Would Rav Kook support Ben-Gvir, the Religious Zionist Party? - review

Scrutinizing two major Religious Zionist thinkers and their current relevance.

 RELIGIOUS ZIONIST MK Itamar Ben-Gvir pictured in campaign photos ahead of the election.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST MK Itamar Ben-Gvir pictured in campaign photos ahead of the election.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Rabbi Yosef Burg was known for saying that the most important part of the term “Religious-Zionism” is the hyphen. It might seem strange to begin a review of a book subtitled Essays on the Thought of Rav Kook and Rav Shagar with a reference to Rabbi Burg. One would not necessarily associate Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s passionate and ecstatic mysticism or Rav Shagar’s (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known by the acronym Rav Shagar), self-conscious and disquieted existentialism with the moderate, cautious, polite and compromising Mizrahi Religious-Zionism that Rabbi Burg embodied. 

Yet, the symbolism of the hyphen as a bridge is deeply relevant to Rav Kook and Rav Shagar. It also helps us to put into sharp relief the ideas laid out in this recent publication by Rabbi Zachary Truboff in the context of current political and cultural developments in Israel. 

The book Torah Goes Forth from Zion begins by laying out the common denominator shared by Rav Kook (1865-1935) and Rav Shagar (1949-2007). “Both asserted that the Torah must confront the world in which a person lives rather than remain separate from it… Both strove to show that the religious and secular worlds of Religious-Zionism could be brought together.” 

“Both asserted that the Torah must confront the world in which a person lives rather than remain separate from it… Both strove to show that the religious and secular worlds of Religious-Zionism could be brought together.”

Torah Goes Forth from Zion

Rav Kook 370 (credit: wikimedia commons)Rav Kook 370 (credit: wikimedia commons)

Bridging the worlds of religious and Zionism

Like Rabbi Burg’s hyphen, Rav Kook and Rav Shagar sought to bridge worlds that were not obviously or easily connected. While Rav Kook imagined they could be bridged through synthesis, Rav Shagar strove to live in the tension of contradiction. Yet both maintained a posture that was open to the larger world, that took seriously the cosmopolitan intellectual and cultural trends of their times, and that looked to expand the horizons of Torah and the Jewish people. Over the course of the book, Rabbi Truboff explores the nexuses that Rav Kook and Rav Shagar discovered and developed.

The first half of the book focuses on these motifs in Rav Kook’s thought. We encounter Rav Kook’s appreciation for the fine arts. We discover that Rav Kook saw value in the skepticism of his time because he believed that it could counteract unhealthy ideas that had infiltrated the faithful’s notions about God. We see that Rav Kook insisted that the self-directed love of nationalism must be expanded to include a love for all humanity and ultimately all life.

The second half of the book turns to Rav Shagar. We learn, for example, that Rav Shagar could accept post-modernity’s claim that truths are human constructs because he understood those constructs as “manifestations of God in a world that is ‘filled with His glory,’ rather than an empty meaningless game.” 

We encounter Rav Shagar’s repudiation of Religious-Zionism’s negation of the exile. While in one sense the Land of Israel is the Jewish people’s home, in another, “its place is beyond geography and its identity transcends the constricted boundaries of nationhood.” 

Rav Shagar worried about the dangers of chauvinistic hubris and felt that an “awareness of the insecurity and vulnerability” of exile could serve as an antidote. These are just a few representative samples of what appears in the book’s 15 chapters. There is, of course, much more to explore than this space allows for.

THE ESSAYS in this collection are well written. Rabbi Truboff deftly frames the themes of each chapter. He touchingly weaves into the fabric of the book his own personal story – his intellectual development, his and his wife’s shared angst over a complicated pregnancy that ends in heartbreak, coming to terms with an anti-Zionist ancestor, and the struggles of his rabbinate. 

All of this, and more, is brought to present extremely complex thoughts in a digestible and clear fashion. As could be expected, this type of presentation loses some of the difficulty in reading these thinkers in the original, but it also makes Rabbi Truboff’s offering a great introduction.

Going beyond the content of Rav Kook’s and Rav Shagar’s thoughts, Rabbi Truboff explores the acceptance or lack thereof of their thought in current Religious Zionist circles. He notes that “whereas Rav Kook embraced the divine sparks to be found in the various social and cultural movements of his time,” Rav Zvi Tau, a major rabbinic figure associated with Rav Kook’s teachings, “recently wrote a treatise proclaiming that this approach can no longer be applied in our day and age.”

More bitingly, he writes, “it’s hard to believe Rav Shagar would have felt anything other than shame that the only party in the Knesset to literally bear the name religious-Zionism (Tzionut Datit) currently embodies the two tendencies he perceived as most dangerous: a messianic fervor that seeks to impose its chauvinistic vision on Israeli society combined with the belief that the use of power and even violence can solve Israel’s most difficult problems. He would no doubt argue that Religious-Zionism must confront its demons by offering new thinking that addresses the questions of the present moment.”

“it’s hard to believe Rav Shagar would have felt anything other than shame that the only party in the Knesset to literally bear the name religious-Zionism (Tzionut Datit) currently embodies the two tendencies he perceived as most dangerous: a messianic fervor that seeks to impose its chauvinistic vision on Israeli society combined with the belief that the use of power and even violence can solve Israel’s most difficult problems. He would no doubt argue that Religious-Zionism must confront its demons by offering new thinking that addresses the questions of the present moment.”

Rabbi Zachary Truboff

These words written a year and a half ago have taken on even more poignancy in the wake of the recent election where this party doubled in size. Against this backdrop, Torah Goes Forth from Zion can be seen as a reaffirmation of the pedigree of Religious-Zionism’s impulse to bridge, expand and include, symbolized by its hyphen. 

TORAH GOES FORTH FROM ZIONBy Zachary TruboffTorat Emet Press266 pages; $23.44