Shmuly Yanklowitz
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A new spiritual framework for Zionism

A secular Jew in California and a Haredi Jew in Bnei Brak (and everyone in between) can all find their shared destiny in Jewish ethical growth
The flag of Israel in Yad LaShiryon, Latrun, Israel.דגל ישראל ב"יד לשריון", לטרון, ישראל
(Wikimedia Commons)

In the past year or two, with the unrest in Israel’s political scene, the security failures involved in the brutal horrors of October 7 and the existential crisis we have been enduring as a people since then, I’ve come to conclude something unfortunate: Zionism, in its current form of intellectual ideology, is, in many ways, failing us.

As a passionate religious Zionist myself, I’m disturbed by this, and it’s led me to believe that we need a new type of Zionism, one that is rooted not only in Jewish history and modern-day politics, but in Musar — Jewish ethical growth. As Jews, some of us are interested in ritual law, others are interested in spiritual practice, and others have totally irreligious notions of what it means to be a Jew. But the Musar tradition is one we all can learn from together. 

Of course, we cannot throw away the Zionist history that has gotten us this far. It starts with God’s call of Lech lecha to Abraham in Genesis: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And it continues in the rest of the Torah, with Moses leading the Israelites up to the Promised Land and Joshua leading them in. We then have the millennia-long drama of Jews living in the land, being exiled, returning, experiencing destruction yet again — and then spending almost 2,000 years dreaming of return and sovereignty.

At the end of the 19th century, when it became apparent that Jews needed a state for the protection of our lives and rights, modern Zionism as we know it came into being, led by Theodor Herzl. We soon saw waves of immigration to the land, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. After the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the League of Nations created British Mandatory Palestine. (It is worth noting that Palestine here refers not to a nation or a people, but a geographic region. Palestine was the name given to the land by the Roman Empire after it expelled the Jews in the second century and no longer wanted to call it Judea.) 

Under the Mandate for Palestine, the Balfour Declaration was the first step toward creating a Jewish homeland, and, following World War II, the UN’s Partition Plan sought to create both a Jewish and an Arab state in the land. While a Jewish state was in fact made into a reality, Arab nations fought wars against Israel, leading to the expulsion of Jews from other Middle Eastern countries and further immigration to Israel, which put us on the path to where we are today. 

And so, the way I see it, we can divide Jewish history in the land of Israel into eras. There is the ancient biblical Zionism, with its Temples and Kingdoms. There is the Diaspora era, in which the talmudic tradition made Judaism portable, while the vast majority of Jews had to live elsewhere. Then there was the era of political Zionism, in which we saw the rebirth of Jewish language, art, culture, and, yes, sovereignty. 

As magnificent as this is, I worry that the model of maximizing political power is becoming unsustainable. The world is turning against us for reasons largely beyond our control, and, until October 7th, political struggles between Israelis were as contentious as ever — and the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews was hanging by a thread. 

I think part of the problem here has been that there is no unifying sense of what it means to be Jewish. Is it about social justice? Torah observance? Survival as a people? We’ve sliced and diced ourselves into so many siloed tribes that it’s been hard to know, for example, how exactly a secular Jew in San Francisco and a Haredi Jew in Bnei Brak are bound up in a shared destiny. 

I’m here to say that, as we move forward toward perhaps a new part of Jewish and Zionist history, what we should all have in common is Musar, the Jewish ethical tradition. In Musar, the goal is to improve the self by developing character traits, called middot — such as truth, justice and lovingkindness, just to name a few. Here, I propose, after biblical Zionism, rabbinic Zionism, and modern political Zionism, should enter our fourth era of Zionist ideology. 

I say this because, in the current political lens, often the only real middah (trait) we are paying attention to is emet, truth, and particularly the validity of our narrative and history. If we are going to realize our potential as a people, dozens of other middot are needed as well. We need patience, community, self-control, leadership and so on. Of course, Jews are living with these middot in and out of the land, but these middot are often sidelined in the Zionist discourse itself. 

Our mission as Jews gets distorted when we view everything through the lens of power and advocacy, as important as those things are. If Zionism is going to move from being a political ideology into a lasting path for peace and prosperity, then we need a revolution within ourselves. The survival of the Jews is tied to survival of the self. The thriving of the Jews is tied to the thriving of the self. Today, we have many identities, and because these many identities are so fragmented, there is a longing to internalize those identities more deeply. Because we are so many things, it feels as if we’ve lost knowing exactly what we are. And what we are is moral beings, beings with deep spiritual potential, beings with the ability to change the world, first by changing ourselves. 

In our fight for our existence, we do not want to lose who we are. While we should be advocating fiercely for Israel, whatever that engagement looks like, we have to be careful that it does not fundamentally change us for the worse. We need a dialectical tension between our middot. We must, for example, have lovingkindness in our power and power in our lovingkindness, humility (anivut) in our zeal (zerizut), and zeal in our humility. This can sound like head-in-the-clouds self-help material, something you might hear on a spiritual retreat. But Musar, really, is a discipline. And, in our time, spiritual, moral and intellectual discipline is a practice we all need to develop. 

Whether you’re a peacenik, religious Zionist, liberal Zionist, right-wing Zionist, or whatever else, all segments of the Jewish people need to benefit from moral, ethical and personal growth. In a world in which Zionism needs a spiritual renewal, our personal integrity and development must be intertwined with how we think about, articulate and actualize our Zionist values. In unpredictable and unprecedented times, Musar provides us with a spiritual framework for how we can reorient ourselves and cultivate the spiritual equanimity (menuchat nefesh) to weather the storms.  

The various strains of turmoil in recent years have shown us that our prior liberal and conservative frameworks have been all too spiritually weak. They might serve one ideological agenda or another, but they are failing us as the Jewish people. What is needed is a new, strengthened Jewish and Zionist consciousness altogether.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.
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