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Religious Zionism — When Crisis Becomes Opportunity

February 26, 2010

Religious Zionism is in crisis again. Or so we are being told. In the aftermath of the tragic allegations concerning Rabbi Mordechai (Motti) Elon, religious Zionists are bemoaning yet another crisis in the movement. It’s a crisis of trust in charismatic rabbinic leadership, some are saying. Others are asking whether the movement holds its leaders up to standards of such perfection that it is virtually impossible for any high-profile person to acknowledge misdeeds and to ask for help. Still others focus on what this latest round may do to the image of religious Zionism among rank-and-file Israelis.

Important though these issues are, they are not the real crisis. The true crisis, which is wholly unrelated to Rabbi Elon, is that religious Zionism has long since had very little of importance to say to Israel at large. Sadly, the Elon storm is but a tempest in an increasingly irrelevant teapot.

Religious Zionism irrelevant? “How could one possibly say that?” its adherents will ask. True, “irrelevant” is a strong word, possibly too strong. But it is hard to deny that religious Zionism has not lived up to the huge opportunities of religious creativity that the State of Israel has made possible.

After all, the world in which we in the religious Zionist camp are raising our children is a radically different world from the social, political, cultural and security realities of Eastern Europe before World War II. Our children are part of the majority culture, not an oppressed minority. While we still face threats from the outside, our children are growing up with a sense of day-to-day security that the Jews who sent their sons to the Yeshiva of Volozhin could not have even imagined. No longer do we fear the stranger on the street, a gentile government or pervasive anti-Semitism among our immediate neighbors. Nor do we confront the fear of assimilation that so deeply defines the contours of much of American Judaism.

THE MIRACLE of the State of Israel is that it has changed the very existential condition of what it means to be a Jew. Given this radical change in the condition of the Israeli Jew, it’s astonishing that for all intents and purposes, the curriculum of Israel’s great yeshivot is not all that different from what was taught in the yeshivot of Europe before the Shoah. Yes, Israeli yeshiva students probably learn a bit more Bible than did yeshiva students before the war, and yes, the methodologies of Talmud study differ from place to place. But the guts of what a yeshiva education is all about have changed scarcely at all, even though the world for which we are educating our children is radically different.

The true disappointment of post-independence religious Zionism is that it hasn’t produced any creative religious thinkers of the likes of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Abraham Isaac Kook or Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, to name but three. Each of those three, radically different from each other, bequeathed to their followers a radically new way of seeing the enterprise of what it meant to be a Jew. From Heschel, we inherited the notion of a dynamic, deeply personal relationship with God that could be achieved through a critical but loving read of Judaism’s canonical texts. With Kook, we got the first serious sense that the return to Zion might actually be the beginning of redemption, but Kook died 13 years before the state was created. And from Soloveitchik, in whose giant shadow much of the very best of modern Orthodoxy still learns and labors, we got a sense of the profundity possible when exacting Jewish learning and the demands of Jewish law are coupled to the rigors of Western philosophy.

But where are the Heschels, Kooks and Soloveitchiks of our day? Who are the brightly shining stars of post-independence Israeli religious Zionism who are equipping us with courageous, out-of-the-box, revolutionary ways of thinking about the tasks before us?

After all, for religious Zionism to really matter, it must produce the next generation of religious leaders for Israel, people who must have something to say not only to the yeshiva world, but to the Jewish, democratic society that is Israel. What might happen, for example, if the great yeshivot studied John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government or A Letter Concerning Toleration (or Michael Walzer’s much more recentOn Toleration, for that matter) alongside the tractateSanhedrin, or Thomas Hobbes’Leviathan alongside Maimonides’Laws of Kings and Wars? What does one need to know, and how does one need to learn to study and think, in this new, uncharted and exciting era of Jewish independence? And who in the world of religious Zionism is asking those questions?

GONE ARE the days when religious leaders can conceive of themselves as offering spiritual insight and guidance to people only in their own narrowly defined religious community. Like it or not, genuine religious leadership in the now independent State of Israel requires people who have what to say to secular Jews as well, who know how to expose them, no less than their natural “flock,” to the profundity and richness of the Jewish tradition. Secular Jews, after all, are also searching for meaning. Today’s Israeli religious leadership has effectively convinced them that the place to search for genuine spiritual depth is in India, or in Nepal. Could there be a more devastating indictment of the lack of creative discourse that is today’s religious Zionism? How seriously do today’s yeshivot take that responsibility?

In addition to everything else that it is, the State of Israel is an enormous religious and spiritual opportunity. It is the moment in which we might conceive of a Judaism born not out of fear, but of confidence. It is our chance to conceive of the outside world not as a challenge, but as a complementary source of wisdom. It is our moment for speaking to Jews across the spectrum, not only those who happen to register in our yeshivot.

The Chinese, in their wisdom, use the same symbols for “crisis” and for opportunity. We face both. The personal tragedy unfolding in religious Zionism today has healthfully restored a sense of doubt to this essential community. We’ll have made the most of this crisis, and of this opportunity, if we look far beyond the personalities involved, and ask ourselves what we would like our community to bequeath to the Jewish people, given the unprecedented richness of Jewish experience that the State of Israel now makes possible.

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