Messianism, zealotry threaten both Israel and Judaism

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Religious Zionism remains in danger of being led into the wilderness by zealots. Problems within modern Orthodoxy persist as religious Zionists search for explanations about the conditions that gave rise to Yigal Amir, his teachers and sympathizers.

Despite good intentions and a deep religious commitment, post-1967 religious Zionists and their institutions have produced a generation or more of young people, many of whom totally misunderstand or reject the intent of the founders of modern Zionism.

They opt to delegitimize a government with which they disagree, demonize its leaders, disregard democratic values that conflict with their own ideology and, in the extreme, resort to criminal behavior. The tragedy of these decisions is compounded because they are conducted in the name of God.

Religious Jews' ideological point of departure is the belief that Israel is the biblical birthplace of Judaism, the covenantal homeland for all Jews, given to them by God. The Jewish people were cast into dispersion due to the sins of their ancestors. Through good deeds and following God's law, the messianic age will occur — eventually. At the same time, these "modern" Orthodox Jews affirmed the Zionist dream to return now to Zion, to rebuild the promised land — not to await the coming of the Messiah. For many of them — unlike their ultra-religious brothers and sisters — Zionism became another way to help hasten the coming of the Messiah.

They combined their religious beliefs with their nationalism. Subsumed within their view was the hope for a messianic age and the ingathering of all the Jewish people into the Land of Israel.

All Jews, religious and secular, believed that the rebirth of the modern state of Israel might be the answer to the biblical eschatological vision. Among the religious Zionist community, the miraculous military triumph of the Six Day War triggered a renewed sense that the state of Israel truly was the forerunner of the messianic age. It even led some to conclude that the coming of the Messiah was around the corner.

It was this unbridled messianic vision carried to excess that overcame many religious Zionists and contributed to the Rabin assassination.

The notion of the coming of the Messiah was fueled by youthful enthusiasm coupled with charismatic rabbinic leadership that ignored political realities in the name of theological truisms. Settling the West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron) became a natural extension of this view. For them, slogans such as "Two Banks to the Jordan River," "The People, Together with the Golan," "Hebron, From Then and Forever," etc., took on not only political but religious meaning.

After the Begin government's withdrawal from Yamit in 1979, many religious Jews vowed never again to permit the return of land that was part of the divine promise to the Jewish people.

Led by Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook from Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook and his "bloc of the faithful" (Gush Emunim) followers, this ideology became the dominant thinking of the National Religious Party. Its leaders argued, contrary to numerous other rabbinic authorities, that the military victory of 1967 must be seen as a harbinger of messianic times. All political decisions thus were to be considered strictly in terms of their ability to accelerate the advent of the Messiah. Territorial compromise violated this essential tenet.

At the same time that religious fundamentalism of the Gush Emunim variety was capturing the mind and soul of many religious Zionists.

On a different track, the Chabad movement was growing rapidly throughout the world.

Using hundreds of extraordinarily dedicated and committed emissaries (shlichim), Lubavitcher Chassidim carried the word of the Torah and good deeds (mitzvot) to the non-affiliated. Especially during the late 1980s and into the '90s, even while the Lubavitcher rebbe was in good health, efforts were made by his followers to suggest that the Moshiach, the Messiah, was indeed on his way and the rebbe himself either was or might be the Moshiach.

Among the many supporters of the Lubavitch movement in America are a significant number of modern Orthodox. Although not themselves followers of the rebbe nor necessarily believing that the rebbe was the Messiah, many religious Zionists related to Lubavitch out of nostalgia or because of Chabad's spirituality and emotionalism.

In addition, the messianic dimension among Chabad, while very different from Gush Emunim, did not present a conflict for Gush Emunim followers. As a result, any religious Zionists were ripe to accept an anti-modern, anti-rational, fundamentalist approach and take it to its logical conclusion.

It is clear as we approach the end of the 20th century that one element within the modern Orthodox world has gone astray. Judaism, like all the major religions, faces a very serious fundamentalist challenge. Religious Zionism, at best, has drifted from its pre-1967 dream. Contemporary Israeli politics, severely challenged by the messianists, has sought to keep its focus on being a modern Jewish state with a commitment to Jewish religious values and not one manipulated by spiritual zealots.

The political crisis for religious Zionism is genuine. If modern Orthodox Jews are to play a significant role in the future of the state of Israel, they must be prepared to place their messianic vision within the context of political reality.

If Gush Emunim and Chabad messianism continues to drive religious Zionism, the marginalization of modern Orthodoxy will be complete and the modern Jewish state will lose any hope of benefiting from the ethical teachings of religious Zionism.