- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Re-thinking messianism

Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 30, 2000

The failure to reach agreement at Camp David does little to ameliorate the theological upheaval underway within Religious Zionism. For this ideological camp, the diplomatic process of territorial withdrawal which began at Oslo and undoubtedly yet will continue (whether before or after the upcoming war with Arafat’s army in the territories) — is an earthquake.


The most interesting and tangible result of this earthquake is a re-thinking within Religious Zionism of the messianic concept as it is applied to the modern State of Israel. Leading Religious Zionist thinkers now argue that “the messianic process” demands that their community’s energies be refocused on “rebuilding” Israel with more emphasis on the social and spiritual — not territorial — side of things.


More than a little settling-of-accounts factors itself into this “refocusing” process too. Listen to Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, the country’s largest and most prominent *hesder* yeshiva – an institution generally not associated with the Land of Israel messianic line of Gush Emunim or Rabbi Kook:


“I deplore the absolute certitude about Divine will and the territories that so forcefully has accompanied the bold religious messianists – as if they were plugged into the celestial central switchboard! For many years they heaped scorn on anybody not as certain as they were that settling all parts of Judea and Samaria was God’s personal will and immediate demand. Today, these people ought adopt for themselves a little more modesty, instead of ‘enlightening’ us with the latest theological update from God’s website”, asserts Rabbi Lichtenstein. “Greater humility is called for regarding our ability to read God into the ups and downs of political history”, he says.


Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Dean of Ohr Torah Stone Institutions, agrees, and puts things into historical perspective. “The pure messianism that dominated our Religious Zionist community over the past 30 years – all that talk about ‘inexorable messianic clocks’ and the impossibility of territorial setbacks — is very similar to the pure messianism of Rabbi Akiva and Bar-Kochba of 2000 years ago – which failed.


“Historically, it was the ‘normative messianism’ of Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai, who sought to make the best out of a bad situation with the Temple about to be destroyed, that prevailed. Like Ben-Zakai, we have to re-emphasize religious identity and spirituality over absolute territorial sovereignty”, explains Riskin.


“Our task today”, continues Riskin, “is not to gain more land but more souls. We can do this by re-emphasizing the elements within tradition that stress ethics and morality, and the universal aspects of Judaism. We must pour our emotional, religious energies into transforming Israel spiritually, not territorially.”


But still, asks Rabbi Shlomo Levy, head of Har Etzion’s Kollel, why did we have to lose Judea and Samaria? There must be spiritual roots to the diplomatic setback!


Many religious (and haredi) thinkers, he notes, have blamed secular Israeli society – for its corruption, its hedonism and materialism, its abandonment of classic Zionist values. But in a painfully self-critical essay published recently in *Hatzofe*, the NRP’s paper, Rabbi Levy prefers to look inwards. Religious Zionism, he says, has its own failures to account for: educational failures (with ever-increasing numbers of its youth dropping out of a religious lifestyle); an over-emphasis on money and material success; internal rivalries and conflict that have sapped its strength; and more. It is Religious Zionism’s imperfect attainment of its own lofty spiritual goals that has led to the political setbacks.


Rabbi Yuval Sirlow, head of the hesder yeshiva in Petah Tikva and one of the most profound, young leaders of Religious Zionism, takes this argument one step further. Religious Zionists thus far have failed to properly and fully appreciate the broad dimensions of ‘redemption’, he says.


In a searing piece to be published soon in the settler journal, *Nekuda*, Sirlow writes that redemption means more than the Jewish people’s return to the *land* of Israel after 2000 years of dispersion. Redemption means the comprehensive building of an all-Jewish societal infrastructure – with Jewish values informing the legal, ethical, business, arts and media sectors of society.


With its over-emphasis on settling the land, Sirlow says, Religious Zionism has failed to meet the Divine challenge of fashioning a sufficiently Jewish state and Jewish society. “We haven’t developed the theological underpinnings nor the practical channels for building state or cultural institutions that are truly Jewish, in consonant with traditional values”.


“If there is a catastrophe underway, it is not because of one or another territorial withdrawal”, says Sirlow. “It is because we are light-years away from meeting the total ‘redemptive’ challenge”.


Sirlow uses a familiar allegory about the relationship between God and the Jewish People from the Song of Songs (5:6, “my beloved had turned away and was gone”) to put the failure into perspective. We missed a God-given opportunity to “open the door”, to bring about redemption. But not all is lost; as in the Song of Songs, there will be other opportunities to advance our society if we create them, Sirlow argues. “Religious Zionism is at a turning point and now has the opportunity for great tikkun, to do great healing”.