The Land of Israel in Modern Jewish Thought

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Centuries of political powerlessness engendered a Jewish theology of passivity. Jews believed that the exiles would be gathered to the Land of Israel eventually--and that only God could initiate this redemption. Ironically, when modern Jews experienced empowerment in the form of Emancipation, they were further distracted from the Land: In early modern times, traditional Jews continued to insist that God would lead any re-settlement of the Land, while liberal Jews relinquished their dreams of a homeland in exchange for citizenship in their home countries. 

There were some exceptions, however. Yehudah Alkalai (1798-1878) and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) encouraged immigration to the Land of Israel, suggesting that settling the Land would help bring the Messiah--a belief that foreshadowed the religious Zionist movement. While most of their liberal colleagues in the early to mid-19th century tried to justify Judaism in Europe, Moses Hess (1812-1875) and Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) iterated the importance of the Land. Graetz believed that the religious and the political were "the twin axes around which Jewish life revolves"--so a religious state was ideal. Hess believed that national aspirations were fundamental to human nature; thus Jews needed a homeland to be spiritually and psychologically complete. land of israel quiz

As conditions deteriorated for Jews in certain parts of the world, settling the Land of Israel became a practical, political solution to anti-Semitism. Ironically, the practical nature of this idea was such that the two most important early political Zionists, Leo Pinsker (1821-1891) and Theodor Herzl (1860-1905), considered creating Jewish homelands outside of the Land of Israel, in places like Uganda and Argentina. Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927), the father of cultural Zionism, objected to this and other positions of political Zionism. He didn't believe that mass immigration to the Holy Land was possible or proper. Rather, he wanted the Land to be cultivated as a spiritual and cultural arena for Jewish renewal.

Meanwhile, the religious right and left continued to criticize Zionism. The liberal stance was rooted in a universalism that made Zionism's particularistic bent seem antiquated, even embarrassing. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the American Reform movement famously declared that they "expect neither a return to Palestine… nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state." (In the 1930s, the movement changed course, affirming "the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its [the Land's] upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.") 

On the right, traditional Jews continued to maintain that settling the Land tampered with the divine plan for redemption. In addition, the secular, often atheistic Zionist leadership was another sign of its corrupt nature. Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the Land during the British Mandate period, developed an alternative theological vision, sowing the seeds for religious Zionism. Kook embraced the work of the secular Zionists because he thought the messianic era was at hand, and that the existence of secular Jewish power was a symptom of the upheaval predicted to precede the messianic age.

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