Messianic Temptations

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, April 7, 2011

The downfall of Moshe Katsav, the former president of Israel recently convicted and sentenced on a rape charge, is a many-sided episode—involving his crimes, the media circus around the judicial proceedings against him, and the private and public meanings of his disgrace. One twist in the tale was the publication of a letter supporting Katsav that denounced not only his female accusers but the justice system that tried and convicted him.

The letter's signatories, all rabbis, were not members of Katsav's own Iranian Jewish community, offering solace to an old friend, but major figures in the world of religious Zionism. One of them was Zvi Tau, a man deeply influential in the inner precincts of that orbit—and, through his disciples, in other sectors of Israeli society—but little known elsewhere.   

Born in Austria in 1936 to a religious but relatively worldly family, Tau survived the war in hiding in the Netherlands. After coming to Israel he studied with Rabbi Yehuda Amital before moving to Jerusalem in the 1960s and becoming a leading disciple of Zvi Yehudah Kook, son of the illustrious chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The writings of the elder Kook are famously allusive and complex, holding together seeming opposites like nationalism and universalism, mysticism and law, obedience and freedom. After his death in 1935, his disciples undertook the inevitably reductive task of attempting to apply his ideas to the rapidly changing life of their times.

At the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, which Zvi Yehudah Kook turned into a flagship institution of religious Zionism, Tau became the leading teacher of Jewish thought and a participant in reworking the elder Kook's teachings into an activist, messianic reading of Jewish statehood. In the fullness of time this would be translated by many into an ideological justification on religious grounds of the settlement of territories conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.  

After Zvi Yehudah's death in 1982, tensions persisted for years over the directorship of Mercaz Harav; they came to a head in 1997, when Tau broke away with a number of disciples and established his own yeshiva, Har Hamor: literally, the Hill of Myrrh. This is the name given in the Song of Songs to the refuge of a disappointed lover; it also carries echoes of the biblical Moriah, site of the binding of Isaac and later of the Temple. Over the last decade, this and other academies following Tau's teachings—some ten yeshivas, as well as a number of preparatory programs for the military, several programs of  advanced Talmud study, and women's Torah study institutions, altogether numbering some 2,500 students—have come to be known as hakav, literally "the line." They are characterized by nationalism, a holistic reading of the ostensibly true will of the people, thoroughgoing rejection of any form of academic Jewish studies as well as of literary and humanist approaches to the Bible, and a sacralization of the state and its institutions as such.

A brilliant man, Tau treats the elder Kook's vast corpus as sacred text, one that offers a perfectly consistent key to the inner life of the world.  His reading of Kook, and through Kook of Jewish statehood, reflects an exquisite balance between esoteric knowledge available only to the few and active engagement with the institutions of governance. The elder Kook's struggles and debates with himself are transformed by Tau into a seamless, and seductive, theology whereby Jewish sovereignty, realized in admittedly flawed institutions, becomes the expression of nothing less than the divine presence on earth. 

Esoteric as it is, this reading of Jewish statehood has great practical consequences.

Tau and his disciples view themselves as members of an elect who see through society and politics into the underlying and necessary spiritual reality that is Israel's nature and mission. This does not imply a simple acceptance of secular authorities on their own terms. Rather, in Tau's teaching, one must participate in the state and its institutions in full recognition of their fallen nature; for, no matter how fallen they seem, they are charged with divine significance.

And that is where Moshe Katsav comes in—not the person of Moshe Katsav, who is almost incidental, but the fact of his occupancy of Israel's presidency, an institution with its own charisma and its own necessary place in the redemptive unfolding of the divine plan. In a deep sense, deeper than any president himself could understand, the president of Israel cannot do wrong. As for the judiciary that condemned him, it perversely misapprehended the meaning of law in a Jewish state.

In line with this grasp of history, Tau has encouraged many of his disciples to limit their time in the study hall and seek careers in the military, which he sees as the road to power and influence within Israeli society; a growing number of leading IDF senior officers are his students. In time, Tau confidently believes, the current occupants of positions of power in Israel will yield their place to those who alone understand the subtle dialectics of God's movements through history.

Nobody can deny that, in recent decades, the dreams of religious Zionists for an ushering-in of a messianic era have fallen on hard times. The more ecstatic fervor that, from the mid-70s on, characterized much of the Israeli Right and nearly the entire religious-Zionist camp has dissipated, ground by hard realities into a grim combativeness toward enemies both without and within. The Gaza disengagement of 2005 was an especially difficult blow, exposing fault lines between those who advocated disobeying orders to evacuate Jewish settlements and Tau's disciples (and, for different reasons, others) who maintained their commitment to sovereign institutions.

Today, while many in the religious-Zionist camp are focused on what they see as the immediate battles ahead, the kav pursues its own, dual program: full-blown engagement, coupled with a self-imposed retreat to its "Hill of Myrrh," where it can preserve its spiritual purity even as it contemplates the historical moves to which it holds the hermeneutical key. 

Tau's messianism is at once traditional and very modern. Like the messianism of others on both the Right and the Left in Israel, it has been facilitated by language and thinking that were woven into the Zionist project from the beginning. That impulse was stirred by Zionism's revival of ancient Hebrew and manifest in its quasi-biblical confidence in the ultimately redemptive destination of history.

For the persecuted, the otherworldly longings of traditional Jewish messianism are a deep wellspring of hope. For those holding power, they are a constant temptation that can easily blind one to the damaging effects on flesh and blood of ideological abstractions.

For his part, Zvi Tau, grasping the significance of the steady intellectual and spiritual collapse of classic political Zionism, has replaced it with a powerfully suggestive interpretation of the metaphysical significance of Jewish statehood. Those who hope to steer Zionism—and religious Zionism in particular—by more humane and sustainable lights would do well to ponder his example, and propound other interpretations.  

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