Benjamin Porat

The missing side of the triangle: The danger religious Zionism faces

Religious Zionism (the sector, not the political party that appropriated the name) is one of the most influential population groups in Israel. This does not only stem from the fact that its sons and daughters are fully integrated into all activity centers but mainly because of the strong influence its ideology radiates over Israeli society. In the following essay, I wish to draw attention to a worrying process afflicting religious Zionism, the roots of which can be traced back to its early days, and which has dramatically worsened in recent years.

As young members of Bnei Akiva, we sang about the famous triangle of values: “The people of Israel, the Land of Israel, and the Torah of Israel,” or in another version: “The Land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.” This triangle seemed to be the obvious spiritual genetic code of the National Religious Jews (aka, those wearing “crocheted kipot.”)

However, a second look might indicate that the issue is more complex. Especially when comparing this triangle of values with a different triangle written by HaRav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, AKA: “Hara’ayah” in Hebrew), according to whom the three values that must be harmoniously integrated are Sacred (Torah), Nation (nationalism) and Humanity (humanism). It is challenging to combine the three values HaRav Kook had dreamt of. Zionism, which was born out of the negation of the Diaspora and wanted “nothing to do with religion,” finds it difficult to reconcile with the Torah, which mainly prospered and flourished in the Diaspora. Humanism, which carries on its wings the values of liberalism and modernity, struggles to coexist in harmony with the Torah’s conservative outlook. Deep tensions can also be found between nationalism and humanism, stemming from differences between the particular approach and the universal one.

Notwithstanding all this, HaRav Kook believed that “we should always strive to come to this appropriate state, in which these three forces will rule together over us in all their fullness and goodness, in a rectified, harmonious state where there is neither deficiency nor excess, for the holy, the nation and humanity, will cling together in noble and practical love” ( Orot Hat’hiyah) 18). Just how bold is Kook’s attempt to combine these three elements – holiness, nationalism and humanity – can be seen from a comparison with the cosmopolitan thought of his contemporary, Franz Rosenzweig, whose work, The Star of Redemption, was based on the triangle: God, Humanity, World. In contrast to this non-Zionist thought, HaRav Kook believed that the national revival was a necessary element that had to go hand in hand with Torah and humanism. Hence, his call for a fusion between the sacred, the nation and humanity.

When we look at this, we will find that the triangle that we chanted about in the youth movement – “the People of Israel, the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel” – actually consists of two sides of the triangle that HaRav Kook dreamt of, omitting the third side. The triangle PEOPLE-LAND-TORAH is a fusion of two elements: The Torah and Nationalism, with the national element appearing in it twice, once in the image of the people and once in the image of the land, while the aspect of humanity is absent.

Incidentally, the triangle of religious Zionism’s values – “The people of Israel; The Land of Israel; The Torah of Israel” – may be reminiscent of the usual triangle used by Kabbalists: “God, The Torah and Knesset Israel.” In both, the “triangle” actually connects two elements – religion and nationalism. However, among the Kabbalists, the religious value is split in two – God and the Torah – turning a straight line into a triangle. In contrast, in religious Zionism, the national component splits into the people (nation) and the land.

Either way, things differ in HaRav Kook’s concept, which adds a third aspect to Torah and nationalism – humanity, carrying liberal values, a recognition of the value of every human being, the importance of general education, and more, which must reconcile the worlds of the Torah and Zionism, despite the internal tensions that exist between them.

As noted, the emphasis given by religious Zionism was on the connection between nationalism and the Torah, while the humanist element was cast aside. This does not mean that it was completely ignored. Since their establishment, high school yeshivas and religious girls’ high schools (“Ulpana” in Hebrew) have combined spiritual and secular studies, bringing their students general education and universal moral values. But the triangle that reigned supreme was PEOPLE-LAND-TORAH, while the universal human element came through the back door. Moreover, in recent years, we have witnessed the strengthening of forces in religious Zionism, which are becoming increasingly dominant, championing the struggle against modern and liberal values. This contributes to an even broader dilution of the humanist element of religious Zionism.

The tendency to focus on merging two worlds rather than expanding into three is understandable. Even so, the combination of multiple separate worlds is complex and challenging. Indeed, throughout Jewish history, one can witness many attempts to integrate the Torah with a predominant discipline, like “Torah and Philosophy” (Rambam), “Torah and Mysticism” (Kabbalists), or “Torah and Common Decency” (“Derech Eretz” in Hebrew – the way of the world) (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch). Linking the Torah with nationalism must be perceived on this continuum. It emphasizes how deep and complex the vision of HaRav Kook was with regard to a tripolar integration of the Torah, nationalism and humanity.

The difficulty of “HOW” to realize this tripartite vision is already evident from the challenge faced by the students of HaRav Kook in editing his writings: On the one hand, the book Orot (Lights), edited by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, is dedicated to the integration of Torah and nationalism; on the other hand, the book Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), edited by Rabbi David Cohen (aka, Rav Ha-Nazir), deals with the relationship between the Torah and a variety of general philosophical concepts. Each of these works focuses on the combination of two sides of the triangle that HaRav Kook saw in his mind, and only when combining these two works can we understand the entirety of his vision. Therefore, the challenge of containing the whole triangle incorporates an inherent hardship and is difficult to instill. Indeed, the very name “Religious Zionism” emphasizes the dual commitment of those belonging to the “crocheted kipot” stream to Torah and nationalism – not a triple commitment.

Yet, as HaRav Kook argued, integrating these three sides of the triangle is crucial. Without one of its sides, the other two may become imbalanced, lose proportion, and become dangerous. Therefore, HaRav Kook argued that the religious people, the nationalists, and the universalists must acknowledge the need for each element to complement, balance and restrain the other, thereby “asserting its proper measure and saving it from the dangerous deficit of excess and exaggeration.” When Torah and nationalism lack the complementary humanistic element, they might plunge into dangerous abysses.

This warning is not merely theoretical. In recent years, we have seen how, within central areas of religious Zionism, healthy nationalism is slowly being replaced by toxic one. This does not refer to dazed or marginal realms but to processes at the heart of religious Zionism, most obviously manifested in the political arena. In recent years, religious Zionism has been increasingly pushed over to the arms of Kahanists and their successors. This group, whose world is nothing but cheap, superficial xenophobic populism, is infiltrating the heart of religious Zionism.

It is hard to believe that until recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu was careful not to be photographed with representatives of the Otzma Yehudit Party and not to stand with them on one stage, following a long tradition of the Likud movement that boycotted Kahanism and did not cooperate with it even ostensibly. Religious Zionism was also careful to distance itself from the Kach movement. Lo and behold, a few years ago, a process of legitimization for the Otzma Yehudit Party had begun. In the first stage, they explained that it was only a technical block that the Religious Zionist Party had signed with Otzma Yehudit. Later, prominent rabbis in religious Zionism took a step further, arguing that there was an ideological kinship between them and Kahane’s students. Now, according to recent polls, the Religious Zionist Party is doubtfully passing the electoral threshold, while Otzma Yehudit is thriving and will probably become the undisputed leader of religious Zionism. Oh, the shame! The threat of turning religious Zionism from a nationalist movement into an extreme nationalist movement is materializing before our eyes, from a group that integrates into the wonder of Israeli leadership to a group that is relegated to the racist, deranged margins, whose leaders are boycotted in all the capitals of the world. The damage caused by this process is not restricted to the political sphere; it is, first and foremost, a spiritual, moral and educational downfall. All this happened to us because of the dilution of the component of humanity, humanism, in religious Zionist thought in favor of the exclusivity of Torah and nationalism.

This process is not a karmic destiny. It is not too late to stop it. Religious Zionism can still declare that its commitment is threefold rather than twofold: To the Torah, to nationalism and to humanity. This decision is, first and foremost, spiritual and educational and will also have political manifestations. As such, the connection with the populist extreme nationalism of Kahane’s students will become obscene, invisible and indescribable, not as a technical block or in any other form. Precisely because of the centrality of nationalism (i.e., patriotism) in the doctrine of religious Zionism, it must be more careful than others not to replace national sentiments with zealotry and bigotry. Commitment to Torah and nationalism must be accompanied by the third vertex of commitment to humanity, that is, to humanism. It is not too late to return to the triangle coined and demanded by HaRav Kook: holiness, nationalism and humanity.

About the Author
Prof. Benjamin Porat is an Associate Professor at the Hebrew University Faculty of Law and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute