Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

The Case of American Religious Zionism

Few things divide and provoke American Jews like the question of Zionism.  Though many wish to remember otherwise, this was also the case before the founding of Israel in 1948; and, though many wish to forget, the story of Zionism in America belongs not just to Labor Zionism, dominated by culturalists and secularists, but also to Orthodox Jews.  Recently Yeshiva University's Center for Israel Studies held a study day on the history of religious Zionism in America.  The questions raised by this history have profound implications for the future of Jews and of Israel.

Relevant Links
The Cosmopolitans  Yehudah Mirsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. How many flavors does Zionism come in? The usual answer is three.
The Benderly Boys  Allan Arkush, Jewish Ideas Daily. Central to Samson Benderly’s educational operation would be the stimulation of an emotional attachment to the Jewish community in Palestine, through methods including the Ivrit b’Ivrit style of modern Hebrew immersion.
American Orthodoxy and Its Discontents  Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily. Once “a case study in institutional decay,” Orthodoxy is now the only form of American Judaism exuding self-confidence. What was gained, and what lost?
Rabbi in the New World  Lawrence Grossman, Forward. Contradictions, or at least inconsistencies, marked Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s involvement in virtually every major issue that confronted modern Orthodoxy.

According to Rabbi Yosef Blau, president of the Religious Zionists of America and mashgiah ruhani—spiritual advisorof Yeshiva's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), the religious Zionist, or Mizrahi, movement began in Europe at the turn of the 20th century and arrived in America on the eve of World War I.  American Jews generally, and Orthodox Zionists in particular, were split between the earlier German generation and the newly arrived East Europeans.  Zionism was further split between Orthodox Zionists and the largely non-Orthodox American Zionist mainstream.  During World War I, amid the fragmentation, cut off from the European leadership, the Mizrahi movement foundered.

But important foundations within Orthodoxy were laid.  One was the "auxiliary" Mizrachi Women's Group, fiercely independent and hardly auxiliary.  Other foundations were the Teachers Institute at what would become Yeshiva University, the newly established day schools dedicated to Ivrit b'Ivrit, or teaching Hebrew in Hebrew, and the B'nei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement.  After the war, the Mizrahi movement was rejuvenated through partnerships with Yeshiva University and the RIETS.

In contrast, a delegation from the anti-Zionist Agudat Israel movement, arriving from Europe in 1921, was met with decisive rejection by American Jews.  As described by Professor Jess Olson of Yeshiva University, another speaker at the study day, the Agudat delegation delivered an unthinkable message of deference to Torah sages on political matters and refused to recognize as Orthodox any Jew who was a Zionist.  They won no support, even on the Lower East Side, and were relegated to marginality in America.

Instead, said Rabbi Michael Rosenzweig, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, the institutions and personalities of American modern Orthodoxy made Zionism was a fundamental tenet.  Generations of rabbis graduating from Yeshiva and RIETS integrated Israel and Zionism into Orthodox thought.  The key figure in this development was, of course, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who succeeded his father as head of RIETS in 1941.  For all believing Jews, the creation of the state of Israel was a theological challenge: Was it a portent of the messianic age of the Jewish people?  Soloveitchik answered with a strong defense of both Diaspora Judaism and the Zionist project, which remains dominant in American Orthodoxy.  Indeed, over time Soloveitchik's religious Zionism has become, both conceptually and demographically, the center of American Zionism as a whole.

Soloveitchik's intellectual counterpart, who had built his own foundations earlier in Palestine, was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, for whom the Jewish people's return to their land was an explicit part of the divine plan for redemption.  Scion of a famous Lithuanian yeshiva, Kook moved to Palestine in 1904 and in 1924 he founded his famous yeshiva, Mercaz HaRav Kook, which has long been an epicenter of religious Zionism.  He became Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the British Mandate before his death in 1935.  As speaker Rabbi Shalom Carmy showed, Kook's religious thought was heavily engaged with 19th-century philosophy.  His disagreements with the Rambam reflected insights from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.  Modern art and science lowered morality but, in an almost Hegelian dialectic, all would work out according to the divine plan. The vision of Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzi Yehuda Kook, inspired the Gush Emunim settlement movement whose offshoots dominate Israeli Zionism today.

The questions remain. Where is the center of Jewish life?  To what extent is it tied to the land of Israeldefined how and by whom?  Who leads the Jewish people, and by what right?  Is Israel the answer to the Jewish Question in this world or the next?  These questions cannot be answered by reference to artificial polarities between Kook and Soloveitchik, even between Agudat Israel and Mizrahi.  

In a 1947 letter to Agudat Israel, David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Yishuv, guaranteed full rights in the coming state of Israel to non-Jewish citizensbut agreed that the state would mandate Sabbath observance for Jews, kosher food in "every state kitchen," and marriage supervised so as to "satisfy the needs of the religiously observant"; moreover, "no steps" would be taken that "adversely affect the religious awareness and religious conscience of any part of Israel."  These concessions, along with the draft exemption for yeshiva students, have become the core of Israel's internal cold war.  The rabbinate controls Jewish life from birth to marriage and conversion to death.  Haredi religious parties occupy government ministries and channel resources to their ever-growing communities, which have the country's highest levels of poverty and lowest levels of labor participation, while settlers find theological justifications to defy the state and demand its protection and subsidies at once.  In a sense, American religious Zionism has abetted these developments.

American Jews are now undergoing one of their periodic paroxysms over Zionism.  Liberal Jews are as unnerved by strong expressions of religious belief as they are by unapologetic nationalism.  Compounding matters are bad neighbors and perfectionist aspirations.  Secular American Zionism seems to have foundered on its own contradictory expectations and now contributes few to aliyah; religious Zionism thrives but is used for explicitly or implicitly illiberal ends.  

Within Israel, "Jewish nationalism" is becoming less nationalist, in the sense of dedication to the nation-state, and more Jewish, making the state a means to a theological end.  The distinction is profound. The real and potential breadth of the people is constrained by a narrowness of religious expression.  To correct this asymmetry, what may be required is just what Soloveitchik called for: a strong, assertive, theologically self-assured Diaspora Orthodoxy. 

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Eli Leiter on May 10, 2012 at 9:17 am (Reply)
I enjoyed your article. One comment: While I don't agree with those who would violate the laws of the land, as a religious Jew the state cannot be worshipped for its own sake and must in some sense exist for theological ends (of course those ends may be broadly defined), e.g., saving Jews or giving Jews a sense of self esteem. The Torah has to be pre-eminent, not the state. Iam not Charedi or a supporter of the settlement messianic project,but even a Modern Orthodox Jew has to concern himself with the dangers of worshipping a state devoid of larger moral issues. Eli Leiter
Jonathan D. Sarna on May 10, 2012 at 9:44 am (Reply)
Religious Zionism in America dates back far earlier, appearing even in the 19th century. Rabbi Jacob Joseph supported the Zionist movement. Mizrachi in America dates to 1914. Readers interested in this subject should consult relevant articles in Zionism and Religion, eds. S. Almog, J. Reinharz, and A. Shapira (1998) and Yosef Salmon, "The Mizrachi Movement in America" (1996) available online here: Zionism%20
Joe on May 10, 2012 at 10:52 am (Reply)
If the Rav was such a fervent religious Zionist, why didn't he ever visit there ever and, more important, why is he not buried there?
Rachel Hershberg on May 10, 2012 at 10:56 am (Reply)
Didn't Rav Kook himself found the Rabbinate? And wasn't it until recently a Religious Zionist - dominated institution? Mr. Joffe might be simplifying, but correct me if I'm wrong. American Jewry is now divided into two camps, those who give a **** about being Jewish, or Israel, and those for whom neither is on the radar. Everything else is non-productive hair-splitting.
isaac on May 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm (Reply)
We are in the year 2012. There is no Mizrachi movement in the United States or Mafdal in the Knesset. It is the Agudath israel movement /yeshiva world that is the future of orthodoxy in America, growing by leaps and bounds. Most major Torah institutions do not affilate with the Orthodox Zionist world, here or in Israel. The information on which this article is based needs to be updated.
Jerry Blaz on May 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm (Reply)
The question of where the center of Judaism lies is posed in Orthodox brackets. Certainly the members of Labor Zionism and other secular Jews, not to even mention the other trends that make up the majority of religious Jews in the United States and elsewhere, have the most important voice, particularly if, as most of these groups would agree, each individual would have a vote in that determination. As it is, religious Zionism achieved all the rights it asked for in Israel, including the permission to have 200 "eluim" exempted from compulsory military service. Today, the exemption has burgeoned to exclude almost all Yeshiva students, which, along with the special monetary allocations for the Yeshivas and their students and families have created a situation where there are more yeshiva students in yeshivot than any other time in the history of the people, and, with the dynamic's own impetus of "more religious than thou," has created a march to the religious right where the black hats multiply and the knitted skull caps are becoming redundant. At the same time, those Israelis who do not feel compelled to wear hats are footing the bill, and they do not like it. Eventually it will make them leave their cafes and vote. This can only result in two very crucial problems. The first problem is that the hegemony the religious bloc in Israel holds over determination of who is a Jew, and who is a rabbi, etc., only has given the idea of an official religion and in a modern state a paradigmatic example of what constitutes "shatnez." None of the rabbinic solutions have made the status of many "safek" Jews tenuous while they still have to pay their taxes and do their military service.
The second problem is that religious Zionism is no longer the Zionism of Mizrahi. The march toward the right both politically and religiously will eventually be self-defeating, both for Judaism, and if the state doesn't separate itself from an "official religion," the defeat of the state itself. When this separation is realized, the most liberated group will be the religious. Rabbis will again become spiritual leaders instead of politicians and governmental clerks. Having observed the history of the Jewish people over the millenia, they have often rectified their errors before the worst thing happens. We lost our homeland once because of baseless hatred. We should remember and relearn from this bitter lessen to be able to continue to live with a Jewish state.
Larry Kaufman on May 14, 2012 at 6:29 pm (Reply)
This article seems to suggest that in pre-state American Zionism, there were two factions, Labor Zionists and religious Zionists--Mizrachi. As a non-historian, merely someone who lived through the period, I remember that the dominant Zionist force was the so-called General Zionists, whose two organizational expressions were the Zionist Organization of America and Hadassah. Also, Orthodoxy had not only Mizrachi but also the labor-influenced Hapoel Mizrachi. But the dominant public figures of the broad Zionist movement were the leaders of the ZOA, with the most visible being the two Reform rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver. During the past 35 years, the balance has changed, as the ZOA has faded into its current noisy irrelevance, and the religious Zionism that has moved into the forefront is a non-Orthodox religious Zionism in the form of ARZA, the Reform Zionist expression, and MERCAZ, the Conservative expression. The article is interesting as a review of the current internal state of Orthodox Zionism, though religion/religious are words that are not owned by the Orthodox world.
Jerry Blaz on May 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm (Reply)
The General Zionists in Israel was never a significant party. Its members were mainly German Jews who came to Israel and represented small capitalists. In the U.S., the organization had a name that indicated it was generally "zionistic" and it was a convenient way of showing one's sympathy for a Jewish state. Today, the ZOA is the successor organization, and is represented by Morton Klein, and I believe its membership is very small. I would imagine that when Klein speaks, he doesn't have much of a constituency to represent; he represents a viewpoint more to the right than the Likud. The General Zionist party joined the Likud many years ago when they had become too marginal to exist on their own.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham