Halakhic Zionism? A New Text and Its Possible Implications

Aton Holzer Tradition Online | April 13, 2021
Does R. Soloveitchik’s newly published “Jewish Sovereignty and the Redemption of the Shekhina” (TRADITION, Winter 2021) provide a new data point in unraveling his views on the religious meaning of the State of Israel? Aton Holzer speculates…

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik is identified by his non-messianic approach to religious Zionism.  Gerald Blidstein questions whether the Rav can be identified as a Religious Zionist thinker at all, given his overall lack of theological attention to the subject. He concludes that the evidence from the Rav’s works – even Kol Dodi Dofek, which contains phrases like “realization of hopes” and “full actualization” – is that the Rav’s Zionism was not messianic, but rather pragmatic. As many have noted, the Rav’s sober approach is an important counterweight against the messianic Religious Zionism that came to dominate post-1967 theology in Israel.

It should, therefore, not surprise us that the Rav’s approach to Zionism does have its discontents. Generally speaking, it has not found a receptive audience among Religious Zionists in Israel. Avraham Walfish writes,

The Rav rooted his Zionism firmly […] in peoplehood, interpreting the “divine knocks” as a call to reassert the values of berit goral (Covenant of Fate) and berit ye’ud (Covenant of Destiny). Neither statehood nor Land are accorded values as independent religious goals. While many in the Religious Zionist camp resonate deeply to the Rav’s brilliant development of the values of peoplehood, I believe that the vast majority of [Religious Zionists], especially those who actualize their Zionism by living in Eretz Israel, feel Land and statehood to be integral parts of their Religious Zionist commitment. In the divine “knocks” they have discerned a summons to attach oneself to the Land, and to celebrate the re-establishment there of a Jewish government, alongside the summons to deepen their attachment to the doubly covenanted people.

In the first few decades of the Jewish State, religious Jews were perhaps an “other” in a state ruled by an ideologically secular elite. In recent years, that staunchly secular vanguard has receded; in its place religion or religious ideas have found greater purchase among the Israeli public, and kippa-clad Jews are involved in government and policy-making at the highest levels. Jewish theological commitments are certainly no longer foreign, and sometimes even central, to the worldviews of those tasked with formulating visions of a better future for the Jewish State and its citizens. This raises a new question about messianism, one distinct but related to that which the Rav addressed in his lifetime.

Since enormously influential (and sadly, Nazi) political philosopher Carl Schmitt’s landmark 1922 work Political Theology, which stated that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts, not only because of their historical development… but also because of their systematic structure,” it is a commonplace among political theorists that the political movements and ideologies of the Western world, the Jewish state being no exception, themselves are transformations of religious ideas. These include messianic eschatology and redemptive categories, which inform such laudatory policy goals as moral responsibility and perfection of civil society. Such themes exist in the politics of most nation-States but are perhaps most thinly secularized in the American context, from the Puritan adoption of the “New Jerusalem” theme in the colonization of New England, down to tropes such as “a shining city upon a hill,” which remain ubiquitous in American politics. While secular politicians make use of these bromides in their Schmittian sense, devoutly religious ones, such as Christian Evangelicals, quite often take them at face value — for better and for worse.

How are religiously committed Israeli leaders to understand the “messianic” impulse toward perfection of society? Complete neutralization of the messianic idea would, for religious Jews, require either refraining from meaningful civic engagement in the Jewish state – a bitter pill for non-haredi religious Israelis to swallow – or bifurcation. That is, it would require religious Israeli politicians to eschew any religious thinking in their politics and endorse purely secular adaptations. But can’t Judaism, the putative origin of these ideas, directly inform a vision for a Jewish polity? Is the vision of a Jewish nation-State which is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” a legitimate goal for politically active religious Israelis, even as such a vision – a Zion which is an ir ha-tzedek, kirya ne’emana – dovetails with (at least rationalistic constructions of) the prophesied eschaton? What happens when your “shining city upon a hill” is Zion, when your “New Jerusalem” is Jerusalem? Zionism surely need not, and may not, lead to messianism, but could the hoped-for transformation in national and world affairs be effected from the Zionist State, with the correct sort of human initiative? If messianic Zionism is out of bounds, is there some form of Zionistic messianism that might be acceptable?

If so, can we excavate any such view from the Rav’s thought? Indeed, what did the Rav’s own idea of messianism look like, in concrete terms, in a world in which much of what Judaism had traditionally consigned to the eschaton – ingathered exiles, a Jewish nation-state, sovereignty over the Holy Land and Jerusalem – had already come to pass? (The Rav actually rejects the term “messianism,” but as he explains, that is because it connotes a process lacking human initiative.) Broadly speaking, there are three commonly cited contemporary views on the issue, roughly along the lines sketched by Aviezer Ravitzky in his Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism.

First is a “Kookist” messianic Religious Zionism whose simplest formulation states that we find ourselves in an inexorable, deterministic process leading to complete eschatological fulfillment. Clearly, this was not the Rav’s position. The second view belongs to Religious anti-Zionism, best articulated by R. Yoel Teitelbaum, according to which the State is a heretical rebellion against God and its further successes are demonic manifestations. Our eschatological future entails the State’s dismantlement, whatever that may mean. This, too, is obviously a poor fit. Finally, The mainstream American Modern Orthodox view of epistemic uncertainty, that we simply cannot know whether the State will result in the ultimate redemption or not – as articulated by R. Norman Lamm, R. Walter Wurzburger, and Prof. Michael Wyschogrod. Yet, even this doesn’t seem to have a firm anchor in the Rav’s writings.

There seem to be three stances with regard to the question of the Rav’s view, two of which preclude the project we describe. First, the Rav held a naturalistic view which did not allow for eschatology as traditionally conceived (certainly not within the context of a modern political movement). This view would seem an unusual position for an Orthodox Rabbinic thinker, although the Straussian read of Maimonides himself yields similar conclusions. While at first glance the sublimation of what David Shatz calls “messianic consciousness,” with all its terrible dangers, seems commendable – and, indeed, this sort of view does hold currency in the community that the Rav led – in a different context, David Singer writes that this comes at a significant price:

For the bulk of the Orthodox, however… Certainly in the “modern Orthodox” camp… messianic expectation exists more as a verbal formula to be repeated than as a live religious option. (The non-Orthodox long ago abandoned belief in a personal messiah; they look instead to a messianic age.) The classic formulation of the Maimonidian principle – “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the messiah, and even though he may tarry I await him each day, hoping that he will come” — lacks existential meaning for a majority of Orthodox Jews in the contemporary context. This has everything to do with the impact of secularization, which has weakened the “plausibility structure” (the phrase is Peter Berger’s) of all faith affirmations, and made the messianic hope seem like a pious dream… Seen from this perspective, the messianic fervor… is a welcome indication that the religious juices continue to flow in Orthodox Judaism. 

A second approach to the Rav’s view was actually essentially identical to that which he attributes to the Halakhic Man (as embodied by his uncle, R. Yitzhak Zeev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav). R. Moshe Meiselman, suggests: “In his eulogy for his uncle…the Rav said that whereas a secular Jewish government in Israel does not fit into any halakhic categories, it is religiously irrelevant. This was not just a formulation of his uncle’s position, but it was his as well…there is no intrinsic value to that which has no halakhic meaning. This is not to be interpreted to mean that the Rav was in any way an enemy of the State of Israel. Rather, he insisted that it be evaluated on strictly pragmatic terms.”

This is one version of a haredi view of the State. In this view, messianism exists, just completely separate and discontinuous with the State. The denial of “religious significance” to the events in and around 1948 is difficult to square with the “Divine knocks” described by the Rav in Kol Dodi Dofek. It is inconsistent with the cited eulogy itself, in which the Rav writes,

This sort of disappointment also caused my uncle’s abstention from the most important event that occurred in Jewish history in the modern era [emphasis added]. Indeed, a place at the top is prepared for the State in the worldview of the Halakha…” (Ma Dodekh mi-Dod, in Divrei Hagut ve-Ha’arakha, 90).

Nonetheless, the substantive point regarding messianism is echoed by Shatz:

The preponderance of evidence is that [the Rav] went beyond muting consciousness and denied the messianic character of the state… the harsh realities of secularism and assimilation and of a continuing, even intensifying anti-Semitism were at odds with a redemptive reading of events. Maimonides had declared that “Israel will not be redeemed except through repentance” – and repentance had not come.

The problems with this view are highlighted by David Berger. In a symposium marking 25 years since the Six-Day War, he writes

There are events that are so earthshaking within the context of Jewish belief that the failure to attribute them to divine intervention leaves Judaism bereft of meaningful faith in the God of Hazal and of the prophets. The establishment of the State of Israel and the capture of Jerusalem are such events. Given the most fundamental assumptions about providence, the goodness of God and His concern for the Jewish people, the position that developments of such magnitude came about wholly through the working of an impersonal historical process is inadmissible. It banishes God from history and declares in effect that “the lord has forsaken the earth” (Ezek. 8:12; 9:9). If the hand of God is not to be found in these events, where is it to be found?… There are influential groups who believe that the Messiah will arrive in the immediate future but will presumably inform us that the proximity of his arrival to the establishment of Israel is pure coincidence. To put it mildly, this position is counter-intuitive and results from the reluctance to assign the State its proper religious significance. At the same time, the more plausible hope that the State itself is the harbinger of a Messianic age should not be turned into absolute assurance.

Berger argues for epistemic uncertainty regarding the State, as has been expressed by other leading lights of the American Modern Orthodox community, as noted above. But in his articulation, he takes care to demonstrate that much as it is inappropriate and ill-advised to adopt a position of messianic certainty regarding the State, to definitively assign the State a non-messianic status is no less problematic and sunders religion from history.

The final approach suggests that the Rav had a unique interpretation of messianism and redemption, one that accords instrumental (as distinct from pragmatic) value to a Jewish State, insofar as it might lead to that peculiar view of redemption’s actualization. For Dov Schwartz, from Halakhic Man (1944) forward, the Rav focused more upon “actualized redemption,” in which the individual achieves personal redemption by creating halakhic models which mirror the real world. The Rav understood eschatological redemption as nothing more or less than the full correspondence between reality and halakhic cognition, when all areas of halakha (e.g., purity and impurity) are expressed in the concrete world.

The Rav’s ideal cognitive type in Halakhic Man is unconcerned with the theological or metaphysical aspects of eschatology, as “metaphysical problems do not bother Halakhic Man or are perhaps unintelligible to him…” So for Halakhic Man, ultimate redemption is complete cognitive achievement, and historical or political developments outside of his a priori cognitive world simply do not compute. While Schwartz argues that the Rav did not identify with Halakhic Man, he argues that the latter’s approach to eschatology does explain the Brisker Rav’s alienation from secular Zionism, as set out in the Rav’s eulogy Ma Dodekh mi-Dod

The idea of personal redemption through halakhic cognition of reality, however, does remains consistent in the Rav’s later writings, and informs the Rav’s position on Zionism in Kol Dodi Dofek, which Schwartz identifies as a fundamentally “instrumental” approach “which views Erets Yisrael as a prerequisite for a full realization of halakha, devoid of any metaphysical meaning.”

Nonetheless, as a recent article by Cass Fisher notes, the “actualized redemption” model, which he identifies as Christian in origin, has not displaced the classic “dipolar” model of redemption, even in the Rav’s thought; his 1978 essay “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” begins with the dipolar model, before proceeding to the personal, actualized variety: “Redemption is a fundamental category in Judaic historical thinking and experiencing. Our history was initiated by a Divine act of redemption and, we are confident, will reach its finale in a Divine act of ultimate redemption.” Alex Sztuden critiques Schwartz’s esoteric reading of Halakhic Man and argues that the work reveals the latter not as a pure cognitive type but “an emotional, subjective figure with highly charged religious longings” that is read in conjunction with, rather than as banishing, the soul of homo religiosus; for him, metaphysics is still very much on the mind of the Halakhic Man.

As of TRADITION’s recent Winter 2021 issue, we now have an new data point: “Jewish Sovereignty and the Redemption of the Shekhinah,” a lecture delivered in June 1948, which has appeared in print for the first time, a translation of a heretofore unpublished Yiddish manuscript.

With regard to the redemption of the Shekhina from tzimtzum, I understand this idea simply to mean the revival of many parts of the Torah, the rewriting of abstract letters upon the concrete parchment of historical reality. I specifically mean the public Torah laws. Indeed, there is Shabbat, the laws of forbidden foods, other commandments applying to individuals. But even in regard to public Sabbath observance, there is no tzibbur, no collective aspect. When an individual is multiplied by hundreds of thousands, their acts are not public per se. Their individual character remains. However, the social-political economic life of Israel, needs to be expressed via the seal of Judaism, of Jewish law and morality. The various phases of state life must be permeated with the Jewish spirit, understood and interpreted by Torah and spiritual giants. I exclude two groups here: ignoramuses and the idle. Our treasure of halakha regarding laws between man and his fellow man, from the laws of damages to the laws of kings, must be built and transformed into action and facts. True, I have not put much thought into it, but I am convinced that when the Israeli social-political institutions embody the Torah’s ideal civil code, we will be the most advanced state in regard to social justice and truth. To summarize, the expansion of the Shekhina is the realization of a total Torah worldview with regard to external social justice and universality…
What is this objective? A Knesset Yisrael which represents not just any political nation, but a Torah nation, a kingdom-of-Heaven nation which is not limited to territorial borders. If the concept is properly understood, deepened and enhanced by the Jewish state, then, I am sure, we will end up welcoming the Messiah. But if it will become a cult of absolutism, and all Judaism in the state is diminished—then, God forbid, we will have lost everything: both the state and Knesset Yisrael!

At first glance, these paragraphs seem an anomalous artefact of the heady days of the spring of 1948, akin to the rhetorical flourishes in Kol Dodi Dofek dismissed by Prof. Blidstein. Certainly that is the most likely explanation. 

However, there is another possibility. Perhaps what we have here is a version of the third view above: An assertion that human activity could achieve via the State both the ultimate “actualized redemption” of the correspondence between reality and halakhic cognition, and thereby activate the “dipolar” metaphysical model. Perhaps this was later replaced by a more pessimistic view of the possibilities for the State, a victim of unfortunate circumstances – but circumstances change, and so its existence at any point is significant nonetheless.

The Rav visited Eretz Yisrael during the summer of 1935 and contended for the position of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv

Two recent books – Asaf Yedidya’s Halakha and the Challenge of Israeli Sovereignty (Rowman and Littlefield) and Alexander Kaye’s The Invention of Jewish Theocracy: The Struggle for Legal Authority in Modern Israel (Oxford University Press) – detail the intensive efforts toward the rejuvenation of Jewish Law and the advocating for establishment of a medinat halakha in advance of the founding of the State of Israel. Two key figures in this movement – which came to a head in the mid- to late-1940s – were Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and the Rav’s own great grand-uncle, R. Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan). We now know that the Rav’s own Zionism predated the Holocaust, and elements were certainly in place at the time of his 1935 visit.

The Rav’s three major monographs composed in the 1940s, The Halakhic Mind, Halakhic Man, and And From There Shall You Seek, form a unit; they demythologize halakha from an obscure, reified, heteronomous instrument of clerical control to a cognizable, coherent conceptual framework which accommodates autonomy and creativity. These works transmute halakha from the subject of Kant’s derogation as a “collection of merely statutory laws” to an elegant and sophisticated solution to the Western “crisis of philosophy; and define it as possessed of a profoundly ethical, socially responsible “prophetic” element which shores up the Achilles heel of the secular state conceived in the Peace of Westphalia – which, 300 years on, was “drowning in its blood” (Halakhic Man,  n. 147). 

It is too much to speculate that the embryonic Jewish State was the impetus for the Rav’s “Halakhic” oeuvre; while two of the works were written in Hebrew, there is no textual indication to support this subtext. However, perhaps we can read his 1948 remarks in light of his fully developed halakhic schema – perhaps the project described there is what he had in mind, although at that time no one could have known (U-Vikashtem mi-Sham appeared in 1978, while The Halakhic Mind only went to print in 1986). The parallel between “Out of this, a new political philosophy, a new worldview can emerge” and “Out of the sources of Halakhah, a new world view awaits formulation” is striking, even as none of those present when the former was delivered could have known that the latter would serve as the coda to The Halakhic Mind, the magisterial prolegomenon that sat hidden away for thirty-eight years.

It is difficult to imagine the Rav supporting a crude medinat halakha as imagined in the pre-State works, for all the reasons laid out by Chaim Saiman – as he writes, for the Rav, this would “strangle halakhah’s soul.” But what if a Jewish State were to adapt halakhic principles as cognized and abstracted into the philosophical movement described in these works, especially The Halakhic Mind? Could it then prove useful in his theological schema? Perhaps even redemptive?

Rabbi Aton Holzer, M.D., is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and was an assistant editor of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Siddur Avodat HaLev.

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