One of the most troubling theological questions of modern times is why the return to Israel was spearheaded predominantly by non-religious and even anti-religious Jews. This question is not just an intellectual mystery; it has broad implications for how religious Jews relate to and engage with the current state of Israel, which continues to have an uneasy relationship with Judaism.
Many Torah-observant Jews have concluded that the ultimate redemption can’t possibly occur in this fashion, and therefore reject the return to Israel as a religiously significant development. Even those who embrace the state as “the first flowering of the redemption” struggle to reconcile the continued ambivalent — at times hostile — actions of the government toward religious sectors and movements that promote Torah observance as inseparable from Jewish nationhood.
The most extreme manifestation of this is some members of the Neturei Karta sect of Jews, who align themselves with Israel’s most savage enemies in seeking its destruction, all in the perverse name of performing God’s will and undoing the work of Satan. Thankfully their influence is minimal; their appearance as “ultra-Orthodox” Jews provides fodder for the media, which gobbles up any opportunity to portray all religious Jews as extremists or fools by association, but it seems their value as useful idiots is confined to that. This small sect of deranged traitors is an embarrassment and a desecration of God’s name, but not worthy of serious attention.
Many Orthodox Jews (typically referred to as haredi — but I am against the use of labels and categories, as they needlessly divide us based on arbitrary, often dubious externals) are indeed convinced that the ultimate redemption cannot blossom from the work of the early Zionists. However, they are at a loss to provide a plausible explanation for how and why Israel continues to grow and prosper more than 120 years later if this is indeed against God’s will.
Surely there are many prolonged historical situations that we cannot fully explain — we need look no further than 2,000 years of exile and persecution. The difference is that Israel could not possibly have grown and thrived — let alone existed altogether — for so long without God’s continuous miraculous intervention. If this were something that went against His will, He would simply need to look the other way for a short time and that would be the end of it, God forbid.
Despite this clear evidence that God supports the existence of Israel, for all its warts and imperfections, hard-core “haredim” seek to disassociate themselves from the state as much as possible and reject the secular Zionists as agents of God’s will. It has become dogmatic for them, an inviolable belief tantamount to the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and a prerequisite for acceptance into many of their communities. This extreme social pressure keeps people in line who would otherwise have a much more favorable view of historical developments, but are otherwise attracted to the lifestyle in these communities. It’s most unfortunate and against Torah principles for a perspective on an ambiguous matter to be imposed on people this way — yet this is how much of the so-called “Torah world” operates.
If you ask someone from this camp for the proper religious approach to the Holocaust, they will respond that we have to accept it as God’s perfect will, even though we cannot fathom His ways. This is a proper response. Yet, in a most bizarre irony, these same people cannot accept the return to Israel of millions of Jews under Jewish leadership — unworthy as this leadership may be — as God’s will! We can accept thousands of years of destruction and persecution as God’s will, but the rebuilding of Israel is the work of Satan?! Only a clever Jewish mind can contort itself to rationalize such an absurd conclusion. If anything is the work of Satan, it is that.
The rest of religious Jewry is openly supportive of the modern state, with varying degrees of ambivalence. On the extreme end of this spectrum we find religious Jews who are so ebullient about supporting Israel that they are unwilling to criticize the government. Most likely this is an over-reaction to the anti-state crowd, who will never express support for the government, as opposed to a thought-out position. It is not a rational theological approach; no one short of a prophet acting on God’s clear instructions deserves a blank check — certainly not a government composed of nothing resembling divine actors. This group of religious Jews cannot explain why God chose the early Zionists, but they prefer to ignore the issue, for better or for worse.
Then we have everyone else. They firmly believe that Israel is “the real thing”, but they are befuddled by Israel’s identity complex. There is a clear dichotomy between how Israel should look if it were guided by true Torah leadership and how it looks today, with a seemingly insurmountable chasm between reality and this vision, which itself is murky.
The fact that Israel started as a clearly secular entity that made some room for religion, and has continued to marginalize Judaism as a personal choice — rather than part and parcel of who we are as a nation — creates a deep internal tension. “We support Israel, we love Israel… but there is something fundamentally wrong with Israel from the very moment it was re-established, and we don’t know how to reconcile that.” It is no surprise that many religious Jews vacillate between the opposite extremes of supporting Israel and rejecting it, and if they don’t, their children do. There is no clear comfort zone.
This tension is also one of the main impediments or excuses for the many thousands of religious Jews across the world who choose to remain behind in foreign lands. This is perhaps the greatest consequence of this theological issue remaining unresolved. As long as it is not abundantly clear that the early Zionists were in fact agents of God, it is convenient for these Jews to overlook modern Israel as being God’s will, and taking the logical step of fully participating in its development.
With this backdrop in mind, I will present four explanations for why the non-religious and anti-religious Zionists were not only agents of God’s will, but the redemption could not possibly have occurred without them specifically orchestrating the return to Zion. Two of these explanations come from the monumental sefer, Eim Habanim Semeichah by Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, HY”D, and two are based on my own understanding of the subsequent history as it has unfolded.
All of these explanations are complementary and interrelated. Together they form a compelling argument for accepting and embracing the modern state of Israel as God’s will, an unmistakable harbinger of the ultimate redemption in progress, and a divine call to world Jewry to return home to their motherland.
In Eim Habanim Semeichah (Chap. 2, Sec. 12), Rav Teichtal addresses the troubling question of how and why the secular Zionists could play such a vital role in the redemption process. He begins by stating the ultimate answer: we cannot possibly understand all of God’s ways, and we must accept the fact that sometimes He chooses agents that are not palatable to us, for reasons that are beyond us. Everyone and everything is an instrument of the Divine Will, and it is not our place to deny God’s intervention simply because we don’t like the intermediary. Consequently, we should embrace the opportunity to return to Israel and work hand-in-hand with even the worst of Jews in settling the Land.
He then cites a gemara, which records a tradition from the Sages that the redemption will be signaled specifically by the call of impure birds, which is a reference to sinful Jews. We know from many places that when we have a tradition from the Sages we accept it even if it runs counter to logic. Being that we have an authoritative tradition that the redemption process will begin through the actions of sinful Jews, we therefore accept it as God’s will.
Rav Teichtal acknowledges that this answer will not be satisfying to everyone; indeed, it requires an extremely high level of faith. How can it be that God would choose men who exhibit no vestige of Judaism to be the orchestrators of the return?
He offers two explanations, both of which are based on kabbalistic texts and conventional Torah sources. His primary explanation, which covers the bulk of the essay, is that it was necessary for the early Zionists to be secular in order to circumvent a spiritual prosecution against the redemption. The time was ripe for redemption, but the Jewish people as a nation were not worthy of being redeemed.
We know that the redemption can come with open miracles or with hidden miracles cloaked in a chain of natural events. The manner in which the redemption occurs depends on our spiritual state. Had the return to Israel been spearheaded by the spiritual giants of the time, the Heavenly prosecution would have rightly argued that the masses did not deserve it, and the return would have been thwarted.
God therefore chose the least likely spiritual candidates to lead the return to Israel, essentially flying under the radar of our heavenly adversaries, who were fooled into thinking that this couldn’t possibly be the ultimate redemption. “These people belong to us!” they said. Once the facts on the ground were already established, it was too late for them to undo the process.
Rav Teichtal gives other examples of critical redemption-oriented events occurring in a similar fashion, with a mixture of impurity to throw off the guard of those who would try to prevent them, as explained by the great kabbalists. Chief among them is the Davidic dynasty, whose very inception came about through the unflattering episode with Yehuda and Tamar, and our first redeemer, Moshe, who grew up in the house of Pharaoh. The beginning of the return to Israel after the Destruction of the First Temple followed a similar pattern.
In light of this, we should not be surprised to find the same subterfuge with the beginning of the final redemption. While this explanation is far from down-to-earth, it is well founded in Torah and tradition.
Rav Teichtal provides a supplementary explanation (Chap. 2, Sec. 18) from the Vizhnitzer Rav, who recognized the secular Zionists as spiritual descendants of the biryonim. These tough but spiritually empty Jews lived at the end of the Second Temple period when Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans.
The residents had enough food to hold out for many years, but the biryonim wanted to fight, believing that they could defeat the powerful Roman army. To force their way, they burned down the storehouses of food, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem. According to this Torah giant and kabbalist, the secular Zionists were unwittingly performing a tikkun (repair) for their Second Temple era ancestors, rebuilding what they had destroyed and caused to be destroyed.
Let us consider two additional explanations for why God purposely chose the secular Zionists to spearhead the return to Israel.
Imagine that the leaders were the most righteous and pious of Jews. In this scenario, the early settlement is dominated by religious Jews, who naturally control the government. The secular Jews largely remain behind in foreign countries, uninspired and uninterested in living in a religious state. The religious Jews continue to build the Land and infuse the country with holiness. Eventually the Messiah comes and completes the redemption process. Before or after this time, secular Jews become impressed with what’s happening in Israel, or else need to flee persecution abroad, and decide to join their religious brothers.
I like to believe that they would be warmly welcomed at that time. Recent history, however, suggests that the reception would be quite different. Most likely they would be met with an onerous list of religious demands to be granted entry, lest they upset the spiritual condition of the country.
Even religious Jews would be subjected to an inquisition of sorts to determine if they were sufficiently observant to be worthy of acceptance. What type of kippah do you wear? Who is your rav? What is your standard of kashrut? Do you daven with a minyan three times a day? How much Torah do you learn every day? Do you have the internet or a smartphone? Do you have a television? Do you watch movies or read secular literature? Are the women sufficiently tzanuah? And on and on.
I’m all for more meticulous Torah observance, but counter-intuitive as it seems, God sometimes has different priorities. Back then and still today, the main priority was bringing the Jews back to Israel en masse, irrespective of their level of observance. The spiritual return would be a gradual process following the physical return.
God in His infinite wisdom recognized that this could only be accomplished precisely with secular Zionists in control, at least initially. Despite their indifference and even antipathy toward Judaism, any Jew can return to Israel and even receive support from the government. The Jews in Boro Park, Lakewood, and Williamsburg can all come tomorrow and build more yeshivas in Israel, and no one will stand in their way. The reverse would likely not be true.
This brings us to the fourth explanation for why God chose the secular Zionists. Had the state been built primarily by religious Jews, they would claim that the state existed entirely due to their spiritual merits and their physical efforts. Even though the less religious would be admitted to the country, they would forever be looked down upon as second-class citizens who don’t really deserve to be there, subsisting entirely on the merits and good graces of their more holy brethren — a concept I discuss in my book Go Up Like a Wall (Chap. 21).
Because the early Zionists were primarily secular, this can never happen. Even the most spiritually bankrupt Jew can forever hold his head up high for his sacrifices and contributions to the settlement of the Land, without which the redemptive process would not have been possible. This is in no way a substitute for Torah-observance or an excuse for un-Jewish behavior, but it is a feather in their cap that no one can take away from them.
This is exactly the way God wanted it to be, for He loves all Jews and wants all Jews to feel their right to the Land and ownership of it. It was also the only way to ensure the potential for true unity among the entire nation, for all Jews can rightfully say that their contributions to the state are vital. Being that unity is also a prerequisite for the redemption, we can now understand in very practical terms why God purposely chose the secular Zionists. It was the way it had to be, plain and simple, both in spite of their serious flaws and because of them.
We look forward to the complete return of world Jewry to their motherland, the gradual spiritual return of the nation, and the completion of the redemption process that is already very much underway.
This article appeared in an abbreviated version here. Click here to read more of this writer’s work on the subject.