One of the most troubling theological questions of modern times is why the return to Israel was spearheaded predominantly by non-religious and even anti-religious Jews. This question is not just an intellectual mystery; it has broad implications for how religious Jews relate to the current State of Israel.
Indeed, many religious Jews have concluded that since modern Zionism was largely led by irreligious Jews, the ultimate redemption can’t possibly be connected to it. (Even those who embrace the state’s founding as “the first flowering of the redemption” struggle to reconcile the continued ambivalent, at times hostile, actions of the Israeli government toward religion.)
Yet, these same Jews are at a loss to explain how the Land of Israel continues to prosper if Zionism is indeed against G-d’s will. Israel could not possibly have grown and thrived – let alone existed altogether – without G-d’s continuous miraculous intervention. If Israel’s existence were contrary to His will, He would simply need to look the other way for a short period of time and that would be the end of Israel, G-d forbid.
Yet, despite this clear evidence that Hashem supports the medinah – for all its warts and imperfections – many religious Jews disassociate themselves from the state and reject the idea that Zionists can be agents of G-d’s will.
If you ask them, “What’s the proper religious approach to the Holocaust?” they’ll respond that we have to accept it as G-d’s will and cannot fathom His ways. That is the proper response. Yet, incredibly, these same people cannot accept the return to Israel of millions of Jews under Jewish leadership as G-d’s will!
Other religious Jews, meanwhile, support the state, but are befuddled by Israel’s identity complex. The chasm between how Israel should look under true Torah leadership and how it, in fact, does look is hard to ignore. The fact that Israel continues to marginalize Judaism as a personal choice – not part and parcel of who we are as a nation – creates a deep internal tension for many Jews which they find hard to resolve.
This tension is also one of the main impediments/excuses for countless Jews who choose to live in foreign lands rather than move to Israel. As long as it isn’t abundantly clear that the early Zionists were agents of Hashem, these Jews can conveniently avoid regarding the founding of Israel as G-d’s will as well as the logical step of fully participating in its development.
With this backdrop, I will present four explanations for why the early Zionists were not only agents of G-d’s will, but why the redemption could not possibly have occurred without them. Two of these explanations come from the monumental sefer Eim Habanim Semeicha by Rav Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, Hy”d (1885-1945), and two are based on the history of the state and modern developments.
In chapter 2 of Eim Habanim Semeicha, Rav Teichtal notes, first of all, that we cannot possibly understand all of G-d’s ways. Everyone and everything is an instrument of the Divine will, and it is not our place to deny G-d’s intervention simply because we don’t like the intermediary. Consequently, he writes, we should embrace the opportunity to return to Israel and cooperate in this effort even with completely irreligious Jews.
He then cites a tradition from the Gemara (Chullin 63a) that the redemption will be heralded by impure birds – a reference to sinful Jews. Even though this idea runs counter to human logic, we must accept it as G-d’s will. Rav Teichtal acknowledges this answer may be dissatisfying to some and writes that accepting it requires a high level of faith.
Why must the redemption come though sinful Jews? Rav Teichtal offers two explanations based on kabbalistic and other sefarim. His primary explanation is that G-d, so to speak, needed to circumvent a spiritual prosecution against the redemption. The time was ripe for redemption, but the Jewish people were not worthy of being redeemed, so He needed to engage in “subterfuge.”
We know according to tradition that the redemption can occur through open miracles or hidden miracles cloaked in nature. The manner in which it unfolds depends on our spiritual state. Had the return to Israel been spearheaded by spiritual giants, the Heavenly prosecution would have rightly argued that the masses did not deserve it, and the return would have been thwarted.
Hashem therefore chose the least likely candidates to lead the return, essentially flying under the radar of our Heavenly adversaries. They, too, were fooled into thinking that the movement led by these Jews couldn’t possibly be the ultimate redemption – “These Zionists belong to us!” they said. Once the facts on the ground in Eretz Yisrael were already established, it was too late for them to undo the process.
Rav Teichtal provides other examples of critical redemption-oriented events occurring with a mixture of impurity for the same reason, as explained by great kabbalists. Chief among them is the inception of the Davidic dynasty, which came about through an unflattering event. Moshe, our first redeemer also sprung from an unlikely place: the house of Pharaoh. Our return to Israel after the Babylonian exile followed a similar pattern. In light of these precedents, we should not be surprised to find the same subterfuge in relation to the beginning of the final redemption, argues Rav Teichtal.
While these explanations are far from down-to-earth, they are well founded in Torah and tradition.
Later in his sefer, Rav Teichtal provides a supplementary explanation from the Vizhnitzer Rav, who recognized the secular Zionists as spiritual descendants of the biryonim. These tough but spiritually empty Jews lived at the end of the Second Temple period when Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans. The residents had enough food to hold out for years, but the biryonim wanted to fight, believing they could defeat the powerful Roman army. To force the populace to join them, they burned down the city’s storehouses of food – which ultimately led to Jerusalem’s destruction.
According to this Torah giant and kabbalist, the founding generations of secular Zionists were unwittingly performing a tikkun for their ancestors, rebuilding what they had caused to be destroyed.
Here are two additional explanations for why Hashem purposely chose the secular Zionists to spearhead the return to Eretz Yisrael:
Imagine that it had started the way we believe it “should” have. The early settlement is dominated by religious Jews, who naturally control the government. The secular Jews remain behind in foreign countries, uninspired and uninterested in living in a religious state. The religious Jews continue to build the land and infuse the country with holiness.
Eventually, secular Jews become impressed with what is happening in Israel, or need to flee from persecution, and decide to join their religious brothers. I would like to believe that they would be warmly welcomed. Recent history, however, suggests otherwise. Most likely they would be met with an onerous list of religious demands to be granted entry lest they upset the spiritual condition of the country.
Even religious Jews seeking entry would be subjected to an inquisition to determine if they were sufficiently “frum” to be accepted. What type of kippah do you wear? Who is your rav? What’s your standard of kashrus? Do you daven with a minyan three times a day? How much Torah do you learn every day? Do you have Internet or a smartphone? Do you watch movies or read secular literature? Is your wife sufficiently tzanua?
I’m all for meticulous Torah observance, but, counter-intuitive as it seems, Hashem sometimes has different priorities. In the decades preceding Israel’s founding, Hashem’s main priority was bringing the Jews back to Israel en masse, irrespective of their level of observance (with the spiritual return to gradually follow the physical return). And Hashem in His infinite wisdom knew that such a return could only be accomplished davka with secular Zionists in control, at least initially.
Despite secular Zionists’ indifference and even antipathy toward Judaism, any Jew today can return to Israel and even receive support from the government. The Jews of Boro Park, Lakewood, and Williamsburg can all make aliyah tomorrow and build more yeshivos in Israel, and no one will stand in their way. Secular Jews, however, would not be welcomed in a similar manner if religious Jews were in charge.
That brings me to the fourth explanation for why Hashem chose secular Zionists to lead the return to Eretz Yisrael. Had the state been built primarily by religious Jews, they would claim today that the state exists entirely due to their spiritual and physical merits. Even if the less religious would be admitted to the country, they would forever be looked down upon as second-class citizens who don’t really deserve to be there, subsisting entirely on the merits and good graces of their more holy brethren. (See chapter 21 of my sefer, Go Up Like a Wall, for a similar example of this concept.)
Since, however, the early Zionists were primarily secular, such an attitude on behalf of religious Jewry can never arise. Even the most spiritually bankrupt Jew can forever hold his head up high for his sacrifices and contributions to the land’s settlement without which the redemptive process would not have been possible. Their efforts don’t excuse other sins they may be guilty of, but they constitute a feather in their cap that no one can take away from them.
And that’s exactly the way Hashem wanted it to be – for He loves all Jews and wanted all Jews to see themselves a the proud owners of Israel. It was also the only way to ensure the potential for true unity among the entire nation, for all Jews can now rightfully say that their contributions to the state were (or are) vital. And since unity is also a prerequisite for the redemption, we can now understand why Hashem purposely chose the secular Zionists to lead the return to the land.
We look forward to the complete return of world Jewry to their motherland, the gradual spiritual return of the nation, and the completion of the redemption process, which is already very much underway.