Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Israeli Messianic Judaism

How did the West Bank settlements become the national project of the State of Israel?

On 5/5/05, in honor of Israel's Independence Day , the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a list of the top 10 people who made Israel what it is today. Predictablye, David Ben Gurion comes in first. Yizhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat are also in the top 10. There is one rabbi in the listL Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook. He comes in after Yasser Arafat and ahead of Golda Meir.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook (1891-1982) was the father of the settlement movement. The paradox that he advocated was a. the State of Israel is the fulfillment of God's redemption and ushers in a Messianic age and b. his followers should violate the State's laws in building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. His followers became the founders of the West Bank settlement project. Many of them are still public figures on the West Bank and Israel.

In preparing for a class I'm teaching next semester I did some research on the origins of Kook's settler movement. It started with Zvi Yehuda's father, Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (piling on the names must run in the family). Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook was the rabbi of generation of Israel's founding fathers (the so-called second wave of immigration). He negotiated the divide between traditional Judaism and political Zionism. He was ideologically committed to the Zionist project. He parted company with his fellow traditionalists in conferring rabbinic blessing on the young anti-clerical - often anti-religious - Zionists.


                                                        Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865 - 1935)

The outbreak of WWI left A.I. Kook stranded in London. This is what he had to say about the Great War in his essay, "Days of Battle" published in "The Vision of Redemption" (1941)

(The translations are mine. In a time of the revival of the Hebrew language, Kook's prose was particularly creative. He writes elsewhere how he strives for a (kabbalistic) transcendence through language. I've toned it down a bit in the English.)
When there is a great war in the world, the Messiah's power quickens. "The time of the songbird is nigh" (Song of Solomon 2:13). The song of the evil tyrants is eradicated (lit. the pruning of the evil tyrants is at hand) and the world breathes. "and the sound of the turtledove is heard in the land." The individuals who die an unjust death in the violent upheaval of war possess the quality of the righteous, whose death is an atonement. Their souls ascend in the root of life. Their very lives bring goodness and blessing to the greater good of the new world that is being built. The presence of the Messiah becomes more apparent. As extensive and devastating as the war is so is the depth of yearning for the appearance of the Messiah. (p. 121)
Later in the book, Kook answers a question from a devout Jew whether he could collaborate with the (secular) Jewish National Fund. The question centers on the JNF's desecration of the Sabbath by conducting land purchases on Saturdays.

Kook reviews some Talmudic material on the importance of Jewish ownership of land in the Land of Israel. Then he writes:
The JNF's mission is to to purchase properties in the Land of Israel, to transfer them away from non-Jewish ownership to Jewish. This is defined under the religious requirement to occupy the Land which is equal in significance to all the other commandments. The proof is that the Torah requires us to engage in this commandment even by waging war. Naturally, lives are always lost in war. The Torah says of all the other commandments, "that one may live by them." Not so in relation to occupying the Land. While we are not currently engaged in occupying the land by force, we are enjoined to invest all our efforts in occupying the Land through transactions.
The suspension of all law for one redemptive act, and the atoning power of the death of the innocent echo another Jewish Messianic movement: Christianity. Other Jewish Messianic movements in history similarly placed the Messianic idea ahead of all Judaism. The 17th century Shabtai Zvi is a notable example.

The suspension of all of Judaism for reclaiming the Land foreshadows one disturbing aspect of American Judaism. For many Jewish organizations there is no dogma other than Zionism. A Jew can reject God, not observe any of the basic Jewish commandments and still be a Jew in good standing, but if you reject Zionism, your risk rejection by the Jewish community.

Kook's glorification of violence is deeply troubling. To this day, echoes of the debate between Kook and the traditionalist Jerusalem rabbis who rejected Zionism continue to be relevant.

Why the Israeli leadership and public adopted the Kook program is a separate question. Haaretz's readers got it right. Undoubtedly, the Kook ideology has made Israel what it is today. It has also shaped mainstream American Judaism.
Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook with Ariel Sharon, the West Bank settlements spiritual and political architects respectively, planting a tree at the settlement of Elon Moreh, near Nablus, 1974.

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