Rabbi Prof. David Hartman explores Israel’s unfinished business in this in-depth essay tracing the history of Zionism and the religious response to it, as well as the new covenant he sees has been created by the creation of the State of Israel
Zionism began over a century ago as a revolt against the conception of the Jewish people as a community of prayer and learning. The traditional waiting posture for liberation from exile was inspired by the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt.
The Exodus story served as a key paradigm of Jewish historical hope by emphasizing that despite the utter helplessness of the community the Jewish people could rely on the redemptive power of God. Zionism taught that only if Jews were to take responsibility for their future would history change. This stood in sharp contrast to the Biblical belief that Jews were not the masters of their own history.
Exile was the result of sin, and only through the return to God and the mitzvot (t’shuva) would their exilic condition come to an end by the grace of God. The courage of traditional religious Jews to persevere under all conditions of history was sustained by their belief that Israel was God’s elect people and that God would not permanently abandon Israel. The early Zionists rejected this approach to Jewish history and hope.
Nevertheless, the early Zionists by no means rejected the Jewish heritage in its entirety. In many cases, they treated the Bible not only as the greatest literary treasure of the revived Hebrew language, but also as a major source of the ethical norms that would guide Jews in rebuilding their ancient homeland.
The early Zionists went in all imaginable directions in the theological domain. Many were avowed atheists, others wanted to restore a biblical faith untrammeled by the rabbinic tradition, and others were devotees of land mysticism or a religion of labor. Many were agreed, for example, on the need to create new formats to celebrate traditional Jewish festivals. In Israel today, there are still kibbutzim that celebrate Pesach as a “spring festival” using new language and forms of ritual; but nonreligious families typically hold a traditional Pesach meal with all the usual customs, yet without religious commitment.
This is not, however, perceived by most Zionists as a serious problem. If one strips away the external trappings of traditional sentimentality found in many Zionists’ appreciation of Jewish customs, one discovers the belief that concern for the survival of the Jewish people and commitment to the State of Israel are the new substitutes for traditional Judaism. The mainstream of Zionist thought rejected the traditional view that the covenant with God at Sinai was constitutive of Jewish self-understanding. For many Zionists, identification with the historical destiny of the nation was not only necessary for being a Jew, it was also sufficient. Judaism during the exile had instrumental value in preserving this nation from disintegration, but the new nationalistic spirit provided a more effective instrument with which to make possible the continued existence of the Jewish people.