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:
In contrast to, and diametrically opposed to the religious anti-Zionist approach, are those who celebrate Israel within the context of a messianic, redemptive orientation to Jewish history. Their experience of Jewish life is filled with vitality and excitement. For them, the birth of Israel represents the end of exile and the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophetic visions of Jewish history.
When the return to the Land of Israel gathered pace, religious elements began joining the secular Zionist revolution. In order to justify their participation in the Jewish march toward political independence, some of them began claiming that Zionism was a prelude to the coming of the Messiah. As argued above, for traditional Jews the only alternative political category to exile was the establishment of a messianic society.
Consequently, any attempt to abolish the situation of exile had to be justified within the framework of the messianic promise. The best-known attempt of this kind was provided by the philosophy of Rabbi Kook. He offered an argument similar to Hegel’s “cunning of reason.”
Although the secular Zionists believed their efforts would lead to a socialistic Jewish state where the Jewish religion would be an anachronism, God, however, would divert the course of events so as to turn Jews into “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Who is to judge how the Lord of history chooses to bring about His ultimate design for the world? With this argument, Rabbi Kook justified the decision of observant Jews to join forces with a secular political movement that purported to supersede Halakhah and Jewish covenantal consciousness.
Theological presuppositions of this kind enabled religious elements to forge a partnership with socialist Zionists during both the British Mandate and the early decades of the State of Israel. The political implications of such presuppositions, however, became apparent after the Six-Day War, which unleashed the potential force of these messianic longings among a considerable number of religious Jews.
The expansion of Israeli control over most of the Promised Land was seen as confirmation that the establishment of the messianic kingdom was in the process of realization. There was a rush to set up rudimentary settlements in large numbers of places on the assumption that the Ingathering of the Exiles would shortly swamp Israel. As with all previous messianic expectations, reality proved otherwise. The reverses of the Yom Kippur War, the drying up of Jewish immigration, and the disillusionment accompanying the final stages of the withdrawal from Sinai weakened their messianic fervor.
In spite of the progressive deterioration of the ecstatic mood of the Six-Day War, the dominant religious ideological perspective of religious Zionism today is still Rabbi Kook’s messianic theology. The vitality of religious youth movements is still nurtured by teachings from the Rabbi Kook tradition. How this religious community will respond to a peace settlement or a unilateral disengagement that demands territorial compromise is an acute political issue whose outcome many are hesitant and fearful to predict. Any political compromise regarding the biblical map of Israel and, by implication, the messianic redemptive destiny of Israel will undermine the legitimacy of the existing government. It is politically and spiritually urgent, therefore, that we find new channels for a religious appreciation of Israel’s rebirth which do not link the significance of our return to political nationhood with the prophetic promise of messianic redemption.