R. Zera, whenever he chanced upon scholars calculating the time of the Messiah’s coming, would say to them: I beg of you, do not postpone [his coming], for it has been taught: Three come only when not expected — messiah, a found article, and a scorpion. (Bab. Talmud Sanhedrin 97a)
1. The Jews are an ethno-cultural group (a nation) originating in biblical times; in biblical and Hellenistic periods they ruled some portion of the area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean that came to be called Eretz Yisrael, or later, Palestine.
2. A unique feature of the Israelite nation was their belief that their nationhood was inseparable from their religion, which came to be called Judaism. Once sovereignty was lost and their land occupied by foreign empires, the Jews scattered, and the religious component of their identity became central.
3. During the centuries of diaspora, a central tenet of Jewish religious belief was the expectation of a restoration of national sovereignty in their original homeland. This expectation was interpreted differently, ranging from a simple, rational picture of a re-established kingdom and Temple worship, to a vision of cosmic redemption, when lions would lie down with lambs, and humanity would be perfected.
4. There was also a tension between the covenant view that the exile was a punishment for Israel’s sins, and would thus end when the nation had repented and mended its ways – and the apocalyptic view that the vicissitudes of Jewish history were not dependent on the Jews’ behavior, but rather were the working out of a divine plan which could not be fathomed by human understanding.
5. Over the centuries, it proved very difficult for the Jews to wait patiently for the expected redemption, and a number of messianic movements arose, claiming to know that the restoration was imminent. Some of these were local; others, like the belief in the messiahship of Sabbetai Zevi in the 17th century, swept through large swaths of the Jewish world, leaving thousands in despair when they turned out to be false.
6. Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897, was a modern, secular, nationalist movement, which envisioned for the Jews national self-determination like that being pursued by other non-sovereign and scattered national groups of that era, like Italy, Greece, Germany, etc. That is, Jewish “assimilation” into the family of nations, as a “normal” nation.
7. However, it was impossible for the Zionists to avoid seeing and being influenced by and using the images of messianic restoration that were familiar to all Jews from text and ritual. And while much of the Orthodox Jewish world rejected Zionism as just one more false messianic enthusiasm, there arose a new interpretation that accepted Zionism as the “first flowering” of the true messianic redemption. This synthesis of Orthodoxy and Zionism has in turn split into two streams, the utopian and the apocalyptic.
8. The utopian approach sees the establishment of a Jewish state as an opportunity to create a new synthesis between tradition and modernity, and thus to bring about a rejuvenation of Jewish law and Jewish cultural life, and to create a model state whose governance and culture would be informed by values learned from classic Jewish texts and from Jewish historical experience.
9. Though Herzl vehemently insisted that his vision for a Jewish state was not utopian, but rather rational and realistic, it was clearly utopian in the sense of offering hope for an end to persecution and antisemitism, and in suggesting that the new Jewish polity would embody the “best practices” of governance for human flourishing. And the utopian stream of religious Zionism absorbed this tradition; perhaps the most striking manifestation of this vision is the experiment of the Orthodox kibbutz.
10. The apocalyptic approach sees modern experiences as fulfilling biblical prophecies, and believes that the creation and subsequent struggles of the state of Israel were and are the actualization of God’s secret plan for redemption, for restoration of Jewish national sovereignty. Thus, we are living in messianic times, and biblical concepts that had been “frozen” between the destruction of the biblical kingdom and its awaited restoration – like expelling the Canaanites, or offering animal sacrifices – are to be renewed.
11. Apocalyptic religious Zionism, like other messianic movements, claims to possess knowledge of the unknowable. It is based on the belief that humans can understand the place of current events in God’s plan for history. Again and again, either by theological teaching or by bitter experience, the Jewish people have learned that this hubris is forbidden and/or disastrous. When Rabbi Akiba proclaimed the rebel leader Bar Kochva the messiah, his colleague R. Yochanan ben Torta reprimanded him: “Akiba, grass will grow out of your cheekbones before the messiah comes!” (Jer. Talmud Taanit 4:5) The Bar Kochva revolt, of course, ended in a bloodbath.
12. A key component of the apocalyptic view is that events are driven by God’s plan and not by our decisions. We are not responsible. It doesn’t matter what we do. The clash of empires, the hatred of anti-Semites, the national aspirations of the Palestinians – all these are evil phenomena from which we must protect ourselves, and with which we are destined to struggle, until redemption dawns; i.e. until the end of time.
13. The apocalyptic understanding makes every disagreement and conflict into a religious war, one more chapter in the eternal struggle against Amalek – the one nation that rebelled against God. No reconciliation is possible, ever. Thus, the “other” is not capable of change, or deserving of empathy; he is rather inherently incorrigible, eternal enemy of God and Israel. What has been is what will be, the sword forever.
14. Apocalyptic religious Zionism therefore rejects rational policymaking, as it does empathy, reconciliation, and compromise. Its vision of “peace” is one of total victory by the Jewish nation and the expulsion or killing of the nation’s enemies as described by the biblical prophets in their visions of “the end of days,” leading to a restored monarchy “from the [Euphrates] river to the sea.”
15. If the nation of Israel and the governments that it elects continue to see the real, 21st century Jewish state in apocalyptic terms, then I cannot escape the fear that the state’s future is in question. If biblical patterns can repeat themselves, then, well, biblical patterns can repeat themselves, and there is no way we can know that the third exile is not awaiting us, just around the corner of history; and the clearly dominant biblical view is that exile is not part of a hidden plan, but rather the result of our failure to build a just and humane society. There is no reason not to expect the apocalyptic Zionist approach to go the way of all the previous messianic movements in our history.
16. In the face of the apocalyptic hijacking of Zionism, it is incumbent upon us to pursue with all the force we can muster the alternative, utopian view. Apocalyptics wait for the catastrophic redemption, judgement day; utopians labor to perfect the Jewish state as a light unto the nations, and as a member of the family of nations. “Utopian” is often interpreted (as Herzl saw it, for example) to mean “unrealistic, fantastical.” However a better definition is: using the means we have to move toward the vision to which we aspire. Apocalyptics know that things will get worse; utopians believe that things can get better. Apocalyptics believe we are helpless; utopians know that we have power, and hence responsibility for the future.
17. If we, as Jews, and if Israel, as a Jewish state, are to be true to Jewish history and to the values that are central to the tradition, then we must adopt the utopian vision and reject apocalypticism. We cannot know the future, which is why we can – and must – try to shape it.