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The year religious Zionism became irrelevant

Israeli Jews are struggling to define the relationship between being Israeli and being Jewish, and the traditional moral beacon can no longer guide them
Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on December 20, 2019. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)
Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz, right, with Itamar Ben Gvir, left, of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party on December 20, 2019. (Courtesy, via The Times of Israel)

The merger between two parties, Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudi, the latest iteration of MAFDAL) and Otzma Yehudit (Kahanist) marks the elimination of traditional religious Zionism from Israeli political life. For younger secular Israelis, religious Zionism has been identified with a single cause: Israeli sovereignty over the entire biblical land of Israel. Politically the various splinter groups are united in being to the right of Likud. Individual religious Zionists will find their place in other parties and may influence attitudes on religion and state. Revisiting an earlier world of religious Zionism should guide them.

Historically, religious Zionism was defined by the integration of the value of a Jewish state into its religious world-view. Its political party included left and right wings and a dominant center, all united by a shared approach to issues of religion and state. The founding of Mizrachi indicated a willingness to partner with a secular World Zionist movement for the goal of return to Israel and the creation of an independent Jewish state. From Rabbi Reines to Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Soloveitchik, differing rationales were found to justify this cooperation. Although there are nuanced differences in their approaches, they agreed on cooperation — a position questioned by many Orthodox rabbis today.

Rabbi Kook took into account the economic survival of the Yishuv when he permitted the sale of the land, in order to allow Jewish farmers to work in the shemittah, or sabbatical, year. Rabbi Herzog based allowing churches in Israel on the supreme religious value of having a state and its need for support from the western Christian world. Acknowledging a non-Orthodox majority, religious Zionists promoted Jewish education rather than legislation requiring religious observance.

A defining example of this perspective is the response to issues in the Israeli army. Rabbi Herzog, followed by Rabbi Goren, accomplished the goal of basic kashrut for the entire army instead of a higher level of kashrut restricted to observant soldiers. Religious Zionist rabbis created yeshivot hesder, combining army service with Torah study as a religious value, not a concession. When a state commission had to evaluate Israeli responsibility for allowing the killing of civilians at Sabra and Shatila, even though Lebanese Christian soldiers did the killing, the deciding votes came from the religious Zionist ministers.

The religious kibbutz movement promoted economic equality based on the Prophets, not based on Karl Marx. Social justice was understood to be a Jewish value, not a secular humanistic one. As chief rabbi when the state was established, Rabbi Herzog provided halakhic bases for granting full rights to non-Jewish minorities.

As admired as Rabbi Kook was, his negative position on women voting was rejected in favor of the approach of the Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Uziel. Not only did Rabbi Uziel permit women to vote, he approved women being given positions of authority when granted as much by the voters. When Rabbi Kook passed away, instead of his closest student, who shared his mystical tendencies, becoming his successor as chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, a secularly-educated, worldly rationalist was chosen. Modern western values were not dismissed as antithetical to Torah, but were integrated when appropriate.

In Israel today, when the divide between religious and secular has widened, the need is great for a religious approach that can serve as a bridge. Israeli Jews are struggling to define the relationship between being Israeli and being Jewish; the relevance of traditional religious Zionism is clear. Combining a commitment to Halakha that is open to modernity, with Zionism that is rooted in Jewish history and traditions, can create a shared foundation for the complex, diverse Jewish population of Israel. “Jewish” and “democratic” are not in conflict; the mentality that defined traditional religious Zionism is critical to make this a reality. This will not mollify some extreme secularists but the majority of Israelis will respond positively.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Blau is the Senior Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University, and a partial resident in Jerusalem.
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