As the Hebrew year 5773 comes to a close, I want to explore the background of the most dramatic event in the Jewish world in the past 12 months: the landmark Israeli election. The January 2013 vote has the potential to radically transform the Jewish State’s political landscape—and usher in a new era for Religious Zionism. This transformation is not just the story of the exclusion of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the ruling coalition. That is a watershed event in Israel’s history. Even more remarkable is the rise of a Religious Zionist party that promises to be the heir of the defunct National Religious Party. HaBayit HaYehudi—the “Jewish Home”—led by Naftali Bennett, scored a major victory and vindicated the resurgence of Religious Zionism as an important factor in Israel political, religious and social life. Will it all be politics as usual? Will the Religious Zionists in HaBayit HaYehudi kowtow to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews? Will Religious Zionism initiate a new era of a Judaism that confronts the reality of Israel’s Zionist ideology—and appeals to a broad sector of the Jewish State’s population as a representative of a living Torah and vital Jewish tradition?
The Hebrew month of Elul begins on Monday night. We prepare for a new year. During the next 30 days, Jews throughout the world will begin to ask themselves some difficult questions: How have my actions impacted others? Have I made the world a better place? Has my ritual life been one of deep meaning, expressing a yearning to be close to God? Did I achieve my goals during the past year? As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these are the questions we ask ourselves.
Elul is a month of repentance. As a traditional Jew and a Zionist, I need to ask questions that transcend my own life and faith. I am part of a Religious Zionist movement that has made many important contributions to the State of Israel and Judaism. Yet, Religious Zionism today is at a crossroads. Religious Zionists need to ask questions about their movement’s underlying theology and its relationship to Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora. The movement’s adherents must deal with these questions: Will Religious Zionism decline, slowly slipping into irrelevance as a force in Israeli and global Jewish life? Can the reemergence of a Religious Zionist party in Israel’s coalition lead to a renaissance of Judaism in Israeli life? To answer these questions at this time of the year, we must look back at the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
Rabbi Kook was the most original Zionist thinker. Kook, an Orthodox Jew, defied rabbis in Europe who were stridently anti-Zionist. He proposed that the Zionist movement, though driven by the idealism of anti-traditional socialist pioneers, was part of God’s divine plan to redeem the Jewish people and humanity. The pioneers may not have known it, but they were providing an infrastructure in the Land of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Kook countered the argument of religious Jews against Zionism—that its adherents did not wait for the coming of the Messiah to build up a state in Israel—and turned it on its head. For all Zionists, Rabbi Kook remains a hero.
Yet, we must ask questions regarding Kook’s brilliant thesis. Is the State of Israel the beginning of the messianic redemption of the Jewish people? Kook’s son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, believed that the Israeli triumph in the Six-Day War was a harbinger of the coming of the Messiah. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, 40 years ago the Chief Chaplain of the Israel Defense Force, proposed that the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem be blown to smithereens by IDF explosives and a Third Temple be built. Did Zvi Yehuda Kook’s messianic beliefs inspire Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995? Both Kooks, father and son, would never have condoned one Jew murdering another Jew in the name of Judaism. But did the deep messianic yearnings of Religious Zionism play a part in those horrible events in Tel Aviv? Religious Zionism has not confronted these questions. Nor has Religious Zionism grappled with the issue of reaching out to Israel’s secularists, bringing Judaism to life for those who long ago rejected Torah.
The month of Elul demands introspection. Abraham Isaac Kook understood that Secular Zionism played a central role in Judaism, Israel, and Redemption. There is important work for Religious Zionists to accomplish. Most Jews in Israel and the Diaspora know little of their Jewish heritage and the importance of Judaism. We must educate them in a spirit of tolerance, without coercion. We must counter the “Post-Zionists” on the extreme Left who deny the Jewish identity of Israel, and we must also oppose the cynical political wheeling and dealing of ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas. Religious Zionism must claim its rightful place as a movement promoting a new understanding of Jewish faith and the Jewish commitment to the State of Israel and its people through aliyah and education. We must purge ourselves of the extremists of our movement. In this New Year, perhaps, the legacy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook will provide a model for all Jews and will inspire them in their search for truth. Let us see if the new Religious Zionist party is up to the challenge.
Eli Kavon is the rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. He has served on the faculty of the Lifelong Learning Institute of Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida for 10 years.