Zionism is on my brain this week. Part of the reason is that it’s summer, and every summer I say goodbye to kids who are bound for Israel on teen tours, and then I follow their Facebook status updates and pictures all summer and get jealous. But really, I am thinking about Zionism because of Tisha B’Av and because of Shabbat Nachamu. Shabbat Nachamu is this weekend, and it sets a hopeful and redemptive tone for us as we move through the first of the seven shabbatot of consolation which occur beginning this week. It is a message of hope, return, and glory, and a message which sustained Jewish life in exile for two millennia and inspired the Zionist thinkers and doers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Rav Kook, the father of early 20th century religious Zionism, attempted to bridge the gap between the chalutzim (pioneers) of his time and traditional Judaism. Connecting the idea of the land of Israel to the religious needs of Am Yisrael, Kook wrote that “It is impossible for an individual Jew to be dedicated and truthful to his thoughts and logic, ideas and dreams in the Diaspora as he would be in Eretz Israel. The revelations of holiness, no matter on what level, are pure in Eretz Israel, according to their intrinsic value, whereas in the Diaspora they are intertwined and mixed with other factors. However, according to the degree one desires and is connected to Eretz Israel, ideas will be influenced by the very air of Eretz Israel.”
This statement challenges us. Is our religious awareness, our spirituality, our faith and our practice, so sullied by living in the Diaspora? Is it that much better in the Land of Israel? Can we really not live fulfilling Jewish lives outside of Israel? We all know someone who went to Israel and found God in the Negev overlooking Mitzpe Ramon or in between the cracks of the Kotel, and came back home inspired to become “more Jewish”. We know how people can become enchanted with Israel and can use that new love to create a new and more powerful Jewish identity. A small minority will take that passion and make aliyah, but most will use it to serve as the foundation of a more committed Jewish life in back in the States.
But again, is it really impossible to be as committed a Jew here as you would be in Israel? The answer to that question has to be no. While Kook sought to bridge the gap between the secular Zionism of the time and religious Judaism, by and large it was not successful, and the decidedly secular nature of Israeli society to this day in a way proves that his vision was not realized.
There are people for whom Israel has little to do with their Judaism, who have never been and don’t need to do, and they are committed Jews like those who have been to Israel twenty times. At the end of the day, Zionism is not required to live a spiritually fulfilling Jewish existence. While it is for me, and for others, one must be cautious not to mandate that all Jews fully embrace the Zionist vision. As a self-proclaimed American Zionist, however, at the end of the day I must come face-to-face with the fact that I am a Jew who has opted out of participation in the Zionist endeavor.
To further complicate things, Ze’ev Chafetz, a columnist of some note, wrote an article entitled From Pontiac to Jerusalem. In it is the following quote: “The Zionist experience has always been for the few, for the imaginative, the romantic- those who, for some peculiar reason have been born with Jewish hearts. Those are the ones who respond to the great adventure of Israel and they are the ones whose lives can be transformed by the chance to recapture the Jewish past, live in the Jewish present, and build the Jewish future.”
And Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “People think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, it is a challenge to all human answers. To have faith is to be in labor… The State of Israel is a challenge to many of our answers. To be involved in the life of Israel is to be in labor. Life in the land is a challenge to all of us. Not living in the land, not participating in the drama is a source of serious embarrassment.”
The response of the American Zionist, or, in fact, the response of any Diaspora Jew has to be clear. There is a Jewish future in the Land of Israel. Yet there is also a Jewish future in Boston. In London. In Sydney. In Toronto. In Dnepropetrovsk. To think of World Jewry as having only one center, or two poles, is to do world Jewry a disservice. While there are those in the Jewish Agency or the Israeli government, or in the ranks of the more religious, who seek to bring every last Jew to the Land of Israel, that is not my dream, nor, I might add, should not be our dream as Am Yisrael. Jewish survival through time has been dependent on the freedom of movement and the freedom to be Jewish anywhere, and the call to action, the call to participate in the Zionist dream, cannot be purely about living in the land. To rebut Heschel, participation in the drama must not require living in Israel. What we can require, or strongly encourage, is that we each do our part to make passionate and involved Jewish life a priority wherever there are Jews, and to teach our children to love and support Israel as we have.