There must be at least a thousand jokes that begin, “A Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a Protestant minister enter a bar … .” I’ll begin this week’s column with a story about a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a fine Jewish layman. They won’t be entering a bar together, that’s for sure. They won’t even be sitting face to face. But they will all be expressing their opinion about a very important and, unfortunately, very controversial concept: Zionism.
I made the acquaintance of the Catholic priest many years ago before he became a prominent bishop. We had a conversation recently in which he asked me to explain to him how certain very Orthodox Jews can espouse a doctrine of anti-Zionism. “After all,” he said, “if they believe in the Hebrew prophets and believe that their prophecies are to be understood literally, how can they possibly be against Zionism? Almost all the prophets speak of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and see the repossession of the land of Israel by the Jewish people as the highest ideal.”
For my friend, the bishop, supporting the sovereign Jewish government in the land of Israel is an imperative of the Jewish religion. I found it very difficult to explain to him the reasons why some devout Jews do not even recognize the modern-day State of Israel.
Not long after this conversation with my Roman Catholic friend, I ran into another friend, whom I first met many years ago. He is a follower of a Hasidic sect that is antagonistic to the Jewish state and that frequently publicly protests Israel’s political and even military actions. He is a great scholar, and we have long ago learned to avoid discussing the topic of Zionism. He knows that my opinions are very different from his. Instead, we confine our conversations to his recent writings, which ironically are based upon the commentary on the Bible by Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman — Ramban or Nachmanides.
During this recent encounter, we again avoided discussing the topic of Zionism. I know his position well. He believes that it is absolutely wrong for Jews nowadays to reclaim the land of Israel but that we must wait for the coming of the Messiah to do so. He sees the current State of Israel as being the audacious embodiment of sinful hubris. He believes that the State of Israel is nothing less than the work of the devil himself. My own view is quite different, and we have long both been reconciled to the fact that we would never convince the other to change his opinion.
The third “player” in my little story is, sadly, long deceased. He was a gentleman back in the community where I was a pulpit rabbi. He described himself as a religious Zionist and, indeed, was very active in leadership capacities within organizations that were ardently Zionist. Yet, when his own children informed him that they were making aliyah and moving to Israel, he was very upset and shared his disappointment with me.
My connections with these three individuals often motivate me to return to sources in our sacred tradition to buttress my own point of view. One such source is this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Masei (Numbers 33:1-36:13). For me, this parsha is the basic enunciation of what some call “Religious Zionism.” In it, we read of the many, many wanderings of the Jewish people before they were privileged to possess the land of Israel. We read of the commandment to conquer the land, to settle it and to preserve it as an inheritance for our descendants. We learn in detail about the boundaries of the land and about the requirement of all Jews to assist in the process of its conquest. Is this all not what the world has come to refer to as Zionism?
Ramban, second only to Rashi as the most widely studied Jewish commentary on the Bible, remarks that in this week’s Torah portion we find one of the 613 commandments, namely the mitzvah to possess the land of Israel. He furthermore insists that this positive commandment applies throughout Jewish history, even today, and is not just of historical interest.
The biblical verse reads, “And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned this land to you to possess” (Numbers 33:53), upon which Ramban comments, “In my opinion, this is a positive commandment, a mitzvat aseh. God is telling us to dwell in the land and to possess it and not to reject it in any way, nor to substitute any other geographical dwelling place
for it. Based upon this verse are the numerous eloquent remarks of our Sages on the importance of dwelling in the land of Israel and never leaving — to the extent that a husband can force his wife, and a wife her husband, to dwell in the land of Israel rather than elsewhere.”
In another of his writings (Hasagot L’Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 4), in which he enumerates the 613 commandments, Ramban emphasizes that this verse is to be understood as a command and not merely as a Divine promise that one day we shall dwell there.
Ramban echoes this attitude toward the land of Israel, and its central role in our religion, throughout his vast writings. Furthermore, he personally practiced what he preached and left his native Spain to live in the land of Israel and indeed to die there.
For me, Ramban is but one proponent of the religious imperative that underlies the modern State of Israel. Here are the words are of a much more recent proponent of this position:
“The land of Israel is not something external, not an external national asset, the means to the end of collective solidarity and the strengthening of the nation’s existence … The land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond of life to the people … The expectation of salvation is the force that preserves exilic Judaism; the Judaism of the land of Israel is salvation itself.”
These are words with which Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook opens his classic work, “Orot.”
I write this column as the State of Israel and its inhabitants face a most difficult challenge, the onslaught of rockets aimed at them by a hostile enemy. At this moment, perhaps more than ever before, we draw our strength and our hope from the knowledge that it is the Divine will that we dwell in His land and that we serve Him by defending it. With His assistance, we will succeed, and the land will continue to prosper materially and to flourish spiritually to an even greater extent than ever before.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.