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
By DAVID HARTMAN
While the security of the State of Israel concerns the vast majority of Jews, not all Jews share the same appreciation of the Jewish state’s significance for Jewish life and identity. At one end of the spectrum of views are those who deny any positive religious significance to the rebirth of Israel. For them, the establishment of a Jewish state represents a serious infringement on the role of God and Torah in Jewish history.
The reaction of traditional religious circles to early Zionism was intensely hostile. The fact that various European nations were regaining their independence had no significance for them. They believed that the third Jewish commonwealth could not arise out of political developments in the secular world, but must result from God’s redemptive intervention into history.
What they were waiting for was not handfuls of pioneers draining swamps, but a Jewish restoration having the assurance and finality promised by the following statement in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 2:1): “Although your fathers were redeemed, they returned to being subjugated; but when you are redeemed, you shall never again be subjugated.”
Today the same skepticism about Zionism is maintained by the Haredi population, which rationalizes its representation in Israel’s parliament and its participation in coalitions by pointing to how much their educational institutions benefit from government support. In Israel as elsewhere, they cooperate with the secular powers-that-be, but this should not be taken to imply ascribing religious significance to the rebirth of Israel. Their academies of learning do not celebrate Israel’s Independence Day nor do they offer prayers of thanksgiving, Hallel, for the re-establishment of Jewish national autonomy, although prayers may be offered for the safety of those fighting in Israel’s defense forces.
Not only do they refuse to ascribe any spiritual significance to the State of Israel but they also regard the state per se as a threat to the future of Judaism. For them, self-government grounded in secular forms of political power and social institutions is the archenemy of traditional Jewish spirituality. As they see it, Israel offers the Jewish people a new kind of Jewish identity. Nationalism, Zionist history and folklore, the Hebrew language, Israeli culture, Israeli geography and archeology, etc., are elements of an alternative way of life meant to displace God, Torah and classical Jewish teachings. In addition, they believe that Jewish political autonomy has engendered a psychological shift towards assertiveness and self-reliance, thereby alienating Jews from their traditional obedient posture to the Jewish faith. The Zionist ethos stands in sharp contrast to the traditional attitude of waiting patiently for the Messiah.