Commentary Magazine

Israel and the Messiah

The prayer for the well-being of the state of Israel which is recited on Sabbaths and festivals in most synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora calls the state “reshit geulatenu,” the commencement of our redemption. The formula implies that the creation of the state of Israel is to be viewed as the initial fulfillment of the messianic expectation cherished by past generations.

The text of the prayer was written by the Hebrew novelist S.Y. Agnon at the request of Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi at the time the state was founded. It has since had to be repeatedly defended by Orthodox authorities against those who find it inappropriate or even sacrilegious.

Some who are opposed to the formula, like the sect of Neturei Karta in Israel and their supporters abroad, deny any legitimacy at all to the Jewish state. Others, like the Orthodox party Agudat Israel and the heads of noted yeshivot, cooperate with the agencies of the state, accept the benefits derived from its institutions, and at times support the government in return, but still withhold fundamental spiritual approval. Where the more radical regard modern Israel as the very antithesis of the messianic redemption promised by Jewish tradition, the less radical declare the issue irrelevant. But for either camp, to use messianic vocabulary in praying for the welfare of the state borders on desecration of a hallowed religious concept.

This theological and ideological controversy obviously cannot be settled except in its own terms. The question that a historian may address is not whether the state of Israel is worthy of association with the traditional messianic concept but whether a connection can in fact be drawn between the messianic hope entertained by Jews through the ages and the modern national movement that led to the founding of Israel. In order to approach this question we have to inquire first into the nature of traditional messianism.



Although the term itself is biblical in origin, messianism is a universal phenomenon. Tribes and nations of disparate cultural traditions and differing levels of civilization in many parts of the world have cherished the idea of a savior who will deliver them from their present physical or spiritual circumstances. But within the orbit of the immediate influence of Judaism, and especially in Christianity and Islam, the idea of messianic deliverance assumed a novel significance, albeit one that was to differ sharply from the Jewish prototype.

The specific historical conditions that lay behind the biblical image of an anointed ideal king (the original meaning of “messiah”) need not concern us here. Probably as early as the Babylonian captivity, but certainly after the destruction of the Second Temple, the plight that required redemption was mainly not that of the Jews of Palestine but that of the Jews in exile. And the plight was not economic scarcity, social degradation, or spiritual decadence, although all these at times may have been experienced as adversities to be overcome by the redeemer. Once in exile, the Jews tended to understand these sufferings as mere byproducts of a basic deficiency, namely, exile itself, the condition of banishment.

Now, being removed from one’s birthplace or country of origin is a misfortune only if one’s commitment to that birthplace is so intense that any other place is experienced as a physical and spiritual trial. Uncounted numbers of people in human history have changed their dwelling through voluntary or forced emigration and in the fullness of time have accustomed themselves to the situation and adopted a new fatherland. It is one of the peculiarities of the Jews’ fate, conditioned by many complex religious and historical factors, that despite the lengthy passage of time the consciousness of exile did not disappear. On the contrary, duration intensified rather than mitigated the subjective experience of calamity.

Messianism was both the cause and the result of the Jews’ segregated existence throughout the centuries of exile. Initially the messianic belief may have strengthened their will to resist absorption by a foreign environment. Once the Jewish community established itself as a segregated socio-religious entity, its pariah-like situation nourished expectations of an ultimate return to its own homeland.

This dependence of Jewish messianism on the concrete situation of exile sets it apart from the millenarian fantasies of other socially or nationally suppressed groups. At the same time it distinguishes it from the purely spiritual longings of the Christian Second Coming. Jewish messianism has a point of reference in the factual history of the Jewish people. Jews had at one time lived in their own country, their own commonwealth; it was there they hoped to return in the messianic age.

In fact, a residue of the former national existence continued to play an active role in the cultural and mental life of every Jewish community. Acquaintance with the geographical scenes and contours of the homeland through constant reading of the Bible lent tangibility to the longings of return. More important perhaps was the fact that Jews continued to study and adhere to the laws of the Mishnah, which reflect the realities of life in the period of the Second Temple (when they were codified) but served long thereafter as a guide to important aspects of individual and communal conduct. The intellectual elite dedicated itself to the study of a body of law which, taken as a whole, would function once again when the nation was living under its own government in the projected messianic age. Various elements in the life of the community thus linked the memory of the past with the expectation of the future, keeping the vision of the messianic era in contact with historical reality.



Although it was exceptional in its concreteness, Jewish messianism did share with all forms of millenarianism an imaginary conception of the means to be employed in bringing about the redemption. Having failed to restore independence through military action in Roman times (the last serious attempt was the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 C.E.), Jews ceded their fate to the unfathomable wisdom of divine Providence. This shift in the mental attitude of the nation was not the consequence of a mere ideological development. The circumstances in which Jews lived in the Middle Ages restricted their freedom of action to sporadic interventions on the local level. Any attempt to alter the basic situation of a scattered and barely-tolerated people was simply inconceivable. No wonder, then, that Jewish faith in an ultimate redemption became interwoven with a belief in supernatural agency. What the human partner could contribute was, at most, intercession with the celestial power in order to hasten the redemption.

There were in the main two avenues for inducing heaven to bring about salvation. (We may disregard the purely magical machinations of kabbalists.) One was to gain divine grace by complying perfectly with the obligatory religious duties as these were interpreted by Jewish tradition. In this approach, redemption would follow not upon any one particular religious or spiritual undertaking but upon the achievement of total religious perfection by the community at large. Others, however, found indications in the authoritative sources of some special deed or procedure that might avail. Thus, in 1538 the scholars of Safed made an abortive attempt to reestablish the ancient Sanhedrin as the first act in the messianic drama; in doing so they were following a suggestion of Maimonides as to the sequence of events preceding the appearance of the messiah. A similar phenomenon was the hasty marrying-off of young couples during the feverish excitement occasioned by rumors of the impending messianic revelation of Sabbatai Zevi in 1666. (According to a saying in the Talmud, all the souls yet to be born have to reach their destiny before the messiah can appear. Mass marriages were meant literally to fulfill this condition.) As late as the 1830’s Rabbi Zevi Hirsh Kalisher, later to become a steadfast advocate of Jewish settlement in Palestine and as such a veritable precursor of modern Zionism, was still addicted to this pattern of thought. Kalisher wished to obtain permission from the Turkish authorities, as well as the consent of his rabbinical colleagues, to institute a certain kind of animal sacrifice on the site of the Jerusalem Temple; on the basis of his scholarly research he believed that the restoration of animal sacrifice was a precondition for initiating the messianic process.

In the concept of supernatural redemption, as these examples suggest, human initiative was consistently restricted to spiritual or ritualistic devices. The possibility, or for that matter the permissibility, of a national restoration through human means was hardly ever discussed or debated. At most it was referred to in a homiletic or exegetic context (not always negatively). At bottom lay an acquiescence in the passive role Jewry was supposed to play as a nation in exile, at the mercy of others.



The spell of this state of mind was broken in the 18th and 19th centuries when the Jews acquired citizenship owing to the revolutionary changes in some of the nations in which they lived. Citizenship meant an end to the condition of exile in an absolutely unforeseen and therefore most confusing way.

Accepting citizenship in a non-Jewish state was regarded both by the Jews and by their emancipators as incompatible with the messianic belief which was an uncontested article of Jewish faith. Jews were more or less explicitly requested to renounce this tenet—no easy thing to do, although the impediment was not so much dogma as the role the idea had played in Jewish history. Indeed, there was a minority opinion recorded in the Talmud which confined the notion of the messiah to biblical times alone, and denied its significance for the future. This talmudic authority was cited by Lazarus Bendavid, a spokesman of the radical Enlightenment in late 18th-century Berlin, to refute a Catholic missionary who had observed that the Jews, having thrown away a cornerstone of their religious system in return for their emancipation, ought logically to accept the Christian redeemer. Bendavid retorted that the Jewish religion remained intact even without the messianic belief. As if on second thought, he added that Jewish messianism had anyway found its fulfillment in the liberation of the Jews by the rulers of contemporary states.

Bendavid’s convoluted argument can be said to reflect the intellectual predicament in which Jews found themselves in the wake of their changed ‘situation. Their political status may have required them to abandon the messianic tenet, yet other, less conspicuous, considerations militated against it. The need to meet the Christian challenge in a positive way, rejecting the Christian messiah while retaining a Jewish version of messianism, was one such consideration. The main reason, however, was an internal one: the messianic ideal was deeply ingrained in the Jewish mentality. Simply to try to eradicate it because of the changed political circumstances would have been a futile enterprise. What was possible was a reinterpretation, which is what Bendavid proposed.

His response to the historical situation became typical for succeeding generations. Although the Jews’ integration into the modern state was not the result of an internal Jewish development, it still represented a decisive turn in their destiny and they were inclined to understand it in terms of traditional concepts. Emancipation seen as the fulfillment of the expected messianic redemption was admittedly a forced interpretation, but understandable in light of events. It is astonishing how many Jews who experienced emancipation from the ghetto almost instinctively described the event in terms drawn from the vocabulary of traditional Jewish messianism. Such emancipating rulers as Napoleon and the Emperor Joseph II of Austria were compared explicitly with the biblical Cyrus, and the dawning of the Enlightenment was frequently portrayed as the equivalent of the messianic age.

Still, when reform-minded theologians drew the practical implications and proposed omitting references in Jewish ritual to the future return to Zion, they met with fierce opposition. Not only the Orthodox but also the exponents of the so-called historical school objected. Granting the quasi-messianic significance of Jewish emancipation, they were still reluctant to repudiate the idea of a possible national redemption, even if projected into a remote and hazy future.



By the early 1860’s political emancipation in Western countries could already be taken for granted; at the same time it could be transcended, at least by those of broader vision who, although they welcomed Jewish emancipation, were reluctant to see in it the consummation of Jewish history. Two such thinkers were Rabbi Kalisher and Rabbi Yehudah Alkalay.

Kalisher was an outstanding Ashkenazi talmudist, Alkalay a Sephardi preacher. Both were at the outset imbued with traditional messianism; in the course of time both integrated the historical experience of their age into their thinking. Jewish emancipation, really the antithesis of the traditional messianic expectation, came to be seen by them as the initial phase in an evolving process of redemption. The social elevation of the Jewish individual became a precondition for collective national liberation.

By dint of this rethinking, the very definition of redemption underwent a change. The human initiative destined to usher in the messianic age was no longer seen in spiritual or ritualistic terms. The establishment of the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the tangible political influence of Jewish notables like Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds were taken to suggest that the resettlement of Jews in their ancient homeland by human means was not impossible. Such attempts at resettlement were regarded as necessary to the messianic enterprise; it was expected that a divine response would follow and complete the process.

That this reinterpretation of the messianic tradition was no mere idiosyncrasy is demonstrated by the fact that it was advanced independently (with some variations) by different people and, once published, found a following. In 1862, when Kalisher published a tract setting forth his views, he seems not to have been acquainted with the writings of Alkalay—no surprise, in view of the geographic distance and the difference in background that separated them. (Kalisher lived in the East Prussian town of Thorn, Alkalay in the town of Semelin near Belgrade.) Kalisher was not even aware of the existence of an Ashkenazi preacher, Nathan Fried-land, who pursued a similar trend on his own, although he presented it in a more homiletic fashion. It was Friedland who detected the affinity between his own thinking and that of his more famous contemporary and, encouraged by the coincidence, gave his thought a more direct and daring expression. More important perhaps for Kalisher’s own self-confidence was the unconditional approval which he received from his rabbinical colleague Elijah Guttmacher. A secluded scholar and kabbalist, Guttmacher was reputed to be a miracle-working saint; when he announced unequivocally that the appropriate means to pave the way for the coming of the messiah was to repopulate Palestine, it could not fail to impress many Jews.

We thus have here a new development in Jewish thinking, of which the main characteristic is the permission or even the demand for the partial realization of the messianic vision by human effort. Obviously this development did not occur in a vacuum but had to do with the impact of historical events: the unexpected and in traditional terms inexplicable emancipation of the Jews as well as the contemporaneous resurrection of the European nations. But there was equally a dialectical development within Jewish messianism itself. In particular it is impossible to ignore the deep emotional dimension which accompanied the emergence of the ideas we have discussed.

In the thought of Moses Hess, who joined the group of these early Zionists as a secular outsider, we find a similar melange of cognitive and emotional elements. A socialist ideologue estranged from Judaism since his youth, Hess at the age of fifty recovered his Jewish commitment and evolved a theory of what Judaism could still signify beyond the two contemporary variations of Reform and Neo-Orthodoxy. He advocated a national restoration in the ancient homeland, and was strongly convinced that such an ingathering would release the spiritual energy embodied in petrified religious institutions. The national revival of Italy, and contemporary intellectual trends which encouraged the revitalization of dormant historical sources, obviously had an influence on Hess. But there is also no missing his messianic sentiments. A vision of a redeemed and rehabilitated Judaism had been implanted in Hess’s mind as a child, when he observed his grandfather mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. His messianic vision drew its emotional power from that long suppressed childhood experience. Thus, although they differed over what would happen once the first stage of the redemptive process was accomplished, Hess and the Orthodox messianists were partisans of the same cause. And they also agreed about the immediate task: the ingathering of Jews in Palestine.



Despite remarkable exertions by Alkalay and Kalisher, very little, if anything, was accomplished on this score. Nevertheless, the concrete history of the Jewish national movement has to be dated from the appearance of this group. The vestiges of their influence can be traced in the years up to the emergence of the Hovevei Zion movement in the wake of the 1881 pogroms in Russia.

That movement, which defined its objective as the restoration and rehabilitation of the Jewish nation in its historical homeland, crystallized under the impact of the pogroms, but it could do so because the idea of a national revival had been adopted by at least certain sections of the population. The dissemination of the nationalist idea owed much to the expansion of the Hebrew press, headed by the weekly Ha-Maggid, which catered to a widely scattered Hebrew reading public, especially in Russia and Romania. Traditional yet open-minded, it appealed to a new type of Jew who transcended traditional attitudes.

The example of emancipated Western Jewry, as well as the repeated attempts by the Russian government to extricate Jews from their traditional cultural and occupational patterns, made people aware that changes in their situation were possible through their own initiatives and efforts. A readiness to act in the public interest was often combined with an Enlightenment vision of a future based on the Western model: political emancipation, social acceptance, and cultural accommodation. But this projected ideal stood in stark contrast to reality; the Jewish community in Russia and for that matter in Romania was a politically underprivileged, socially segregated, and culturally self-reliant minority. As it happens, however, the vision of Jewish integration as the ultimate destiny of the community had already been discarded by thinkers who were in direct contact with Western countries where it had originally emerged.

The chief exponent of the new trend was the novelist, Peretz Smolenskin. A militant critic of social and religious conditions especially in Russia, the land of his birth, Smolenskin fought for his convictions through his literary creations and his journalistic writings, both appearing in the monthly Ha-Shahar which he edited in Vienna from 1868 on. Attacking the rabbinical as well as the lay leadership of his time, Smolenskin laid the blame for all shortcomings on the Berlin Haskalah (Enlightenment) and the subsequent Reform movement in Germany. The erosion of Jewish national unity and of the intrinsic link between social life and religion derived from these early developments, in Smolenskin’s view. The mechanical tampering with religious tradition, especially the excision of symbols connected to the future rebirth of the nation, had sapped the vital forces of the community and led to the present dismal state of affairs. At the same time, the “reward” for these reforms, the integration of the Jews as equals in the surrounding society, never stood a chance of realization.

Erroneous and unjust as this criticism may be historically, its significance for its time cannot be overrated. It amounted to a repudiation of all that the Haskalah stood for, namely, the hope that Russian Jews could improve their status by emulating the ways of their brethren in the West. Smolenskin had no alternative proposals for either the religious or the political problems of the community. Opposed to Reform, he was at the same time scandalized by the traditional rabbinate; he believed that by turning away from assimilation the community might somehow dispense with the excesses in its tradition and retain only the essentials. As for politics, Smolenskin lacked a substitute for the Haskalah belief in civic emancipation. When he first unfolded his views, the idea of settlement in Palestine did not yet occupy his mind. He strongly recommended the reestablishment of national unity and the regaining of trust in the national future as the basis for any collective action, which would then automatically follow. These ideas laid the groundwork for the political program of national revival in the homeland which emerged in the wake of the pogroms of the 1880’s. Smolenskin himself then became an active supporter of the Hovevei Zion.

Others had made this transition before the pogroms broke out. The assistant editor (and from 1880 the chief editor) of Ha-Maggid, David Gordon, impressed both by Rabbi Kalisher and by Moses Hess, and like Smolenskin opposed to the anti-nationalism of the Reform movement, defended Jewish nationalism on the modern principle that each nation should adhere to its own customs, language, and laws. How much weight in this scheme would be given to each attribute could not be authoritatively prescribed. Indeed, with the spread of the national ideal, different configurations evolved, with some assigning religion a central role and others restricting its scope or giving it up altogether in favor of other components in the national heritage.

Traces of this intellectual development became evident during the first flowering of the national movement after the pogroms of 1881, when there arose a broad consensus that at least a certain part of Russian Jewry would have to leave the country. America was the obvious goal of emigration: it was a country known to be prepared to absorb newcomers, and a contingent of Russian Jews had already settled there in the years preceding the pogroms. But Palestine was suggested as an alternative, and a prolonged and passionate debate went on for years over the relative merits of the two.

That a land lacking all the attributes which made America attractive could enter this competition at all was testimony to the previous spreading of the idea that only there could the Jews pursue their national destiny. This in turn was clearly a derivation of the messianic vision of Eretz Israel as the locale for the miraculous reestablishment of the ancient Jewish commonwealth. The emotional commitment to Palestine was all the stronger for having undergone a process of secularization.

The choice of Palestine may reveal still another indebtedness to traditional messianism. So little was known about the difficulties of life there that the decision to settle in Palestine must be taken as an emphatically irrational act. The only compensation for ignorance was belief in the predetermined destiny that tied the Jewish people to the Holy Land, a destiny which guaranteed the success of the enterprise. For the secular pioneers, the notion of historical inevitability replaced the faith in divine promise held by the Orthodox thinkers. In both cases, however, we see the operation of what may be called messianic determinism.

The messianic impulse did not exhaust its momentum with the first wave of emigrants. On the contrary, subsequent events contributed new stimuli that worked in the same direction. The awareness that Jewish life was being restored in the Holy Land almost automatically evoked images from the Bible that lent themselves to explicit messianic interpretation. In July 1882 Marcus Lehmann, the editor of Israelit, the organ of German Orthodoxy, convened a group of rabbinical and lay leaders of southern Germany to discuss how to assist Russian Jews who had left their country in the wake of the previous year’s pogrom. Lehmann opened the session with these words: “It is a wonderful token of the time that a general yearning for the Holy Land has seized a countless multitude of our co-religionists especially in Russia. . . . We must heed the hints of divine Providence and pave the way for a Jewish future of the most far-reaching consequences.” He cited the biblical examples of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, who, though facing immense difficulties, brought about the establishment of the Second Commonwealth.

Messianic overtones permeated the lives of the early settlers. As the historian Azriel Shochat has argued, even the choice of names for settlements—such as Petah Tikvah (The Door of Hope) or Rishon LeZion (First in Zion)—was guided by a wish to connect the present enterprise with the prophets’ vision of Israel’s future. Striking biblical passages of unequivocal messianic intent, like Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones brought to life, became a recurring motif in Zionist speeches and writings. This passage appears as the motto of an association founded in Jerusalem in 1882 by Eliezer Ben Yehuda and Yehiel Michael Pines and appropriately called Tehiyat Yisrael, “revival of Israel.” Two years later the prophets’ vision served as the text for a moving sermon by Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever at the closing session of a Hovevei Zion meeting in Kattowitz. The revival of the dry bones became a Zionist topos, occurring independently to many people who were engaged in the revitalization of their nation.



The compelling messianic associations aroused by the national enterprise are also forcefully demonstrated by the negative reaction to them in some Orthodox circles. Secularized Jews could oppose Zionism out of political or other reasons and possibly remain indifferent to the messianic issue. An Orthodox Jew had no such middle course. The explicitly messianic discourse of Kalisher and his circle elicited much resentment in rabbinic circles. Once the movement got under way, it had either to be embraced or rejected.

The rejection by some Orthodox and especially some hasidic authorities was emphatic indeed, assuming almost the character of religious anathema. The notion of independent human action, which struck at the heart of the traditional supernatural definition of messianism, was denounced as bordering on heresy. Whatever other motives may have been involved in shaping this attitude of total censure—simple conservatism, disquiet over the religious conduct of the settlers, the anticipation of possible failure—central to it was the impulse to protect the sacred concept of messianism from secular trespass.

The leaders of the Hovevei Zion attributed their failure to attract the Jewish masses, especially in hasidic districts, to the almost universal antagonism of the hasidic courts. The non-hasidic authorities were divided among themselves: some belonged to the Zionist movement, others supported or condoned it, still others objected to it or condemned it outright. Yet even the supporters evinced a reservation concerning the messianic interpretation of the movement. Almost to a man, they advocated resettlement of the Holy Land on the basis of the preference given by traditional religious sources to life lived there as opposed to anywhere else. To this formal religious obligation—the positive commandment of settling in Eretz Israel—they sometimes added other considerations of contemporary relevance: the advantages of an agricultural life and the like. These had already been adduced by Kalisher as subsidiary props to his main argument, which was, of course, his messianic concept. His successors in the Hovevei Zion generation ignored the messianic aspect altogether. Abraham Jacob Slucki, who in 1891 published a collection of opinions by noted rabbis on the religious status of the movement, apologized for the fact that there were members of Hovevei Zion who regarded developments in the Holy Land as “the beginning of the redemption.”

This neutralizing tendency among official spokesmen of Judaism hardly reflected the popular sentiments that nourished the movement even in its periods of relative stagnation. Those engaged in keeping the Hovevei Zion alive referred to it in correspondence as their “sacred assignment.” Such quasi-religious attachment to the idea must have persisted in all the circles which followed the vicissitudes of the movement sympathetically.

The appearance on the scene of Theodor Herzl quickened these latent sentiments. Lending the movement an unhoped-for dimension, he provided the necessary incitement for popular imagination to run high. Herzl possessed all the qualities of a charismatic leader, and was often identified with the messiah in his meetings with the Jewish masses. Such an identification, which amazed Herzl himself, was just as often criticized by the intellectuals in the movement.



The next opportunity for messianic sentiments to emerge was the traumatic experience of the second wave of pogroms starting in 1903, bloodier by far than the first. With the subsequent failure of the 1905 revolution, the hopes for Jewish integration in a reformed Russia were finally dashed. These events set in motion the greatest exodus of Jews from the country, with the majority of the emigrants once again heading for America. A fraction, however, consisting of young men and women with strong convictions, chose to join the early settlers in Palestine. Thus began the period of the Second Aliyah, which added to the foundations of the first an entirely new social and ideological dimension. The newcomers shared with the old-timers the quality of messianic determinism: they were convinced of the historic necessity of Jewish national regeneration. But while the First Aliyah had been content to leave the contours of the national revival to the future, the new pioneers came with a set of preconceived social and religious ideas. These ideas gave expression to another feature of messianism: utopianism.

Messianism in its “supernatural” form held that the future would be shaped by the hand of Providence; thus it ought to have had no room for utopian fantasy. This was in fact the position of Moses Maimonides and other medieval Jewish philosophers. The popular imagination, however, projected into the messianic age a glorious image, the inverse in every respect of Jewish existence in exile. Zionism too, in the course of time, evolved a multitude of utopian blueprints. The Second Aliyah was especially given to them.

The most influential of these scenarios was a variant of Marxian socialism transferred from the pioneers’ Russian background. It is associated with the names of Ber Borochov and, in its elitist version, Aharon David Gordon. Disassociating himself from other socialist ideologies, Gordon made the national revival of the Jews dependent on a return to manual and especially agricultural work—an ideal he himself consistently lived up to despite far-reaching personal sacrifices. The theories of both Borochov and Gordon seem rather removed from any special Jewish connotations. Borochov’s dependence on Marx is explicit, Gordon’s indebtedness to the example of Tolstoy has often been remarked upon. Yet both theories centered upon the contention that the goal could only be achieved in the Jewish homeland—a condition lacking all logical consistency and hence in the final analysis messianic. Similarly, the Zionist theorist Ahad Ha’am postulated that the revival of an original Jewish ethic, which he claimed to be the essence of Judaism (religion was only its outer expression) would take place with the return to Palestine—an idea which once again makes sense only on the basis of an irrational conviction that renewed contact with the ancient homeland would have a revolutionary impact on Judaism.

Although they differed in what they demanded of Jews, these three utopian blueprints were at one in neglecting or even directly excluding traditional Jewish religion from their vision of the future. They thus conformed to the prevailing tendency to shape the life of the new society apart from or in opposition to Jewish tradition. Still, the tradition also had its representative, in the towering figure of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, whose vision was built on messianic foundations proper.

An outstanding talmudist and student of Kabbalah, Kook demonstrated his adherence to the national movement by joining the emigrants to Palestine at the outset of the Second Aliyah in 1904. Impressed by the renaissance of Jewish life in the country, Kook took it to be an indication of divine grace, opening the process of redemption. In his enthusiasm and with his exceptional gift for literary expression he produced in his writings a profound interpretation of his time, pregnant with kabbalistic connotations and metaphysical overtones. Kook’s writings left far behind the thought of his timid rabbinical precursors, who had defined the spiritual significance of the resettlement in the Holy Land purely in terms of Jewish religious law. He returned to the explicitly messianic conception of Kalisher and Alkalay, the first apostles of national revival, but surpassed them in depth and intellectual daring.

Kook differed from all his predecessors on one crucial point. All the rabbinic authorities who supported the Palestinian enterprise had made their consent to it dependent upon the settlers’ being observant Jews. Kook, no less conservative in principle, nevertheless lent an overriding significance to the rebuilding of the country, even if accomplished by nonobservant agents. This did not impair his ultimate vision—a reconstructed traditional life based on Jewish religious law but highly spiritualized, as would befit the generation chosen to see the dawn of the messianic age. But for the present, Kook’s messianic scenario condoned and even justified the lives and work of the secular pioneers. It thus secured a measure of unity between the camps of traditionalists and innovators—an indispensable precondition for the creation many years later of the state of Israel.



Messianic determinism played a part in several different phases of Zionist history. The conviction, permeating all ranks of society, that the underlying forces of Jewish history would inevitably culminate in a Jewish commonwealth imparted energy and a willingness for sacrifice to many people who might otherwise have been apathetic. But if this quality of dedication provided, and continues to provide, the Israeli enterprise with boundless energy, it has also tested the ability of Israel to adapt to changing circumstances. Any action taken under the rubric of messianic determinism is necessarily limited in its rationality. It is based on the assumption that the individual is responsible only for the preliminary steps; their completion is assigned to the messianic power or, in secular terms, to hidden historical forces. Activities undertaken in line with such conceptions may at times achieve what seems impossible; at other times they meet insurmountable difficulties and are defeated or frustrated. The history of Zionism is replete with both kinds of experiences; a contemporary example is that of Gush Emunim, the Orthodox “bloc of the faithful” who are vociferous champions of Jewish sovereignty in the occupied territories of Judea and Samaria.

The messianic drive behind the activities of Gush Emunim is blatantly apparent. Its quasi-political goal, the annexation of the full extent of the Holy Land as defined by religious tradition, is predicated on the belief that this is the precondition for the divine redemption—similar to what Zevi Hirsh Kalisher had believed for the more modest goal of establishing Jewish settlements in the country. Indeed, with the emergence of Gush Emunim this line of thought has come full circle, returning once again to a definition of the national objectives not just in religious but literally in fundamentalist terms. At any rate, the activities of Gush Emunim are characterized by feverish intensity and by inflexibility; only time will tell what their ultimate fate will be.

Less acute than messianic determinism but no less problematic is the other legacy of Zionist history, utopianism. The ingathering of the Jews, an achievement due to the belief in messianic ideals, has exacted a price: the results are often measured against utopian standards of judgment, and are inevitably found wanting. Aside from the gap that exists between every ideal and its fulfillment, there is the additional problem that the various Zionist Utopias (social, cultural, religious) are mutually exclusive. Each could be realized only at the expense of the others; the outcome is disappointment for all parties concerned.

Zionist reality as embodied in the state of Israel is measured by a host of yardsticks, not only by outsiders but even more so by those who have created that reality and participate in it daily. This is perhaps the lot of all pluralistic societies. Yet Israelis critical of their society today tend to draw more far-reaching conclusions than used to be the case. It is not uncommon to jump from criticism to, if not the negation of the state, then at least to a renunciation of one’s allegiance to it, thus justifying emigration from the country. It sometimes seems as if the very existence of the state has yet to be taken for granted, that even its right to exist depends on the fulfillment of an unwritten contract with one of many utopian visions.



The dangers inherent in the intimate connection between Zionism and messianism are thus palpable. To meet them, some have argued that Zionism can and should be vindicated without resort to such irrational backing. Arguments of this kind have been marshaled to counter the growing claims made by movements like Gush Emunim, but the arguments themselves are not new. As early as 1929 the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, protested on behalf of “thousands of Zionists” against the blurring of boundaries between the political aims of Zionism and the religious expectations of Jewish messianism. Since then, Scholem has repeatedly confirmed his profound opposition to such enterprises—an opposition that comes with special point from one who has dedicated his life to the study of the irrational dimensions of Judaism and has even been motivated in his scholarship by his personal attachment to the project of national revival. Aware of the misguided potentialities of irrational messianism as demonstrated by the 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi, and by the movement bearing his name, Scholem has warned of similar dangers to modern-day Zionism.

The parallelism between Sabbatianism and Zionism was and is a recurring theme in the historical evaluation of Zionism, especially among its opponents. For the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the most consistent antagonist of Zionism in the last generation, Zionism and Sabbatianism were veritable synonyms. Since the ingathering into the Holy Land and the regaining of Jewish political independence had taken place without divine intervention or confirmation, as prescribed by traditional messianic sources, Zionism for Rabbi Teitelbaum represented an even greater usurping force than had the movement of Sabbatai Zevi.

The danger of messianic encroachments on politics will in the end have to be met politically. It is the test of statesmanship to channel popular sentiment toward politically defensible objectives. Indeed, the continued welfare of the state may depend on success or failure in this regard. But the neutralization of messianism can certainly not be achieved by denying its role in the history of Zionism. Attempts to banish the messianic ingredient may seem ideologically necessary to some, but the spontaneous sentiments of the Jewish people suggest the futility of the effort. The news of the Balfour Declaration in 1917; the conquering of Palestine by the English in World War I, and the inauguration of the first High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel; the 1947 United Nations decision on the establishment of a Jewish state; the declaration of independence; the victory of the Six-Day War in 1967 were all experienced as momentous and predictive occurrences for which, in Jewish cultural tradition, the messianic vocabulary is the only appropriate one. To blot out the points of reference contained in the messianic myth, even if it were possible, would impoverish the national consciousness.

Rabbinic legalists, secular ideologues, and scholars have for their various reasons tried to separate Zionism from messianism, but popular sentiment will have none of it. And this is as it should be. In every generation Jews have prayed for redemption, and never failed to include in their prayers the hope for a return to the homeland under independent Jewish rule. When this petition seemed to have been answered in our day, it was only natural to identify the momentous event as a partial fulfillment of the messianic hope. Thus the term, “the commencement of our redemption,” included in the prayer for the state of Israel, is highly appropriate. Holding out still the hope for a total messianic consummation yet to arrive, it is at once an article of faith and an accurate reflection of historical reality.

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