Contours of Religious Zionism

By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus and Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
October 2012

And the many peoples shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go to the Mount of the Lord, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.” For Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. ---- Isaiah 2:3

Before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, religious Zionism contributed an important torah (teaching): nationalism and religion are both necessary for the rebirth of a nation. Nonetheless, the differences in methodology, personality and philosophy that existed before 1948 require further exploration.1

Illustrations are in order. Rabbis Yehudah Hai Alkali (1798-1878) and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874) were religious activists bordering on the messianic who clashed with the authoritative rabbinical pietism, passivism and quietism of their day. Alkali spent his early years in Eretz Israel and then returned to his native Siberia in 1825, from where he advocated the preparation of the Land for later redemption. As early as 1834, he argued for Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel, which became an obsession for him following the Damascus Libel (1840). His book Minhat Yehudah (1845) posits the rabbinical dual messiahs, Mashiah ben Yosef and Mashiah ben David, in modern garb. The First Messiah is the process (philanthropic, military, political) that acquires and sustains the Land, the atchalta di-geula/ “the beginning of the redemption,” which sets the stage for the ingathering of the exiles by the divinely appointed Second Messiah. For Alkali, the revival of spoken Hebrew as the language of instruction (teachers and students) and of the streets (boys and girls) is the conditio sine qua non for the dawning and the eschatological fulfillment of the messianic age.2

Kalischer’s book Derishat Ziyyon (1862) propounds the theory, by reference to scriptural and talmudic sources, that the messianic era must be preceded by the establishment of Jewish colonies in Eretz Israel through the cooperation of willing governments, the benevolence of wealthy Jews (the Rothchilds, the Montefiores, the Baron de Hirschs, etc.) and “agricultural self-help.” The latter inspired the Alliance Israélite Universelle to establish the Mikveh Israel agricultural training school near Jaffa and Petah Tikva, a Jewish agricultural colony.

Like a soul ablaze, the revolutionary religio-mystical philosophy of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, is grounded in kabbalistic particularity (“The People of Israel, the Torah, and the Land of Israel are One”) but soars to heights of universality (the whole earth, and all therein, is His creation). In Kook’s Weltanschauung, the love of God is fully demonstrated in the love for all God’s creation; the impurity of the Exile, a cosmic distortion, is corrected by the return to Zion, a cosmic restoration; no longer to cast our sight on a heavenly Jerusalem but rather to look to our own (religious and secular alike) efforts here below to make the earthly Jerusalem a fit place in which to live, an outpouring of divine “Light unto the Nations,” perfecting the world (tikkun ‘olam) through reconciliation, and achieving harmony and peace. Rav Kook’s intellectual sincerity and piety was one giant step in bridging the chasm between secular Zionism and the religious tradition.

Less philosophy and theology and more history and politics characterize the rabbinic calling (Reform), community service, and Zionist orientation of San Francisco-born Reform Rabbi Judah L. Magnes (1877-1948). Orator and writer, Magnes was a socially and religiously committed pioneer of American Zionism, who is best known as a founder of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1925, chancellor; 1935, president) and for his humanistic, pacifistic plans of reapproachments between Arabs and Jews. However paradoxical and controversial were his positions, and sometimes misunderstood and misjudged, he remained his own dogged servant for his brand of Zionism in Judaism which was his self-imposed distance from American Reform and departure from the American Zionist establishment; his unswerving pacifism, uncritical faith in cultural enlightenment and progress, and commitment to prophetic Judaism embarrassingly abated by events in World War II; and the opposition that greeted his founding of Ihud “Unity” (with Martin Buber in August 1942) that called for the establishment of a bi-national state in Eretz Israel. He taught as he lived --- “a dissenter in Zion.”

Martin Buber’s (1878-1965) religio-cultural-mystical approach to Zionism, having its roots in Hasidism, which he discovered and interpreted for the West, is interlaced with his viewpoint on the nature of Man. His central question on the meaning of humanness is expressed in the recurring use of the word Wessen (essence, being, nature), which he understood in terms of two primary word-pairs: “I-You” and “I-It.” The I-You relationship is total involvement of self and other in intimacy, that is, sharing, empathy, caring, openness, and trust. The I-It relationship consists of self viewing other in abstract terms, resulting in possession, exploitation and distrust. The I-It pair permits the self to objectify the other, creating a state of manipulative dependency, and the I-You pair encourages an atmosphere of interdependence, permitting growth and respect. Only through genuine I-You encounters do people discover their humanity and, by mutually affirming and confirming one another, come face to face with the Eternal Thou. Thus, for Buber, Zionism is fundamentally social, consisting of interpersonal relations between the “self and other,” and the result is the nation’s communal experience as expressed in righteousness, justice and moral action. The faith in Buber’s strand of national religion gives rise to a new type of Zionist personality, in which the ideals of a nation and the interests of humanity coincide. For Buber, the deepest motive for Jewish presence in the homeland is in the religio-social arena, invoking and involving the cooperation of Israel and her neighbors on the basis of equality and brotherhood.

On the eve of Rosh HaShanah 5773, against the crises in the Middle East (terror and nuclear), and the Presidential platforms in America to have or not have “God and Jerusalem,” may the prophetic voice from Zion, written on the wall of the United Nations building in New York City, become the realized hope for all humanity:

[A]nd 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 no more. --- Isaiah 2:4


1 On religious Judaism’s contribution to ha’umah ha-yisraelit, see my review of Y. Zerubavel’s Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition in Modern Judaism 18.2 (1998). My comments on G. Shimoni’s The Zionist Ideology (AJS Review 22.2 [1997], 266-269) evaluates the major thinkers and venues of Zionist thought.

2 Alkali on Joel 3:1: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”

Comments (9)

thanks for a very fine and informative essay

#1 - Jim West - 10/17/2012 - 18:34

This fine essay which discusses well known works by well known individuals seems out of place here.

Unless the owners of this site wish to add the terms "Modern political thought and activities as well as bible and interpretation."

Uri Hurwitz

#2 - Uri Hurwitz - 10/17/2012 - 23:38

The terms 'Zionism', 'nationalism', even 'religion' are often discussed without being defined. What do they mean here? What is 'the rebirth of a nation'? Rebirth seems to imply previous death: are there any nations that have died and been reborn? Wouldn't the individuals who participate in the rebirth have to be members of other nations, or completely denationalised, to start with? Has it really been demonstrated that this process requires religion in the sense of belief in a transcendent deity?
I would have thought that 'Zionism' involves the belief that Jewish people have certain rights. I don't entirely see how any claim of right follows from the propositions cited.
Do they follow from 'the Bible and interpretation' as these people understood the text? If so, how they follow is not explained.
You begin with a biblical passage which refers to 'many peoples' and you later mention Spirit poured on 'all flesh'. The implications of these passages don't seem to be particularly nationalist, in the sense of a claim for distinctive rights or status of people who belong to one nation rather than others.

#3 - Martin - 10/18/2012 - 13:09

Zionism defines the movement that rose in the late 19th century Europe in response to growing antisemitism and sought to reestablish a Jewish homeland in the biblical Eretz Israel and now is concerned with the development, welfare, security of the State of Israel. The Zionist idea embraces multiple currents, including, political, social, cultural and religious.My opinion piece focused on "religious Zionism." My discussion focused on Zion a term for Israel; contemporary homeland for the Jewish people; and a place or religious community explicitly seen as sacred to God. The quoted scripture affirms this. "Rebirth," "Birth," and terms facsimile are contemporary whose jargon I thought was common knowledge and did not need elucidation.

#4 - Zev Garber - 10/19/2012 - 06:57

There's a difference between a referential term - 'the movement which' - and a definition - 'any movement which...' If we take the definition of Zionism as 'any movement which believes in the establishment or maintenance, with the utmost welfare and security, of a sovereign state of specifically Jewish character in all or part of Eretz Israel' then it is not clear to me that any of your thinkers were Zionists as the definition runs. The earlier ones may not have thought in terms of a sovereign state and Buber's notorious bi-nationalism might make it hard for him to fit the definition neatly.
'Nationalism' might mean - just to try out a definition here - 'the belief that humanity is divided into nations which should all be independent and secure'. At this rate nationalism a) might look with difficulty for a biblical foundation and b) might be very hard to reconcile with an 'I-thou' ethic, where the idea surely is that you have to make yourself open to the other, not to secure yourself from him.
As to 'rebirth' I think it reasonable to ask those who use metaphors how far they would press them.
As for biblical interpretation - our concern here as Uri says - you use very brief passages. No objection to that. But as they stand in their brevity they do not - or do not obviously - refer to 'a' religious community but to a moment when all the communities and nations come together before God on - at last! - something like equal terms. Christians have been accustomed to read the Joel passage, which plays its part in Romans and Acts, in a fashion contrary to nationalism, ie as a statement that the distinctive role of different peoples will soon be a thing of the past because God will now be gracious to 'all flesh'. This is quite arguably, though not quite obviously, a mistaken reading, of course. There is a reference to a sacred place in Isaiah, though it is less significant in vs.4 than in vs.3. But even that is not a wholly simple matter since the Mountain of God seems to be no ordinary physical thing in prophetic literature and to be capable of different locations.
If you put the quotations in context you are dealing with complex poetry which has many strands of meaning. It's not clear to me that the religious Zionists, who were as you mention making departures from existing Jewish theology, were interpreting the Bible convincingly or with analytical skill. They were of course converging with some strands of Christian thought.

#5 - Martin - 10/20/2012 - 15:47

My reading of "Zion" (Isaiah 2: 2-4) is a/the center of religious instruction (House of the God of Jacob, Out of Zion goes forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem) and the place of the supreme court of the nations. The reign of world peace. Ergo, the placement of verse 4 on the outside wall of the United Nations. Also, verse 5, "House of Jacob (peoplehood, nationalism) come, and let us walk in the light of the Lord (religion)."

I stand by my opinion that the ideologues referenced in my essay express a strand of religious Zionism., however, obtuse, suggested in Isaiah 2;2-4, describing the ideal of a Messianic Age ("no more war"), the dissemination of enlightened religion, and the submission of nations to the God of Israel.

Finally, my piece is an opinion intended to inform. I appreciate Jim West's acknowledgment.

#6 - Zev Garber - 10/20/2012 - 20:54

You may stand by your views but you don't mention,as far as I can see, any reason why the ideologues you mention are 'Zionists' under the definition you suggest.
You don't say whether the same ideologues interpreted the biblical texts in question. Perhaps they did so convincingly, rather than obtusely.
You don't challenge my claim that the Joel passage as quoted makes no reference to a specific religious community or place, which it just doesn't.
The universal sovereignty of God himself over all the nations, now all reconciled to him, is a different concept - or at least it is at first sight a different concept - from the highly nationalist idea of a 'supreme court' provided by a religious community. Again, I don't know if your reading of the sacred texts follows from the views of Buber and others.
I'm sorry if I sound negative and I accept that these are important thinkers.

#7 - Martin - 10/24/2012 - 22:04

My final statement has been expressed in previous views. There is no debate but differences. (Alkali's Joel reference, for example, may be seen as Hebrew reborn, an exemplar of the Zionist dream). Learn when to depart in Shalom.

#8 - Zev Garber - 10/25/2012 - 01:56

I must express my gratitude for the time you found for quasi-debate with me. Obviously people who contribute as you do can't be expected to converse indefinitely with all and sundry, and they don't come much sundrier than me.
Thankyou for the mention of Alkali on Joel.
Perhaps now I've come so far I could mention, without breach of shalom, the following from Buber, 1921 -
A nationalist development can have two possible consequences. Either a healthy reaction will set in that will overcome the danger heralded by nationalism, and also nationalism itself, which has now fulfilled its purpose - or nationalism will establish itself as the permanent principle: in other words it will excee its function, pass beyond its proper bounds and with overemphasised consciousness displace the spontaneous life of the nation. Unless some force arises to oppose this process it may well be the beginning of the downfall of the people, a downfall dyed in the colours of nationalism.
Not the words of a nationalist in the standard sense, maybe.

#9 - Martin - 10/28/2012 - 20:28

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