Which Religious Zionism—and Which Cliff? A Response to Hillel Halkin

The ripple effects of the recent Israeli elections and their outcome are being felt throughout Israeli society. Hillel Halkin raises many valid concerns about the consequences of the election, but he also expresses a deep pessimism bordering on despair that I cannot share. In Halkin’s words: “For years now, Israel has seemed to me like a man sleepwalking toward a cliff,” and now, after the election, “we’re over the cliff and falling.”

Although I share much of his apprehension about the direction of the new ruling coalition, I would modify the metaphor. We are not suspended in mid-air like a cartoon character moments before he crashes to the ground. We are headed towards a cliff with a driver who is ignoring the warning signs. It is still possible, however, for someone to hit the brakes. We should express alarm, but not despair.

Halkin’s essay progresses from an analysis of the political situation and of Israeli diplomatic policy to an accusation against Judaism itself as the source of our current problems. As he writes to his anti-Zionist friend, “You put the blame on Zionism, and I put it on Judaism, of whose fantasies and delusions Zionism sought to cure us only to become infected with them itself.”

This attempt to pin the current political crisis on Judaism itself ups the ante and requires close examination. Halkin describes nineteenth and early twentieth-century Orthodox opposition to Zionism, as well as present-day Haredi opposition, as being motivated by the idea that the Jewish people “should rely on God rather than on itself since it was God’s chosen.” This, though, is not Orthodox Jewish belief or practice. Judaism, both Haredi and non-Haredi, demands that man proactively improve the world and achieve his destiny.

For the purposes of this response, I will not discuss the Haredi opposition to Zionism and will limit myself to the religious Zionist perspective, since it is largely the combination of religion and nationalism that has led us to the problems Halkin identifies. This is the result of the adoption of a particular version of religious Zionism, which derives from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

To justify an alliance with secular Zionism, Rav Kook articulated a theosophical vision based on the following ideas:

 1. The Land of Israel is an expression of the divine presence and therefore has an intrinsic and elevated sanctity that is independent of human activity.

2. Jewish nationalism is a manifestation of divine glory and it, too, has an exalted religious value.

3. In their inner selves, secular Zionists are seeking God, whether they realize it or not.

4. In the interaction between the realms of ideas and reality, it is reality which must conform to the ideal.

5. An additional assumption that developed over time was that the historical accomplishments of Zionism were, in fact, the early stages of the process of Redemption (and many believe that the process is irreversible, even if it is slow and at times tragic).

Rav Kook’s Zionism was deeply rooted in his mysticism. This mystical religious Zionism has become mainstream over the last fifty years, and it flies under the banner of the current religious Zionist political party. It is, one must admit, the source of much positive and impressive energy, but it is also the source of many of the problems we now face.

There is, however, an alternative and non-mystical religious Zionism, which was arguably the dominant approach among religious Zionists before the Six-Day War. Allow me to articulate it as a set of countertheses:

1. The Land of Israel is indeed holy, but its sanctity is rooted in its historic role as a dwelling place for man and as the location of the encounter between man and God.

2. Nationalism and sovereignty are valid expressions of Jewish identity, but due to their political nature, they are assigned a lower value than other religious expressions.

3. It is not the place of religious Zionists to redefine the identity of their secular partners.

4. We must be attentive to political reality and societal dynamics. Attempting to coerce reality into conformity with an ideal comes at a steep human cost.

5. Finally, we must recognize that human interpretation of divine plans is extremely limited, and that we should not chart a course of action based upon attempts to apply prophecies to our concrete historical circumstances.

My presentation of this alternative religious Zionism may be brief and schematic, but it also highlights a fundamental disagreement about religious theory and practice between it and Rav Kook’s religious Zionism. Rav Kook views politics and history from a heavenly perspective, as it were, and views human reality as a mere reflection of divine glory. The second approach I have outlined views the man-God relationship as the basic religious experience and, therefore, focuses upon human agency and its limits.

This brings me to a final point. Hillel Halkin’s essay focuses almost exclusively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My claims regarding the two basic forms of religious Zionism are relevant to this. The volatile combination of military power with a sense of the intrinsic sanctity of the Land and a belief in an inevitable process of historical redemption has had an impact, not always positive, upon our interaction with the Palestinians. However, we must also address the internal divisions within Jewish-Israeli society and its overall moral fabric and spiritual character. Our society is increasingly polarized. Fierce but vital and legitimate debates have been transformed into mutual expressions of intolerance in which opposing views are delegitimized. Respectful disagreement (machloket) is the fuel of Jewish life, but we are in grave danger of descending into alienation and anger toward opponents—sina’at chinam—which will make discussion and compromise impossible. This is the cliff that I most fear falling off.

I will allow myself to follow Jewish tradition and conclude this discussion on a more positive note. The challenges facing Israel are indeed serious, but they are the challenges of a vibrant, deeply divided society navigating a complex historical reality. They are a testimony to the success of Zionism, with God on its side, and the realization of the dreams of generations. Our forefathers would certainly envy our dealing with the problems of a sovereign state.


  1. Martin Schulman

    "They are a testimony to the success of Zionism, with God on its side, and the realization of the dreams of generations."- Why is the most basic assumption that there is a God to be on our side. Most likely He (or she or it) is an invention to explain the chaos of life in this universe; an excuse. Halkins assumption is that it a bad excuse and the reason we so glibly shoot ourselves in the foot, over and over again. As we are doing to ourselves in Israel now. My grandmother, who kept the dream until she died, is turning over in her grave.

Suggested Reading

We Are Really Not One

Eric Alterman

Allan Arkush must be developing quite a reputation for himself as JRB’s chief of its pro-Israel thought police—I suppose I should be honored. Joshua Cohen went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize for a recent book for which Arkush attempted a no-less comically inept attack in these same pages. Sadly, he has not improved with practice. I suppose it’s possible…