Devorim: The Death of Modern Zionism ?


Zion will be redeemed with Law and its captives with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27. Haftorah of Shabbat Chazon)

As we approach the 1937th year since the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, Israel is still struggling with its own the identity and raison de’ etre. Modern Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel were driven by the dream of a Jewish homeland. But what now? Are we facing the death of Modern Zionism? What dream today drives the future? This week’s article addresses the critical need for a vision for the future of Israel.

Modern Zionism was born in the late 19th century. Its dream was establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.

By no means was this a simple process, nor did the meaning of Zionism ever achieve a consensus. Many arguments, pro and con, with broad variations of each, were debated then and continue to rage today. Labor, socialist, revisionist, political, agrarian, synthetic, utopian, nationalist, cultural, religious – are among the different shapes Zionism took on. And anti-Zionism too comes in various colors. [Yes, almost as many Jews that exist are the opinions they have on the meaning of Zionism!]

Even the Jewish return to a homeland was fraught with controversy. Some considered it a way to undermine Jewish proliferation, others saw it as a throwback to the past (and that the new “Zion” is America), and yet others felt that it was defying G-d.

But regardless of the varied opinions, from one extreme to the other, the fact remains that today there is a State of Israel with over 5 million Jews.

Today the question must be asked: Once the homeland has been established, what now? What dream carries Israel forward into the future?

Truth be told, this question was not ignored, perhaps in other terms, by some 19th century Jewish thinkers. Some say that Zev Jabotinsky was concerned with the long term picture when he argued for a more philosophical Zionist vision than that of the Labor Zionists.

To a greater extent Echad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), and one of his strong proponents, Martin Buber, rejected what they regarded as the over-emphasis of political Zionism on statehood, at the expense of the revival of Hebrew culture. Instead of Herzl’s brand of nationalistic political Zionism, they favored a Zionism based on the fundamental moral and spiritual values of Judaism. Zionism was to be part of the Jewish path to refine and bring about redemption of the world through establishment of truth and justice in all of the institutions and activities of the Jewish settlement in Israel. In this way Zionism could contribute to human civilization as a whole and avoid self-centered nationalism. Buber, in an essay titled Zionism and the Other National Concepts, argues strongly that the real meaning of “Zion” is a spiritual one – one bound with G-d and the sanctity of life.

“The secularizing trend in Zionism was directed against the mystery of Zion too. A people like other peoples, a land like other lands, a national movement like other national movements–this was and still is reclaimed as the postulate of common sense against every kind of “mysticism.” And from this standpoint, the age-long belief that the successful reunion of this people with this land is inseparably bound up with a command and a condition was attacked. No more is necessary–so the watchword runs–than that the Jewish people should be granted the free development of all its powers in its own country like any other people…

“The certainty of the generations of Israel testifies that this view is inadequate. The idea of Zion is rooted in deeper regions of the earth and rises into loftier regions of the air, and neither its deep roots nor its lofty heights, neither its memory of the past nor its ideal for the future, both of the selfsame texture, may be repudiated. If Israel renounces the mystery, it renounces the heart of reality itself. National forms without the eternal purpose from which they have arisen signify the end of Israel’s specific fruitfulness. The free development of the latent power of the nation without a supreme value to give it purpose and direction does not mean regeneration, but the mere sport of a common self-deception behind which spiritual death lurks in ambush. If Israel desires less than it is intended to fulfill, than it will even fail to achieve the lesser goal.”

And mind you, this coming from Martin Buber, someone not known for his religious piety.

Albert Einstein echoed this in his words:

“My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish State, with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain.”

But even if these thinkers anticipated the problem of just focusing on the political and nationalistic dimension and not on the spiritual, the issue was never resolved.

One would have thought that the religious Zionists or even the religious non-Zionists (or anti-Zionists) would come to fill the void by offering a vision and direction for the future of the country and its people.

Much of the “religious camp” has either become marginalized, politicized or has insulated itself from having any influence. However this could be analyzed (and there are surely many strong opinions on the matter), the bottom line is that Israel is polarized by a deep rift and distrust between the religious and the secular, with no real hope in sight. Even if there are those that have a vision to offer it is not capturing the imagination and attention of the masses – as say, the call for a homeland did in the 19th and 20th century. Perhaps this is due to the approach of the religious right – one seen as condescending and dogmatic, judgmental and divisive, political and self-serving.

Indeed, the primary reason that Israel was never able to adopt a formal constitution (and instead has their “Eleven Basic Laws” as they’re called) is because of a conflict over what constitutes fundamental law within Israeli society. Many religious Jews hold that the only real constitution for a Jewish state is the Torah and Jewish law (Halacha). They not only see no need for a modern secular constitution, but even see in such a document a threat to the supremacy of the Torah and the constitutional tradition associated with it that has developed over thousands of years to serve the Jewish people in their land and in the Diaspora. The secular majority wants the state to be strictly secular (as in the slogan “a state of chok (civil law), not a state of halacha”). With all the attempts of reconciliation, the issue remains deadlocked, and the heart of the polarization.

So the big looming question arises: What is the identity and vision for Israel today?

Simplistically, one can argue that Israel’s objective is to attract more Jews from all over the world to come settle there, while also drawing tourists. But is this enough to sustain the country?

Like all big questions, especially those that have gathered dust over time, the only way to achieve any clarity is to get to the root of the issue.

Now, of course, we can begin to argue what the root is, and develop a new series of theoretical variations on the “new future Zionism”…

Instead, let us get to the root, as we do with all roots: Not by imposing our own positions and making noble (or feeble) attempts to forecast the future. But by traveling back in time and retracing the steps to the genesis of the word Zion and its original meaning.

The reason we grieve these days over the Temple’s destruction 1937 years ago is not due to an obsession with the past, with pain or with self-righteous indulgence. It is because the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) standing in Jerusalem represented the center – the spiritual vortex of Jewish life, and of all life. “Build me a sanctuary and I will rest among you,” says G-d. The Temple was a manifestation of the Divine presence on Earth – the very essence and purpose of all existence.

The Temple’s destruction therefore, is not a small matter and not isolated to one particular point in history. It affects us all and in all times. We therefore remember its destruction and even throughout the year we pray facing Jerusalem and the site of the Holy Temple, whose holiness remains intact. The “Shechinah” (the Divine presence) on the Temple mount – “did not shift from its place,” i.e. it underwent no change due to the destruction, Maimonides writes.

Jerusalem – sometimes called Zion – is synonymous with spirit, with the Divine. It is the heart and soul of Jewish life and all life.

The name Zion actually means “sign.” It is a sign and symbol of the Divine presence. Indeed, the same one word Zion refers at times to the city, to the Jewish people and to Torah and mitzvot, signifying the inseparable bond between the three, the land, the people and their Divine mandate.

The enduring mission of Zion is as its name states: To be a shining example of spiritual light. Without Zion’s spiritual dimension all forms of Zionism – labor, socialist, revisionist, political, agrarian, synthetic, utopian, nationalist, cultural, religious – lack a soul. And without their soul they are rendered as short-term solutions, no better than any instrument whose shelf life is only as long as its utilitarian use.

History, as usual, can be our best educator. Study the rise and fall of empires. Why is it that mighty, wealthy, even cultured empires did not endure? Empires have fallen because they outgrew their purpose, lost their direction, broke apart due to different variations of the purpose or never had a purpose in the first place.

True, some empires abruptly ended due to natural disasters, war or other circumstantial factors. But even those would have ultimately ended, regardless of the circumstances, as testified by the long history of all other empires.

The Jewish people survived it all and are still here because their mission never ended and they never outgrew it. The mission of the Jewish people from the beginning and until this very day was to civilize, refine and spiritualize the world in which we live; to be a “light unto nations,” a living example of the highest standards of values and ethics; a living example of what it means to be Divine, to live a life of a human created in the Divine Image.

For the Jews therefore their homeland, culture, language, politics and economy are all merely instruments to fulfill their mission. If the mission is compromised or forgotten, all the vehicles lose their soul and cannot sustain the people.

This is what has happened to Israel today. There may have been a time when the dream of a Jewish homeland was strong enough to hold a people together, to bring them together, to create a political state. But now that we have a homeland, a government, an economy, an army – a full spectrumed political infrastructure – what is now the vision and the goals?

Religious Zionism and religious anti-Zionism argue whether the homeland can be created without its soul. The religious Zionists claim that even if it’s far from optimal, better begin with a secular state then not, and then work toward having the state evolve into a religious/spiritual one. The anti-Zionists assert that the two are incompatible: Without its religious soul the state cannot survive.

Even more radical anti-Zionists insist that we cannot impose even a spiritual State as long as we are in Exile (Golut) and G-d has not redeemed us. Only G-d can establish a functional State in Israel.

Regardless of your position, one thing is for sure: A country cannot survive without a mission. Especially one in a state of war.

Whatever one’s opinion about the appropriateness of the Torah as the constitution of a modern state, we cannot ignore the fact that it was considered the constitution of ancient Israel and so treated by the Jewish people in the past. Indeed, the Jewish people are the first society to embrace a constitution, beginning with the Ten Commandments and extending to the entire corpus of Torah law, as a result of which civilization was brought to the world.

One may not want to accept this definition of the Jewish mission; that is an individual’s prerogative. But then you are compelled to come up with an alternative enduring mission and vision.

Every business needs a mission statement. Every nation, country and people needs a purpose. If the purpose is a short-lived one than the entity will follow right along. An instrument cannot outlive its mission.

The United States is an interesting study in contrast. As a country the USA has now been standing for 229 years, only growing stronger, with no reason to believe that it will not go on as a superpower for years to come. By contrast, other empires have stood for lesser periods.

Some argue that the success of the USA is due to its eternal mission statement declared in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Even if one were to assert that America has no mission, and neither do most countries if not all, these countries are not living among millions of enemies that are poised to pounce at any moment. The white man in America has taken care of that – they have already killed all the Indians.

Israel however does live among 250-300 million Arabs and Muslims, who oppose Israel’s very existence. In a state of war no country can survive without clear purpose. Israel can therefore not afford to have no mission today.

Modern Zionism once had a dream; the dream of a homeland. Now that the dream has been realized (at the standards of those dreamers), what is the dream today? And without a dream today does it signal the death of Modern Zionism?

It’s always easier to identify a mission through your enemies; To fight against a something or someone instead of fighting for a cause. Hitler mastered that art well when he mobilized his German countrymen against Jews and other “contaminating” elements.

It was relatively easier to define Zionism in the late 19th century, with raging anti-Semitism (dramatically highlighted by the Dreyfus Affair), and widespread pogroms. The enemy helped define the need for a homeland.

Today, with the need not so tangible, the task is much harder. Add into the equation the years of built-up distrust and all the stereotypes associated with religion, and you can imagine the enormity of the challenge.

But challenged we are to “redeem Zion” and “its captives.”

Challenged we are to define the long-term mission of Israel for today and tomorrow.

And the prophet Isaiah tells us how: “Zion will be redeemed with Law and its captives with righteousness.” Law is education. Torah study. Righteousness includes all acts of charity and altruism.

Grass roots need to launch a massive educational campaign – driven not by politics or any particular segment of the population, but by soul and compassion – that awakens the public to the true meaning of a “homeland.”

Not just as a place of shelter, sunbathing and partying. Not as place to rest a weary body. But as a place where your soul feels at home.

We need to educate ourselves and our children and friends to the meaning of a soul; How to recognize its voice and its mission; How to actualize it in real life; And how to illuminate the world around us in its spirit.

The mission is that Jews rise to their prominence as a light onto nations.

As Isaiah continues:

“It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of G-d’s house shall be established on top of the mountains and all the nations shall flow unto it. And many nations shall go and say, let us go up to the mountain of G-d and we will teach us of his ways and we will walk in his paths, for from Zion shall go forth the Torah; and the word of G-d from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:2-4).


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7 years ago

response #2 is an edited version of #1.

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