The Religious Significance of Israel

Rabbis Kook and Soloveitchik offered differing views on what the modern state means theologically.

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Reprinted with permission from A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Jewish Lights).

Most Jewish religious responses to the rebirth of the state of Israel do see in it God's providential hand. Two major halakhic [Jewish legal] thinkers who have taken such a view are Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook and Joseph Soloveitchik.

Kook 

Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel in the British Mandate period, viewed the Zionist revolution as part of God's redemptive scheme in history. He attributed profound religious significance to the Zionist revolution--de­spite its antireligious origins and manifestations--with the help of a di­alectical perspective on history: Judaism's development in exile had caused the repression of vital spiritual forces in the Jewish people, and only by the overthrow of much of traditional Judaism would new, healthy forces and energies within the Jewish people be released. The Zionist activist concern for restoring the Jewish people to its homeland would unleash new messianic redemptive forces.

It was Kook's deepest conviction that ultimately the new energies brought forth by the rev­olution would be integrated with the covenantal Torah spirit in a higher religious synthesis. He looked forward to a new unity between the larger prophetic passion for history found in the Bible and the sober concern for details that characterizes talmudic Judaism. Most religious Zionist youths in Israel are taught to perceive the state from this messianic per­spective.

view of isreal from masadaSoloveitchik

Soloveitchik, too, embraces the state of Israel, but without a messi­anic dialectic. In Reflections of the Rav, Soloveitchik characterizes the period of the Holocaust as the state of hester panim, a "hiding of the divine face," a state when God turned His back, as it were, chaos ruled, and human beings had no sense of the divine presence in the world.

Israel's rebirth represents middat ha-din, the "attribute of God's judg­ment," which gives human life a sense that there is some divine order, justice, and structure in the world, that the world is not entirely under the sway of barbaric chaotic forces.

"We cannot explain the Holocaust, but we can, at least, classify it theo­logically, characterize it, even if we have no answer to the question, 'why?' The unbounded horrors represented the tohu vavohu [chaotic] anarchy of the pre-yetzirah [pre-Creation] state. This is how the world appears when God's mod­erating surveillance is suspended. The State of Israel, however, reflects God's return to active providence, the termination of hester panim.

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Rabbi David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman is the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He also served as a professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a visiting professor at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.