Two Images of Medinat Yisrael

By Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Translated from Hebrew by Matis Greenblatt

The Six Day War produced a substantive change in Religious Zionism:  until then it had been dominated by a realistic approach which related to the State of Israel as a place of refuge for the Jewish nation, where a Jew had the opportunity to direct his own life.  The Jewish state was to make known that the spilling of Jewish blood would not be tolerated and that Jews would no longer submit to alien rule.  But even as they spoke of “The Beginning of the Sprouting of our Redemption” and the State of Israel was linked with the belief in the Messianic Era, the primary approach was pragmatic, nevertheless.  Even on the political front, Religious Zionism joined every government, and its political stands were consistently moderate.

After the Six Day War, Religious Zionists raised to the ideological forefront the theory of Geulah [Redemption] as expounded by the school of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  Although he died before the advent of the State, Rav Kook perceived in the Religious Zionism which began in the mid-nineteenth century (through the efforts of Rabbi E. Gutmacher, Rabbi Zvi H. Kalischer and others) the “beginnings of the light of the Messiah;” and in the return of the Jewish people to their Land, the beginnings of the process of Redemption.  His teachings were based on kabbalistic sources, as well as his down-to-earth analysis of reality; on the views of the Talmud (for example, the statement in Sanhedrin that the flourishing of Eretz Yisrael was a sign of the Redemption), as well as on a powerful inner sense that was part of his personality.  His teaching formulated the first steps of the Redemption and proposed a unique explanation for the fact that the Zionist movement was led by those who had forsaken the life of Torah and mitzvot:  he believed that the attachment to Eretz Yisrael, even if it comes from non-religious sources, flows from the treasured Jewish soul, and will ultimately bring the entire nation to teshuvah; the prevalence of non-belief and the abandonment of the religious life will compel the Torah world to dramatically revise study of the Torah by including the profundities of Jewish thought in the curriculum of the yeshivot (in place of the exclusive preoccupation with Gemara and halachah); the divisions and splits within the Jewish nation is part of the process of achieving a new Jewish identity which is essential to the preparation for the complete Redemption.

One of the results of the Six Day War was the broad identification with the teachings of Rav Kook, and concurrently with Religious Zionism.  The war demonstrated that the State of Israel, in fact, had meaning as laying the foundations for the State of the Messiah.  What Rav Kook had written concerning the reawakening of the nation, the Land, and study of the Torah was beginning to become reality.  Eretz Yisrael was once again given to the Jewish nation, and especially the Yehudah and Shomron regions wherein most of the events of the Tanach occurred and which are Eretz Yisrael in the Biblical sense.  On the heels of the war, the first blossoms of teshuvah revealed themselves.  The famous picture of the paratrooper crying at the Kotel was explained as proof that beneath the secular veneer a Jewish heart beats, searching for a way to Judaism.  The State of Israel moved from economic stagnation to dramatic growth.  The Religious Zionist Torah world began developing and the ideology of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav (led by Rabbi Kook’s son, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook) had great influence upon the hesder yeshivot and the additional Religious Zionist yeshivot.

“On the heels of the war, the first blossoms of teshuvah revealed themselves.”

These and other matters brought about a simultaneous spiritual and political revolution.  From the spiritual aspect, a prideful sense emerged of belonging to a pivotal movement of the State of Israel.  The youth ceased to be embarrassed by being religious and wore the knitted kippah with pride.  They triggered the flowering of the world of the yeshivot, and began to serve in the army with distinction, becoming involved in all areas of life within the State.  In the political area, the National Religious Party began to articulate positions in matters of foreign affairs and defense, and identified with the continued reoccupation of all areas of Eretz Yisrael.  The Yom Kippur War did not stop this development — on the contrary, even though the secular sector fell into a profound crisis from which it has not recovered to this day, the Religious Zionists converted the wound into a means of spurting even further ahead.  The prevailing defeatist mood in Medinat Yisrael was converted by Religious Zionism into fuel which made it the Zionist torchbearer.  These were days of growth for the movement and its ideas, and it was then that its place was established within the Israeli community.

The ability to overcome the effects of the Yom Kippur War resulted from the fact that there was a systematic ideology with regard to the central questions of Medinat Yisrael.  Relating to Medinat Yisrael as the “Beginning of the Redemption” brought with it the proposition that the Redemption will suffer no setbacks; whatever appears contrary is in reality progress in disguise.  The Midrash Shir HaShirim on the passage, “The voice of my Beloved is coming; He skips over the mountains and leaps upon the hills,” compares the Redemption to the running of the gazelle:  when he runs in mountainous regions, he is visible only when he climbs the mountain; when he descends, he cannot be seen, but even then he is moving ahead.  The Redemption, too, is sometimes not visible and seems to have descended from the heights; but in reality it is continuing to move ahead, even when not seen.  In addition, the relationship of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael achieved a systematic ideology regarding the importance and centrality of the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael in all its breadth.

In the last few years, additional difficulties have arisen for the redemptive and messianic perspective.  The settlement of all of Eretz Yisrael began to suffer from significant difficulties.  The retreat from Sinai and Yamit, the almost total evacuation of Chevron, the Oslo Accords and additional agreements created a breach between a significant segment of the Israeli populace and the settlers of Yehudah and Shomron.  Furthermore, the hope that the entire Jewish nation would return to Torah was revealed as unduly optimistic.  What we see today in Medinat Yisrael is quite different from what Religious Zionism hoped for.  It is not merely that people have become distanced from tradition and that the Russian emigrees are far from religious understanding; even the sparks of teshuvah which have arisen through the Shas movement reflect a different type of return to religion, extremely remote from and much narrower than the ideology of Religious Zionism.  Even the Religious Zionist world of Torah which has attained great achievements finds itself involved in certain secular manifestations and with a younger generation moving away from fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot.

All of these developments make it increasingly difficult to remain attached to the teachings of Rav Kook.  Will the current situation result in a change in the basic religious conception of Medinat Yisrael as the “Beginning of the Redemption?”  Can one continue to cling to the midrashic image of the gazelle, or perhaps one should employ another image from the Song of Songs, upon which Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote and warned: “I opened the door for my Beloved, but my Beloved had slipped away,” that is to say, the time for Redemption was lost and we should relate to Medinat Yisrael in a natural, rational way and remove from it the crown of Redemption?  Perhaps even to embrace the Chareidi approach?

The response to this question can be divided into two parts:  in the main, the teachings of Rav Kook are alive and well.  This is so because of the sources as well as the reality.  As previously indicated, the sources for his teachings are lengthy chapters in Kabbalah which speak of very problematic generations, as well as in Talmudic texts such as those in the Mishnah at the end of Tractate Soteh and in a number of places at the end of Sanhedrin.  And from a practical standpoint, the history of the Jewish People’s return to its land has seen comparable periods.  So it was at the end of the 40 year journey in the desert when, after the great spirit of Joshua’s conquests and the building of the Tabernacle, a difficult period came – the period of the Judges – when the people were not faithful to their Land, nation or God.  The Temple was not built until 400 years had elapsed.  This also happened during the return to Zion when the second Temple was built:  The numbers of the returnees was pitiful; Cyrus’ edict was more modest than the hopes engendered by the prophets’ prophecies; the leaders married Gentile wives, the enemies of Judah disturbed the building of the second Temple; and the optimistic spirit which had prevailed during the early years of the return was replaced by dejection and complaints to God.  For this reason, as difficult as the reality is, it does not contradict the teachings of Rav Kook.

“What we see today in Medinat Yisrael is quite different from what Religious Zionism hoped for…”

Even from a practical perspective one cannot overlook the profound, positive changes that have occurred to the Jewish nation.  Despite all the difficulties, Medinat Yisrael continues to develop; the Jewish people have returned to their homeland; substantial parts of Eretz Yisrael are under Jewish rule; the nation continues to solidify and Torah is studied in unprecedented proportions, perhaps greater than any time since it was given at Sinai.  However, Rav Kook foresaw that the process of return would be extremely difficult, not without ups and downs.  On the contrary, in his view the process of heresy is not merely possible, but inescapable — as a means of achieving pure faith and removing all the erroneous notions that had crept in through alien influences during the period of galut.

But, neither can one ignore the wide gap between the hope and the reality.  Today’s reality is mingled with much that was not anticipated in his vision.  Though we have returned to large sections of Eretz Yisrael, some is being taken from us in the process which began with the Camp David agreements, and no one knows where it will end.  Though the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael is growing, this growth has not brought about unity, and there is a split which continues to deepen within Israeli society.  The Religious Zionist Torah curriculum is different from that which prevails in the Chareidi community, though Rav Kook thought the gap would be narrowed.

However, the core shift in the Religious Zionist community in Medinat Yisrael is the shift in its main focus.  If in the past we were mainly preoccupied with the settlement of the Land, it has now become evident that we lack an organized and consistent concept regarding Medinat Yisrael.  The murder of Yitzchak Rabin was like an earthquake which forced Religious Zionism to occupy itself with fundamental questions regarding the Medinah.  The question of Torah and democracy; the parameters of the obligation for army service were questioned in the light of the decision of the Chief Rabbis that one should refuse to obey a command to withdraw from Eretz Yisrael; the position of the Supreme Court — these are the key issues before us and they reveal that, from the time it was decided to say Hallel on Independence Day and to give thanks to the Lord of the Universe for the establishment of the Medinah, no systematic approach has been formulated.  This becomes difficult sevenfold as Medinat Yisrael continues to adopt the American paradigm of separation of religion and state, a process which makes it more and more difficult to view the establishment of the State as the “Beginning of the Redemption.”  The main question facing Religious Zionism is the appropriateness of continued identification with enthusiasm for the establishment of the State.

Therefore, from the historical aspect, the question of Medinat Yisrael as the “Beginning of the Redemption” has not yet been decided.  If the State will continue to remove its Jewish identification — if it will, in fact, convert to what is characterized as “a state for all its citizens” and rescind the Law of Return — it is likely that disappointment in the Medinah will increase and the level of Religious Zionist identification will continue to diminish.  On the other hand, it is possible that another process will unfold in which the State will shake off its prevailing weakness and strike out in a new, independent direction.  Even the partial reconciliation of political processes will permit a debate as to the Jewish nature of the State, and if the Jewish character of the State will assume its proper place, it will become clear that Medinat Yisrael is not merely the “Beginning of the Redemption” but the profound foundation for the ideal Medinah of the Redemption, for which every Jew hopes.  The influence upon this process is the essential challenge of Religious Zionism today and is what will ultimately decide the meaning of Medinat Yisrael.

Rabbi Cherlow is the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Petach Tikva and author of Torat Eretz Yisrael and V’ayrastich Li L’Olam.

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