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Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He taught advanced Talmud, halakhah and Jewish law codes, Jewish liturgy, Jewish history, and religious studies at seminaries and at major research universities. He is a prolific author and published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish texts. Visit www.tzvee.com for links. He also worked for 20 years for major banks and hedge funds as an information technology expert. See www.zahavy.com for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I visited Israel recently, and from what I saw I admired the continued growth of the country. But at the same time, I felt a deep apprehension about the manifold internal and external dangers that it faces. I am worried that Israel has lost its way and is no longer serving to fulfill its Zionist missions. How can I regain my confidence in the present vitality and the future prospects of the State of Israel?

Fearful in Fair Lawn

Dear Fearful,

I too have spent a lot of time in Israel of late and I do share your concerns. It’s a complex country of more than nine million inhabitants. It faces many internal conflicting points of view and differing aspirations. And yes, it is beset by the external challenges of hostile foes who seek to damage or even destroy the state.

But my take on the situations it faces is positive and confident, and not simply by virtue of any of the classical definitions of Zionism. I have a personal and original take on the matter.

Let me explain first a bit about the historical context of past Zionist visions and then tell you how I now formulate my own conception of Zionism for the modern State of Israel.

The great historians of Zionism tell us about its major forms: political Zionism, socialist Zionism, cultural Zionism, and religious Zionism. I respect and venerate all the past great Zionist thinkers and activists. To some degree the modern state is the successful expression of the four classical forms of Zionism. And to some extent it represents a failed or incomplete implementation of each of them.

In his great anthology, “The Zionist Idea,” in 1959, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, who lived in Englewood, assembled excerpts from the illustrious classical Zionist thinkers who represented the major expressions of Zionist ideology. He represented political Zionism with entries from the pens of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau. He presented cultural Zionist thought with writings by Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Zvi Ginsberg) and Hayyim Nahman Bialik and others. He included writings by Zionist Marxist and utopian socialists like Ber Borochov and Nahman Syrkin. He gave examples of religious Zionist expressions through the works of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Martin Buber and other voices. He represented activist Zionism through the likes of Vladimir Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann.

In each of these categories he chose voices that expressed clearly the essential messages and purposes of the respective forms of Zionism. And you can see in the history and reality of the modern State of Israel the impacts of these influences.

But which one represents the real essence of Zionism?

Of course, in its early stages in the 1950s, Israel by necessity relied on socialist forms of economic and social organization. But by the 1980s, as the pools of capital started forming within Israel, the standards of living improved, the economy strengthened, and the necessity of the reliance on socialist mechanisms began to fade. Today Israel is known more for its brash capitalist venture start-ups than for its earlier history of collective kibbutzim.

Socialist Zionism: Has the essence of Socialist Zionism been fulfilled? In medicine and education Israel is strongly socialist. But now it is mainly a strikingly successful start-up nation, a capitalist country with all the problems of such a state. It’s simple to argue that now Socialist Zionism cannot be judged as the true essence of current day Zionism.

Political Zionism: The political visionaries founded a representative form of government that took shape in the body of the Knesset and other major institutions. Today critics lament the ineffectiveness of the Israeli electorate’s proportional representation system, which can lead to legislative gridlock and seems to be giving rise to increasingly vocal conservative nationalism.

Has the essence of Political Zionism been fulfilled? True, we have a democracy that functions, but it is also sadly true that there is still anti-Semitism and enemy rockets do rain down on southern Israel. It’s plain to see that the political reality of the modern state is far from the perfected vision of the founding fathers and mothers of modern Israel.

Cultural Zionism: The richness of Hebrew expression in literature and the arts is beyond debate, and so the cultural Zionists rightfully would take pride in the accomplishments of Israeli expressions, even in its popular forms for trendy music and predictable dramatic TV shows. But so much of contemporary Israeli culture is clearly grounded in Western popular modes of expression and entertainment translated into the language of Israel.

As diverse and extensive as it seems to be, can we say with confidence that today’s cultural expressions are the essences of what the founders envisioned for the future state? Has the essence of Cultural Zionism been fulfilled? No doubt in language, literature, and the arts modern Israel has a defined and distinct culture. But in many ways, it has achieved normalization of indistinct cultural continuity with the rest of the world.

Religious Zionism: Last, the religious life of Jews in the state of Israel is deep and flourishing — yet the divide is wide and growing between the large numbers of separationist charedim and the secular Jews, and even other religious Jews. It’s seems the divisions between religious camps and the secular population are deepening and the chasms are widening.

Can anyone honestly argue that the essence of Zionism now is fulfilled in such dissonances? Has the essence of Religious Zionism been fulfilled? Judaism is practiced freely and proudly as the state religion, but many elements of the promised redemption of the people of Israel are not now to be realized. Israel is a democracy, not a theocracy, and the Temple has not been rebuilt and the biblical form of a messianic age has not dawned.

A satirist might stand up and say “Hello, the neurotic beginnings of Zionist thought are truly being fulfilled in the present-day eccentricities and dissonances of the modern state.” And that is sort of a strange fulfillment of the essence of classical Zionism. But that would be an attempt at humor, not an analysis of the current culmination of Zionist life and thought.

I have reflected long and hard about my own way to find Zionist meanings in my numerous visits to Israel and my long stays in the country, and in consuming much of its news and culture and TV and films and books and so much more. I know my Zionism is strong and runs through the fiber of my being like high-voltage electrical current. But it is not right for me to characterize it as socialist, political, cultural, or even religious fulfillment that I see and feel in my relationship to Israel.

What then can I say about the nature of my Zionism? Here’s my try at an answer. I’ve concluded of late that I am an Existentialist Zionist. And I mean that in two senses of the term. Here’s how.

For a person who is an existentialist, existence takes precedence over essence. That’s how I feel when I am in Israel. It’s also how my father felt when he first went to Israel in 1959. I recall how the very fact of being in the country was a fulfilment of his Zionism.

The roads he was driving on when he was on his way up to Jerusalem for the first time were not just paved thoroughfares to him. They were the roads of the Jewish State, his roads, the roads of his ancestors, the roads of all Jews in the world, past, present, and future. He was never part of a mundane car ride or bus ride or just a walk in a street in the state of Israel. He was a dramatic actor in the spectacle of Jewish existence.

His first home movies of Israel, which he proudly showed us in 1959 when he came home from his trip, were a few minutes of film of his car rides on the roads of the modern state, taken from the window, as much as they were of holy sites. And I recall how he brought us, his small children, the little paper bus receipts that they gave the passengers, so proudly pointing out that they were printed in Hebrew.

We were young and puzzled. Hello daddy, that’s not the present we expected. What’s in your other hand? And what is so special about driving on a road? But nothing could be more dramatic to him than these mundane items, for he was a true existentialist Zionist.

The existentialist Zionist is not a viewer of somebody else’s show. He is a player on the world’s stage in the biggest theater. And with just a bit of imagination he could believe he is not a bit actor or an extra. He too is sure that he is a star in the show of the ages, the main production of eternity.

As I see it, David Ben-Gurion was the epitome of an existentialist Zionist. He was a completely secular person, an openly avowed atheist. Yet he was a resolute student of the Tanach — the Hebrew Bible that others believed was inspired by God. What was that contradiction all about?

Ben-Gurion walked around the land of Israel carrying his Tanach because that was the roadmap to his existential fulfillment. It was his physical script as he acted out the age-old dramas of Jewish existence in the modern time and place of his living. It did not matter to him that he denied the metaphysical. He was experiencing an existential reality, and nothing could be more potent and meaningful than that.

When I come back to New Jersey after a stay in Israel, people ask me, how was your trip? I find myself without hesitation saying something like, “It’s amazing how much new infrastructure and building is going on there in Israel.”

Shouldn’t I be saying that I was bowled over by the religious uplift of my prayers, or by the depths of the cultural experiences, or by the myriad of political accomplishments, or by the fabric of complexity of the society? Well of course, yes, I am witness to all of that and judge it all significant, even amazing.

But my answer inevitably is, “How marvelous are the highways in Israel.” That’s the overt symptom of my core existentialist Zionism. The bedrock of existence takes precedence for me over any of my possible reactions to the many profound essences that the State of Israel represents.

And lest we forget, I said there was a second aspect of existentialism that characterizes my Zionism. Yes, it is the angst. The same angst that you, dear reader, seem to feel.

Existentialists in general are said to be racked by angst — anguish, torment, anxiety, worry, fear — about the fragility and turbulence of existence. Oh yes, I have all of that while in Israel — while on the stage as a member of the dramatic cast. I am frightened and tormented. And I bring that all back with me too.

Enemies outside, internal strife, corruption, racism, cynicism, hubris. I can go on and on about my existential Zionist angst. And yes, it is there, and there is nothing more to say about it.

So, to answer your question, Zionism is alive and vibrant. It is strong and can flow through your body and soul — if you let it — if you let yourself be an existentialist Zionist.

That’s all you need know. That’s all you need to do — just be it.

In the anthem “Hatikvah” we sing of our hope in one short simple critical verse, “To be a free people in our own land…”

To be — to exist — that for certain has been fulfilled and is renewed every day in modern Israel with greater vitality.

I see it when I look out at the streets, highways, stores, buildings, parks, museums, schools, yeshivas, universities, synagogues, malls, theaters, beaches, hills, fields, buses, taxis, tanks, trucks, children going to school, Jews, Arabs, Christians, tourists, natives, old and young.

The manifold existence of these real assets takes utter precedence over any imagined and unfulfilled essences from the conceits of the past.

And what about your worries? Existentialists call their worries angst. Anyone who looks hard and seriously at existence is overwhelmed eventually by the doubt in its permanence. It is normal — but should not be normative. Angst is a feeling — it can be noticed — but then it must be dismissed as a passing concern of a miraculous vibrant life force generated in the State of Israel.


Tzvee Zahavy has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. For details go to www.tzvee.com.


The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic analysis and wisdom. It aspires to be open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it in the Jewish Standard, usually but not always on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard office or email them directly to zahavy@gmail.com

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