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125 Years of Modern Religious Zionism: A Time for Serious Reflection

Our achievements over the past century and a quarter have surpassed the dreams of even the most ambitious visionaries. They’re nothing short of a manifestation of our prophets’ farsighted aspirations

by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander   | September 2, 2022

The occasion of the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress is a cause for both celebration and introspection for all Zionists. As a member of the Religious Zionist community, allow me to use that perspective to reflect upon this auspicious occasion.

Our achievements over the past century and a quarter have surpassed the dreams of even the most ambitious visionaries. They are nothing short of a miraculous manifestation of our prophets’ farsighted aspirations.

Yet in this month of reflection and introspection, we must admit that the course of our movement demands adjustments, and even new directions, if we are to fully embrace the ideals upon which religious Zionism is based.

The State of Israel today is a bastion of technological, academic, cultural, and spiritual accomplishment, and we are blessed to live in a land that is simultaneously the start-up nation and home to the largest amount of Torah study for men and women in the world. These accomplishments are a source of immeasurable importance, and of practical and religious significance.

The religious Zionist community has played a major role in the nation-building process – arguably far larger than most might have believed possible 125 years ago in Basel.

We have built kibbutzim and moshavim, landmarks of academic excellence like Bar Ilan University, Jerusalem College of Technology, and the national religious educational system of which Ohr Torah Stone is blessed to be a major player.  In all elements of modern Israeli life, be it business, entertainment, politics, and certainly national service and the military, religious Zionists are represented at the highest levels.  Our contributions on the international front in helping Israel serve as a light onto the nations are no less stellar, with ambassadors, Nobel Prize laureates, and countless successful start-up entrepreneurs associated with the dati leumi (national religious) community.

All those accomplishments have always gone hand-in-hand with a mission to ensure that the values of halakha, integrated with modernity, remain central to how we operate in every field in which we have helped the nation grow.

According to many demographers of contemporary Jewry, Israel is now home to a majority of world Jewry. This is a landmark turning point. Zionism within religious thought is about returning to the land en-masse so that together we can create a new spiritual energy for Jewry and society. In this, we can certainly take great pride.

However, these demographic trends are also a contributing factor to the tragic loss of many Diaspora Jews to assimilation. In response, Zionism also calls upon us to be a spiritual lifeline to world Jewry, something that has been achieved through the Jewish Agency and several NGO’s, including Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel Programs,  dispatching hundreds of emissaries around the world intent on strengthening those local communities as well as their bonds with Israel. In this arena of emissaries, there is still so much more to be done. Demand far exceeds Israel’s ability to supply enough proper emissaries.

Additionally, we dare not ignore the challenges in Israel in which we have been far less successful.

The land of Israel has once again become a society defined by an unfortunate return to tribalism.  While we stand united in the face of physical enemies, when it comes to how we define ourselves internally, we are deeply divided.

This is a direct contrast to the original vision of the early Religious Zionist luminaries, figures like Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Goren and Nechama Leibowitz, who encouraged the use of our common history and traditions as a unifying factor. They sacrificed and were often ridiculed for this vision, but they persisted and spoke out for unity without uniformity.

Today, Religious Zionism has become rife with political carpetbaggers, rather than promoting an ideology wishing to inspire the communal consciousness or social enterprise of our people.  While not all religious Zionist leaders are of such an ilk, many of the movement’s current leaders promote positions that are myopic and unimaginative, focused on a desire to ‘represent’ the needs or rights of its dwindling constituency, rather than engaging with the rest of the people of Israel.

As an educator, I know that such a divisive strategy, which dangerously borders on elitism, is a major turn-off for many young people.

Whereas religion, and in particular religious fervor promoting our bond to the land, should be a lauded and respected value, our youth are increasingly seeing religious Zionism as a further reflection of the “us versus them” attitude which prevails in so much of contemporary Israeli and Jewish life.

This can be seen in many areas with which our young people struggle each and every day, whether it be in how to balance religious practice with the secular life in Israel that they are unavoidably exposed to, or even how to reconcile messages of racism or homophobia (this is not about endorsing a lifestyle it is about not speaking in toxic terms against our brothers and sisters) that we hear from certain leaders within the political and spiritual echelons of the movement.

It is Rabbi Kook himself who reminded us that in the Temple on Sukkot, the holiday of ultimate joy, we encircle the altar with the Arava, the willow branch, the species which represents the Jew who is not yet informed of or engaged with his/her spiritual wings.

These messages must again be embraced, so that we can get back to the basics – Jewish unity and common purpose – that defined the early decades of religious Zionism.  If we succeed in that regard, we can be wholly confident that the ancient and modern visions of a land of peace and security, spirituality, and a united Jewish people serving as a beacon of light to the rest of society, can become a reality.

The writer is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of 30 institutions and programs transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide 

Read this oped on the Jerusalem Post website

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