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Israel and Judaism’s Future: A Covenantal Perspective on Zionism

In returning to the land, we have created the conditions through which everyday life can mediate the biblical foundations of our covenantal destiny
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

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.

Part 4: A Covenantal Perspective on Zionism

In contrast to Rabbi Kook, I would argue that religious Zionism does not need to treat the rise of Israel as a divine ruse leading toward the messianic kingdom. There is an alternative perspective from which to religiously embrace the secular Zionist revolution, namely, the observation that Israel expands the possible range of halakhic involvement in human affairs beyond the circumscribed frameworks of home and synagogue. Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. The moral quality of the army, social and economic disparities and deprivations, the exercise of power moderated by moral sensitivities, attitudes toward minorities, foreign workers, the stranger, tolerance and freedom of conscience – all these are areas that challenge our sense of covenantal responsibility.


The existence of the State of Israel, from this perspective, prevents Judaism from being confined exclusively to a culture of learning and prayer. The realm of symbolic holy time – the Sabbath, the festivals – is no longer the exclusive defining framework of Jewish identity. In returning to the land, we have created the conditions through which everyday life can mediate the biblical foundations of our covenantal destiny.


At first blush, the claim that the Zionist revolution has brought the demands of the covenant of action back to Jewish spiritual consciousness seems totally unrelated to the lived reality of Israeli society. Religious self-consciousness in Israel is found chiefly in two camps: either the traditional ghetto-like spirituality that characterized Judaism for the past several centuries, or the messianic religious passion expressed by the adherents of Rabbi Kook’s theology of history.


The halakhic tendencies in the former camp reflect a conscious repudiation of modernity. There is not an atmosphere of celebration of the new religious opportunities that statehood has made possible, but rather an outright disregard of them. The bulk of their halakhic responsa deal with the same halakhic questions that occupied religious leaders during our long exilic history, such as kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, and marriage. Even the sabbatical and Jubilee years, which touch on the social and economic vision of Judaism, have been reduced to questions of what type of food one is permitted to eat in the sabbatical year.


Furthermore, the establishment of the State of Israel has not in any way affected religious practices in the community. It would not be far-fetched to say that Israel is the last haven in the world for a secular Jew to feel comfortable in his or her secular perspective on life. In contrast to the Diaspora, there is a much sharper repudiation of traditional Judaism in Israeli Jewish society than in many other Jewish communities. If anything, anti-religious feeling has been growing in response to the political assertiveness of certain groups of observant Jews.


As for the second camp, those who claim that Israel is part of a necessary messianic drama need not be disturbed by the prevalence of secularism in Israel. On the contrary, Rabbi Kook’s theology of history enables them to regard the secular revolution as merely a temporary phase in God’s scheme for bringing about the eventual establishment of a messianic Jewish society. The belief in the inevitability of the messianic redemptive process enables many religious Zionists to minimize the importance of the widespread lack of serious religious observance and sensitivity in the country. One can dance with Ariel Sharon on religious festivals with the same enthusiasm as yeshiva students dance with their Torah teachers. Army generals who lead us to victory serve the messianic process. What makes an act religious is not necessarily the motivation of the agent but the consequences that result from this act. Many atheists or religiously indifferent persons both in the army and in political life are perceived as pawns in the hands of the Lord of history, who has seen fit to utilize the military and political power of a secular Zionist state to bring about the triumph of the divine messianic scheme.


How then, can I give some plausibility to my own perspective in spite of what seems to be such overwhelming evidence to the contrary? My answer will present a conceptual analysis of how I believe secular Zionism has enriched Jewish covenantal consciousness, thereby providing a new framework in which to experience and develop Judaism in the modern world.

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