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Since the destruction of the Temple, religious Jews have prayed for the return to the Land of Israel. Yet these prayers have not necessarily translated into political action to establish a Jewish state there. In fact, modern Zionism has been mostly secular, particularly in its early years.
Many religious Jews condemn modern Zionism as “forcing the hand of God”–intervening with the divine plan for history. Religious Zionism, however, sees the State of Israel not only as practically necessary for the Jewish people but also as religiously meaningful. According to religious Zionists, the State of Israel is an essential step in bringing the Messiah.
Two Early Thinkers
Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai (1798-1878) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), precursors to the modern Zionist movement, advocated from a religious perspective for settlement in the Land of Israel. Living in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, both men were influenced by modern secular nationalism. They saw a Jewish state in the Land of Israel not only as a political solution to the misery of Eastern Europe Jews but also as a necessary step toward bringing the Messiah.
Many religious Jews believed that Jews must remain in their homes in the Diaspora until God sends the Messiah and gathers the exiles, but Alkalai and Kalischer stressed the importance of human effort in bringing the Messiah. Both Alkalai and Kalischer, however, were ahead of their time; their ideas were not widely accepted or well-known.
Abraham Isaac Kook
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)–considered the “father” of religious Zionism–succeeded where Alkalai and Kalischer failed in garnering support for religious Zionism. Kook published his first essay on Zionism while serving as rabbi in Boisk, Lithuania. In the essay, he argued that modern Jewish nationalism, even at its most secular, expresses the divinity within the Jewish soul and signifies the beginning of the messianic age.
Kook moved to Palestine in 1904 and served as rabbi of the city of Yaffo (Jaffa) and the agricultural settlements nearby. In 1919 he became the chief rabbi of the Ashkenazic Jews (those from Eastern Europe) in Jerusalem, and in 1921 he became the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Palestine in the period of the British mandate. As chief rabbi, Kook worked to spread his religious Zionist ideals. He founded a Zionist yeshivah (Jewish institution of higher learning) and defended the secular Zionists in the face of widespread religious opposition.
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