Reordering Priorities: From Historical Action to Spiritual Achievement

By Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein

The sense of a crisis within Religious Zionism has deepened and intensified during the recent past.  Few within the Religious Zionist fold would dispute the existence of  such a crisis.  The manifestations of this are multifaceted, ranging from political frustration to abusive language, ad hominem attacks and even physical violence, on the one hand, and to persistent and perplexed questioning of the role of Torah shebe’al peh and the value of Torah lishmah, on the other.  These doubts express themselves within the yeshivah world in the search for a more mystically oriented, spiritualistic learning style, and outside the yeshivah world in the burgeoning number of Religious Zionist youth who choose to forgo the classic yeshivah experience in favor of a military vocation, coupled with an alarming rise in the number of post-yeshivah and/or post Army youth seeking spiritual solace in the Far East.

Tracing the root of the problem should clarify the underlying issues and options and facilitate my attempt to address them.

Religious Zionism has enjoyed a fruitful and productive relationship with general Zionism.  Though its theoretical roots antedate Herzl and the founders of modern Zionism, it was the willingness to align itself with general Zionism that was of greatest import to Religious Zionism.  Together, the two movements have been extremely successful, realizing their dreams and fulfilling their historical mission in a dazzling manner.  Viewed from any historical perspective, the return to a lost homeland; the successful settlement of the Land; the establishment of an independent political entity; the realization of a potent military capability; the transformation of an ancient language from a literary and liturgical tool into a vibrant vernacular; the ingathering of the dispersed exiles from the four corners of the Earth to Israel; the creation of a viable and vibrant economy coupled with a vigorous cultural and religious life is a list of achievements that is nothing short of amazing.  Anyone pausing to reflect upon the Ramban’s description of the desolate Yerushalayim that he found, or the depiction in the Tisha B’Av prayer of the ruined, empty and desolate city of Zion and the current state of affairs cannot but realize the enormity of the achievement and feel overwhelmed by our debt of gratitude to God.  Even an afternoon spent in the library, perusing 19th century newspapers, will suffice to firmly impress this point on one’s mind.

However, the goals of the two movements were not identical; whereas Herzlian Zionism aspired to provide Jews with a land of their own, the establishment of a secure national political entity — similar to those of other nations — its ultimate goal, Religious Zionism’s agenda was conceived and experienced in religious terms.  The return to Zion was not merely a manifestation of 19th century nationalism, but the Provident fulfillment of the Biblical prophecies.  Though general Zionism comes in different flavors, ranging from the minimalist “safe haven” approach to the expanded version that views the Zionist enterprise as a fulfillment of Jewish destiny, the common thread in all of them is a secular framework of reference, and it is precisely this issue which divides it from Religious Zionism.

Thus, although Religious Zionism differed with general Zionism on the most basic of issues — a fact not lost on the religious anti-Zionist camp – the two movements worked together to achieve the common goals that both wanted to advance.  The tactical goals of Religious Zionism being largely identical to those of general Zionism, both striving to establish a secure Jewish state in the Land of Israel and both believing that human endeavor and involvement in history is the means by which to bring this about, there was a shared agenda.  Therefore, as long as this goal was yet to be achieved, the two movements could work in harmony towards the accomplishment of the desired end and feel the true existence of a real partnership that benefited both sides and that interested all parties.

However, the moment that this goal was achieved, the inevitable differences between the two approaches were bound to undo the partnership that would no longer share enough common ground, and this is precisely what happened in the aftermath of the Six Day War.  Paradoxically, the source of the current problems of Religious Zionism is Zionism’s greatest moment of success — the Six Day War.  For it was at that point in time that the basic security of the State of Israel — from the geopolitical perspective — was firmly established.  While many of the security concerns have yet to be resolved, the very existence of the State itself is no longer perceived as being in doubt.  (The Yom Kippur War, for all of its terrible human price, served to prove the point that the results of the Six Day War had provided vital strategic depth; for even when Israel was surprised and unprepared, it was still able to defend itself.)

It was at this point that Religious Zionism and general Zionism parted ways; for general Zionism, the war was the terminus point of the Zionist enterprise, the moment at which it successfully achieved its historical mission.  Henceforth, two options presented themselves; spiritually sensitive souls could apply their energies to the furthering of social justice and involvement with cultural affairs, while others who simply desired rest and repose from the charged and challenged life that had previously engaged them slacked off.  Relaxation and gratification, leisure and pleasure replaced sacrifice and toil as the guiding lights of the public.  A popular song played endlessly on the radio in the mid- ’80s perfectly summed up the change in sentiment with the following lyric:  “Eretz Yisrael is my America!”  One is almost tempted to claim that the logic behind the lyric is impeccable; for if the Zionist goal was to establish a secure state — as the Americans have achieved — so then Israel is just like America and one may engage in the pursuit of happiness, American style.

However, if for classical secular Zionism the war signaled the realization of the dream, Religious Zionism viewed its results as the prelude to the next stage of its dream.  For if, from the security perspective, the hills of Yehudah and Shomron were a bargaining chip to be negotiated away in return for peaceful coexistence and the populated cities and refugee camps were simply a security headache, from the vantage point of the Tanach, these very same places are the heart and soul of the Land, the places where Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and their progeny lived out their destinies.  The return to the Land of our forefathers and to the holy cities of the past was seen as the unfolding of grand new vistas waiting to be incorporated into the paradigm of atchalta de’Geulah [the Beginning of Redemption].

Thus, the achievements of the war set the stage for the basic differences between general and Religious Zionism to realize themselves.  The shared common goals having been achieved, the agenda of the two movements suddenly differed.  However, even though the divergence of the two ideologies began some thirty years ago, it did not immediately result in a collision course between the two.  Initially, each one simply went its separate path.  This enabled Religious Zionism to pour its energy into settling the newly acquired territories, unassisted but undisturbed by the general public.  As long as there was no Arab party willing to negotiate seriously, there was not much threat to the general public’s concept of security from the settlement movement, so that a “live and let live” atmosphere to the matter prevailed.  Widespread settlement throughout the West Bank has been essentially a Religious Zionist effort.  Gone were the days of the ’30s and the ’40s when areas such as Emek Beth Shean and Emek Hefer were jointly settled by all elements of the Zionist movement, religious and non-religious kibbutzim located side by side, as was the Gush Etzion of the pre-statehood period which counted a Shomer HaTzair kibbutz amongst its members.  From its perspective, the Labor government of the time yielded to the settlers’ demands and allowed the area to be settled, not seeing much point in having a major confrontation over an issue which did not really disturb the peace.

“…Judaism is interested in the love, awe and commitment to God much more than bringing about the Geulah.”

All this was dramatically changed, though, the moment that a serious Arab partner emerged; the two agendas have been on a collision course ever since, as the program of each party endangers that of the other.  The general public perceived the Religious Zionist insistence on settling and possessing the territories as a major obstacle to reaching an agreement with the Arab neighbors, thereby jeopardizing the opportunity to bring calm and security to the region, while the Religious Zionist wing realized that the general public’s policy of trading land for peace would eliminate what it saw as — no more and no less — the fulfillment of the divine promise to bring about the Geulah that would ultimately lead to Mashiach and the final realization of Jewish destiny.  The basic differences were finally out in the open and became a source of acute tension between the various factions.

The original fault line can be readily identified — Yamit 1982.  Yet, Yamit in the Sinai, a settlement originally conceived out of security considerations and whose status as part of the historical Land of Israel was highly doubtful, was only the opening round.  The more the debate got closer to home and focused upon areas whose historical status was rock solid, the more exacerbated it became.  Concurrently, the chance for an agreement with the Palestinians became a reality, thereby increasing the secular public’s insistence upon enacting territorial compromise.

It is the unraveling of the partnership between Religious Zionism and general Zionism that has precipitated the aforementioned crisis within Religious Zionism.  Religious Zionism, a movement that seeks to bring about Geulah, cannot disassociate itself from the general public.  Geulah is a national event, the historical fulfillment of a nation.  The individual can achieve personal redemption; historical Redemption, though, is granted only to a nation.  Therefore, the Religious Zionist vision requires the alignment of the nation; estrangement from the people is possible from the Bnei Brak perspective of individuals and social groups striving to lead their individual Torah lives, but is impossible from the Mercaz HaRav Kook vantage point of atchalta de’Geulah.  The division within the nation, a reality that can no longer be denied, is what has brought about the current plight of Religious Zionism.

The strife within the nation and the disparaging rejection of the Religious Zionism Geulah model by the general public as messianic can either lead to the adoption of a Geulah model, in which the nation is unwillingly coerced into participation or to a recognition that the current situation is a setback to the realization of the dream.  The dangers of the first approach are alienation and increased confrontation with the non-religious public.  The frustration and bitterness accompanying the unsuccessful attempt to thrust the Religious Zionist agenda upon an unwilling public have only paved the way to the verbal and physical violence that have all too frequently occurred in recent years.  The more the general public does not respond to the attempt to force the Geulah upon it, the greater the need to go to greater extremes to do so.

However, postponement of the vision’s fulfillment, while undoubtedly the truer and more responsible course of action, is not without its perils either.  The shift from a prophetic vision on the verge of being fulfilled to a distant long term curve is a very difficult transition, requiring great spiritual fortitude.  Despair and the search for alternate spiritual expressions are the possible, or even likely, outcomes of such a transition for many.

Simply put, both alternatives are due to the fact that a spiritual world rooted in the historical moment, viewing the world of action as its primary focus, is paying the price for its insistence upon the sphere of action.  Having raised a generation on the idea of spiritual fulfillment through the historical process, it must now cope with the current historical situation.  This, though, has proven to be very difficult under the circumstances, thereby inducing some misguided souls to try and force History’s hand, while others who feel perplexed are seeking alternate sources of spiritual fulfillment, whether they be in the world of action, military or otherwise, or in other forms of the world of spirit.

The shift in focus from the historical achievement to the spiritual situation of the people is a vital spiritual and religious need that is necessary and imperative in and of itself, not only as a means to solving a contemporary crisis.  This, though, is an issue of much greater scope (and importance) than the topic at hand.  To state the matter telegraphically, Judaism is interested in the love, awe and commitment to God much more than in bringing about Geulah.  If one must choose between a society that is religiously corrupt accompanied by Geulah or an average society living a standard Judaism without Geulah, there is no doubt that the latter choice is the preferable one.  It should be emphasized that the current crisis in Religious Zionism is not the reason to change course; rather, it itself is the result of these misguided priorities.  Therefore, every effort must be made and all resources devoted to encouraging an awareness and a yearning for God amongst all segments of the nation.  All actions and policies must be evaluated for the impact that they will have on the relationship of the general public to God.  Maximizing spiritual life, increasing our identification with Torah and fostering positive feelings towards Jewish tradition is the yardstick by which our actions will be judged (and not how much they have contributed to bringing about the Geulah) and it is these actions that will eventually bring about the long-awaited Geulah.  The fate of Har HaBayit (and, l’havdil, Har Homa) will be decided by the amount of yirat Shamayim and ahavat Torah [fear of Heaven and love of Torah] in Tel Aviv and Har Adar and not by political or physical confrontation.

Moreover, recent years have tragically demonstrated how slippery and treacherous is the slope that descends from an intense preoccupation with possession of the Land to the immoral use of force.  An alarmingly large number of Religious Zionist leaders, both political and (what’s worse) spiritual, have exhibited a disturbingly cavalier attitude to the use of violence, even when directed against innocent individuals.  These have ranged from understanding and silence to halfhearted and qualified condemnation of abhorrent acts, be they the deliberate overturning of Arab fruit stalls in Chevron, taking potshots at the rooftop water boilers of local villagers or massacres such as those perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, of unblessed memory.  Seemingly forgetful of the most basic message of the prophets that moral behavior is of cardinal importance, an essential requirement that takes priority over possession of the Land and is a prerequisite of such possession, oblivious to the Ramban’s remark that a similar lapse made by Sarah Imenu towards her Egyptian maidservant Haggar is the source of all our future misfortune at the hands of Haggar’s descendants; dismissive of Tosfot’s concise formulation of the Socratic ethic that “one must be more diligent not to cause harm than to avoid being harmed;” insensitive to Rav Kook’s observation as to the necessity of withdrawal from morally tainted political activity, the leadership has looked on as things have gotten out of hand.

In the process, rabbinical leadership has entered the political arena in such detail that it has often left its legitimate “High Politics” perch and entered into the trenches of “Lower Politics,” exposing itself to all of the attendant pitfalls to spiritual respect and dignity that is the price of such exposure.  In addition, such a policy has contributed to the general public associating Torah with the geo-political issues to the exclusion of all the other riches that the Torah has to offer.

Renewed emphasis upon the world of ideas requires reaffirming the value of Torah lishmah — the study of Torah for its own sake as an autonomous discipline — as a central value of our religious life.  The recent proliferation of preparatory institutes (whose entire raison d’etre is the need to prepare their students for the spiritual and halachic rigors of military life) as a valid alternative in the eyes of many to an actual yeshivah course of study, and their booming enrollment, attest to the fact that a large segment of Religious Zionist youth are either incapable or indifferent to the need to devote time to highlevel intensive Torah study.  The choice of a “mechinah” and extended quality military service by some of Religious Zionism’s best and brightest as a vocation, admirable and laudatory as the mesirat nefesh may be, is an additional manifestation of religious energy preferring the active life over the contemplative one.  Though both the active and the pensive world have their place in the scheme of things and although military service is an essential element of the Religious Zionist ethos, Religious Zionism must nevertheless ask itself, who is its poster boy?  Is it the religiously observant brigade commander whose kippah peeks out from under his helmet throughout the many years of life spent in the army outside the beit medrash or is it the rabbi who served in the army, but devotes his time and energy to teaching and preaching Torah?

Affirmation of the moral imperative and the supremacy of the world of ideas and Torah study will also enable the Religious Zionist movement to more realistically assess our historical situation and to buffer the disappointment from the realization that Mashiach and the final Geulah may not be right around the corner.  The phrase “atchalta de’Geulah” masks a wide variety of options, ranging from initial achievements with the potential to become something far greater, to the claim that most of the process is behind us and that the rest is a matter of time.  As events unfold and our possession of the Land is unfortunately decreasing rather than increasing, the more extreme position that the Geulah is a done deal seems to be less and less tenable.  This may, God forbid, lead to disillusionment and spiritual crisis, if not to desperate acts.  The remedy being proposed by many prominent and responsible educators and rabbis within the fold, that we are indeed on the Geulah train but that the journey may have its ups and downs, may go a long way towards solving the acute educational dilemma, but still remains in denial of Tanach’s most basic truth that Am Yisrael’s historical fortunes are a function of our relationship with God and predicated upon religious observance or deviation.  The idea that crime and punishment can delay, postpone or even nullify historical achievement is hammered home to us time after time by all of the prophets, and we would do well to remember the Gemara’s statement that recorded prophecies are those that transcend local circumstance and are therefore relevant for all future generations.  The concept that loss will result from sin and that divine Providence supervising our destiny may decide to curtail or roll back historical accomplishment is professed every morning and every evening in the second portion of Kriyat Shema; there is no reason to think that we are different than any other generation in this regard.

This does not mean that God has not worked historical wonders for us.  Our generation has been granted possession of Eretz Yisrael and has witnessed the ingathering of Jews, a privilege denied to our forefathers for over 2,000 years. Thus, what is necessary is the recognition of all that God has granted us, coupled with proper expression of thanksgiving to Him, tempered by a realistic assessment of these historical achievements, and accompanied by the realization that future advance or decline is a function of our relationship with Him and that nothing in the process is guaranteed against sin and error.

The transition from a historicallyoriented avodat Hashem to an ahistorical foundation should help to alleviate the potential for spiritual crisis resulting from the current geo-political situation; minimizing the absolute value of Geulah should be able to relieve some of the disappointment with the situation, while the emphasis placed upon the inner religious life will provide an outlet for the positive religious experience.

Therefore, a redirection of religious life from the world of action to the world of ideas, on the one hand, and on the other hand a more limited historical claim for Zionism — that is also appreciative of the vital spiritual importance of the nation as one People — are necessary to reinvigorate and recharge Religious Zionism, so that it may return to being a potent spiritual force.


Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein teaches at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut.  He recently served as rosh kollel of Kollel Torat Tzion.  He notes that in this article he treats a particular brand of Religious Zionism as representative of the whole, due to its dominant influence on public affairs.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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