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Israel & Judaism through a Fresh Lens
Israel & Judaism through a Fresh Lens

Whatever happened to Religious Zionism?

Is a hotdog a sandwich? Is a bowl of chili a kind of soup? Odd questions, but not so easy to answer. Sometimes definitions are elusive, and you have to go back to fundamentals find them. I’d like to argue that one can be a Zionist who is religious, but that doesn’t automatically make them a religious Zionist.

My goal is not to be elitist or to exclude anyone from anything. People are complicated, and resist clean definitions. The same goes for movements. Ideal types don’t exist in nature. But I do think that the if the founding fathers of a movement lay out certain principles, then it may be worth an occasional check up to see if those ideas still animate the followers.

Let’s start with a definition of Zionism. For our purposes, let’s call it the Jewish national movement for statehood. Its early leaders, proponents and ideologues were secular Jews who saw the idea as a solution to the calamitous problems suffered by a nation living in exile. If an observant Jew shared that ideology, they would be a Zionist, who is religious.

Before Hess, Smolenskin, Pinsker and other secular Zionists argued for a national renaissance, Rabbis Alkalai and Kalischer were calling for a religious revolution. Their conclusions were the same, and so their ideas shared means and methods with their secular cohorts. But they arrived there, and argued from, the perspective of Rabbinic Jewish thought. In a nutshell, they called for a radical rethinking of the path to redemption.

Traditional thought had relegated activity to hasten the prophesied redemption of the Jews, and the world, to the realm of the spiritual and mystical. In other words, more mitzvot performed better will bring the messiah. Without denying validity to this approach, Alkalai and Kalischer demanded that the primary activity to move forward along the messianic path would have to be historical and practical. Essentially, this was their novel idea for modern Jewry.  So, a Jew who believes that it is insufficient to rely on Divine intervention, without human effort, to establish the conditions of Jewish redemption is a Religious Zionist


Internal Q&A

What’s the practical difference?

Not much. Since both groups would engage in ritual and support the Jewish State, you wouldn't necessarily see a lot of outward indicators.


What would be the difference in political outlook?

Hard to say. Historically. There may have been differences, but the lines have become so blurred that it's unlikely to matter. Religion shouldn't have a direct affect on one’s political outlook, even though we see that it often does.


Is the Religious Zionist outlook really revolutionary, or does it have traditional roots?

Certainly Maimonides argued for a natural/historical approach towards redemption and the messianic age. Abravanel argued that a future Jewish state should be a democracy. So while a novel idea in modernity, there is ample medieval precedent.


Would the two see secular zionists differently?

Probably. Zionists who are religious would probably see themselves as allies on political matters, while living separate lives culturally. They might see themselves as being somewhat superior in having a broader Jewish identity. They therefore might want to influence secular cohorts to be more like themselves. Religious Zionists might be inclined to see all aspects of modern Zionism as part of the redemptive process. They might see themselves as a subset of the forces being guided by the Divine hand in history. They therefore might prefer to humbly walk alongside secular counterparts, sharing in mutually beneficial dialogue.


The latter sounds like Rav Kook. How would Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik be classified?

Hard to say. His addresses in The Rav Speaks and his harangue recorded in The Rav: Thinking Aloud are pretty clearly Zionism which is religious. But Kol Dodi Dofek is a quintessential work of Religious Zionism. It argues for the Jews to take an active role in their destiny having been called to do so by Divine historical intervention in the creation of the State of Israel. As is often the case, he resists categorization. Why, does it matter?


It sure would be great if you sent me more questions to tease out more clarity for the definitions. I think the distinction matters, and would love questions and comments. Please do send them!!!

Also, chili is a stew and a hotdog is not a sandwich. Just so you know.


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