Revisiting Zionism—Can Israel Survive Without a Soul?


By: Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Jacobson



The spies Moses sent to survey the land had done their job well. They convinced the entire nation that the advance to the Land of Israel was doomed and that Moses had misled them by taking them out of Egypt. A national hysteria consumed the nation. They demanded a new leader who would return them to Egypt.

In the continuation of this episode related in this week’s portion (Shelach), Moses chastises the nation severely. He communicates to them G‑d’s pledge that their wish would be fulfilled: they would not enter the land but rather perish in the wilderness. Moses’ words hit the people very hard and brought them to their senses. They decided to repent and advance toward the land. They exclaimed, “We are ready! We shall ascend to the place G‑d has spoken; indeed we have sinned.”

This time, though, Moses refused to go along.

“Why do you transgress the word of G‑d; it will not succeed!” he tells them. “Do not ascend, for G‑d is not in your midst! And you will be smitten before your enemies.”

But they refuse to obey. They are determined to mend their mistake and advance toward the Promised Land. “They defiantly ascended to the mountaintop, while the Ark of G‑d’s covenant and Moses did not move from the camp.”

This path turned out to be ill advised. They were indeed struck down.


No Second Chance?

This story must be studied well.

The Bible often speaks of G‑d as welcoming and embracing repentance. The Jews have repented in this case: they acknowledged their sin; they expressed remorse; they were determined to reverse their actions and follow the destination G‑d envisioned for them at the outset of their journey. They were sincere in their repentance and conviction. But Moses warned them against it. Why? Doesn’t Judaism believe in a second chance?

When we read the verses carefully, the answer becomes clear. Moses was not disputing the fact that their repentance was sincere. What he was telling them was that to conquer the Land of Israel they needed to have G‑d in their midst. They could not do it alone. But G‑d would not accompany them this time. He had decreed that this generation would remain in the desert. “The Ark of G‑d’s covenant and Moses did not move from the camp.” And when the people attempted to take the land without the divine Ark at their side, failure was imminent.

The message Moses was communicating here was nothing less than revolutionary. He was telling them that for the Jewish people, nationalism divorced from spirituality and religion will not succeed.

Was he right?

Let us go forward a few thousand years and study the modern-day creation of the State of Israel.


Two Goals of Zionism

Zionism was a movement created more than a century ago with the goal of creating a national homeland for the Jewish people. Its founders believed that if a Jewish state were created, there would finally be one place on earth where Jews could be safe. Here, it was said, Jews would be able to defend themselves.

The early political Zionists also believed that having a country would normalize the condition of the Jew in the world. The Jews were singled out, they speculated, because there was something unnatural about a people not having a home. The French had France, the Italians had Italy. If the Jews had a country, the condition of the Jew would change. The world would cease its relentless attention on this tiny fraction of the world’s population.

[One hundred and fourteen] years have passed since the first Zionist congress in Switzerland (in 1897), led by figures like Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau and Dr. Nathan Berenbaum (the latter coined the term Zionism). Israel today is a beautiful country that we love and cherish. Notwithstanding all of its challenges from within and without, it will soon boast the world’s largest Jewish population and one of the greatest armies in the world. Its cultural, academic, social and religious achievements are extraordinary. It has become a home for millions of Jews and for their creativity in many diverse fields. We must support Israel in every possible way.

Yet, the sad truth is that the two primary and noble goals of Zionism—to create a safe haven for Jews and normalize their condition—have, sadly, not materialized in the State of Israel.

Only in the Jewish state were Jews subjected to daily missile attacks—for over six years!—on their children. Only in the Jewish State did a million Jews cower in bomb shelters to protect themselves from Hezbollah missiles. (In the end, the only thing that stopped the shelling of Israel’s northern cities was the United Nations. We needed the gentiles again for our safety . . .)

Nor has Israel normalized the Jewish condition. Not only has it not assuaged the obsession with the Jewish people and extinguished the flames of anti-Semitism, on the contrary, the very existence of the State has become the target of enormous anti-Semitism the world over. Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur—all conflicts that have taken countless more lives than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—receive nowhere near the amount of attention that Israel does.

What did the ideologues of Zionism fail to understand? Where did they go wrong?

Too much is at stake for us to ignore this question. So many of our brothers and sisters have sacrificed—and continue to sacrifice—so much for our homeland, that we must not fail them by not attending to this question with the utmost sincerity and intellectual integrity.


What Makes Us a Nation?

Writing in the tenth century, the great Rabbi and philosopher Saadya Gaon pondered the question of what constituted the Jews as a nation. What was it that made us “one people” despite the fact that we did not share any of the conventional bases of nationhood? Lacking a homeland or political sovereignty, scattered around the world, speaking many languages and possessing a diversity of cultures, what defined the Jews as a single nation?

Rabbi Saadya’s answer was straightforward: “Our nation is only a nation in virtue of its Torah.” What he meant was this: The exclusive factor that defined Jewish nationhood—the thread that connected a Jew from Spain to a Jew from Tunisia—was their shared commitment to the same Torah and its Mitzvos.

The very genesis of Jewish nationhood attests to this, for our beginnings as a people differ from every other nationality on earth. Where the history of other nations begins with a piece of territory inhabited by many individuals who then form a nation and a constitution, Jewish history begins outside of their homeland, in the wilderness. What defines them as a nation is not the territory, but rather a single idea, a vision, a perspective, what we call today the Torah. For other nations, the homeland breeds the laws; for the Jews—whose very identity as a nation was defined by law, by Torah—the homeland is an outgrowth of Torah. The Torah defined the Land of Canaan as the suitable homeland for the Jews, the most conducive place on earth for them to carry out their mission and destiny.

It is fair to say that history has proven Rabbi Saadya right. Any Jewish movement over the last 3300 years that redefined Jewishness not in terms of Torah and Mitzvos—from the worshippers of the Baal during the First Temple era to the Sadducees in the Second Temple era, to the founders of the Enlightenment, the Yiddishisten and Bundesten in our own modern era—did not pass the test of time. Their great-grandchildren either returned to Torah or were lost to the Jewish people. The Jewish people could not sustain themselves as Jews without Torah.

What is even more: If we were to search for an objective, scientific answer to how the Jewish people have survived through millennia of unparalleled suffering and abuse, we would be compelled to search for the common thread that pervaded all of Jewish history from its very beginnings to this very day. And the only constant factor that has accompanied the Jewish people—through all its vicissitudes—was not land, language, culture, military prowess, etc., but its tenacious adherence to our spiritual heritage; its commitment to Torah and Mitzvos.


The New Jew

For close to eight centuries Rabbi Saadya’s declaration went uncontested. Even those Jews, like Boruch Spinoza, who abandoned Jewish law, understood that this meant abandoning conscious membership of the Jewish people. Emancipation and Enlightenment in the 18th century gave birth, for the first time since Rabbi Saadya, to the idea of redefining the Jewish people outside of the context of Torah and Mitzvos.

Zionism followed suit. The leaders of secular Zionism sincerely believed that the new national identity of the Jewish people would create a new type of Jew, a “national creature” rather than a “religious creature.” The founders of the State of Israel, too, tried hard to create the identity of an “Israeli.” They believed that the Jewish religion served its purpose while in exile countries, giving Jews a distinct identity. But once they have created a national homeland for themselves, they could let go of their religious baggage and finally become a nation like all nations, a nation defined by its nationality, homeland and culture, not by its faith and spirituality.

The Israeli national anthem speaks of “the 2,000 year old Jewish hope to be a free people in its land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” It makes no mention of the religious connection between the Jewish people and the Land. The signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, drawn up in May 1948, made no mention of G‑d or Torah. After much debate, it was agreed upon to insert the ambiguous phrase “The Rock of Israel (Tzur Yisrael),” to be interpreted as one desired.

This seemed like a rational approach. Why mix religion and statehood? For a democracy to flourish, liberal pluralism must be maintained. Church and state need to be separated. Introducing biblical notions into the Zionist endeavor would only undermine Israel’s success as a liberal democracy.


Buber’s Warning

Writing from a very different paradigm, Martin Buber (in an essay titled “Zionism and the Other National Concepts”) argued against the creation of a purely secular state of Israel.

“The secularizing trend in Zionism was directed against the mystery of Zion too. A people like other peoples, a land like other lands, a national movement like other national movements—this was and still is reclaimed as the postulate of common sense against every kind of ‘mysticism.’ And from this standpoint, the age-long belief that the successful reunion of this people with this land is inseparably bound up with a command and a condition was attacked. No more is necessary—so the watchword runs—than that the Jewish people should be granted the free development of all its powers in its own country like any other people. . . .

“The certainty of the generations of Israel testifies that this view is inadequate. The idea of Zion is rooted in deeper regions of the earth and rises into loftier regions of the air, and neither its deep roots nor its lofty heights, neither its memory of the past nor its ideal for the future, both of the selfsame texture, may be repudiated. If Israel renounces the mystery, it renounces the heart of reality itself. National forms without the eternal purpose from which they have arisen signify the end of Israel’s specific fruitfulness. The free development of the latent power of the nation without a supreme value to give it purpose and direction does not mean regeneration, but the mere sport of a common self-deception behind which spiritual death lurks in ambush. If Israel desires less than it is intended to fulfill, than it will even fail to achieve the lesser goal.”

Buber, himself quite distant from many aspects of Jewish faith and practice, talks of the “eternal purpose from which they have arisen.” These are, like Buber himself, beautiful but nebulous words; but they can be taken in many directions. In fact, some of Buber’s students at Hebrew University have become Post-Zionist thinkers calling for the abolishment of Israel as a “Jewish State.”


The Soul of a People

More than 3300 years ago Moses spoke clearly of the Jewish struggle for self-identity. He understood that nationality divorced from spirituality would not suffice for the Jewish soul. Our very identity is bound up with Torah; the definition of our nationhood is that we are carriers of Torah. If the Ark does not enter into the land with the Jewish people, their existence is in peril.

A national homeland on its own cannot do the trick for us. It can’t “normalize” us, nor can give us the safety we crave. We need G‑d in our midst; we need the Torah at our side.

This is not to suggest that citizens of Israel should legally be coerced to follow Jewish law. This would create an even deeper animosity to Judaism and its laws. In the world we live in, religion and spirituality must be a personal choice coming from within. What it is saying is that every nation needs a soul. Even Israel. And the soul of the Jewish people for 4,000 years has been the Torah.

Ancient Egypt and Rome built great monuments to outlive the winds and sands of time. What they built still stands, and in some respects has never been surpassed. But the civilizations that gave them life are long gone. The Jews became builders, too, but what they constructed were not monuments of stone. Instead they were summoned at Sinai to build a righteous world, worthy of becoming a home for the Divine presence. Its stones would be its holy deeds, mitzvot, and its mortar—Torah study and compassion. By teaching the Jews that the Architect of this world is G‑d, and that the builders are all who wish to become His “partners in the work of creation,” Moses turned a group of slaves into an eternal people.


“Revisiting Zionism—Can Israel Survive Without a Soul?” The Algemeiner. June 19, 2011.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher.