Rabbi’s Essays

Reform Zionism
Religion and the Jewish Nation-State

Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza was widely reported in the Jewish media as a crisis for Religious Zionism. The most persistent and vocal opposition to the Sharon government’s evacuation of settlements in the heavily Arab Gaza Strip was indeed to be found among Orthodox Jews, including not a few rabbis who declared that the withdrawal was contrary to halakha, and should be resisted even to the point of soldiers disobeying orders. Religious Zionism, specifically as embodied within Israel’s political establishment by the National Religious Party, clearly had reached a crossroads. NRP had found a way to be a partner in the ruling coalition of most of Israel’s governments since the founding of the State. The crisis in the summer of 2005 was not merely that NRP had found itself on the losing side of an otherwise popular government initiative, but that adherents to the tenets of Religious Zionism could legitimately wonder whether it was advisable at all to participate in the political activities of the State – win or lose.

The sense of crisis felt with NRP and its sympathizers is certainly real, but should this be called a crisis in Religious Zionism? The assumption underlying all considerations is that the ‘religion’ of Religious Zionism is Orthodox Judaism. What, then, is the Zionism of ARZA? Is this not Religious Zionism as well? I would like to answer in the affirmative, but I need to ask: just what is the ‘religion’ of Reform Zionism? What is the Zionism of Reform Judaism?

Here are the concerns I wish to raise and consider: What is it about the Gaza withdrawal that precipitated this crisis in traditional Religious Zionism? (As shorthand, I am going to refer to this philosophy as Mizrahi, in accord with the organization that represented Orthodox Zionism from the days of the first Zionist Congress.) Why has Reform Judaism been so identified with non-Zionist Jewish thought, and to this day can be so easily dismissed in any popular discussion of Jewish religious Zionism?

In order to tackle these issues, let us think, at least briefly, on what we mean in the Jewish context of “religion.” Further, we must ponder just what is the Jewishness of the Jewish State. [Before beginning, let me acknowledge Arthur Hertzberg’s seminal work, The Zionist Idea. In its section, titled Religious Nationalisms, Old and New, Hertzberg included not only such central figures in the development of Mizrahi-style Zionism, Samuel Mohilever and Avraham Kook, but also the liberal thinkers Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. Hertzberg’s is the one general popular work on Zionism and modern Israel that acknowledges non-Orthodox religious Zionist thinking. I would also like to recognize The Jewish Political Tradition, edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberman and Noam J. Zohar, as helping to organize my own thinking.]

Religion? Zionism?

“There is no word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew.” This is a trite assertion. There is also no word for ‘religion’ in Arabic, either. And one might wonder whether there is actually a good analog in Hindi, Chinese or Japanese, among numerous other languages. Indeed, from a formal technical standpoint, “religion” might best be used only in the context of Christianity, as it is a word found predominantly, if not exclusively in the languages of the Christian world.

The word “religion” itself arose from two distinct Latin sources. One is the source most often listed in dictionaries, religere, a term that gives rise to the word “ligament” – link. From this basis, we come to understand religion as a binding together, a method by which human individuals feel obligated to each other, as well as to that which generates the ties. If “religion” were limited to just this starting place, one could argue that all sorts of organizations (social clubs, unions, nations, etc.) are religions to the extent that they are designed for purposes of binding people together. The second source, however, is relegere, from which we derive the word “relegate.” The connotation is one of separating out, exiling, consigning to another category. “Religion” therefore combines the notions of binding together and dividing out.

The two notions are not contradictory. A community becomes bound together as it is divided out from the rest of society. One senses this activity particularly in the early history of Christianity. Thus, one can speak of Christianity as Religion par excellence. Jews, throughout most of Jewish history, have participated in religion as religere, principally, however, as an organic familial experience. The obligations of being Jewish were inexorably connected to history and community, as well as to God. If Jews appeared to be relegated out of general society, it was also every bit true that general Gentile society had been bracketed out of Jewish life. Jews did not experience the same sort of self-conscious separation that characterized Christian conversion.

This condition changed with the onset of Emancipation through the nineteenth century. As Jews were invited – with lesser or greater good will – to participate in the social, economic and political elements of general society, in order to maintain some integrity to self-identity, Judaism had to become a “religion”! The varieties of strategies by which Jews responded to their introduction to the larger culture – reformist, orthodox, neo-orthodox, conservative – can all be subsumed under the overall category of religious thinking.

Zionism, however, proceeds from pure religere. In response to the real and perceived failures of emancipation, Zionists conceived of being bound to each other in national, historical and cultural terms. Religion as faith and ritual was irrelevant. By the time of the first Zionist Congress (1897), the Movement was led by Jews who had mostly abandoned their fidelity to the authority of the rabbi as scholar and promulgator of Jewish law. The dominant issue was the creation of a Jewish homeland, in which the organizing principle would be subjected to the will and needs of the Jewish people, not to custom and law (minhag v’halakha).

Yet, while it could be bracketed out of the Zionist project, being religious did not disqualify one from being a Zionist. What role could a religious Jew have in such a Movement?

The Mizrahi strategy has been to connect the Zionist project with the first indications of the coming of the Messiah. Daily worship has long included a prayer beseeching God to “return us in peace from the four corners of the earth.” Could not the Jewish immigration and building in the Land, even if under the administration of Jewish authorities substantially indifferent to Jewish law, be an instance in the fulfillment of that prayer? Mizrahi therefore determined to remain blind to the absence of custom and law in the governance of the State, fully expecting this situation to be corrected by Divine Will in due time.

Reformers were not focused on custom and law, but did wonder whether an enterprise to gather Jews back in a historic homeland was in accord with their progressive vision of God’s will. Religiously liberal Jews nonetheless recognized the sheer practical necessity to assist and promote the building of the homeland, since emancipation was not bringing the expected freedom and benefits that had been hoped for. For them, Judaism was private devotion and prophetic spirit. The governance and administration of a Jewish State would therefore be treated as the governance of any modern secular State: an entity separate from one’s religious needs. While Mizrahi, imbued with a faith that Zionism embodied their religious vision, organized politically and institutionally, preparing for their role in the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the Chosen People, Reform worked to maintain the civil and religious rights of those who wished to attend their synagogues and schools.

Mizrahi Zionists felt justified in their beliefs, as the Palestine became Israel in 1948, increased in size to include all Jerusalem and the lands of Israel’s biblical history in 1967, and grew dramatically in its Jewish population with the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfolding events reinforced and clarified the messianic ideal of the ingathering of the exiles to their God-given Land. Mizrahi thought had increasingly focused on the Land itself, sign and symbol of the divine covenant. Thus, the withdrawal from Gaza was more than a setback – there had been obstacles in the past – but also, a concession on the part of most Israelis, including erstwhile supporters of the settlement of Greater Israel, that the entire Land could not remain in Jewish hands. Thus, Jews, from the Mizrahi point-of-view, were abandoning the messianic dream. And after so much progress had been made toward its fulfillment!

For many Mizrahi Zionists, in the final analysis, Religious Zionism was Religion and Zionism. The two could be held comfortably within one’s heart and mind as long as the political reality moved closer to the religious vision. What should one do when reality and vision diverge?

The crisis of Mizrahi, however, is widely treated as the crisis of Religious Zionism. I believe the Reform strategy of preserving the nineteenth century model of focusing on personal religious devotion and private belief has bifurcated liberal Jewish religion and Zionism in the public mind. Sure, Reform Jews can be good Zionists and honored citizens of Israel, but there is little perception that they do so precisely as Reform Jews. It appears to be the case that Reform, just like Mizrahi, is Religion and Zionism – two separate if competing choices. Can Reform actually be Religious Zionism? I think it already is, but a great deal of misperception must be overcome. This requires re-framing the issues. We continue by thinking about the Jewishness of the Jewish State.

The Jewishness of the Jewish State

A “Jewish State.” The term sets Israel over and against every other nation-state in the world. When one speaks of the French State, the Ugandan State, the American State, one conjures an image in which every inhabitant who is also a formal citizen is by definition “French,” “Ugandan,” “American.” (Leave out here the prevalence of people’s emotions and biases, that lead some to say, “he’s not a real American,” or “she is not truly Chinese.”) In the Jewish State, however, we must concede that there are citizens – with all that is meant by citizenship – who are nonetheless not Jewish! What can “Jewish State” possibly mean in a nation in which not all of its citizens are Jewish?

If ‘Jewish’ is to have meaning, perhaps it is with respect to the content of the State, rather than to the character of its citizens; that is, the method of administration of the State must somehow be in accord with the Jewish values and practices. The most direct way of implementing this concept of a Jewish State is through the application of halakha. [The obvious parallel is a Muslim State being defined by the governmental imposition of shariah.] From a liberal point of view, this approach is impossible, with the Reform Jewish relationship to halakha being the least of the problems.

First, Jewish law is only incumbent upon Jews. Further, the Zionist enterprise from its formal start with the 1897 Congress, has been democratic and inclusive in nature. Halakha, even when conceptualized as benignly and liberally as possible, is authoritarian. It proceeds from scholar/judges attempting to apply what they believe to be the will of God as expressed in the classic texts. How, therefore, could a halakhic system be realistically brought to bear on a population that expects its collective political will to be reflected in the governance of the nation?

What set of values or practices are there that is not halakha, but could nonetheless define the Jewish content of the State? I do not know. Certainly, Jewish custom and law contains many admirable concepts and values that could be applied to the administration of a contemporary nation-state, and yet could also be applied in a non-discriminatory fashion on non-religious and non-Jewish citizens. These qualities, inherent in Jewish thought, are not however exclusively Jewish. [True, Hermann Cohen posited in Religion of Reason, that Judaism uniquely embodies all the elements of rational and ethical living. Being a good person and being a good Jew was virtually co-terminus. As a matter of both personal predilection and the application of reason, Cohen was opposed to Zionism. For him, it was superfluous.]

People and State

The Jewish State is not Jewish in the identity of its citizens, nor Jewish in the content of its legislation and practices. Zionism, however, is not about the State. Rabbi Henry Skirball, who for over twenty years directed NFTY Youth programs in Israel, has provided this instrumental definition: Without getting into any debate over which type of Zionism might be most authentic or have greatest priority, we can assert that fundamentally all Zionist expression begins with the belief that the entire Jewish people represent a definable social and historical entity, and that every Jew has some responsibility and concern for every other Jew.

This is a wise and deceptively simple definition. For one, it places the people Israel at the center of one’s concept of Zionism. It makes no mention of the Land or State at all, and yet when we consider the expression “definable social and historical entity,” the Land is an inexorable element. The place of the Jewish people can remain unsaid, not because it is irrelevant, but rather because it is foundational. [The Bible scholar, Harry Orlinsky, noted that the Book of Esther makes absolutely no mention of God, but how else are we to understand Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman. God is the overwhelming unspoken Presence of the Esther narrative. The Land is the overwhelming unspoken basis of Zionism.]

The Land, not the State. Zionism is an attitude and philosophy regarding Judaism and the Jewish People that exists independent of a Jewish State. In the early years of the building of a Jewish homeland, Religious Zionism could take two fundamental forms. One was that associated with Mizrahi, and most identified with Abraham Kook. Kook defended on halakhic grounds, a secular polity for a future imagined nation. Specifically, he defended the notion of a non-Davidic monarchy (following the opinion of Maimonides), doing so on the grounds that inevitably the State itself would be transformed in the glow of the Messiah’s light. In this concept, a political state would come into being that would serve as the foundation for Redemption. Non-Jews, whether they continued to live within the boundaries of the Land or not, were irrelevant to the vision of a messianic future.

The religious alternative was represented by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. For them, Zionism did not include any consideration of a ‘Jewish’ State. The Land was indeed the homeland of the Jews, but it was also the home of a great many non-Jews. Any independent nation that would arise from the British Mandate could not be Jewish in population or content. As in Kook’s model, the State itself would have to be secular, whether as prologue to Redemption or not.

As history would have it, the State did come into being, and it did not quite represent either religious Zionist visions. Mizrahi Zionists pressed for a rabbinic role in the administration of the nation, and were given authority over issues of personal status (principally marriage and divorce) and the right to maintain a separate education system. In content, the State is neither Jewish nor secular. Further, the hostility of the surrounding Arab nations and cultures has made Buber and Magnes’ vision of a bi-(or more accurately, non-)national State impractical. Israel as a national apparatus has had to give special weight in its consideration and concern for its Jewish citizens, because it cannot be confident that it can otherwise protect them. Whether Mizrahi or Reform, religious Zionism has had to be modified by the realities of the nation and its relationship with the Arabs of the region.

Religious (both Orthodox and Reform) and secular Zionism are messianic movements. As visions of a certain ideal future, they all have been confronted and challenged by frustrating realities that tend to belie their deepest hopes. Although the Messiah tarries, I nonetheless believe. Reform Zionism cannot give up on its vision, but it needs to be clear as to what that vision is, and how, short of pure divine intervention, it might be achieved.

Let us return to the liberal religious Zionism of Magnes and particularly Buber: Reform Zionism is not nor can be tied to the idea of a Jewish State. The State itself (not just Israel, but any political entity) is devoted to the health and welfare of its citizens. It manages the economy, organizes education, issues passports, defends borders, paves roads, establishes diplomatic missions, and all the myriad tasks that promote community and insure order. The State can be evaluated on these activities whether it is a republic or a monarchy, whether ancient or modern, and – most important – whether representing a Jewish polity in biblical or post-biblical times.

The people Israel have experienced three periods of political independence: the Davidic and northern monarchies, the Hasmoneans and the current State. In all cases, there has been a struggle between the religious and governing interests. Further, religious institutions when aligned with the State have been greatly compromised or corrupted. Consider the confrontation between the prophet Amos and the priest Amaziah (Amos, Chapter 7). Consider the State-recognized Rabbinate today!

Martin Buber, in a valuable essay Plato and Isaiah, suggested that the tension between independent religious and governing institutions is an important insight of the biblical mind. He contrasted Plato’s construction of a Republic headed by a philosopher-king with the conditions in the Kingdom of Judah at the time of Isaiah. Both systems (Plato and Isaiah) begin with a firm belief that a transcendent ideal exists. For Plato, it is in the World of Ideas, for Isaiah in the will of God. Plato went on to posit that certain individuals (“men of gold”) could access the transcendent ideal and translate the Ideas into the ideal well-ordered and just society. Late in life, the philosopher had an opportunity to see his program translated into reality when one of his students ascended to the throne of Syracuse. In a short time, however, the young king was duly assassinated and the idea of the Republic was shattered.

Isaiah, on the other hand, embodying the expressed will of God, is not called upon to take over the reins of government, but rather to speak truth to an obdurate and uncomprehending public. The prophet would have only intermittent success. He knew this from the start, as did Hosea and Jeremiah who would have to witness the fall of their nations. Yet, success in the sense of the attainment of God’s kingdom on earth was not the objective the prophet’s mission. It was rather to speak truth to power; to act as the necessary constraint on governing authority, so that the authority would struggle with the necessary contradictions of the exercise of power. Martin Buber concluded that the nation was not obligated to strive for some perfection – such ideals being the sole province of God – but rather to struggle forward on the pragmatic considerations of the State constantly being challenged by the moral imperatives of the divine will.

In Reform Zionism, the Jewish State only begins to be fulfilled when the State and the religious institutions are mutually independent, so that the prophetic values of the covenant between God and Israel can speak freely in its challenge and critique of the actions of the State.

[Ironically, Rabbi Kook would probably not have disagreed with this analysis. He apparently did not see a role for religious (rabbinic) authority in the governance of the State. Mizrahi and the NRP nevertheless became involved. I believe this unfortunate alliance arose from the mutual interests of David ben Gurion and the Chief Rabbi at the time of the founding of the State, Isaac Herzog. Herzog could not conceive of a Jewish State devoid of rabbinic authority. Recognizing, however, that the extension of halakha over the entire population was completely impractical, he pressed for a limited but otherwise unchallenged sphere of control.]

[Ben Gurion, who did not need NRP or Mizrahi in order to organize a viable government in the Knesset, was nevertheless perfectly happy to comply with this demand. He believed firmly that State authority must represent a unity of Jewish interests, religious and secular. In doing so, ben Gurion also cannily created a situation in which the secular State could hold the upper hand, firmly delimiting religious influence within the bounds of a formal agreement.]

[One clear result has been the rout of the NRP/Mizrahi position in the proposed and implemented withdrawal from Gaza. Once more, the issue is not that the opposition failed. The biblical prophets certainly had their measure of failures. Rather, that Mizrahi rabbinic leadership had been so hemmed in by their identification with only one portion of society (mostly issues of personal status, which has been controversial enough), their efforts to mount a principled challenge was roundly condemned by many quarters of the populace. Their moral leadership had been neutered. Somewhere, on some spiritual plane, David ben Gurion is enjoying a good laugh.]

Space and Time

Religious Zionism, both Mizrahi and Reform, affirms that the State and the religious/theological aspirations of the Jewish people are distinct one from the other. Both also affirm that the Zionist enterprise, the re-establishment of a Jewish community on the soil of Israel, fits in some inextricable fashion into God’s plan for redemption. Secular political Zionism, also messianic, envisions redemption as the Jews being “a free people in Zion and Jerusalem.” Jewish destiny is fulfilled when the Jews become a nation among the nations. For religious Zionism, this aspiration cannot be enough. Israel’s redemption is the world’s redemption. The Jews cannot simply be one of the nations, for God “has not set us up as the other peoples of the earth.” Jewish destiny cannot simply be normalcy.

The political, social, cultural reality of the State of Israel today is a pragmatic, rather than a religious consideration. We are spiritually suspended between today and redemption. At this point, I believe Mizrahi and Reform Zionism begin to diverge in a subtle but critical way. How, we must ask, are we to understand the time between now and our prayed-for messianic future?

No one, orthodox or liberal, can deny the passage of time. The fundamental religious question is whether this passage is God’s time. God, after all, in the very act of creation, not only fashioned space, but also time. Traditional Jewish thinking implies that since the destruction of the Temple, we have been suspended between that which was and that which will be. Currently, therefore, we are simply marking time. Human history-meaningful human history-includes the divine presence. Thus, history could unfold while the Holy of Holies was marked in place on God’s sacred mountain, and would certainly flow once more when that place was established again.

This understanding of time, I believe, impelled the leading Orthodox authority of the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Moses Sofer, to declare the halakha to be absolutely fixed, particularly in the face of modernity. The followers of Mizrahi made their compromise with such orthodoxy by viewing the Zionist enterprise as the dawn of Messiah’s light. Dawn, however, is a functional rather than fixed point in time: neither night nor day. If it was dawn at the time of the founding of Mizrahi, it was still dawn in 1948, 1967, 1993 and today!

Reform chose to recognize the Emancipation and subsequent introduction to modernity as a return into history. Progressive revelation, hallmark of the nineteenth century reformers, represents the belief that all Jewish experience must be understood within the passage of time. Divine and pragmatic human history is one. Nineteenth century reformers, reflecting Hegelian idealism, might have had an optimistic faith that we were in lockstep toward Utopia. We today harbor no illusions, and yet continue to believe that the divine will is manifest in everyday history.

Buber and Magnes had confidence in a Zionism that could be fulfilled within a Jewish homeland that did not have to be a Jewish State. They were excessively optimistic regarding the social and political will and ability of Jews and indigenous Arabs to form a bi-national state. Historians can argue out whether in the late 1940s, a nation founded in the Land of Israel that was not Jewishly controlled could truly have protected the interests of its Jewish population. Jews were not prepared to trust a potentially non-Jewish majority with their security, and thus the Jewish State came into being.

So, just as nineteenth century idealism had to give way to the brutal realities of the twentieth century, Buber’s and Magnes’ optimism in a Jewish homeland separate from the administration of a Jewish State could not be sustained. Yet, we need not abandon either our optimism or our principles as Reform Jews. The brute reality of today’s uncomfortable and often paradoxical conditions need not be avoided or explained away. We are rather committed to work for our ideals, not over or outside the limitations of time and space, but rather through them.

Zionism Past and Future

The first era of the Zionist enterprise ended with the founding of the State of Israel. It was an era in which the contentious strands of Zionist vision – political, revisionist and socialist – sought a means in which to work with each other and toward the goal of establishing a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people. They also had to respond to a portion of the world Jewish community that was anti-Zionist, and a much larger group that was non-Zionist, not hostile to the effort at gathering Jews in the land of Israel, but not particularly supportive either.

The second era has been characterized by the reality of a Jewish State, and also by the introduction of the phenomenon of post-Zionism. Both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews have concluded that the objective of Zionism had been solely the creation of the State. With this aim fulfilled, its raison d’etre has come to an end. For many Jews, Zionism has been reduced to defense of Israel through political and financial means. “Zionist” is therefore worn by many in defiance to Israel’s enemies, who employ the term (with greater or lesser venal anti-Semitism) to mean racism or an apartheid regime. Zionism in this context is the negative of a negative; a noble cause thoroughly drained of meaning.

If Zionism is to have meaning, it must be found in something that transcends the State itself. This assertion, however, should now be self-evident. A “Jewish” State cannot be the aspiration of Zionism without either doing severe violence to the meaning of the term “Jew,” or to the dictates of Torah, that commands us to do deal kindly with the stranger (“for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”) nearly forty times. By comparison, we are commanded to love our neighbor only once!

Religious Zionism recognizes this truth. (It should therefore be no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the American and Canadian delegations to the last two World Zionist Congresses were from ARZA, Mercaz and Mizrahi, the religious organizations.) The State is only a step toward God’s divine plan both for the people Israel and humankind. Mizrahi has tended to focus on the Land itself. Reform, I would suggest, has as its focus the people.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews returned into the world of power. It was power at the margins. Jews were challenged both to maintain their unique identity as the people Israel, and to participate in activities of secular societies. As a result, we were called upon by our tradition and beliefs to take responsibility for communities over which we had very little control. In the Zionist project, and particularly with the founding of the State, Jews moved to power at the center. It is the same tradition, the same beliefs, but with the ability to exercise far greater control. Israel, to Reform Zionism, is a grand experiment in effecting God’s will; in creating the sort of society that Jews anywhere would wish to live in.

For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still (Isaiah 62:1)

Reform is prophetic Judaism. The definition carries a somewhat different meaning than it did to the nineteenth century reformers, but it nevertheless remains true. Neither Reform Jewish leaders nor adherents are prophets. We cannot and should not speak as if we know the mind of God. We do know, however, the responsibilities of Jewish living. And as did the prophets of the biblical era, we can speak up to a political leadership for whom the pragmatic decisions of power occasionally distorts and corrupts. If religious Zionism is going to have any meaning and value in Zion and Jerusalem, I believe that it is to be found as much or more in the Reform Zionism to which we have given our hearts and mind.