: From conflict to collaboration

Zionism in general and religious Zionism in particular have positively contributed to all aspects of religious life in Israel and the Diaspora.

 THE ZIONIST identity didn’t overcome the Jewish identity, nor did the opposite occur: An IDF soldier puts on tefillin. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THE ZIONIST identity didn’t overcome the Jewish identity, nor did the opposite occur: An IDF soldier puts on tefillin.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

As is well known and recorded, the early years of the modern Zionist movement were marked by considerable opposition from many rabbinical authorities.

This opposition can be attributed to two primary factors.

The first and more well known relates to rabbinical criticism over the notion that humanity should be in any way the driving force behind the establishment of a Jewish national entity – out of the sincere belief that such an act contradicted their messianic vision.

That vision served as a central tenet of Jewish faith for centuries of life in exile and was predicated upon an ideal that the coming of the Messiah would be a sudden godly act. Therefore, we as people should not be intervening in that process.

The second reason for their opposition, and in many ways the more practical reason, was based on a deep suspicion – indeed outright fear – that modern Zionism represented a sort of alternative approach to Jewish peoplehood.

Until the rise of this movement in the very late 19th century, while there had been splinter factions over the years over how to practice the faith, for the most part Jewish identity had been linked to a fervent biblical tradition and adherence to a code of Jewish law and ethics we know as Halacha. For perhaps the first time in Jewish history, a movement sought to replace the concept of the Jew with the concept of the Zionist – or in later decades, the Israeli.

 YUVAL CHERLOW: There are also clear positives that have emerged as a result of this ‘identity conflict.’ (credit: ARYEH KATZ) YUVAL CHERLOW: There are also clear positives that have emerged as a result of this ‘identity conflict.’ (credit: ARYEH KATZ)

While the implications of this revolutionary shift were still unknown in the early decades of the movement when the rabbinic opposition was at its strongest, in retrospect we know that it resulted in changes that have in every way changed what it means to be a Jew.

Most fundamentally, it encouraged a geographic shift of where a Jew should live. But in addition, with that came the resurrection of an ancient language, changes and additions to the Jewish calendar, entirely new perspectives on religion-state issues through the establishment of a Chief Rabbinate and a system of religious courts, along with many other fundamental changes that affected nearly every aspect of traditional Jewish life.

While the concept of the traditional Jew remained, this process undoubtedly represented a dramatic alteration of what it meant to be a Jew and – in the eyes of those critics – a frightening dilution of our people’s very identity.

Perhaps most troubling in their minds was the establishment of national agencies operating beyond the purview of Halacha. Israeli citizenship was a national, rather than religious, designation, and even the Law of Return defined Jews in terms that were not always in conformance with traditional Halacha.

Upon establishment of the state, the laws and the very feel of the land would stray even farther from tradition in an effort to make it a nation of modern culture and society – in ways that often prioritized the secular ideal over the ancient halachic ones.

While the early Zionist leaders respected our ancient tradition and endeavored to create a mixture of the old and the new, the reality is that there was no escaping that these two worlds were at odds in this modern land of the Jewish people. What started as competing ideals would lead to all-out cultural and political conflict and become a deep-seated source of strain for the continued growth of Zionism and this state it had created.

On the one hand, there are many who view the very success of modern Zionism as an abomination which destroyed their traditional Jewish world, and who use the term “Zionists” almost as a curse, even as many of those virulent critics live in the land and are actual beneficiaries – and sometimes even partners – in its growth.

On the other side of the equation are those who fear that the over-adherence to ancient Jewish values will act as a contradiction – even obstacle – to creating a modern secularized state that promotes values such as equality for all, universalism and pluralism, and believe that failure to adopt those ideals is a handicap that impedes our national progress and pride.

Until this day, many view this conflict as nothing less than tragic.

Yet, there are also clear positives that have emerged as a result of this “identity conflict” and the historical and sociological processes that have come to light over the past century as the Zionist and then Israeli experiments have blossomed into such tremendous successes.

Most fundamentally, whereas Zionism was primarily created as a movement to create a geographic home for the Jewish people, its effect has been a complete altering of who we are as a nation. Whereas 120 years ago Jews were almost exclusively defined based on religious terms, today we are as much a political, social, academic and cultural force. The halachic and ethical codes that charted our course for nearly 2,000 years in exile became the model that inspired this modern transformation, with Judaism acting as a shining light for how ancient principles can affect modern ideologies.

In this regard, Zionism in general and religious Zionism in particular have positively contributed to all aspects of religious life in Israel and the Diaspora. There can be no diminishing the importance of this movement for who we are as Jews today.

In many ways, what was viewed initially as a source of conflict, which so frightened the rabbinical community of past generations, became the source of a collaboration integral to who we are as a Jewish nation today.

Despite those early fears, the Zionist identity didn’t overcome the Jewish identity, nor did the opposite occur. Rather, they benefited from each other in ways that no one could have ever anticipated.

Importantly, the Jewish worlds of previous centuries continue to exist in more conservative elements of our society – specifically the haredi world, proving that their concerns of being eradicated by Zionism were misplaced.

The necessary conclusion is that it is worth recognizing that this “identity conflict” was a blessed development and is in many ways responsible for allowing the fusion of “Jewish” and “Israeli” that makes up our modern existence.

The two values, which were once positioned as incompatible with each other, are today thriving hand in hand in ways that have permanently and positively affected who we are as a nation and as a people. 

The writer is director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and a founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.