The struggle for the soul of religious Zionism

What role does messianism play in the worldview of religious Zionists in Israel compared to those we refer to as modern Orthodox in America?

Gilad Farm 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gilad Farm 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The plethora of dueling public rabbinic letters in recent months highlights a fundamental split in religious Zionism in Israel. While there are often political implications, the impact on the education of future generations and on the relationship between religious and secular Israelis is ultimately more significant.
The conflicting letters reflect contrasting mentalities with both speaking on behalf of the rabbinic leadership of religious Zionism.
The authors of the letters prohibiting the sale of land and the renting of apartments to non-Jews (Arabs) and questioning the Israeli courts decision that ex-president Moshe Katsav is guilty of rape are consistent in rejecting Israeli democracy and governmental institutions as being contrary to Halacha. They reflect a certitude in the ability of rabbis to determine the truth and in seeing Western morality as conflicting with Torah morality.
Not surprisingly, the same rabbis see the mitzva of settling the land of Israel as paramount and the state as a value only if it remains true to this goal. Women are permitted to play active roles in protests but otherwise should marry young and have many children and accept a traditional role.
THIS TENDENCY to absolutism is found in sweeping generalizations about Arabs, and in seeing the Israeli- Palestinian (my use of the word would be rejected) conflict as a war between peoples or religions. While somewhat muted publicly, messianism is critical to this worldview.
Many, if not most, religious Zionist high schools teach Jewish thought and Zionism assuming this perspective.
Students have learned not to question in class. Recent demonstrations have mainly consisted of high school students, usually girls, who have no doubts. Very few of these youngsters have serious contact with other elements of Israeli society who may think differently. The concentration of religious Zionists in the settlements furthers this trend.
The alternate view, which is similar to what is called modern Orthodoxy outside of Israel, is less assertive. It questions the expertise of rabbis in determining public policy. The secular government, while not ideal, has authority to set policy and decide about accusations of criminal behavior. The reality that the majority of Israelis are not fully observant is the framework for attempting to preserve the Jewish character of the state. That women take a more active role in society, including leadership, is part of living in the modern world. The profound growth of formal Jewish education for women, including the study of Talmud, is supported.
The multiplicity of views on most issues within the boundaries of Orthodoxy is a given. Questioning by students (and even adults) is encouraged. Social issues are as important to Judaism as territorial ones. Interaction with others is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that religious observance does not prevent respecting others, while not necessarily agreeing with them.
One can say the phrase “reishit tzmihat geulateinu” with a clear vision of an unfolding process of relative short duration, or view the founding of the State of Israel as a transformative event in Jewish history, yet far from the realization of the messianic vision. This difference in perspective leads to either a rigid, unbending, focused agenda or a flexible, pragmatic approach.
Like most typologies, actual people do not always fit into one category or the other. The choice for the future direction of religious Zionism, however, is stark.
Responses to the letters in the Israeli media and blogs have shown a robust debate. The consequences of this struggle have great significance for the broader Israeli society as well as for the future of religious Zionism.
Since what happens in Israel impacts on Jewish life in the Diaspora, much is at stake.
My preference is clear from how I described the choice, but I realize that living in America reduces my influence.
The writer is president of the Religious Zionists of America and the mashgiah ruhani of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University.