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Religious Zionism: Between Openness and Closedness

by Prof. Avi Saguy

The essence and self-consciousness of Religious Zionism has been molded ever since its beginnings by a dialectical relationship between two factors: openness to modernity, and traditionalism. The thesis that I wish to propose in this article is that the unique method by which Religious Zionism has dealt with these two elements is that which enabled, on the one hand, its openness towards the outside secular world, while at the same time enabling, on the other hand, the formulation of a closed world-view, one that could even be called dogmatic.

I will begin with a thumbnail description of the modernistic guidelines of Zionism. The basic modernistic principle that Religious Zionism always expressed was the recognition of change, and the shifting of change to be a goal in itself. Changes are a basic fact of human existence. However, the modernistic consciousness is different than its predecessor in that it recognizes the value of change. Change is not merely a factual occurrence, but is rather an expression of the conscious initiative of man. From this point of view, Religious Zionists adapted this awareness, and understood that it was this that separated between themselves and the hareidi sector. Federbush, for instance, in his work “The Perfection of Judaism,” contrasts between hareidi Judaism and Religious Zionism exactly in this point. The hareidim do not understand that the ghetto walls have collapsed, and they feel that it is possible to perpetuate the framework of the old conceptions. Religious Zionism, on the other hand, is aware of the dramatic change that has transpired within Jewish life, and consequently the need for a different, deliberate reaction. Possibly one of the clearest expressions of this change in thinking was the decision of the Second Mizrachi Convention to grant women the right to vote and to be elected.

The recognition of the value of change reflects within it the recognition of the value of human activism. The lot of man within history is not only a matter of “fate.” Man is a dynamic, active organism, within whose power it is to shape his own being. To use the terms of Rabbi Soloveitchik, man can replace his “pre-destined existence” (kiyum gorali) with his “(self-) appointed existence” (kiyum yi-udi). Even if human activism is not necessarily connected with a Messianic outlook, it is not surprising that the concept of Redemption has always been perceived in Religious Zionism as contingent upon human activism.

Against the background of modernistic openness, it is also possible to understand Religious Zionism’s openness to the values of modern nationalism. Without delving in this forum into the depths of modern nationalism, we can say that one of its innovations is the granting of absolute value to ethnic factors, and the demand to actualize the ethnic dimensions in a sovereign framework.

The fact that Religious Zionism adapted this way of thinking is especially blatant when compared with the hareidim’s clinging to their understanding of the Nation of Israel as merely a religious denomination, shaped and defined only by the Torah. This understanding led the way to the claim, promoted by certain schools of hareidi thought, that whoever is not observant of the Torah and its commandments is not considered a Jew, even if he was born as such. In stark contrast to this, Religious Zionism adopted the approach that the Nation of Israel is an ethnic entity; in the words of Federbush, “just as ‘total Judaism’ is inconceivable without its religious aspect, so too it is unimaginable without its national facet.” Federbush further wrote, “Whoever says that Judaism is only a religion, or only religious rituals, is as if saying that Judaism is not intrinsically connected with the existence of the Nation of Israel... the borders of the Jewish religion are those of the Jewish nation.”

Finally, Religious Zionism brought about a great change within the areas of education and culture, justifying a relative raise in the value of sciences and general culture. Within the Religious Zionist population arose an entire network of educational institutions that stood in absolute contrast to the hareidi educational network. Succinct expression of the conceptual thinking that served as the basis for this revolution was provided by Rabbi Zlotnik Avida, who said, “He to whom elementary human knowledge and education is foreign, can neither be learned in

knowledge of Judaism.”

The above is not the entire range of modernistic outlooks, but it does provide us with a sufficiently unclouded picture of the revolutionary-modernistic character of the Religious Zionist movement. However, this openness to modernism is not at all simple to a religious community with responsibility to tradition and to the past. Is not this openness to innovation and to the outside world a deviation from tradition? Is human activism not a rebellion against the Jewish faith?

The fact the Religious Zionism stands in the middle between hareidism and secularism hones the basic need of its theorists to struggle over and over with these questions. It must again and again buttress that which distinguishes it from the secularists - its commitment to tradition. The fundamental response to these questions that has always been given in religious Zionist thought is the reinforcement of the value of “change,” as opposed to that of “innovation.” This means that change is not something revolutionary within Jewish religion and tradition, but rather the uncovering of latent fundamentals that have always been within the tradition itself. Religious Zionism, in the eyes of its thinkers, is the “true Judaism.” Clear expression of this was given by Yeshayahu Bernstein, who wrote:

Just like the Zionist movement in general, the Religious Zionist - Mizrachi movement did not create ‘something from nothing,’ as during Creation. Its ‘primordial matter’ is found in the recesses of the generations, within the spiritual walls of the nation. The religious Zionist movement was the one to cause it to materialize in practice. It uncovered ‘fountains of the great deep’ among the treasures of the spirit of the nation and from the hidden recesses of its soul. It dug wells that had been stopped up by Exile and foreignness... The religious Zionist movement dove deep into the strong waters of Jewish thought, and came up with shining pearls that illuminate the way of life of the nation, in anticipation of its return to its Land and its Torah, in anticipation of its completion and unification, to the “renewal of its days as of old.’” (Y. Bernstein, Yiud V’Derech, Tel Aviv 1956, p. 85)

The spiritual transformation that Religious Zionism brought about - its openness to modernity - is understood, therefore, in Aristotelian terms of “actualizing the potential” of the primordial matter. Religious Zionism is not an outward-looking revolution; it is a movement turning inward. The basic consciousness that shapes this movement is, then, ‘reconstructive consciousness,’ and not one of innovation.

This ‘reconstructive consciousness’ is actually an attempt to assimilate the new within the old: revolution within conservatism. This process is not unique specifically to the Religious Zionist revolution; on the contrary, as Eisenstat pointed out, this model of reaction to change - what he called the “transformationist model” - is one of the typical forms of reaction of a traditional culture to change: the proposal of new understandings, together with the claim that they are not new, but rather latent elements of the tradition itself. To a certain extent, this was also the model according to which Jewish thought in the Middle Ages reacted to philosophical developments. Maimonides, for instance, attempted to justify the openness to the ‘outside’ disciplines of philosophy and metaphysics in terms of Judaism’s ‘inside,’ by positing that these studies are the heart of Judaism itself.

Yet there is a vast difference between the model of the Middle Ages and that shaped by Religious Zionism. The transformation in the first was effected in order to allow the believing Jew to maintain his religious life, together with an openness to the outside world, namely philosophy. This process was in no way directed towards the negating of the external world in and of itself. Philosophy was not based only on religion, and therefore had its own self-value. The claim was minimalistic, and the believing Jew, too, could adopt this spiritual world, as it itself is found within Judaism.

On the other hand, within Religious Zionism a more radical path was chosen: The entire external world can be justified only in terms of what was already inside Judaism. In this way, the intrinsic value of the outside world was denied. The need for the development of a radical mode of transformationist thought such as this is obvious - for the external world to which Religious Zionism opened itself was that of the secularists, those who had rebelled against G-d. Modernism was borne aloft by the secularists. A non-radical approach might have left secularism with some value in and of itself. Therefore, a philosophy had to be formulated that would justify the outside only in terms of the Torah itself.

This radicalism demands a new understanding of the Torah. The Torah is not merely the Halakhah, but also - mainly - the entire range of the spiritual, aggadic, and meditative heritage from which we can derive our positions on specific issues. According to this understanding, the Torah is likened to a treasure house or a well, from which every generation extracts according to its strength and ability. The infinite riches of Judaism include more than just laws and rigid guidelines; they comprise outlooks, conceptions, and ideas that guide man in all that he does and thinks.

This conception of Judaism tells us that the Religious Zionist is not a creator or an innovator, but rather one who is simply unveiling that which is already there. He is drawing from the “well of living waters” of Judaism. This conception guarantees that what is perceived as an “innovation” will in fact be recognized as “preservation” and not as “creation.”

However, one of the most notable phenomena in the history of Religious Zionism is the reverse correlation between its ‘practical revolutionism’ and its ‘conceptual conservatism:’ The more revolutionary the movement became, the more it became conservative in its attempts to anchor and justify its actions only in terms of traditional Judaism. The clearest expression of this is found in the ideology of the HaPoel HaMizrachi / Torah va-Avodah / Kibbutz HaDati movement. Two theoretical fundamentals expressed the concept of the Jewish totality: the perfection of Torah, and the sovereignty of G-d. Concerning the perfection of Torah, Shragai, for instance, writes:

“The most basic fundamental of all of that which is learned and taught in the school of ‘Torah va-avodah’ is: The Torah, the Torah of G-d is perfect, and in it we must find answers to every question of the world and of life, of Israel, and of humanity... The world is not apart from us. We need not seek answers and solutions for the world anywhere outside of the Torah, for if we but assume that such answers exist, we thereby taint its perfection... the Torah then becomes no longer the Torah of life, for life includes all that there is, all of the being, both Jewish and of all of mankind.” (Hazon Uneshamah, p.39)

In the above passage, Shragai expresses one of the religious intuitions that guided the religious-Zionist revolution: the completeness and perfection of Torah. This is to say that there is not an issue or revelation in life to which the Torah does not relate; within the Torah itself, an answer may be found to every question that may arise.

Another intuitive principle that drove the religious-Zionist revolutionaries is connected with the sovereignty of G-d: The assumption that one or more areas of life are conducted not in accordance with Torah dictates, means, for the Religious Zionist, ‘a blow to G-d’s sovereignty.’ “For how could there be a religious Jew in the world, who determines that certain areas of his life are not in the “domain of the King of the World.” (M. Unna, Bishvilei HaMachshavah V’HaMaaseh, Tel Aviv 5715, p. 42)

These two basic intuitive principles determine the basic mechanism for working with the outside world: it must be negated. However, as opposed to hareidi thought, which understood the negation of the external to mean that it has no value, Religious Zionism explained this negation differently: the ‘external’ is denied because in truth the ‘external’ is the ‘internal.’

The Religious Zionist revolutionary recognizes that there is a need for a change in the ‘orders of life’ and for the annulment of the old ‘orders.’ But this recognition does not, of itself, create a revolutionary consciousness; on the contrary, this process of change reflects the very essence of the concept of the dynamic and developing Oral Law. The change is not effected as a result of subordination to the ‘outside,’ or because of any inherent value in ‘change’ per se, but rather comes from the need to preserve the Torah itself in changing circumstances. The changes do not bring him to concede the totalization of life according to the Torah; they rather cause him to make extra efforts to explain and legislate so that the Torah will be able to preserved under the new circumstances.

The notion of totalization, together with the recognition of the Torah’s dynamism, enabled Religious Zionism - even in its revolutionary format - to absorb the ‘outside’ and to see it as part of religious life. However, what began as a need to justify the internalization of the external, developed into an absolute negation of its value. The Torah - in its broad and dynamic sense - is the exclusive authority over the entirety of values and norms. In the words of Shragai:

“The believing Jew sees and judges every idea in light of faith and G-d’s Torah. A believing Jew does not say that he has chosen for himself, as a way of life, a given ethical concept... To the believing Jew, ‘G-d’s Torah is perfect’ and serves as the basic foundation for all ethical teachings in all of its various revelations... The faith of the believer does not tolerate any partnership with any other authority... This leads us to the conclusion that there is no room for a believing Jew to see himself as a “religious worker” or a “religious socialist,” etc. A believing Jew can come with his faith to Zionism, to working-class-ism, to kibbutzism, to socialism, to ethicism, etc. - if the Torah requires or justifies them. And he who is not able to merit this must examine his ways and strengthen his belief and “repent and be healed.” Faith and life, according to the Torah, are not a type of “second front;” they are the foundation.” (Techumim, p.344)

According to this understanding, there is only one source from which spring all of the values and obligations - the Torah. This clear negation of all extra-religious sources, and of the inherent value of all social, political, and ethical values, is barely found in Jewish tradition. This is certainly true with regard to the ethical sphere. If there is one area of Jewish tradition that is known for its intrinsic value independent of the Torah, it is certainly that of ethics. Jewish tradition, for the very most part, claims that the moral value of an act is not at all contingent upon Divine decree or the Torah. On the other hand, Shragai, one of the leaders of HaPoel HaMizrachi and the Torah VaAvodah movement, unequivocally and unhesitatingly proclaims, “‘G-d’s Torah is perfect’ and serves as the basic foundation for all ethical teachings in all of its various revelations.” How ironic that within the revolutionary Religious Zionism, which was always so attuned to the voice of the ‘outside,’ the ‘outside’ was so utterly negated.

An unmistakable expression of the autonomy of the ‘outside’ may be found in the rejection of the theory of middur. This theory, which is well-known to be a legacy of Protestantism, was first suggested by a Religious Zionist leader, Ernst Simon, in his classic article, “Are We Still Jews?” in 1952. Several years afterwards, it was adopted by Yeshayahu Liebowitz, who earlier had rejected it as “incompatible with the concept of ‘Torah va’avodah.’” Simon claims that “Judaism is, in fact, objectively a ‘Catholic’ religion,” meaning that it is a total religion that spreads out over all the areas of life. “However,” he continues, “in this time of crisis, we have no choice but to approach it from the subjective, ‘Protestant’ point of view.” It was precisely from within the HaPoel HaMizrachi circles that there arose objections to this suggestion, and Bernstein formulated them as follows:

“The Jewish religion is like no other religion... [It] excludes no area of life from its jurisdiction. The basis of its entire philosophy is our perpetual and constant existence within the purview and domain of the King of the Universe... Whoever sees the unique essence of Judaism, its profound differences that distinguish it from all other nations and religions, cannot make peace with the separation of powers in Israel, with the allocation of a separate domain within Israel called ‘Judaism’ or ‘religion,’ as just another sphere among many... The Judaism of all the generations - until the period of the Haskalah, at which time the ‘overstepping of boundaries’ began - never knew or recognized spheres of life that were not subordinate to the Supreme Authority of Torah. Any other understanding, be it even religious, can be called ‘Protestantism,’ but not Judaism...” (Yi’ud v’Derekh, p. 146-147)

Bernstein is well aware that Simon does not negate the “Catholic” character of Judaism, but is rather proposing the “Protestant” model as a practical solution to the present-day situation. According to Bernstein, this solution is not possible, for it comprises a “concession of the ‘totality’ claim of religion (p. 148).”

The recognition of the totalization of religion is a fundamental characteristic of the Religious Zionist conception from the very first, and this was the basis for the sharp debate between Achad Ha’am and the Religious Zionist movement. However, in classical Religious Zionism, this idea expressed the traditional conception according to which the Halakhah guides us in every aspect of our lives. The totalization of Judaism became a clear expression of the absolute authority of Halakhah in determining the behavioral norms. On the other hand, within the revolutionary Religious Zionist circles - HaPoel HaMizrachi, the Torah Va’avodah movement, and HaKibbutz HaDati - the idea of totalization changed over from an abstract religious-philosophical notion to a thematic principle with practical implications. This consciously-taken approach teaches us that the religious-Zionist revolutionaries were aware of the tension between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside,’ and totalization of the ‘inside’ became the chosen solution for this problem.

The picture that this analysis draws for us is that what began as an openness towards the outside world ended with the conception that there is only one source for the entirety of norms and values - the Torah; according to classic religious Zionist thought - excluding exceptions such as Rav Aviad, Rav Hirschensohn, Rav Uziel, and a small number of other thinkers - there is no room for other value systems outside of the religious system. Every value must be anchored in one way or another in the Torah, in its broad sense. It is true that for the sake of the actualization of this conception, a modification was made in the concept of ‘Torah,’ but this does not change the broad picture.

The clearest expression of this ‘total conception,’ that which recognizes only one value-source, is found in no other than the political arena. The type of government, as well as the basic values of the democratic state, must, in religious-Zionist thought and Halakhic rulings, be grounded in the Torah of Israel.

From the standpoint of the believing Jew, the law of the Torah is the absolute foundation of the entire Israeli-democratic enterprise, just as elementary ethical laws precede every type of democracy in the world (B’Maaglei Shi’abud v’Geulah, p.60).

Bernstein therefore suggests that we view the correlation between Judaism and democracy in a similar light as that between ethics and democracy. In other words, these two spheres are not only not dependent on democracy, but on the contrary, democracy is contingent upon them. The uniqueness of the Israeli democracy is that it is contingent upon religion. In order to understand the far-reaching implications of this idea, let us continue to read what Bernstein has to say:

“No one would see an affront to democracy in the fact that we do not bring the prohibitions to steal, kill, and commit adultery to a democratic vote in the legislative body. Similarly, it is not inconsistent with democracy when we do not agree to put the Ten Commandments up for majority vote in the Knesset. Therefore, not only according to Halakhah, but even from a conceptual point of view, we need not negate the imposing of Torah laws on our society. Even the benefits and harmful effects of this issue may be discussed... the considered opinion of most of the religious public is that religious legislation is beneficial.”

We must remember that the concept of a “Torah State” is very often found in the writings and speeches of the thinkers of religious Zionism, including the early version of Yeshayahu Liebowitz. The fact that one’s relationship towards the State is determined by his religious outlook was expressed in its extreme by Rav Soloveitchik:

Unfortunately, there are certain elements within Israel... that would like the Jewish nation to choose one of the two alternatives - the secularist type of State. I very much hope that this will never come to pass... However, if we were faced with the choice of either the secular State of Israel, that has cut off all ties, Heaven forbid, with the Jewish tradition, or with the G-d of Israel - it is clear that we would all unanimously choose the G-d of Israel. (Chamesh Drashot, p. 76)

These words are relevant, too, for our day. It has become clear that now, of all times, when new possibilities are opened before us with the establishment of the State, Religious Zionism is returning more and more to closed and dogmatic patterns of thought. What began as a revolution is ending with a return to response patterns that near those of hareidism. This process is a result, as mentioned, of the mechanism that initiated the openness itself - the desire to justify and enforce the openness only on the ‘inside.’

The question which I would like to leave open is: Are there other ways to confront and deal with the ‘outside?’ Is the alternative formulated by Simon, Liebowitz, and (may he live a long life) Eliezer Goldman - that which posits that the essence and being of the believer, as well as those of everyone else, are complex, and that there is no point in grounding the entirety of values and perceptions on one sole normative source - a possibility that could lead Religious Zionism to renewed openness? As mentioned above, I do not want to answer this question in this framework; I would simply like to point out that the classic mechanism of justifying all of our perceptions and values only in religious terms is leading Religious Zionism to closedness, and to the margins of the modern/post-modern world, which is founded upon relationships with communities of different value systems. This model is not only unable to deal with the complex reality of the believing Jew who is open to modernity, but it also does not reflect that which, in actuality, this type of believing Jew faces in his day-to-day life.

In my estimation, the Religious Zionist today is trapped in a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, his consciousness is shaped by a one-dimensional religious-Zionist perception that recognizes only one normative source for his values. On the other hand, in his economic, social, professional, and cognizant life he requires other normative sources. This break, or what may be called the cognitive dissonance between his practical being and his spiritual world, leaves no recourse within the framework of the standard perceptions. The profound manifestation of this break is manifest in the increasingly acute attempt to shape a radically-total world outlook. The situation has reached the point where certain figures within Religious Zionism can tell us exactly what G-d wants here and now. They know exactly what is transpiring in the Heavenly Spheres. From their point of view, G-d is not transcendental, for He is totally transparent to their understanding. This stance is very problematic, religiously, in terms of its hubris, i.e., overbearing presumption vis-a-vis G-d, and it is an expression of the tremendous crisis of turning towards the heavenly worlds as a replacement for the struggle with the reality.

In my opinion, the theory that posits one value-source cannot be reconciled with the entirety of activities of man in this world. Therefore, as a theory that is designed to guide and instruct a modern believer, it has failed - either that, or the combination of faith and modernity is impossible.

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