Herzl Hefter
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Where is the religious Zionism of Rabbi Kook?

How has a religious movement inspired by one who loved all humanity degenerated into a political party whose leaders espouse racist and Jewish supremacist ideas?
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook. (public domain)
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook. (public domain)

How the faithful city has become a harlot!
She was full of justice;
Righteousness lodged in her,
But now murderers. (Isaiah 1: 21)

These words of the prophet Isaiah are a biblical warning on the moral dangers of merging religious beliefs with political power.

To paraphrase the prophet:

How is it that the religious Zionist movement, inspired by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who possessed an overflowing love for all humanity, degenerated into a political party whose leaders espouse racist and Jewish supremacist ideas?

Rabbi Kook was the inspiration for generations of religious Zionists because he spoke to the most compassionate and beautiful sides of his followers. He wrote of love and purity and enjoined his fellow Jews to eschew hatred in the strongest terms.

The love of Israel requires the love of all mankind, and when it instills hatred for any part of mankind, this is a sign that the neshamah (soul) has not yet been purified from its filth [emphasis is mine – HH], and thus cannot be united with the Eden of the highest love. (Orot Yisrael 4:5)

Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, on the other hand — lehavdil (to differentiate between them and R. Kook) — are symptoms of a perverse corruption of religious Zionism which has replaced religious piety, a genuine love of the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, with an adoration of power and an ideology of Jewish supremacy. In this piece, I wish to illustrate that perversion, and place it side by side with the luminaries of authentic religious Zionism to highlight the change.

A few quotes of Smotrich and Ben Gvir from over the years to begin:

Smotrich (the “moderate” one):

  • “The incident in Dura [in which a Palestinian family was murdered by a Jew]… was not an act of terrorism.”
  • “When a woman is raped, she suffers. What the government is doing to us is rape.” — On the government’s order to evacuate Amona.
  • “My wife is not racist at all, but after she gives birth she wants to rest and doesn’t want to be bothered by the revelry of the Arab families.” — In response to the policy to segregate Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards.
  • “Your [referring to Arab students in Israeli universities] illiterates occupy places in the university. Show me one Arab that passed the psychometric exam to enter university.”
  • “The Arabs are Israeli citizens — for now at least…”

And Ben Gvir:

  • “He is my hero.” — Referring to Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Muslims while they were worshiping in Hebron.
  • “They have no place here in Jerusalem nor even in the entire State of Israel.” — Referring to the LGBTQ community.
  • He celebrated the death of Ariel Sharon.
  • He labeled Meir Kahana a prophet. (Kahana infamously introduced racist anti-Arab legislation in the Knesset which eerily resembled the Nazi Nurnberg Laws.

This list of repulsive quotes and behaviors goes on and is a matter of public record; racist, vulgar and offensive — in religious terms, a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God.

How different is the ethos of religious Zionism.

Rav Kook’s love for humanity was not theoretical; he was not naïve. A year following the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron, he wrote,

Ultimately, I know full well that that the Arab people in general, and also the greater part of the Arabs of the Land of Israel, are filled with sorrow and shame for the despicable acts performed by a small minority in their midst as the result of incitement. And we hope that the same tradition of ways of peace and mutual support, of building together with all of the inhabitants of the Land of Israel, the beloved and forsaken country. . . will triumph over all conspiracies of lies and deceit, of defilement and malice. (Quoted by David Dishon, Chevruta 2008)

He wrote these words in response to the Hebron massacre!

Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel believed that the country was bound by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes rights of citizenship and freedom of religion (Hatehuka beYisrael, vol. 1). This meant that even in a Jewish state governed by the Halakha, Arabs should not only be allowed to vote, but would also have the right to hold office as well.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, said that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees equal rights to the non-Jewish population of Israel, constitutes a halachic obligation to which the state is bound. He was very concerned with and openly criticized the growing disregard for the law in the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

In this connection, it is worthwhile to quote Menachem Begin, who, though not a religious Zionist, represents the nationalist wing of Zionism that is very popular with religious Zionists. He said in 1944, “To our Arab neighbors — we do not see you as enemies. We do not come to annihilate you or exile you from your land. We see you as good neighbors — there is sufficient room in this land for both nations…” And in the Knesset in 1962, he said, “We believe that in the Jewish state, there must be and will be equal rights for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, nation or origin.”

Those religious Jews who would counter Begin’s statement to defend the racism and other disturbing biases of their leaders, say something along the lines of, “well it does say that in the Torah.”

But of course, Rabbi Kook was keenly aware of this problem and his response goes directly to the nature of the Torah itself and how we interpret it.

[The love of all creatures] must withstand very demanding trials, to overcome many contradictions strewn like obstructing boulders in [the form of] isolated statements, the superficial meaning of certain halachot, and a vast many doctrines derived from the tzimtzum [brevity] of the literal meaning of the Torah and national morality. (Orot Hakodesh, vol. 3, p. 318)

Sources that point to hatred, violence and destruction are indeed found in the Torah. There is also universal love, justice, compassion and righteousness. Which sentiment shall we privilege?

Moreover, Rabbi Kook looks at the troubling sources as isolated statements — as obstacles — that need to be overcome. But, some may respond, that is his interpretation. Why should we accept his interpretation and indeed the interpretations of Rabbis Herzog and Amital?

The key lies in something that the great Hasidic master, R. Nahum Twersky of Chernobyl observed. “The Torah,” he said, “is akin to a mirror. One sees in it according to the type of human being they are. If they are good and refined they see the good in the Torah. However, if they are evil they will see evil in the Torah and it will poison them.”

Rabbi Kook’s interpretation and the interpretations of Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Amital reflect the type of human beings they were. The same holds true, unfortunately, for Smotrich and Ben Gvir; their noxious positions and behavior reflect upon the type of human beings they are.

And who we choose to support and in what type of country we choose to live, will reflect the type of human beings we are.

About the Author
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem. It is a beit midrash for advanced rabbinic studies for men and women. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל, and received smikha from Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל at Yeshivat Har Etzion where he studied for ten years. Rabbi Hefter taught Yoreh De'ah to the Kollel fellows at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and served as the head of the Bruria Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the first Torah MiZion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. He has written numerous articles related to modernity and Hasidic thought. His divrei Torah and online shiurim can be accessed at
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