A New Zionism?

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DivineProvidenceMy grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, once said in my earshot that she didn’t understand why religious Jews keep waiting for the mashiach. By now, she said, after so many centuries of waiting, we should have learned that he isn’t coming. I found that sentiment shocking, coming as it did a mere four decades after the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in the land of Israel. What greater sign can there be than the ancient prophecies literally coming true after centuries of waiting?

But there are difficulties with my attitude. Prophecies come with details, many of which do not seem fulfilled. I see this as an interpretive challenge, not a historical challenge. As the old saying goes, when mashiach comes, he’ll explain to us what the prophecies mean. R. Yehoshua Pfeffer sets out to address these big and small messianic predictions in Prophecies and Providence: A Biblical Approach to Modern Jewish History, a book that is at once groundbreaking and outdated, belonging in either a previous era or representing a new era altogether.

For the past few decades, Religious Zionism has come in two main varieties: Messianic and Pragmatic. Both face significant challenges today. The Messianic stream interprets the Zionist enterprise of the past century and a half as an open fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Particularly after the Six Day War, they see our time as the beginning of the Messianic Era. If so, where is mashiach? Why are religious Jews a minority in Israel? Where is the promised peace and righteousness?

These questions form the basis of a rich Messianic Zionist literature that interprets texts as showing a gradual progression of the promised redemption. Mashiach and national repentance come in the middle of the process, not at the beginning. As I grow older, I find these interpretations more compelling, even if I remain skeptical of our ability to fully comprehend these matters. In the end, what greater sign can there be than the flourishing of the land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty?

However, the Disengagement from Gaza generated a theological shockwave among Messianic Zionists. The setback raised questions, particularly among the youth, whether we are actually witnessing the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. A wave of skepticism and cynicism has blanketed Messianic Zionism. Can the Israeli government that evicted Jewish communities, emptied shuls and yeshivas, really be a divine tool in the unfolding of the redemption? Messianic Zionism has not collapsed but its focus has shifted to practical matters rather than theology.

Pragmatic Zionism does not dismiss the power of biblical prophecy but prefers not to dwell on it. Instead, it supports a Jewish state as a home for Jews, not just as a refuge but as a place of our own in which we can flourish. However, the religious and emotional pull of an almost purely political ideology has significant limits. From afar, it seems to me that Pragmatic Zionism is becoming a larger force in Israel, and with it a noticable decline in the fervor of Religious Zionism.

R. Yehoshua Pfeffer steps into this debate from an unexpected perspective. Largely ignoring these developments among Religious Zionist thinkers, R. Pfeffer attempts to understand the dramatic events of the past century based on biblical prophecies. In doing so, much of his work is old hat. However, writing after the Disengagement and without Religious Zionist baggage, he is able to create a framework that allows for setbacks and limits the role of the secular Israeli government.

Is the State of Israel holy? Must it remain in control of the land of Israel perpetually, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy? R. Pfeffer answers that this is not necessarily true. Summarizing a Charedi writer, R. Pfeffer writes that “a possible scenario is the actual collapse of the Jewish State, which would then be followed by the revelation of the Messianic Kingdom” (p. 152). While R. Pfeffer disagrees with aspects of this view, he seems to agree the State may experience “a certain decline in strength” (p. 158) and then “undergo a process of metamorphosis” (p. 162). However, ultimately, the State “will be revealed as another step in the same direction–a further progression along the path of Jewish destiny… whose climax is the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the coming of [a] new age” (p. 162).

Messianic Zionist thinkers have explored these questions and offer similar answers. But those resolutions seem forced. They are revisions to previous ideologies that were effectively disproven. Rather than abandoning their worldviews, they tweak them. These thinkers may be correct but their efforts strain credulity. R. Pfeffer, on the other hand, lacks their theological baggage. His view is fresh, untainted and therefore, perhaps, more credible and convincing.

Yet I wonder whether anyone cares. We are not living in an optimistic age in which people see divine providence supporting our national progress. Nor are we living in an age of theological speculation. We live in practical times, when the state of Israel is strong but the individual struggle to survive causes pessimism and apathy. The entire book is a throwback to the early years of Israel’s statehood and the few years between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, when there was fear but hope, excitement and wonderment. There is little wonder left anymore.

Or perhaps, because we are living in an age of questioning, there will be renewed interest in these matters of ultimate significance. Maybe we will experience a renewed search for meaning, when people look at historical events from a wide lens and ask what they signify. The search for historical understanding and theological coherence may lead many down R. Pfeffer’s path of seeing God’s hand fulfilling biblical prophecies. This book may be the harbinger of a renewed theological Zionism.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. Yet I wonder whether anyone cares. We are not living in an optimistic age in which people see divine providence supporting our national progress. Nor are we living in an age of theological speculation. We live in practical times,

    So the question is, in “practical times” how does one act? Is their time horizon and scope simply moving from today’s fire without a longer term vision or strategy? This often seems to me the response of many (not just in the chareidi community). It has the advantage of being simple and not requiring a lot of soul searching, I’m just not sure it’s right.

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