Religious Zionist Rabbis: The Awakening

A few weeks ago I received an invitation in the mail to attend an assembly of Religious Zionist rabbis in commemoration of Yom Yerushalayim — Jerusalem Day. Surprisingly the name of an organization did not appear on the invitation, there was no mention of any of the rabbi’s names who may have been behind the initiative, and it did not delineate a proposed initiative or even a program schedule; it simply provided a time, locale and an RSVP. Intrigued, I decided to attend this event with no transparent agenda.

When I arrived at the assembly last Thursday night I was pleasantly surprised to find that 700 rabbis shared both my curiosity and apparent desire to identify with and belong to an ideology. Senior influential rabbis, such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Haim Druckman, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and the chief rabbi of the IDF Rabbi Rafi Peretz, offered their blessings.

Different rabbis serving a variety of functions, whose institutions represent Religious Zionism, briefly explained the purpose and nature of their work. Most impressively both the event’s sponsors and organizers were purposely kept anonymous in a conscious effort to avoid personal agendas or power struggles, and, it was said more then once, with the explicit intent to promote unity amongst all Religious Zionist rabbis regardless of their differences of opinion. This initiative toward unity was particularly appropriate approaching Yom Yerushalayim, a day commemorating the liberation of Jerusalem, which was successful only after all the initial forces in Israel amalgamated to establish a highly effective and ideologically driven Jewish army known today as the IDF – the Israeli Defense Forces.

Yet with all of the anonymous good intentions I could not help but wonder why this effort to unite took so long. Since the disengagement from Gaza seven years ago, the Religious Zionist camp has been splintered trying to reestablish its purpose and identity; this type of convention was way overdue. Yet even more important is the rabbinic leadership’s goals for the future; it is incumbent upon all the rabbis in attendance to help establish the relevance and accessibility of Religious Zionist ideology to the broader Israeli public.

Twenty some years ago the slogan of Religious Zionism was “Eretz Yisrael Hashleima – keeping the Land of Israel intact”, now the mantra must become “Am Yisrael Hashalem – keeping the people of Israel whole and undivided.” We must find a way to reach our secular Israeli brethren not through what may be perceived as religious coercion or persuasion but by demonstrating the ideals we share in common, such as serving in the army with pride, ensuring the security of the land, and promoting Zionist education as a means of preserving and perpetuating the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland. While this gathering in Jerusalem was commendable for having united the rabbinic leadership, future events should include an itinerary with practical ways to infuse such aspirations via tolerance and sensitivity. All this begins by helping people to realize that Judaism is friendly and beneficial, not intrusive and intolerant as it is often perceived in this country.

A few weeks ago I attended a Friday night Shabbat dinner at a rabbi’s home in Toronto together with six other families who were invited as well. The invite, similar to the one I described above, did not express an agenda, nor did it include a proposed program; it was simply a cordial gathering, an opportunity to spend some time with the rabbi’s family and enjoy some delightful cuisine which happened to be around the Shabbat table.

Four of the six couples were secular Israelis who left Israel and were currently residing inCanada. As I engaged in friendly conversation with the young man sitting next to me, I learned that he had served as an officer for the paratroopers division in the IDF. He had grown up in a secular kibbutz in Israel and had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of traditional Judaism. He explained to me that since he left Israel he had attended a number of Friday night dinners with the rabbi, something which he had never done or even entertained doing when he was living in Israel.

I asked him what made him change his mind, as I braced myself for a theological response regarding the validity of the Sabbath day, but I was surprised to hear him explain that in Israel the opportunity to grace a Shabbat table never presented itself because no rabbi had ever taken interest in inviting him; this rabbi, he explained, took a personal interest in him and had no apparent alternative agenda. I listened to this young man’s story but at the same time I wondered why this seemingly simple non-coercive objective could not be implemented in Israel, particularly by Religious Zionist rabbis who adopt a broader vision and lend themselves to an expansive society. I am not foolish; I realize that many Israelis living in the country are less interested in Jewish tradition simply because they find residing in Israel is sufficient; nonetheless, I sincerely believe that there are secular Israelis who would welcome a friendly unobtrusive invitation from a rabbi or an observant neighbor to a Shabbat meal.

At the very least, such efforts could promote tolerance and understanding and at most, it could provide an opportunity to engage in sociable dialogue and validate that indeed the Jewish people are capable of uniting in some form and fashion, as one of the rabbis at last weeks convention put it:

We may have our differences of opinion, but our being here together affirms that ultimately we are all trying to get to the same place

In a few days we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which is commemorated by the fact that the Jewish people united for the sake of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Reflecting upon the Yom Yerushalayim that was and the Shavuot that will be should begin with disseminating a message of unity to the Jewish people in Israel.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Hammer currently serves as a lecturer for the IDF to help motivate troops in all divisions and infuse Jewish Identity. In addition he is currently involved in his own initiative offering lectures throughout the country on the basics of Judaism to many Secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim. He also serves as a lecturer for The Menachem Begin Heritage Center and has authored four books. Rabbi Hammer is a renowned guest lecturer for communities throughout the Diaspora.