The Case of American Religious Zionism

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, May 10, 2012

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.

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. 

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