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The second component of the Rav’s Religious Zionism was activism – the necessity for Jews to take a stand in world affairs, to be people of deeds as well as of books. He developed this philosophy building within the tradition of his father and grandfather.
The essence of the Brisk conception of Torah is the mandate of imitatio Dei, intellectual creativity of man emulating the creativity of God through the study of Torah. The Rav felt this creative power must also be actualized beyond the realm of the intellect and carried into the outside world. He believed the vision of Mizrachi was to extend beyond the tent of Torah, to establish the Jewish people’s ownership of the Land of Israel in the way the returning exiles did in the time of Ezra, through weeding and plowing, digging wells and fortifying borders.
The Rav came to believe with a full heart that the true achievement of the state of Israel was the creation of a people with a Gemara in one hand and a plowshare in the other. This activism was at the heart of his Zionism and the focus of his entire worldview.
Activism comes with obligation. If God gave us the power to act, we have a responsibility to do so. The Rav elucidated this beautifully in his 1956 speech at Yeshiva University titled “Kol Dodi Dofek.” He told Shir Hashirim’s tragic story of a couple deeply in love. One night the young lover knocks on his beloved’s door, but she is too tired and tells him sleepily to go away and come back tomorrow. She awakens the next day and goes searching for him but eventually realizes he is gone forever, lost to her for all time because she missed her opportunity.
The Rav argued that each of us is given a chance to reach for something, to become great and to actualize our potential. We learn from Shir HaShirim that we must not let apathy, feelings of inadequacy or laziness spoil this opportunity.
The Rav spoke of six knocks on the collective door of the Jewish people calling us to awaken and reach for greatness. These knocks were the six miraculous events accompanying the establishment of the State of Israel.
The first was political, as both the United States and the USSR voted for the creation of a Jewish state. The second was military, as a tiny Jewish fighting force, handicapped by an arms embargo and massively outnumbered, emerged victorious. The third was theological, as Christian doctrine was refuted by the Jewish people reemerging as a vibrant player on the world stage.
The fourth was sociological, as Jews from around the world felt proud to be Jewish and free to re-engage with their Jewish identity. The fifth was attitudinal, as the international community realized that with the birth of Israel the Jews had a homeland and Jewish blood could no longer be shed freely and without fear of retribution. The sixth and final knock was the influx of exiles, as Jews returned to Israel from around the world.
This speech became the most famous exposition of Religious Zionist thought in the 20th century, and the philosophy it espoused was a result of the Rav’s personal journey over the previous decades.
For both Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, Zionism was connected to Torah. For Rav Kook, however, Zionism was an a priori reflection of his Torah perspective, as obvious as tefillah, Shabbat or kashrut. For the Rav, Zionism was a posteriori, a position adopted after tumult and struggle.
The Rav, therefore, did not grant Zionism an independent mandate in religious life. He rejected the position of Nachmanides, elucidated in his commentary on Acharei Mot (18:25), that mitzvot can only be properly fulfilled in Israel and that, therefore, yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling the Land of Israel) is more important than all the other commandments combined. This position would lead to the conclusion that Zionism is more important than every other aspect of Torah life. The Rav wholeheartedly rejected this; he believed that Zionism, as with every other hashkafa, must be actualized solely within the bounds of a rigid halachic framework.
This position often put the Rav at odds with other Mizrachi thinkers who followed the teachings of Rav Kook and saw Zionism as of supreme importance in religious life.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
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