This is the text of Part 1 of Rabbi Uri Sherki’s lecture, “Modern Religious Zionism and its message to humanity“. It has been edited for clarity.
Shalom to everyone.
It is a pleasure to meet you and I hope that a day will come when we will meet face to face. But meanwhile, I hope that my few words will be of importance to you.
I would like to speak about some issues regarding the Torah, and the Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) approach to it.
The Dati Leumi movement believes that we live in a very particular and important era of the history of the Jewish people. It is an era not only important because of the confrontation with modernity and its values, but also because of Zionism. We live today, so we have to consider these two important issues.
Our approach to modernity is linked to the problem of the relationship between holiness and secularism – Kodesh and Chol. Within the modern orthodox conceptual framework, we have two principal ideological positions: one is Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, and the second one is Rav Kook.
The approach of Rabbi Hirsch is that modernity is an important thing, moreover – it is blessed thing, and we as Jews have the duty to adopt some of the main messages of modernity, most essentially the culture. And we must consider that God put us in the core of civilization because we have something to get from the nations, and we have something to give them. And what is that? The link between Kodesh and Chol – “Torah im Derech Eretz”, Torah and the way of the land. Torah is the law of God, and Derech Eretz – the way of the land – is modernity, essentially with the heritage of Western civilization.
This led Rabbi Hirsch to reject the idea of Zionism. For him, the goal of the Jewish people is to live between the nations, especially after the emancipation, which gave Jews the possibility to have an influence on the world around them. Zionism would be the opposite of this possibility – from this point of view it is a return to a nationalistic ghetto and for Rabbi Hirsch it is more important to have influence on the nations in their own countries.
The pupils and disciples of Rabbi Hirsch mainly adopted Zionist values. This approach sees the state of Israel as part of modernity – as one of the states that has high levels of progress and is the best manifestation of the emancipation of the Jewish people, especially after the holocaust – that proved that antisemitism is not a phenomenon of the past. Thus, having a modern state is very important for the Jewish modern orthodox consciousness. This is the approach of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who considered Zionism positive but did not see in it an absolute or divine phenomenon.
The other approach is that of Rabbi Kook. Rabbi Kook is the main influence in the Dati Leumi public in Israel and considers the State of Israel and Zionism not only as a new modern state. It is the redemption of the people of Israel, announced by the Biblical Prophets as “Yemot HaMashiach”, the Days of the Messiah. It is the center of history. Because of this approach, there is a theological importance to the Jewish People being in their land, that is, settlements. There is a theological interpretation of secularism and rejection of the tradition, that is often considered as an accident or a problem. From the point of view of Rabbi Kook, it is a part of a very deep process made by Providence to transform the Jewish consciousness and prepare it for the return of prophecy and universal influence.
What our Sages in the Talmud called “Hutzpa beIkveta deMeshicha” is considered by R. Kook as the evolution of Judaism towards the inclusion of parts of secularity inside the holiness itself.
Rabbi Kook is an absolute giant of orthodox Halacha and cannot be suspected to have reformist or conservative leanings. All of his pupils and students understand this very well and are part of the strongest orthodox movement in Israel, but they are also Zionists and consider that there is a spiritual role to secularism.
It will be, I think, very tremendous to explore this thinking, and we will not have the opportunity to do so today, but I will say a word about the way Rabbi Kook considers Chol – secularity.
Rabbi Hirsch considered that Chol and Kodesh – Torah and Derech Eretz, must live side by side. Both are important as themselves. Rabbi Kook said that in the time of Redemption, in the Land of Israel there is a goal to create a synthesis between Holiness and secularity, to reveal the deep, divine unity between the two parts of reality and that is the reason that he sees in a positive light fields like politics or even the army of Israel, and also art and science.
For army and politics – we can say it is a Mitzva (commandment) to establish a state and an army in the land of Israel. That is the opinion of Nachmanides (the Ramban) and is adopted by the main Poskim. But what of art, economy, ecology and science? These are unnecessary domains (in the obligatory Halachic sense) but Rav Kook sees them as signs of a healthy life and national revival cannot be achieved without life. And life includes art, sensibility, and all the spheres of life which are not obligatory and not included in the Halacha. In this saying, we can hear echoes of the ideas of the Kabbalists, for example the Arizal, who thought that there is sanctity inside nature itself. The sanctity inside nature is not an Halachic one, it is another kind of sanctity, and we see this also in the teachings of Nachmanides in his commentary on the Torah when he interprets the verse “Fill the earth, and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) as including technology and science.
So we have found a Mitzva that includes science and technology and every human activity as a religious obligation. This joins the ideas of the Kabbalists and Rabbi Kook that we have a mission in our days – to include as many domains of Chol-secularity as possible inside the Kodesh-holiness. That will be the renewal of the old consciousness of the Jewish people in the times when we were Hebrews and not only Jews, i.e. we were a nation with prophets, and not only a religion with laws.
As you can understand, this serves as the basis of many issues in the Torah and the interpretation of its texts, and also the relationship with our brothers who are not observing Halacha but whom we love as part of the reality of our nation in its revival.
Thank you very much.