The relation between Judaism, Zionism, and Messianism is one that is often hard for Jews to get straight. Needless to say, it is even harder for non-Jews. Nevertheless, current events in Israel urgently require clarification of this relation for both Jews and non-Jews, since it is the subject of endless confusion. If left unclarified, this confusion will continue to have very dangerous consequences—politically, morally, and spiritually—both for the State of Israel and for world Jewry.
Until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, anti-Zionism among Jews was at least as strong as Zionism. This anti-Zionism took three main forms. First, there was the anti-Zionism of certain extremely Orthodox Jews (mostly Hasidim), who regarded the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel—even if religiously constituted—to be a presumptuous act of premature pseudo-messianism. Second, there was the anti-Zionism of the “classical” Reform Jews (who organized themselves as the American Council for Judaism in 1942), who regarded Judaism to be a “religion” in the Western sense, that is, a faith community having no necessary national component. Third, there was the anti-Zionism of more doctrinaire Jewish Marxists (both Communists and anti-Communist socialists), who regarded the solution to “the Jewish problem” to be world revolution rather than continued Jewish particularism, whether religious or national. After 1948, however, the overwhelming number of Jews became Zionists, either by conviction or by default. History, at least for the moment, seemed to vindicate Zionism and to show anti-Zionism to be a dangerous illusion.
But there are better, more Judaic, reasons for Jews to reject anti-Zionism, reasons based on the Torah and Jewish tradition. Although for traditional Jews the Torah and Jewish tradition are to be found in history, they are certainly not of history.
Even though the Orthodox anti-Zionists have some important traditional Jewish texts on their side, those texts are homiletical rather than strictly halakhic (that is, legally normative). Clearly, Jewish law considers Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel (yishuv eretz yisrael) to be required whenever possible. In the modern world, such a possibility entails maintenance of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Furthermore, the protection of vulnerable Jewish lives is even more strongly mandated by Jewish law than is the quietism the religious anti-Zionists seem to advocate. Recent Jewish experience, epitomized by the Holocaust, has convinced most Jews that their security is far better enhanced by the presence of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel than by its absence.
As for the few Reform anti-Zionists who still remain, all of the above arguments apply to them as well. Moreover, their position is at variance with the overwhelming thrust of the Torah and Jewish tradition. Judaism is not a “religion,” if that term is meant in the Western sense of distinguishing between “religion” and “nationality.” The religious doctrine of traditional Judaism entails the acceptance of the nationhood of the Jewish people and the everlasting sanctity of the Land of Israel for them.
Finally, the dwindling band of Jewish “internationalists” need to face up not only to the persistence of anti-Semitism in all forms of Marxism but also to the fact that there is absolutely nothing in Jewish tradition that approves, let alone mandates, their form of religious suicide and national assimilation.
The demise of anti-Zionism has, however, led too many Jews to assume that Judaism is Zionism, that everything in the Torah and Jewish tradition is either Zionism per se or for the sake of Zionism. That equation is as false as the various forms of anti-Zionism we have just outlined. Thoughtful Jews must discover the exact locus of this error and refute its basic fallacy.
Until very recently, this simplistic equation of Judaism and Zionism was almost always found among secularist Jews. Having rejected the traditional view that Jewish identity is constituted by God’s election of the Jewish people and God’s revelation of the Torah to them, these secularists saw the essence of Jewish identity and continuity to be Jewish nationhood. Jews, for them, are to be considered as any other nation: a single ethnic community in its own land, speaking its own language, developing its own culture.
Correlative with this nationalistic self-constitution is the notion of the “negation of the diaspora” (shelilat ha-golah). Obviously (in this view), once the Jewish state has been established in the Land of Israel, Jewish communities and Jewish individuals outside the Land no longer have any raison d’etre and ought to wither away. However, just as the three forms of anti-Zionism proved to be counterhistorical, so has this simplistic secularist Zionism. The fact is that the majority of world Jewry, for whatever reasons, chooses to live elsewhere than in the State of Israel; and the fact is that Jewish life outside of Israel has not withered away. Quite the contrary, in many places it is experiencing tremendous renewal.
In terms of the Torah and Jewish tradition, the importance of the Land of Israel and Jewish settlement in it do not negate the historical possibility of vital Jewish existence outside the Land and the religious obligation to maintain and enhance it. Even the most radically Zionistic statement in the Talmud—“one who lives outside the Land of Israel is like one who has no God” (Ketubot 110b)—is interpreted by most traditional commentators to mean that God is the Lord of the entire world and Jews are to obey God’s commandments wherever they happen to live. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of a deeper and more comprehensive relationship with God in the Promised Land than anywhere else on earth. This is attested by the fact that all commandments Jews are to observe outside the Land of Israel are also to be observed in the Land of Israel, in addition to some additional commandments that can only be observed there. In other words, Zionism enhances Judaism; it does not, however, replace it. Zionism is the branch, not the root. Roots can live without branches, although truncated; branches cannot live without roots.
This traditional relation between Judaism and Zionism has, tragically, been lost on too many American Jews (and their leaders), among whom Zionism has become a substitute for Judaism rather than a consequence of it. They believe, or have been led to believe, that their Jewish identity stands or falls on their unqualified support of the State of Israel, even their unqualified support of whatever government happens to be currently in power there. (Americans, unlike Europeans, have a hard time distinguishing between a government and a state.) Thus they seem to have worked out for themselves the best of all possible Zionist worlds: supporting Israel but not living there.
This attitude winds up in massive incoherence. It draws upon almost none of the roots of authentic Zionism in classical Judaism. If support for the State of Israel is the essence of Judaism, and if that support takes a basically political form, then what distinguishes a Jewish supporter of the State of Israel from a non-Jewish supporter? Clearly, current history has shown that one does not have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. Furthermore, would anyone want to argue, following the logic of this line, that anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Jews who lead identifiably religious Jewish lives are not actually Jews? This secularist equation of Judaism and Zionism, a glib ideology without solid theological or philosophical support, quickly reduces to a reductio ad absurdam.
Since 1967, with the reunification of Jerusalem and the control of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall by Jews, a new, more subtle identification of Judaism and Zionism has emerged, one more strident and (to my mind) more dangerous, both for Jews and for Judaism. In order to be clearly understood, it must be contrasted with secularist Zionism.
Among the many Judaic omissions made by secularist Zionism has been the omission of traditional Jewish messianism. Although that messianism entails the reestablishment of the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, there is much more to it than that. For traditional Jewish messianism, there is also the constitution of the state according to the full body of Jewish law (Halakhah), plus the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of the system of sacrificial worship.
Liberal Jews, whether Zionist or not, have always been embarrassed by this aspect of traditional Jewish messianism. So in their reformed liturgies the traditional petitionary prayer that “we be replanted within the boundaries of our land where we shall again offer the commanded sacrifices” has either been eliminated altogether or rephrased to become a remembrance of things past rather than a hope for things to come. Is this not simply another example of the general surrender to modern thought (or even modern taste) by liberal Jews? Thus, when liberal religious Jews are also Zionists, as most of them now are, their Zionism is often hard to distinguish from the nonreligious or even anti-religious Zionism of the secularists.
Religious Zionism, almost always advocated by Orthodox Jews, has attempted to be as traditionally justified as anti-Zionist Orthodoxy—minus its political quietism—and as strongly pro-Israel as secularist Zionism—minus its non-Judaic rationale. Religious Zionism, however, takes two divergent forms. One I regard as dangerous, the other as hopeful. The two diverge on the issue of messianism.
For one form of religious Zionism, epitomized by the group know as Gush Emunim (“the block of the faithful”), the reestablishment of the State of Israel is the literal beginning of the messianic redemption of the Jewish people. They often refer to the State of Israel as “the beginning of redemption” (atehalta de-ge’ulah). The most extreme branch of this group, known as Ateret Kohanim (“the crown of the priests”), actually advocates the immediate construction of the Third Temple on the present Temple Mount—even if that requires the destruction of the mosque that presently stands there. For this movement, redemption is something humanly achievable, with the certain hope of miraculous divine aid. Indeed, they see the incredible Jewish recapture of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 as adequate proof of the availability of such aid.
Nonreligious arguments, either moral ones about the rights of Arabs or political ones about how this would be disastrous for Israel’s international image as a democratic state, are dismissed out of hand as evidence of absence of faith. Furthermore, these religious Zionists go as far as they can to justify Judaism in terms of the full Messianic-Zionist agenda they see as its goal. Finally, although highly intolerant of nonreligious Jews (and even religious Jews) who disagree with them and their agenda, they seem to have no trouble at all making common cause with such nonbelievers and nonpractitioners of traditional Judaism as Yitzbak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, who, for their own political reasons, actively encourage them.
Unfortunately, the fact that a considerable segment of the traditional Jewish community does not share this eschatology is a secret for many Jews and, certainly, for many more non-Jews.
There are many sources in Jewish tradition which clearly teach that while Jews may settle the Land of Israel and govern it by their own immediate initiative (though whether this is a specific Torah commandment is debated), they may not rebuild the Temple until the Messiah has already come. These sources were quite effectively presented in the late 1960s by Justice Moshe Silberg, writing on behalf of the Israel Supreme Court, who forbade Gush Emunim-type pietists from establishing any place of worship at all on the Temple Mount. Indeed, it was this decision that prevented the rumored ascent by Jews onto the Temple Mount last October during the festival of Sukkot, a rumored action that supposedly touched off the Arab stoning of Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall and the widely criticized reaction of the Israeli police (even by some Israelis) that resulted in the death of at least seventeen Arabs. Although Justice Silberg was writing in a secular capacity for a secular court, his arguments were mostly drawn from the Jewish religious tradition. In this view, the process of redemption is God’s work, not man’s. The work of man is to respond to the Covenant by obeying the commandments of the Torah, those commandments that can be obeyed here and now.
It is essential for Jews and non-Jews alike to realize that such a transcendent eschatology entails a more realistic and morally structured political program than does an imminent messianism. It enables Jews to deal with this world in its own terms with the full sobriety of the Jewish legal system precisely by recognizing the essential distinction between any human state—even a Jewish human state—and the Kingdom of God. The prophets of ancient Israel made this distinction abundantly clear.
The acknowledged leader of the rabbinical academies (yeshivot) in Israel, Rabbi Eliezer Shach, has repeatedly warned the traditional Jewish community about the religious dangers in the pseudo-messianism of too many religious Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. In fact, he has gone so far as to compare an American Hasidic leader, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of Lubavitch—apparently regarded as the Messiah by some of his most zealous followers—to Shabbetai Zevi, the famous false Messiah of the seventeenth century. His arguments have not been based on secular morality (for which he has contempt) or on anti-Zionism (which he has avoided). Rather, they have been based on his mastery of the traditional Jewish sources and his realistic awareness of the danger for Jews of engaging in Utopian militancy.
Also, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the immediate past Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, and a scholar with a phenomenal command of the Jewish legal sources, has been warning more and more of late that the Law itself requires Jews to live within very definite moral and political bounds in a clearly unredeemed world. Similarly, along more philosophical lines, the Orthodox Israeli thinker Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz bas not hesitated to brand the religious justification of raw nationalism by Gush Emunim and its various supporters as a form of idolatry, substituting as it does the supremacy of a human state (however beloved and needed by Jews) for the restraints of God’s Torah. Many religious Jews basically sympathetic to Leibowitz’s point of view have organized themselves into a religious peace movement called Oz Ve-Shalom (“strength and peace”), a group with a very different raison d’etre than that of the secularist Peace Now movement. None of these men or the members of Oz Ve-Shalom (of which I am a member) could be called anti-Zionist. All of them live in Israel and are its loyal citizens.
Unfortunately, the present Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon seems to regard it as advantageous to its own interests to present Gush Emunim to the world as the full voice of traditional Jewry and to ignore the voices of Shach, Yosef, Leibowitz, Oz Ve-Shalom, and others. It is for this reason that I as a traditional Jew and a Zionist feel obligated to inform the widest audience possible of the Jewish authenticity of this position, on both legal and theological grounds. The commandment to sanctify God’s name in the world (kiddush Ha-Shem) requires Jews to present the Torah and Jewish tradition to the world in the most morally attractive light possible.
The error of the militant wing of religious Zionism is to confuse Judaism, Zionism, and Messianism, seeing all three as one essential entity. As I have tried to show here, these are three distinct entities, albeit closely interrelated. Judaism is the Covenant between God and the people of Israel which the Torah substantiates. Zionism is the movement for Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. It is Judaically justifiable when it roots itself in God’s promise of the Land of Israel to the elect people of Israel, and when it enhances the unique opportunity Jews have to serve God most fully in the Land of Israel. Messianism is the hope for God’s final redemption of the people of Israel—and along with them all of humankind. And it is Judaically justifiable when it roots itself in God’s ultimate, eschatological promise, and when it does not see itself as Zionism’s inevitable outcome. Thus both Zionism and Messianism are rooted in Judaism, but they are rooted in it quite differently.
Zionism is the finite task of the Jewish people here and now for the sake of its life in this world. Messianism is the infinite task of God for the sake of the world-yet-beyond. Jewish pseudo-messianism blurs these essential distinctions. Hence it tragically forgets that “the hidden things belong to the Lord our God; it is the revealed things, all the words of this Torah, that are for us and our children to do” (Deuteronomy 29:28).
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as Professor of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto since 1997.