Zionism as Judaism

Tags: Diaspora, Zionism, Leadership, Judaism, Jewish Identity

By Robert Wolfe

E.M. Lilien

There exist innumerable definitions of Zionism. The one I prefer is: Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The question I want to raise here is: what is the relationship of Zionism to Judaism? Some see Zionism as an outgrowth of Judaism, others as its antithesis. In my view, Zionism is Judaism.

Judaism is of course a relatively modern concept. Traditionally there was no such thing as Judaism but only the religion of the Jews. There was no need to speak of an "Orthodox" version of this religion because there was only one version, handed down from one generation to another by the rabbis. Only after the emergence of the "Reform" movement in the early 19th century of the Christian era did it become necessary to define what was "Orthodox" and what was not. And once people began to argue over the real nature of the religion of the Jews, Judaism was born.

Today we have Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, Humanist Judaism and who knows what else. The only point on which all these versions of Judaism agree so far as I am aware is that it is a good idea to celebrate the Jewish holidays. Humanist Judaism regards the concept of God as unnecessary, while Reconstructionist Judaism treats it as a metaphor for something or other. Conservative Judaism is generally supportive of the nation of Israel, while most of the other versions tend to the critical side. Orthodox Judaism equates virtue with performance of the mitzvot, while most of the others equate it with conformity to some kind of philosophic or ethical ideal.

In short, defining Judaism based on the doctrines of the Judaists is a hopeless task. I would propose a different method, which is to define Judaism based on the religion of the Jews.

Illustration by samukay

Anyone who has studied this religion in any depth can have no doubt as to what it was all about. It was about the expectation that if the Jews performed the mitzvot correctly, the Messiah would come and restore the Jews to the land of their birth. This was the faith which sustained the Jewish people during the long centuries of exile, segregation and persecution. If there was a difference among Jews, it was between those who passively awaited the coming of the Messiah and those who sought to "force the end" by actions intended to bring about the ingathering of the exiles even without divine intervention.

From the 13th century onwards, those who sought to "force the end" were identified with the teachings of Kabbalah. And central to Kabbalah was a text known as the "Zohar", which taught that only in the land of Israel could the religion of the Jews reach its full stature. Starting in the late 15th century in connection with the expulsion from Spain and Portugal and the rise of the Ottoman empire, literally tens of thousands of Kabbalists, most of them Sephardim, did in fact settle in the land of Israel in the "four holy cities" of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron. These Kabbalists were Zionists in all but name, and their Zionism was a direct expression of the religion of the Jews as they understood it.

However, the Zionist movement which actually succeeded in bringing about the ingathering of the exiles and the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel was predominantly secular in character. Why was this? It was because the religious Zionists could not free themselves from the belief in miracles.

The Kabbalists who settled in the land of Israel continued to await the coming of the Messiah once they were there. They failed to develop a realistic program for cultivating the land or defending themselves against Arab aggression because they expected God and the Messiah to solve these problems for them.

The only form of Zionism that could actually succeed was one which had entirely abandoned the expectation of miracles and relied solely on its own strength and capabilities.

But the goals of the secular Zionists were at heart no different from those of the religious Zionists. Those goals were to create a Jewish state and society in the land of Israel that would serve both to rehabilitate the Jewish people and act as a light unto the nations. This was the program of the "Zohar" no less than it was the program of Ben Gurion, and Ben Gurion repeatedly described this program as "Messianic" in his writings and speeches.

Orthodox Judaism today also claims to perpetuate the Messianic tradition, but this claim has become highly suspect. Most Hasidim, who constitute the dominant element among Orthodox Jews today, regard the state of Israel as an illegitimate entity precisely because it was not brought into being by miracles. They say that they are still awaiting the coming of the Messiah and in the meanwhile claim to owe no real allegiance to the state of Israel. In short, their Messianism has no practical result, while the secular Messianism which did have a practical result they scorn and disdain.

Most of the other Judaists have explicitly repudiated the Messianic tradition. In particular, Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanist Judaism all say that they do not believe in the coming of the Messiah and do not regard the birth of the state of Israel as the culmination of Jewish history. They say that the true mission of the Jews is to spread some kind of vague philosophic ideal of goodness and mercy around the world.

This doctrine does not have much in common with the religion of the Jews from which secular Zionism emerged. It must be Judaism, since they call it that, but it is a Judaism which faces an uncertain future since it does not greatly differ from many other religious and philosophic teachings.

Properly understood, Judaism is first and foremost Judah-ism. The word Judaism is derived from the word Judah, which is the English form of the Hebrew name "Yehudah".

Judah was originally the name of one of the Hebrew tribes, and because it was the tribe of David, Judah became the name of the Hebrew kingdom which David founded. In other words, Judah in ancient times was not the name of a religion but of a nation state. This nation state occupied approximately the same territory as the modern nation of Israel, and its people spoke the same language as modern Israelis, namely Hebrew.

The people of Judah also had a religion, but this religion is not perpetuated by any modern version of Judaism since it was centered around the Temple in Jerusalem, which no longer exists, and required animal sacrifice, a ritual which is no longer practiced.

What remains of Judah today is above all the ideal of a sovereign nation state on the territory of the land of Israel belonging to the Nation of Israel, and this ideal is embodied in Zionism to a far greater extent than it is in any modern version of Judaism that is actually called by that name.

What would it take for Zionism to be recognized as authentic Judaism? It would take weekly "services" such as are associated with all the other forms of Judaism.

And what would be the content of these "services"? Worship of God for making Zionism possible? Hardly. Zionism from the start even in its religious guise was based on the concept of "forcing the end", not waiting for God but relying on our own powers and ability.

God in any case is not necessary to Judaism as has been demonstrated by Reconstructionist and Humanist Judaism. What is necessary is an ethical ideal, and this is the missing component in the contemporary Zionist movement.

Zionist culture is rich in ethical teachings, but there is no single, agreed upon exposition of Zionist ideals that could be used as a basis for conducting weekly gatherings. Yet there is a real need for such gatherings, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, as a way of inspiring Jews everywhere with a spirit of dedication to the Zionist movement.

The following statement of the Zionist ideal by Yigal Alon provides a good example of the type of formulation that could provide a solid basis for weekly educational and inspirational gatherings of a Zionist Judaism:


Zionism is the modern expression of the ancient Jewish heritage.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of a people exiled from its historic homeland and dispersed among the nations of the world.

Zionism is the redemption of an ancient nation from a tragic lot and the redemption of a land neglected for centuries.

Zionism is the revival of an ancient language and culture, in which the vision of universal peace has been a central theme.

Zionism is the embodiment of a unique pioneering spirit, of the dignity of labour, and of enduring human values.

Zionism is creating a society, however imperfect it may still be, which tries to implement the highest ideals of democracy - political social and cultural - for all the inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex.

Zionism is, in sum, the constant and unrelenting effort to realize the national and universal vision of the prophets of Israel.

I am sure that other formulations along similar lines could also be found. I propose a wide ranging discussion of Zionist ideals with a view to developing a movement for the creation of a Zionist Judaism.


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About the Author

Robert Wolfe
Robert Wolfe is a historian and scholar that has studied, taught and written about history for 50 years. For the past 35 years, his focus has been on the specific issue of the role of the Jewish people in world history. He has written five books and a number of articles bearing on this topic. Gradually he was drawn to Zionism, and in 2001 he and his wife Linda made aliyah to Israel.

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Tags: Diaspora, Zionism, Leadership, Judaism, Jewish Identity

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