Religious Zionism before Rav Kook

Only a few years ago, Religious Zionism seemed to be in trouble.

Beit El in the West Bank 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Beit El in the West Bank 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 Kook.
The elder Kook was a latecomer to Religious Zionism.
Rabbi 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 distress.
These renegade rabbis defended their embrace of Zionism.
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 Lublin.
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 anti-Judaism.
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.
But the 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.