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The Religious Significance of the State of Israel

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

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The Religious Significance of the State of Israel


Harav Yehuda Amital


Transcribed by Roni Goldenberg and Arik Shupper

Translated by Rav David Silverberg and Rav Ronnie Ziegler



Two basic attitudes towards the religious significance of the State of Israel are prevalent within the contemporary Orthodox community. The "charedi" (ultra-Orthodox) position contends that we can grant no religious significance to the State, and some even view the State as a negative phenomenon. The second position is the "messianic" approach, which applies to the Jewish State all the epithets with which Rav Kook zt"l described the State well before its establishment: "The foundation of God's Throne in the world, whose entire desire is that God shall be One and His Name shall be One." I would like to propose a third position regarding this critical issue. Let us begin our analysis with a careful study of the writings of Rav Kook himself.


Secular Pioneers

Rav Kook lived in extraordinary times and witnessed the striking phenomenon of the Jewish People's national renewal in their ancestral homeland. This amazing turn of events was a complex reality which demanded a complex perspective. Rav Kook's greatness lay in the fact that he did not settle on just one viewpoint regarding the return of the people to Zion; rather, he saw the entire process with all its inherent difficulties and complexities, both the rays of light and the dark shadows. And, indeed, there were plenty of dark shadows.

Throughout the unfolding process of the Return to Zion, a difficult and painful problem presented itself: those who brought about the process were not Torah observant. It would have been far simpler were the return to the land to have been accompanied by a return to the Torah. Unfortunately, though, this is not what happened. The major personalities of the Zionist movement abandoned, for the most part, the religious lifestyle, and thus the return to Israel involved a rebellion against Jewish tradition and a rejection of Torah and mitzvot.

Rav Kook's struggle with this dilemma is well-known: he consistently defended the secularists who built the country, insisting that one cannot judge them superficially, according to their actions alone. One must rather probe the general spiritual processes underlying the entire historical development, and thereby arrive at a deeper understanding of the specific spiritual phenomena occurring in those who live during this period.


The Contradiction Between Sovereignty And Morality

Less familiar, however, is another problem which Rav Kook perceived in the Zionist movement, one which is far more fundamental.

The prophets of old already recognized the essential conflict between sovereign national existence and moral life in the true sense of the term. It is exceedingly difficult to maintain appropriate moral standards within the context of full national autonomy. Regarding this conflict, Rav Kook writes (Ma'amarei HaRe'iya, 1:174):

Indeed, observance of the general, national Torah is ýespecially difficult, far more difficult than observing the Torah of the individual. For Torah and mitzvot come to purify mankind, and the process of purifying the entire people, as a society which requires national-governmental matters, is much more complicated than the purification of each individual as a specific person...

Heaven forbid that we come to believe that the swelling waves of yearning for national sovereignty are permitted to blind our eyes so that we can no longer see clearly. And even moreso, Heaven forbid that we allow the force of party politics (which will increase as the national movement comes into existence) to make us overstep the bounds of justice and truth ... For our obligation is not merely to be holy as individuals, but additionally and especially to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

This same idea appears elsewhere in Rav Kook's writings, as well. In one instance, Rav Kook links this concept with the past history of our people, seeing therein the theological basis for exile (Orot Ha-milchama, p.14):

We were forced to leave the international political stage, although there was an inner desire that we do so until the glorious time when it would be possible to conduct a government without evil or barbarism; this is the era for which we long... Our souls have been sickened by the terrible crimes of governments during evil times. But now, the time has come; very soon the world will sweeten and we will be able to prepare ourselves, for it will already be possible for us to conduct our government on the foundations of goodness, wisdom, uprightness and clear, divine illumination... It is not worthy for the Nation of Israel to involve itself in government so long as governing has to be full of bloodshed, while governing requires the skill of evildoing.

Rav Kook repeats this idea in the introduction to his work, "Shabbat Ha-aretz." There he sharply delineates the bitter conflict between moral values and "the oppression, coercion and grubbiness stemming from [the desire for] acquisition and property, which must be manifest in the world of action" (p.8). When the negative influence of the active life became overpowering, writes Rav Kook, there was no avoiding "the terrible detachment, the expulsion of the nation from the land" (p.11). The exile, which entailed the cessation of all political and national activities, cured the Nation of Israel of the many moral ailments that had afflicted it. Pure spirituality returned to its previous level once it had been severed from active national existence. Rav Kook then allows us to share his uncertainty: how do we know when the process of recovery has been completed, when the time to renew our national existence in our land has arrived?

To whom has been revealed the divine secret, to know when the nation and the land have been totally purified from their contamination? ... No one among us knows. Therefore, our eyes look to find the hidden secrets where they can be found - in the vision of the revealed time of redemption, of which our sages said: There is no time when redemption is more revealed [than when the Land of Israel is fruitful], as is stated, "But you, O mountains of Israel, shall yield your produce and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for their return is near." (p.12)


Purification Through Exile

It appears that Rav Kook's high regard for the nascent Jewish State was influenced not only by his analysis of the reality that he witnessed, but also from his eschatological, historical perspective. Rav Kook simply could not accept the possibility that the lengthy, bitter exile did not correct the nation's defects. He refused to believe that the Jews returning to their land would once again establish a government plagued by the same ethical ills that characterized the Second Temple period. He had no choice but to believe that the new State of Israel would emerge as a just polity, whose policies and public conduct would be ethically pure.

This attitude led Rav Kook to look beyond the external behavior of his generation and to probe deeper. Based on the celebrated passage in the Zohar that the period preceding the Messianic Era is "good on the inside but bad on the outside," Rav Kook disclosed the pure interiors of the people of his time (Iggerot HaRe'iya, 1:380). From this approach emerged his famous declaration that,

Although, in actual terms, our stormy generation has not actualized itself, its potential is great. A generation such as this one ... cannot be lowly, for even if its goals are completely mistaken, its spirit is exalted, great and sublime. (Eder Ha-yakar, p.111)


Similarly, Rav Kook's confidence in the quality of redemption latent in the Jews' return to their homeland led him to write the following a few pages later (pp.114-5):

In the depths of its soul, Kenesset Yisrael has practically been cured from a sizable portion of its moral ailmebrought about by its earlier misdeeds. The long, awful and terrible exile has served as a cleansing and purifying crucible for it.


Reality Check

Here, a point of paramount importance must be emphasized: we dare not avoid testing Rav Kook's position against the reality of historical events that have transpired since his lifetime. He wrote explicitly that "very soon" the time will arrive when a state can be conducted on the basis of justice and integrity, because the world at large will reach such a level that there will no longer be any need for improper governmental behavior. Rav Kook wrote this approximately eighty years ago (he died in 1935). Over the course of these eight decades, have we come any closer - even in the slightest - to the utopian reality he depicts?

Rav Kook was convinced that the corrupt Western culture would collapse after the First World War. The end has finally arrived, he presumed, to the culture of falsehood that was based on trickery and corruption (Orot Ha-milchama, p.15):

The sin of the murderers, wicked kings of the earth and all the evildoers of the land has been completed. The earth cannot achieve atonement for the blood spilt upon it except through the blood of the one who shed it. The atonement must come: a general elimination of all the present-day cultural machines, with all their falsehood and trickery, with all their awful filth and venom. This entire culture, which exalts itself with instruments of falsehood, must, by necessity, be annihilated from the world, and in its place will emerge a kingdom of the sacred and exalted. The light of Israel will appear, to establish the world with peoples of a new spirit.

Did Rav Kook ever imagine - was he capable of imagining - that World War I would not be the most horrible of wars? Did it ever occur to him that the culture of bloodshed would not crumble, but would rather continue to thrive? Rav Kook's optimism is the optimism before Auschwitz and Hiroshima. As "dwarves on the shoulders of a giant," we know that the culture of murderers has yet to be eliminated. The time has not yet arrived when a government can be conducted according to the principles of righteousness and honesty. The bloodshed has not spared us even now, in the aftermath of the Holocaust: to this very day, we find ourselves caught in a frightening web of military confrontation, and our enemies continue to wage a bloody battle against us.


A Light Unto The Nations?

Beyond the issue of national security, let us examine the internal condition of the Jewish State. Here, too, Rav Kook was exceedingly optimistic. He felt confident that the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel would develop into a model society and serve as a shining example for other countries (Ma'amarei HaRe'iya, 2:285-6):

The settlements in the Land of Israel are autonomous in terms of their unique public life... When we compare their moral quality with the human morals of the masses of all nations that live on their lands, and to the state of our people in the previous period, we must admit that they stand on such a high level that we can take pride in them in the eyes of the entire world.

The serious sins in which most of the masses are accustomed - theft, robbery, murder and the like - are not even heard of, the purity of the family is properly maintained; doors can remain open all night long without fear... We must admit: the pains of exile have brought about recovery, and they have restored the sanctity of Israel to it place. We can now justifiably take pride in the fact that the more the Israelite community becomes recognizable and discernible, the more the level of its social life will ascend. To the same extent, its glory and splendor will increase, as will its culture and the majesty of its leadership, to the glory of both God and man.

Rav Kook's optimistic vision predicted that as Jewish autonomy develops, so will its moral image. And specifically this development, as we saw earlier, affords the Jewish State its exalted stature and guarantees the correction of past misdeeds. Let us now take an honest look at the society before us today. Does contemporary Israeli society live up to Rav Kook's vision? Can we say about the State of Israel that "theft, robbery, murder and the like are not even heard of?!" The violence, corruption and growing tensions among the various segments of society prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have not reached the ideal state of which Rav Kook dreamt long before the establishment of our State of Israel.

When analyzing the significance of our State, must we employ the same terms used by Rav Kook in the context of the ideal state he envisioned? May we do so? As we have seen, his mindset was suffused with a sense of optimism regarding the development of humanity as a whole, on the basis of which he foresaw the moral development of Kenesset Yisrael. Unfortunately - or rather, tragically - this development never occurred. We have to assess the Jewish State as it is - not as Rav Kook wanted it to be - and only then determine where it belongs within our world view.


The Hasmonean Model

Despite the many problems the State faces, we may not ignore the great miracles we experienced at the time of its establishment. Analogously, although the Hasmonean state was far from perfect, its establishment (and the return of Jewish sovereignty, albeit limited) was nevertheless a cause for celebration, as the Rambam emphasizes. The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishna, Yoma 1:3) knew very well the inauspicious character of the Hasmonean kings:

But in the time of the Second Temple, things were imperfect, as is well known - the kings did not follow the correct tradition and they would appoint the High Priest by force, even though he was unworthy...

Nevertheless, he felt that the establishment of the Hasmonean monarchy constitutes the main reason behind the celebration of Chanuka (Hilkhot Chanuka, 3:1-3):

The High Priests of the Hasmonean family were victorious and killed [the Greeks], thus saving Israel from their hands. They established a king from among the priests, and monarchy returned to Israel for over two hundred years... Because of this, the scholars of that generation instituted that these eight days, starting from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, shall be days of joy and praise.

The Second Temple period thus serves as a legitimate model by which we may assess the contemporary Jewish State, a half-century after its establishment. However imperfect, one cannot overlook the many positive elements of our independent national existence. Our leaders today are no worse than the Hasmonean kings, and our country is no worse than theirs was. To the contrary, our leadership and society often exhibit moral qualities far superior to those of the Hasmonean dynasty.


Giving Thanks For The State

How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God's Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish People and to the God of Israel.

I spoke earlier of Rav Kook's inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption. This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge'ula (redemption). But don't all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community? After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have forseen, thState played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish People. It is hard to imagine what the Jewish Nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.

I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland. Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us? Unquestionably! And not just on Yom Ha-atzma'ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: "I praise you seven times each day!"


The Prophetic Vision

Furthermore, our very existence in Israel comprises the fulfillment of the prophets' visions:

There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares. (Zekharia 8:4-5)

Regarding this vision, the prophet declares,

Just as it will seem impossible to the remnant of this people in those days, so shall it also seem impossible to Me, declares the Lord of Hosts. (8:6)

What is it that seems impossible in the eyes of God? What we see with our own eyes each day: elderly people in the streets of Jerusalem! The complete redemption has yet to unfold, and we have yet to be privileged to live in state that represents "the foundation of the Divine Throne in the world." But we have been privileged to witness the gathering of a large portion of the Jewish People to our homeland, and this phenomenon itself is to be considered the "atchalta de-ge'ula" ("beginning of the redemption").

Certain characterizing features of the time of redemption have, indeed, appeared. We must sing praises to the Almighty for even this partial redemption, which still lacks the components of the complete redemption.

My spiritual outlook is based on and nourished by the writings of Rav Kook. His works sustained me during my difficult days in a Nazi labor camp, and in their merit I managed to withstand the difficult trials I have encountered. But specifically because of what I learned from his teachings, I believe that we, the followers of his approach, must view the current situation in accordance with reality, and not quote passages written eighty years ago without considering their applicability to our period.

Unlike the Charedim, we will not undermine the importance or legitimacy of the State; but our love for our country must not blind us from criticizing its shortcomings. We remain very, very far from the ideal Jewish State, and we must therefore do whatever we can to bring about its realization. A more just society and stronger public values are necessary prerequisites for its actualization. If we want to hasten the ultimate redemption, we must work harder to ensure moral values on both the individual and communal levels. Closing the social gaps, concern for the vulnerable elements of society, fighting poverty, respectful treatment of the non-Jews in Israel - all these measures will bring us closer to the day for which we long. We hope and believe that our State will develop into the ideal Jewish State, "the foundation of the Divine Throne in the world, whose entire desire is that God shall be One and His Name shall be One."

(This sicha was originally delivered on Chanuka 5757 [1996]. It appears in Hebrew in Alon Shevut #151 and in Alon Bogrim #11.)


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