The Return to Zion: An Excerpt

The article that follows is excerpted from The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy—The Karasick Family Edition, a new volume, published by OU Press and KTAV Publishing, consisting of addresses by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik between the years 1939 and 1958. The addresses, originally in Yiddish and translated by Shaul Seidler-Feller, were delivered at gatherings convened by the Mizrachi Organization of America and/or Hapoel Hamizrachi of America. The talk below, entitled “Jewry’s Present Concerns,” was delivered at a mass demonstration for a “Torah-True Land of Israel,” on May 21, 1946, in New York City, and organized by the Religious-National Bloc, which included Hapoel Hamizrachi, among other organizations. 


“And a Man Wrestled with Him until the Break of Dawn”  

When we consider the present situation from a historical-ethical standpoint, we must assert that to analyze the cataclysmic pains of these last four years and ask “why” is futile and leads only to despair. We dare not imitate Job with his questions; they lead nowhere. But we also dare not—and it would constitute a historical crime if we were to do so—ignore our quiet, continual, daily suffering, which derives from the loneliness of the modern Jew; from the indifference of the nations of the world; from the lack of assurance that they will not say to us, one fine day, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us” (Gen. 26:16); from the awareness that there is a chasm, mysterious and unfathomable, that separates the Jew from the Gentile; from the fate that we very often become the scapegoat for every tyrant and demagogue. Our paradoxical character brings us suffering. 

We dare not allow all of this to simply remain a paradoxical fate, an illogical and incomprehensible enigma; rather, it must be transformed into destiny, self-determination, and free choice. Our current book is not Job but Genesis. Abraham’s motto was: a nation is born of paradoxes and suffering. Our motto must be: a nation is reborn of paradoxes and suffering. “And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”: following the generations-long tussle between the Keneset Yisrael and historical fate, the sun, the morning star of a new era, must rise. 

How so? Through assimilatory measures? Or, as recommended by other, extreme Orthodox parties, through complete isolation from Western culture, compressing our existence into sectarianism, sealed off and secluded from the tempo of modern times? You know quite well that both solutions are empty dreams. Jews cannot assimilate, and Gentiles will not start liking them for doing so. At the same time, we cannot enclose ourselves within a Great Wall of China and break off all of our connections with the surrounding culture. The segment of Orthodoxy preaching such a strategy is insincere: they do not raise their own children that way. And I hate hypocrisy, believing one thing and saying another. 

But if our history is one of tension between Abraham ha-Ivri and his environment, it is also one of contact with the world and its culture. Tension is a type of relationship, a kind of connection with the opposing side. Where there is isolation, there can be no tension. If positive electricity is not united with negative electricity, there is no electrical tension, and no dynamic electricity or electrical current can be produced. Only contact and unification yield the tension that results in electrical sparks and a current. 

Our history, from our forefather Abraham onward, is one of constant contact with world history, connection with general culture, and collaboration as well. By the same token, however, there remains the paradoxical tension of those lonely wanderers who saw a great vision and sought to establish their splendid prophecy as the fundament of a new world. Such suffering opens new horizons, and a new morning star beckons to us from the historical distance. 

At the same time, there approaches another moment, the moment of vengeance. We Jews wish to take revenge against the German murderers of a third of our people. We have always maintained that vengeance is sometimes necessary and holy, because evil must at times be eradicated with violence. The Old Testament, with its “passionate, avenging G-d” (Nahum 1:2), spilled far less blood than did the New, with its god-man of love and its ethical pacifism, which has lately become very much in vogue thanks to Romain Rolland, Tolstoy, Stefan Zweig, Franz Werfel, and the non-Christian Gandhi. If the political world would have understood the Old Testament, it would not have come to catastrophe. “Great is vengeance, for it was positioned between two letters, as it says, ‘G-d of retribution, L-rd, G-d of retribution, appear!’ (Ps. 94:1)” (Sanhedrin 92a) —vengeance appears between two Names of the Master of the Universe. As they were dying in crematoria in Poland and Germany, our martyrs demanded vengeance. 

But what is vengeance? We cannot take physical revenge, and I doubt Jews would do so against the hundreds of thousands of murderers even if they could. Our hands are clean of blood, far cleaner than those of the Catholic nuns with their eyes trained heavenward. 

Sometimes, in moments of gloom, in twilights of melancholy, when Satan, wrapped in shadow, asks me, “Will Jews succeed in their two gigantic undertakings, the building of the land in Palestine and the establishment of Torah everywhere, when there are so many Sanballats, destructive forces, and adversaries, both internal and external; when ignorance, dismal assimilation, and indifferent resignation consume the organism of the Jewish nation like a cancer?” —I get disoriented for a moment. 

Could there be a greater form of vengeance, historical vengeance, undying vengeance—in a world that left us to be slaughtered and massacred and that sought to rid itself of us—than our very continued existence, paradoxically-mysteriously in contact with world culture but simultaneously in opposition to the evil therein, dreaming an eternal vision of the End of Days, and vying with a mysterious, universal man— “And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”? In spite of all of our enemies, and even many liberals and supposed friends, who advise us to commit spiritual-national suicide and undergo good-natured, painless self-dissolution—advisers who can probably be justified if we consider our suffering from the standpoint of Job, from the perspective of almighty fate, which plays with man as with a ball—we must, on the contrary, grow larger and more powerful, becoming spiritual giants like Abraham after the Binding or like Jacob after his tussle with the angel! We must capture the admiration and envy of the world, and with their blessing: “And he blessed him there” (Gen. 32:30). 

Moses received the rays of light not from the first Giving of the Torah but from the second. Why? The first Giving of the Torah took place in the context of an apocalyptic Theophany, without suffering, paradoxes, enigmas, resistance, opposition, and tension: “There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” (Ex. 19:16). The mountain burned like fire, angels soared through the air. Six hundred thousand Jews went forth to accept the Torah, shouting, “We will do and we will listen!” (Ex. 24:7). The whole cosmos was quiet, calm: “The world was silent and still” (Shemot Rabbah, sec. 29:9). The entire universe bore witness to the Theophany, and Moses became the hero of mankind. 

The second Giving of the Torah, by contrast, was full of suffering, disappointment, and mourning. The nation suddenly goes mad, creating a Calf and repudiating the G-d they had seen only a short while before. They go back to being slaves, idolaters, and wild men. G-d wishes to obliterate them, and the Shekhinah departs. Moses is on his own, fighting with the nation for G-d’s sake and also—as if one could say this—fighting with the Master of the Universe for the nation’s sake. G-d says to him, “Carve two tablets of stone like the first” (Ex. 34:1). You want new tablets, Moses? Chisel them yourself from stone: take boulders and carve Divine tablets out of the lifeless, unfeeling, cold rock. “Be ready by morning, and in the morning come up to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to Me, on the top of the mountain. No one else shall come up with you, and no one else shall be seen anywhere on the mountain” (Ex. 34:2–3). You have no following. You stand alone, solitary, betrayed by all. Go up to the mountain on your own, without thunder and lightning, without the blast of the horn, without G-d’s voice, and without six hundred thousand Jews; all of them are sleeping, steeped in nonsense and egotistical trifles. You, alone. Lonely, forsaken, broken. And you will wait for Me, not the other way around, as happened early in the morning on Shavuot. 

And how does G-d appear to Moses then? Not openly as before: “And they saw the G-d of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire” (Ex. 24:10). No, Heaven forbid! Rather, “The L-rd came down in a cloud; He stood with him there” (Ex. 34:5) —enveloped in clouds, mysteries, paradoxes, contradictions, suffering, and enigmas. Almost no Divinity is visible, no Providence perceptible; everything is shrouded in shadow and darkness. It seems to Moses that blind fate governs the world and Jewish history. Only lifeless boulders and sand stretch out before him into infinity. Mount Sinai is rocky, hard, indifferent to Moses’ dreams and hopes. The Golden Calf and its attendant dancing circles dictatorially rule the world. Moses’ fate is paradoxical, everything ridicules him, his task is laughable; he will never fulfill it. No Eternal Israel can emerge from the mixed multitude. Suffering, illogic, mysteriousness. 

But just in that moment, when Moses finds himself “in a cleft of the rock” (Ex. 33:22), in a cold, unfeeling boulder, he sees G-d in a way he had never previously seen Him in the heavens and he hears the words of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: “The L-rd! the L-rd! a G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and He remits” (Ex. 34:6–7). Out of paradox, a great vision must be born; from suffering and loneliness, bountiful kindness and faithfulness come into the world. Fate is transformed into destiny, self-determination, and free choice. And Moses, crouching under the cold boulder, becomes much greater, mightier, profounder, loftier, and more illustrious than when he was in the heavens. He becomes the master of all prophets and father of all sages, and his face begins to shine. 

Building the Land of Israel is a task that is paradoxical in its entirety. 

And where, morai ve-rabbotai, can we carve tablets out of cold mountain boulders, and where can we implement the vision of “The L-rd! the L-rd! a G-d compassionate and gracious” in contact with, and in opposition to, the rest of the world—if not in the Land of Israel? Not in Reform temples, not in Conservative synagogues, not even in Orthodox battei kenesiyyot can any of this be implemented. Certainly all modern Jews are paradoxical, both vis-à-vis Gentiles and vis-à-vis themselves. The Gentile does not comprehend their existence as Jews, and they themselves do not understand it either. But these Jews’ paradox is that of Job, a paradox of sharp, senseless, gratuitous pains that befall a man suddenly and break him. Their paradox is that of fate, of Greek tragedy, of Sophocles or Euripides—not that of Genesis, of the self-determination of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the other prophets. They lack the mystery of Jewish existence as a form of opposition to evil in the world. The paradox of the modern Jew is that of “And a man wrestled with him,” but without the vision of “until the break of dawn.” 

Building the Land of Israel is a task that is paradoxical in its entirety. However, it is not fatally paradoxical but prophetically paradoxical, the paradox of free self-determination that is connected with suffering. Sometimes, in moments of gloom, in twilights of melancholy, when Satan, wrapped in shadow, asks me, “Will Jews succeed in their two gigantic undertakings, the building of the land in Palestine and the establishment of Torah everywhere, when there are so many Sanballats, destructive forces, and adversaries, both internal and external; when ignorance, dismal assimilation, and indifferent resignation consume the organism of the Jewish nation like a cancer?” —I get disoriented for a moment. But then I suddenly remember the paradoxical, illogical, irrational nature of our task and the suffering with which the implementation of all of these ideals is bound up. In front of my eyes appears the scene of Abraham returning from the Binding, behind him a paradoxical, ridiculous life that is simply full of contradictions, and learning that everything had come so easily to Nahor; the scene of Moses standing alone and seeing nothing but clouds and darkness and a tefillin knot (see Berakhot 7a). In those moments, I answer Satan firmly, “Yes, we will succeed, because the task is paradoxical, and paradox is the eternal rule of our history . . .” 

The question of the Land of Israel reaches even deeper than we imagine. The whole future of the Torah depends on it. And I wish to stress again that I am definitely not one of the pessimists who foresee the collapse of American Jewry, and I am not asking for a million dollars in order to forestall the plague. “The Glory of Israel does not deceive or change His mind” (I Sam. 15:29). I believe in that. True, it is paradoxical, but because it is incomprehensible, I believe that it is impossible to predict. Both optimists and pessimists should be a bit more conservative in their prophecies.  

There is, however, a danger to the Diaspora if there is no Jewish center at the same time. I refer to the dimensions of Judaism:  

You know this well—a standard Euclidian space has three dimensions: length, width, and depth. [Hermann von] Helmholtz demonstrated that certain creatures in the zoological world cannot perceive a three-dimensional space, and their entire universe consists either of lines or of planes. It is difficult for us to imagine such a perspective on the world, and yet it is that of insects. This same kind of differentiation in the perception of space can also be found in the spiritual sphere in general and in Judaism in particular. Judaism is not, in essence, a unidimensional line connecting man with G-d via a certain ritual behavior. It is also not a two-dimensional plane, with a beit midrash on one side and a cemetery on the other. Judaism is an all-encompassing system of cosmic proportions in three-dimensional (length, width, and depth) space — “deep, deep down; who can discover it?” (Eccl. 7:24). It embraces the whole of life, one’s entire existence. All modern problems must be refracted through the Jewish prism, and the Jewish consciousness must adopt a position on them: sociological problems, political questions, cultural-historical opinions, pedagogical methodologies, concepts like state and society, the relationship between the individual and the community, social ethics and justice, and population politics must be viewed in a Jewish light and understood from a Jewish perspective. The Torah’s “measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:9). But if a Torah scroll is missing entire parashiyyot, it is invalid. 

The question of the Land of Israel reaches even deeper than we imagine. The whole future of the Torah depends on it. 

Unfortunately, the way modern Judaism, even frum Judaism, is developing in the Diaspora, it is missing this three-dimensional perspective. It is limited to lines and planes. Judaism has become fossilized in the beit midrash, cemetery, and ceremonial forms. I am not saying that these things are unimportant, but they are very far removed from reflecting the beauty and splendor within Judaism. This is Judaism without gusto, profundity, and loftiness—flat, monotone, and gray. Is it any wonder that the younger generation does not want to hear from us, and it is difficult to entice its members to come to the synagogue? The young people going out into the street, full of sociopolitical problems and doubts, philosophical questions and queries, hear nothing from our modern rabbis and non-Orthodox clergymen but a couple hackneyed phrases and banal sayings. Why is that? Judaism, instead of being a worldview, has become a cult religion, that which Judaism despises to no end. 

The difficult method of deepening and broadening the Jewish Weltanschauung consists not only of theoretical analyses and philosophical work—that, too, is a difficult task—but even more so of participating in such a life as compels Judaism to be reborn in its fullness and multidimensionality. “The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool” (Isa. 66:1): one can only have a heaven, an ideology, a spiritual conception of the world, when there is terra firma beneath one’s feet. When concrete, ordinary life demands it, requires depth, formulation and framing of new values, new ideals, new norms and worldviews; when life is multidimensional, colorful, diversified, and deep and, as the Roman poet Terence said, “I consider nothing human alien to me” —then will a multidimensional, all-embracing, heaven-storming Judaism emerge: “Riding through the heavens to help you, through the skies in His majesty” (Deut. 33:26). By contrast, when concrete life is robbed of many aspects of human creation, like a state, political activity, jurisprudence, the whole clash between capital and labor, a comprehensive education, and so on and so forth, then spiritual life perforce becomes crippled, shrinks, withers, and fades. 

Is it any wonder, then, that Judaism has become a cult religion, a ritual, etc.? There is no need to formulate a Jewish political philosophy, labor ideology, social ethics, and so on, for, where those things are concerned, we live in a Gentile world. Here is where Ahad Ha’am erred regarding the primacy of a “spiritual center.” A spiritual center is undoubtedly important, a spiritual renaissance is certainly needed, but there can be no spiritual center without a physical center, there can be no soul without a body. For us, the halakhah follows the House of Hillel, which contends that “the earth was created first and heaven thereafter, as it says, ‘When the L-rd G-d made earth and heaven’ (Gen. 2:4)” (Hagigah12a). There can be no heaven without the earth. 

In my opinion, it is here that the religious conception of the ideology of the return to Zion lies hidden. I do not refer simply to the mitzvah to settle the land or to other mitzvot connected with the land. Much more depends on this: the entire character of Judaism and its essence. Will Judaism remain a unidimensional line or a two-dimensional plane, or will it be transformed into an all-encompassing space—long, wide, and deep, with distant horizons and unending boundaries—in a word: a true worldview? I believe that, even with the best of intentions, Diaspora Jewry cannot accomplish this. Observance can exist but not a multidimensional Jewish society. 

This is not simply some abstract reflection but an actual necessity if we expect that out of Gehenna will emerge a new Jewish persona with a new view of life, a new system of values, who will make the great paradox of Abraham’s covenantal vision, of Moses’ “The L-rd! the L-rd! a G-d compassionate and gracious,” a reality; who will bring us both into contact with world culture and into tension with it. Contact and participation, but also tension and opposition—this is the prophetic ideal of “And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn,” and this can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel.    


More in this section:

Medinat Yisrael: Through a Torah LensRabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik; Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog; Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin; Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank; Rabbi Yehuda Amital; Rabbi Yaakov Friedman; Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein

The Birth of the Jewish State: Rabbinic Views and Perspectives compiled and translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Krakowski

Voices of Faith: Memories of 1948 by Rabbanit Miriam Hauer, Rabbanit Puah Shteiner and Rabbi Berel Wein; interviews by Toby Klein Greenwald

A Bridge of Paper by Charlotte Friedland

This article was featured in the Summer 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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