FEW WOULD TAKE ISSUE today with the claim that religious Zionism is the most particularistic and self-centered of contemporary Jewish identities. While many streams of Judaism and Zionism place the well-being of humanity at the center of their world view, mainstream religious Zionism seems only concerned with Jews. This trend is most painfully apparent in Israel’s religious Zionist political party, “The Jewish Home” whose flagship projects consist of Jewish domination of Arabs (including spearheading brutal discrimination on the West Bank), Orthodox domination of Israeli society, and shifting Israeli public school curriculums away from democracy and towards Jewish particularism. For some of its most prominent Knesset members, the “Jewish Home” is also virulently homophobic.
Clearly, something has gone very wrong in the place where Jewish religion and nationality meet. But it cannot be denied that there is tremendous energy and allure in this combination. Judaism, like many religions, is a treasury of what’s most beautiful about the human spirit including powerful techniques for achieving spiritual transcendence. The religious striving for higher spirit, combined with the moral vision of the prophets and the organic vitality of Jewish national identity grounded in the Land of Israel, is potent indeed. Here are all the necessary materials for a spiritual politics of meaning. And since both Judaism and Zionism include universalistic streams, it cannot be that their combination must necessarily result in collective narcissism. Surely, there is also great potential for good. For these reasons, and despite the dangers, I count myself a religious Zionist.
Where did religious Zionism go wrong? Seduced by Jewish supremacism and fundamentalism, undeniably prominent streams of Jewish tradition, we directed our energies to the morally vacuous ideal of conquering the “Greater Land of Israel.” On that altar we sacrificed the ideal of justice for all. This historic moral failure of Judaism must be understood in light of the trauma of the Holocaust and our ongoing struggle to survive in Israel. But I also believe that the return to the land in which we were forged ignited an underlying tribalism that has overpowered our commitment to humanity. We chose ethnic domination over Judaism’s historical goals of spiritual transcendence and global justice. It is time for religious Zionism to embrace an alternative vision.
Such a vision was offered in 1919 by the deeply learned religious Zionist sage Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857–1935). Born in Safed, he grew up in Jerusalem of the Old Yishuv while studying in his father’s yeshiva. After being excommunicated by the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi establishment for advancing modern Hebrew in schools and openness to modernity, Rabbi Hirschensohn moved to Turkey where he directed some of the modern era’s first Hebrew-speaking schools. Then, from roughly the turn of the century until his death in 1935, Rabbi Hirschensohn lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he maintained a passionate love affair with American democracy—a love that was powerfully reflected in the Torah that he taught.
Rabbi Hirschensohn’s literary legacy is of immeasurable value for anyone interested in a deeply rooted and thoroughly humanistic interpretation of Judaism. I hope that readers working to accomplish Tikkun’s mission of grounding progressive politics in profound spirituality will find in his teachings a potent resource. The rabbi wrote thousands of pages of Biblical and Talmudic commentary, halachic responsa and works of philosophy in an early modern Rabbinic Hebrew. While he had no students to speak of, he corresponded with dozens of rabbis, including figures such as Rav Kook and Rav Uziel, and published their deliberations about his works in his response. In recent decades, an impressive array of academics has focused on his writings, including Daniel Elazar, Eliezer Schweid, Avi Sagi, David Zohar, Ari Ackerman, Yossi Turner, Amos Israel, myself, and others.
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Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 3:29-33