Reflections on the State of Religious Zionism

By Dr. David Berger

Poised between the aggressively anti-religious nationalism of mainstream secular Zionists and the passive Messianic faith of the bulk of believing Jews, nineteenth-century Religious Zionism was born on the horns of a dilemma.  Embracing both horns, its leaders affirmed the validity of tradition and its divinely-assured Messianic Age, while arguing that human initiative, hardly distinguishable from the behavior of secular nationalists, was crucial to the Redemption of Israel.  For some, the redemptive dimension receded, and the religious aspect of their nationalism was expressed in terms of the commandment to settle the Land and the opportunity to establish a state that would function in accordance with the laws of the Torah.

Whether the primary religious objective was Messiah or mitzvah, the national arousal of the Jewish people would, they believed, elicit a divine response allowing the fulfillment, in whole or in part, of a millennial dream.  For all the stresses in this marriage of modern nationalism and age-old faith, it was precisely the outnumbered religious Zionists who united the profoundest forces that lay at the heart of a nationalist movement whose leaders spoke of secular means and secular goals — but could not digest a Uganda solution because of a misty-eyed attachment to a land they had experienced only in verses and prayers that they professed not to believe.

The God of history has awarded victory to Zionism writ large as well as to its religious exponents, and yet irrelevance, even defeat, can emerge from the jaws of victory.  The triumph of Zionism is, of course, the State itself.  The triumph of Religious Zionism lies in the near impossibility of constructing a coherent Orthodox theory of Providence in which the return of the Land of Israel to the Jewish People is anything but a monumental gift of God; the struggle to establish the State has received the unmistakable haskamah [approbation] of the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself.1  But there is another side to this coin.  Zionism as a whole must contend with the irrelevance which bedevils any movement that has achieved its objective, while the crisis of Religious Zionism is a far more complicated matter.

First, a word about post-1948 Zionism.  It could no longer mean advocating the establishment of a Jewish homeland.  Rather, for all but deeply-devoted adherents who were committed to aliyah, it was reduced to the proposition that Jews both in and out of the new State should work for its welfare.  Active anti-Zionism in a secular context could only mean that the State should cease to exist, and with it masses of Jewish residents who would be wiped out with its destruction.  Since this position was unthinkable, vigorous Jewish anti-Zionism virtually disappeared even as Zionism itself was redefined.

Religious Zionism had larger objectives than a “mere” state, and 1948 brought neither a medinat haTorah nor the Messianic Age.  These dreams remained to be fulfilled.

“Irrelevance…can emerge from the jaws of victory.”

First, there was the Torah state.  Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog strove to incorporate as much halachah as possible into the still inchoate legal system of the new nation, and the Mizrachi leader Rav Yehudah Leib Maimon imagined that he could found a Sanhedrin.  (He is reported to have been asked how it would be possible nowadays to locate participants who “spurn ill-gotten gain” [Exodus 18:21].  His reply:  “Nowadays, for money you can get anything.”)  For all the shortcomings of these efforts, Israel incorporated much of Jewish law into its fundamental legal and social structure, from rabbinic control of marriage and divorce to the public observance of the Sabbath.

And there is the rub.  Enforcement of halachah in a pre-Messianic environment with a largely secular populace runs the risk of generating hatred of the Torah and of its adherents.  During the controversy over the closing of Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem some years ago, I rode through the controversial area on a bus and saw large Hebrew signs announcing, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”  I was stunned by the intensity of my reaction.  Shabbos, I thought to myself, is something only God could have invented, and yet secular Jews looking at these signs will react not with sentiments of spiritual exaltation, but with intense, even venomous, hatred of Judaism.  By the time I arrived at my destination in Mt. Scopus, my eyes had filled with tears.

Religious Zionism faces the ironic, heart-wrenching challenge of deciding to forego the enforcement of Torah, even in some areas where such enforcement is politically attainable, in order to foster love of Torah.  To take one highly controversial example, I believe that the Rabbinate should maintain control of divorce, but that the State should permit civil marriages that will not lead to mamzerut.  The prohibition of civil marriage not only creates profound resentment; it produces powerful pressures to accept dubious conversions which we should not be prepared to recognize.2  The line between self-defeating aggressiveness and meritorious firmness is difficult to draw, but few worthwhile boundaries are established with ease.  We cannot allow ourselves to be deterred from struggling toward a proper balance by the further irony that the non-Zionist Orthodox are among the strongest advocates of a medinat haTorah.

Indeed, the line between Religious Zionists and most non-Zionist Orthodox Jews, especially in the Diaspora, is by no means as sharp as the rhetorical level would lead us to expect.  Most of the latter care profoundly about the welfare of the State and its inhabitants — more profoundly than most nominally Zionist Reform Jews.  It is easy to envision a politically conservative, non-Zionist Orthodox Jew in the United States voting for a liberal Democrat with a pro-Israel stance; it is much harder to imagine a politically liberal, Zionist Reform Jew voting for a pro-Israel conservative Republican.  It is also considerably more likely that the child of the non-Zionist will one day reside in the State of Israel.  The anti-Zionist rhetoric in some Traditionalist circles is strident indeed; nonetheless, in a world where Zionism effectively means concern and support for the interests of Israel, most of Traditionalist Orthodoxy, for all of its refusal to thank God for the miracle of the State, is staunchly Zionist.  In Israel, most of non-Zionist Orthodoxy is actively involved in the political life of the State, but because the critical practical divide is army service rather than Hallel on Yom HaAtzma’ut, the issue is much more sharply drawn.

And then there is the Messianic dimension.  Here too Religious Zionism faces the need for serious introspection.  To some degree, I believe that Messianism has been made to shoulder an unfair measure of blame for the full range of militant positions proffered by Religious Zionists.  While some extremist behavior has resulted from Messianic fervor, I do not believe that this is the primary explanation for Meir Kahane’s confrontational approach born on the streets of Brooklyn.  It is not Messianism, but the novel opportunity to exercise power which has led some religious Israelis to advocate the literal application of certain components of the tradition that are deeply hostile to Gentiles.  The need for a nuanced understanding of these texts is a challenge to the very soul of Religious Zionism.

At the same time, the impact of Zionist Messianism is real and often disturbing.  It is, I think, a theological error to see the State as the certain harbinger of imminent Redemption.  As the Rambam makes clear, we have no definite knowledge of when the Messiah will come.  Moreover, when Messianic confidence is translated into political action, theological error can become temporal danger.  Positions on Oslo and Wye should not be a function of Messianic analysis.  We can say reshit tzemichat geulatenu [“the beginning of the flowering of our Redemption”] as an expression of faith that the State will not be destroyed before the End of Days or as a hope that the Messiah will soon appear, but not as a definitive affirmation that we will see the final fulfillment in our generation or even the next.

Religious Zionism does face a crisis.  Confidence that the birth of Israel guarantees the imminent advent of the Messiah is theologically dubious and pragmatically unwise.  The realization of a full Torah state must await his coming, and a sober examination of contemporary realities should impel us to consider the religious benefits of some retreat even from the status quo.  Indeed, we may well have waited so long that the policies of the past will be swept away without our consent in a Kulturkampf that all segments of Israeli society must strive mightily to avoid.

At the same time, the core aspiration of Religious Zionism has been powerfully vindicated.  God has given us back our Land.  This awe-inspiring event, captured in so simple a sentence, creates a set of obligations which are at the heart of Religious Zionism today:  to thank God for this gift, to preserve and nurture it — optimally with our physical presence, and to infuse it with genuine Jewishness in a manner that will inspire all Jews to say that the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and all its pathways are peace.

Dr. Berger is Professor of History at Brooklyn College and at the Graduate School, City University of New York.  He is the author of Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages and co-author of Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures:  Rejection or Integration? edited by Jacob J. Schacter.  He is the current president of the Association for Jewish Studies.


  1. I have discussed this point more fully in a contribution to a symposium in Tradition. See “Reflections on the Six-Day War After a Quarter-Century,” Tradition 26:4 (1992): 7-10.
  2. I argued this position in greater detail in “Divided and Distinguished Worlds,” Tradition 26:2 (1992): 6-10.
This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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