THE REDEMPTION AND THE COVENANT

THE REDEMPTION AND THE COVENANT

BY PROF. AVIEZER RAVITSKY

I.

In the year 1900, one of the important rabbis of the age, Rabbi Elyakim Shlomo Shapira of Hordna, sharply attacked the Zionists, as follows: “I am also aware of the terrible destruction that they are bringing upon the Congregation of Israel, and my heart grieves… Where is the nation? If we cast down our holy Torah and its commandments to the ground, Heaven forbid, how can it be called the ‘State of Israel’ without Torah and its commandments?” (Ohr LaYesharim, p. 56) This is likely the first use in our literary history of the term “State of Israel,” and it refers directly to the Zionist awakening and its goals. How ironic it is that the context is one of strong criticism, using the language of Queen Esther, “How can I bear to see the loss of my people.”

Less than twenty years later, the term “State of Israel” appears again, this time in the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who was to become the first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael. As may be expected, the context in which he used the term was quite different than the other. Rav Kook saw the State in a most optimistic light, looking expectantly towards its embodiment of the national revival: “A State that is idealistic in its essence, one whose being is engraved with the most sublime idealistic content… this is our State, the State of Israel, the foundation of the Throne of the L-rd in the world, whose goal is only that G-d and His Name shall be one, for this is truly the most lofty happiness.” (Orot, p. 160)

What is the crux of the dispute between the two views? Both agree that a Jewish State can only be one that is “idealistic in its essence.” Both feel that this idealism is connected to the Torah and its commandments. The difference between them stems from different ways of understanding the historic situation, from different expectations, and from conflicting prognoses: What is the significance of the Zionist awakening? Does it involve a rebellion against and an abandonment of Torah, where the physical supersedes the spiritual, and the national replaces the religious? Or is this movement primarily a return and a reconnection with the source, a national-physical return which will lead to spiritual-religious repentance? In other words, what face would that far-off “State of Israel” take on, if and when it would arise?

II.

Ostensibly, it would seem that now, one generation after the establishment of the Jewish State, the present reality is a given, and that we as observers may judge which of the two forecasts came true. Was the prediction of the anti-Zionist hareidim fulfilled, or the religious-Zionist version as expressed by Rav Kook – or maybe neither of them? We should be able to use the facts to determine which path was the correct one. But obviously this is not so. Strong, solid spiritual positions do not tend to give in easily to a particular reality. They view the events according to their own standards, project their own ideas upon them, and sometimes even force their entire forecast, whether it be bright or dismal, upon the stubborn reality. This is all the more true when the manifestation itself- both in the physical and spiritual spheres – is only partial, relative, multi-faceted, as is the case of any historical manifestation, and as is the case with any success and materialization of ideas that takes place in the here and now, as opposed to at the end of days.

The opposite is true: In the past generation, the difference of opinion has widened, and the ideological extremes have grown further apart (while in between them have developed various middle-ground opinions). What appears to one group as the fulfillment of the sought-after goal, appears to the other as a betrayal of the goal; what appears to one as the Messiah, appears to the other as the anti-Messiah. This is so because, on the one hand, many elements of the Zionist vision and fulfillment bordered on Messianic anticipations: the ingathering of the exiles, the end of our subjugation by the nations, sociological progress, the blossoming of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, many other elements in the Zionist dream and enterprise threatened to shake the foundations of the Messianic expectations: the secular basis of the State, the “forcing of the End of Days,” a gradual and non-miraculous redemption process. It is as if Zionism and Messianism are playing on the same field, but according to different rules; both the spectators and the players would like to know what is the exact relation between the historic and the utopic, between the secular enterprise and the religious redemption; in short, is this the Beginning of Redemption, or an act of Satan?

Specifically because this is a partial fulfillment – parts of the world-wide Jewish population are returning to parts of the Biblical Land of Israel, and only a minority of them are faithful to the Torah – the question has become more acute: What is the character of the events that we are experiencing – the beginning of a great responsibility, or the violation of our Covenant?

III.

Let us try to understand the various possible religious responses.

The two extreme religious outlooks, comprising the two ideological poles, react to the events from a Messianic point of view. One outlook finds expression in its most extreme form in Neturei Karta and Satmar circles. It rigidly denies the legitimacy of the partial return, the man-initiated political endeavor. Zionism and the establishment of the State are rejected out of hand, in that they are human, historic, earthy. They were conceived and born in sin. The Nation of Israel was sworn to wait passively for a heavenly, miraculous, supernatural Redemption, one that would be totally disconnected to any actions of mankind. Consequently, any Jewish national revival that is detached from the Messiah Himself must by definition be a heretical act of denial against G-d, and a betrayal of our uniqueness and our destiny. It is a Satanic act, anti-Messiah, the unsuccessful end of which is foreseen and guaranteed. The Zionist enterprise is destined to make way for the true, complete, miraculous salvation, which will stand in total contrast to that which it will replace. The Zionist venture established itself as an obstacle in the way of the predetermined destiny of history, and against the fore-ordained direction of Divine Providence, and it will therefore have to make way for the absolute, pre-determined, true Messianism.

The other approach is expressed with ever-increasing absoluteness by the students of the students of the academy of Rav Kook. At its core, this approach also denies the validity of a Return to Zion and a Jewish national revival that is not totally and absolutely Messianic. However, it does not admit that there exists a gap between the current Return and that of Messianic times: “Our situation is that of the Messiah.” It is incumbent upon us, according to this view, to seek within the imperfect events of the present much more than meets the eye. Zionism and the establishment of the State are holy phenomena, in that they are the response to the call of the Divine, the super-historic, the complete and absolute. They were born and conceived in purity. Man is acting in this world with the strength granted him by Divine, Redemptive Providence, and this is leading inexorably to a total fulfillment on all of the planes, physically and spiritually. Now is the time of the End, the Redemption, the Revealed End that will not “go unanswered;” its beginning guarantees its successful conclusion. True, it is within our power to speed up or delay the process, to remove obstacles or to cause them to pile up, but the direction has already been set, and the final destination to which the present events lead has been immutably determined.

The common denominator between these two outlooks is manifest in the unmistakably deterministic approach taken towards the historic process: the future is a given, it is set and known; the fate of the Zionist enterprise has already been determined, for either blessing or tragedy. Both schools of thought already know what will be in the end, based on the beginning, and based on how it views the religious significance of the enterprise. Both agree that the complete Redemption is near, as history draws to its climactic close: either on the ashes of the Zionist endeavor, as its replacement, or as an extension of it.

IV.

These two philosophies lead to opposing political conclusions. It is interesting to note, however, that the commonality between the two positions, the underlying consent, particularly between the extreme elements of the two camps, is larger than that which appears at first glance. Opposites, at times, are connected to each other at the roots.

The anti-Zionist hareidi concludes that he must work against this mortal and deficient return to earthy history. His struggle is manifest chiefly in his separation from the State – from the elections, for instance, and from Israeli society in general. The loyal Jew will remain steadfast in his belief in G-d and in His Messiah, and will reject all forms of false Messianism, as he has done throughout history. On the other hand, his counterpart foresees the “Revealed End,” and admits that this Return will only be complete and total when the whole nation returns to the whole Land, while observing the whole Torah, and that this process will then bring about — whole peace. He too does not accord religious legitimacy to that which is only partial or only historic. The acts of Divine Providence are, by definition, complete. There is therefore no return to Eretz Yisrael unless it is to all of Eretz Yisrael. The Return foreseen in the Bible is not partial, and therefore we have no right to “compromise” on the Divine scheme. Politicians can compromise and adopt partial solutions; theologians may not, and Messianists – certainly not.

The concept of “peace” is also understood in the Biblical sense – prophetic, final, absolute. Any other peace is liable to be viewed as insignificant, worthless. It is worth noting that the Hebrew words for peace (shalom) and completeness (shlemut) come from the same root. On the one hand, this phenomenon has ethical clout: it establishes a noble goal, and encourages us not to let up, even in the hardest conditions, from seeking the highest social perfection that we can. On the other hand, though, the translation of this way of thinking into political and diplomatic terms may very well hinder and forestall any realistic attempt to achieve political, earthy, historical peace. For such a peace will leave smoldering tensions; it will not beat swords into plowshares, and it will not lead to idyllic harmony. Such a peace is not more than an illusory bluff, whereas true peace is an absolute. Paradoxically, it could very well be that the maximalist quest for the true peace, the love of complete harmony, is that which will neutralize the value of any real arrangement for here-and-now peace. “Such a peace,” say the proponents of the absolute, “will be based on a balance of interests and not on a love of truth, and is therefore transient, while we are on the path towards the fulfillment of the ideal and the eternal.”

Herein lies an additional danger: the enemy will no longer be viewed as a political, here-and-now enemy, but as a mythological, demonic, eternal enemy; the enemy of the Divine Messianic scheme, the final obstacle before the Redemption. He is not only the temporary enemy of the Jewish people, but also the enemy of G-d, who stands as a Satan against the perfection of the nation, mankind, and the entire world. In other words, he is Amalek, and “the L-rd will have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17).” There is no compromising or making peace with such an enemy, under any circumstances.

Behold, though: as the gap between the dream and its fulfillment, between the hoped-for perfection and the partial manifestation of such, widens, the actual reality, comprised of the concrete State and its laws and practices, loses its power and authority. This is true specifically vis-a-vis the most extreme proponents of the Messianic interpretation of Zionism and the establishment of the State. For them, only the State of Israel that is the “throne of G-d in the world” is sovereign, and not the shadow of such that presently exists. The ideology is the authority and the truth, and not its deficient, incomplete, illegitimate reflection. Paradoxically, and unconsciously, it is this sublime significance granted by the believer to his absolute “State of Israel” that may lead to an undermining of the present State of Israel, and to the draining of its content and its authority. When the present State stands in contradiction to its destiny – whether in terms of its loyalty to the ideals of the Greater Eretz Yisrael or its total allegiance to the Torah – its sovereignty suffers. Perfection is no longer the next step after that which is partial or unfinished, but is rather its contra and competitor – this according to the anti-Zionist hareidi position. The Holy One, blessed be He, is present only in perfection; otherwise, there is only “hiding of the Divine countenance” and obscuration. According to the non-Zionist hareidi, there is no middle ground between total exile and total Redemption. Here, too, the “end of days” is liable to deny physical history. At times, as we have stated, opposites are joined at their root.

V.

The intense certainty and confidence of the two opposing philosophies, which survey current events from a Messianically-absolute point of view, can be quite convincing, to be sure. Is the only alternative, then, a pareve approach which drains the present Return to Zion of any religious significance – positive or negative? Must we view our generation’s national revival as one devoid of any religious meaning – as in the case of certain Agudat Yisrael circles, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s position, or the various secular approaches? In short, is there no positive religious model other than the Messianic/absolute?

In my opinion, both the spiritual reality and the political reality in our society demand the revival of an alternative ideology, and the development of another model – one that is positive – to enable us to understand the events of our generation and to help us direct them. The basic guidelines of such an approach will not be able to blossom out of nothing; they are already present in our literature and in our consciousness, scattered and incomplete, and it is incumbent upon us to gather them together, and formulate and present them clearly and thoroughly.

This approach will show that what is not whole is not necessarily incomplete, but rather on-the-way; what it is not Messiah is not necessarily Exile, but rather revival; what is not sanctification is not necessarily desecration, but rather a Halakhic and historic challenge, a “gateway of hope.” This approach will seek out the religious understanding precisely in that which is partial and incomplete, and that which the present reality allows us and demands of us. In fact, this is what always characterized the Jewish religious consciousness, and in this way it differentiated itself from the Christian mode of thought; it always knew how to find spiritual significance in a historical reality that was pre-Redemption, pre-salvation, in a not-yet Messianic world. It is therefore true: the partial can lead to the whole, little by little, and this is how it should be. But even without the goal, the partial alone also has an essential value of its own. History is not judged merely in the mirror of the "end of days."

Parallel to our formulation of the underpinnings of this approach, comes a historic model: the model for the understanding of the status of a Jewish State in this day and age will no longer be the absolute-Messianic model, but rather that which is reflected in the period of the Judges, the Kingdom of Judah, the Kingdom of Israel, and – not less important – the days of the Second Temple and the Hasmonean Dynasty. These are legitimate historic models, even if they are not total and complete; positive models, though they may be subject to criticism. They feature prophets who recognize the authority of the king, and his political standing, but at the same time stand against him and protest his acts when they deem it necessary. The Sanhedrin recognizes the authority of the king, but can also call him to trial: “Stand on your feet, King Yannai, and [witnesses] shall testify against you (Sanhedrin 19a).”

In the above situation, the prophetic destiny and the Messianic vision are not intertwined in the given reality, but rather stand against it, and demand its improvement. There are Laws of Kings which are not Laws of the Messiah; they rather represent a chance, an invitation, a “time of desire,” as in Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s dying words, “Prepare a chair for Hizkiyahu, King of Judah (Brachot 28b).”

Alongside both the formulative and the historic modes of thought lies the conceptual mode: the central concept for the basis of this approach is comprised in the idea of “covenant,” faith in the covenant that establishes the relationship between the nation and its G-d. The covenant, by definition, is not rooted upon a guarantee given by the Redeemer of Israel to the People of Israel, but rather on a relationship of “mutuality” or “reciprocity,” – mutual obligations to fulfill the demands of the covenant: a promise, yes, but a conditional one. The covenant, by its very nature, stands as the total contra to a pre-determined future, whether it be for bad or for good. It accentuates the option of “possibility,” of uncertainty, and of human freedom. Our obligations precede the Redemption, and the latter is dependent on our fulfillment of them. Although the prophetic promise concerning the future is absolute and definite, its fulfillment in a given generation or in a given society or a certain State is dependent on the ways and behavior of that generation and society.

The attempt to lend to the events of our generation the stamp of the absolute and final destiny, to blur the borders between history and the meta-historical, may be understood to be a forfeiture of the covenant, a relinquishment of human responsibility in a physical world. Furthermore, there is a measure of arrogance vis-a-vis the Divine: Even if the future is pre-determined, who amongst us is able to “climb to the heavens” and peek behind the heavenly veil to learn what it is? (The “revealed end” is not a certainty, but rather an opportunity; many other “ends” have been squandered in the past.) A religious standpoint, by its nature, is one of humility. These modes of thought, and others, are necessary for the development and actualization of a different religious mirror, one that is positive/historical, for the understanding and guidance of the events of our generation. Undoubtedly, the ultimate fate of the events will be determined primarily by our actions in the social and educational spheres, and not only in light of the theoretical development. However, we must not take lightly the real power of ideological structures, of the educational, social, and political might of well-formulated philosophies. It is no longer enough to have intuitive criticism and a partial dialectic. There is a need for a learned formulation and well thought-out ideology to guide and direct us.