Although in the modern Orthodox community it is not PC to admit this, I am not a Zionist. I did not grow up feeling or being taught that Israel, in the modern sense of the term, was essential for the Jews or for being Jewish. I was taught that though Israel is a holy land, the land God gave to Avrohom and the Jewish people, but the torah is what makes us who we are. The Jews have lived for as much times in exile as not and the torah has flourished there, in spite of all our persecution. I grew up looking not to Zion for torah but to Vilna. Indeed the Jews remain the Jews without Israel, but with out torah we are merely another nationality like all others.
Many years ago when Rabbi Avi Weiss asked me to come to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and interview to be his assistant, though I had spent many years at Yeshiva University I still did not see Zionism and the modern state of Israel as important. At one point during the interview I was asked how I saw the place of Israel. I responded that I thought Israel was a holy land, a good place to study torah and keep mitzvot dependant upon the land, but, I said that I did not think it was that important to being a Jew or to the Jewish people.
After the weekend, Reb Avi told me, “Chaim, you can not be a rabbi in America without coming to terms with Israel.” And so 15 years ago, after that interview my wife and I went to Israel for 6 months. I had never really learned in Israel, (my education had been mostly in Charedi Yeshivot in America), or lived there before, and I remember at the end of our time turning to Sara my wife and saying, “You know, maybe Israel is the home of the Jewish people.” Yet a committed emotional Zionist I was not.
And so it is hard for someone like me to feel that living in Israel is important; if torah is more important shouldn’t one decide where to live based on where they learn torah best? But after a trip I took to Israel a year ago I gave a derasha looking at God’s first command to Abraham, God tells Avrohom to “go to the land, become a nation and then be a blessing to all the people of the world.” It seemed that a prerequisite to fulfilling the original and ongoing mission of the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations was somehow dependent on becoming a landed nation in the land which “I will show you.” The only truly valid reason I could see for the importance of aliyah, since I was not taught that the land of Israel would save the Jews from persecution and the halachic question of the need to settle the land is one subject to argument.
This past week I read Rabbi Ian Pear’s book, “The Accidental Zionist” in which he argues precisely this, that to be a blessing to the people of the world, to fulfill the Jewish mission, especially in the modern period it is essential to be a landed nation state. Only then can we be a model to the other nations on a world level.
The book is well said, interesting, and inspiring, well worth reading. Of course it seems to me there is a need for a second book. When the Jews make a nation in the land how do they proceed to be that national model to the world? It is not enough to say they do it by just keeping the torah since most of the torah we are used to does not address the national questions, and a theocracy is not really doable or productive at this point. So how do we as a Jewish nation in a land go about being in a conscious and organized way, “a blessing to all of the families (nations) of the world,” as god commanded Abraham when they first met?
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