The Religious Significance of Israel

Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik offered differing views on what the modern state means theologically.

Reprinted with permission from A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Jewish Lights).

Most Jewish religious responses to the rebirth of the state of Israel do see in it God’s providential hand. Two major halakhic [Jewish legal] thinkers who have taken such a view are Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik.


Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel in the British Mandate period, viewed the Zionist revolution as part of God’s redemptive scheme in history. He attributed profound religious significance to the Zionist revolution–de­spite its antireligious origins and manifestations–with the help of a di­alectical perspective on history: Judaism’s development in exile had caused the repression of vital spiritual forces in the Jewish people, and only by the overthrow of much of traditional Judaism would new, healthy forces and energies within the Jewish people be released. The Zionist activist concern for restoring the Jewish people to its homeland would unleash new messianic redemptive forces.

It was Kook’s deepest conviction that ultimately the new energies brought forth by the rev­olution would be integrated with the covenantal Torah spirit in a higher religious synthesis. He looked forward to a new unity between the larger prophetic passion for history found in the Bible and the sober concern for details that characterizes talmudic Judaism. Most religious Zionist youths in Israel are taught to perceive the state from this messianic per­spective.


Soloveitchik, too, embraces the state of Israel, but without a messi­anic dialectic. In Reflections of the Rav, Soloveitchik characterizes the period of the Holocaust as the state of hester panim, a “hiding of the divine face,” a state when God turned His back, as it were, chaos ruled, and human beings had no sense of the divine presence in the world.

Israel’s rebirth represents middat ha-din, the “attribute of God’s judg­ment,” which gives human life a sense that there is some divine order, justice, and structure in the world, that the world is not entirely under the sway of barbaric chaotic forces.

“We cannot explain the Holocaust, but we can, at least, classify it theo­logically, characterize it, even if we have no answer to the question, ‘why?’ The unbounded horrors represented the tohu vavohu [chaotic] anarchy of the pre-yetzirah [pre-Creation] state. This is how the world appears when God’s mod­erating surveillance is suspended. The State of Israel, however, reflects God’s return to active providence, the termination of hester panim.

“That Israel is being subjected to severe trials in its formative years does not negate the miraculous manifestations of Divine favor which have been showered upon the state. Clearly, this is middat ha-din, not hester panim.”

In his essay “Kol dodi dofek” (“The voice of my beloved knocks”), Soloveitchik utilizes the Purim story, in which natural events are appreciated as expressions of God’s providential design, for understanding the theological significance of contemporary events, just as the tradition understood that God worked His redemption for Israel through the ac­tions of King Ahasuerus, so too we can sense God acting once again in history through the United Nations’ decision on the partition of Man­datory Palestine. Soloveitchik once again hears the voice of his beloved God in the events of contemporary Jewish history that have changed the social and political condition of the Jewish people.

For Soloveitchik, the state of Israel has made Jews less vulnerable to physical persecution. It has also aroused a new sense of Jewish identity among Jews who were being carried along on a strong current of assimilation. The rebirth of the state of Israel has shattered the Christian theological claim of God’s rejection of the Jewish people as witnessed by their endless suffering and wandering. These and other factors are strong indications for Soloveit­chik of God’s providential involvement in contemporary Jewish history.

Soioveitchik pleads with the community to see in the rebirth of Israel an invitation by God to a new and deeper relationship of love. We must “open the door” to go out to meet our Beloved. We begin to demon­strate our responsiveness to God’s invitation to renew the love affair between Israel and God by settling the Land and by becoming respon­sible for the political and economic development of the Jewish state.

For Soloveitchik, the shared suffering and common historical fate of the Jewish people represent what he calls brit gorul, a covenant of des­tiny, which is the foundation for the important halakhic category of collective responsibility (kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh). Care for others, feelings of empathy, and a sense of solidarity are not secular categories in Soloveitchik’s appreciation of halakhic Judaism. Indeed, the cove­nant of Sinai requires that the covenantal community have a deep sense of solidarity. Political action that seeks to achieve a secure home for the Jews, thereby giving dignity and new vitality to Jewish communal life and identity, thus acquires religious significance and can he understood as mirroring God’s providential love for Israel. Soleveitchik’s hope is that the community in Israel will find the way to move from a shared covenant of destiny to it shared covenant of meaning, brit ye’ud, based on the halakhic framework of Torah.

Soloveitchik and Kook have provided conceptual frameworks within which religious Jews can attribute religious significance to the rebirth of Israel initiated by people in revolt against their tradition. Soloveitchik’s framework assumes the halakhic significance of a shared covenant of destiny and adopts the model of Purim in which God can manifest Himself through the natural unfolding of historical events. Kook’s offers a dialectic messianic understanding of Jewish history and of Zionsism.

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