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.
Kook believed that secular Zionists are unwittingly bringing the Messiah. All Jews, he believed, have within themselves a divine spark that motivates them to fulfill God’s will even when they do not intend to do so. Secular Zionism is a manifestation of this divine spark. Through divine guidance, history is inexorably progressing toward the messianic age, and secular Zionism is an essential part of this process. Religious Jews, therefore, should support Zionism, while recognizing the religious significance that secular Zionists themselves do not see.
Kook did not live to see the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel. We cannot know how he would have reacted to these events. Kook seemed to believe that the Messiah was coming in his generation, so he did not work out the practical implications of a Jewish state in a non-messianic age. How would he address the complex problems that face the State of Israel today as a Jewish democracy? How would he have responded to the Israeli conquests of 1967? Kook’s many followers today in the religious Zionist camp debate his legacy.
Tzvi Yehudah Kook & Gush Emunim
Kook’s son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, believed his father would see the conquest of the entire biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza, as part of the messianic fulfillment. Centered in Merkaz ha-Rav, the yeshiva that his father founded, the younger Kook led a campaign against territorial compromise.
Following the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Tzvi Yehudah Kook’s followers were among the leaders of the movement to settle in those areas. His followers founded the political movement Gush Emunim in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War. The party continues to support and build settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and it opposed Israel’s return of the Sinai in the 1977 peace treaty with Egypt. Today, members of Gush Emunim are prominent among the settlers whodisobey military commands to evacuate settlements in the territories.
Not all religious Zionists, however, interpret Abraham Isaac Kook’s legacy as his son and Gush Emunim do. Rabbi Yehudah Amital established Meimad in 1988 as a religious Zionist alternative to the right-wing Gush Emunim. Meimad believes that the Jewish values of peace and saving lives are more important than Jewish sovereignty over the entire biblical land of Israel.
Although not necessarily opposed to the settlements–Amital himself heads a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, one of Israel’s 1967 conquests–Meimad advocates territorial compromise for peace, but does not support the evacuation of Jewish settlements. In addition, Meimad supports the idea of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country–a state that is Jewish in character but does not employ coercive religious legislation.
Diversity & Challenges
Gush Emunim and Meimadare just two parties within the category of religious Zionism today. Religious Zionism faces many political challenges, from the question of the territories to that of how Israel can be both a Jewish and democratic state. There is little consensus among religious Zionists today regarding how to respond to these challenges.
In addition, the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a young man from the religious Zionist movement forced the movement to re-examine its goals and methods. How could a man educated in religious Zionist institutions conclude that murder was religiously justified because the prime minister wanted to trade land for peace? In response to these issues and others, religious Zionism as a political movement is constantly changing.
Despite the challenges, religious Zionism is thriving today in Israel. Defined by far more than just political parties, the movement includes a wide range of institutions. Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, provides social and educational activities for school-age youths. Academies known as hesder yeshivot allow young religious men to combine military service with Torah study. Bar Ilan University, founded in 1955, enables its students to explore the Jewish tradition while simultaneously engaging in high-level secular studies. For religious Zionists involved in Israel’s collective villages and farms, the Kibbutz Hadati movement runs includes communities throughout the country that provide for full religious observance within the socialist/agricultural kibbutz lifestyle.
These institutions and others ensure the continued vibrancy of the religious Zionist community in Israel today.
Pronounced: ki (short i)-BOOTZ (oo as in book), Origin: Hebrew, a collectively owned and run community in Israel.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-SHEE-vuh or yeh-shee-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, a traditional religious school, where students mainly study Jewish texts.
Pronounced: eetz-KHAHK, Origin: Hebrew, Hebrew name for Isaac.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.