The concept of Zionism is one with a rich history, and ramifications in social, political, and theological realms. Rooted in the Jewish tradition, it is a controversial position that some hail as gospel to the Torah, while others claim is completely against the belief of the Jewish faith. This paper will examine the concept of Zionism from a purely theological perspective to show that while some claim it is against the Jewish faith, Zionism is truly embedded in the Jewish tradition.
First, it is important to understand what is meant by the term Zionism. Zionism is a secular nationalist movement dating back over two millennia to restore the Jewish people to their rightful homeland (Sicker, x). The term itself was coined in 1891 by an Austrian publicist named Nathan Birnbaum, but the ideology has been in existence since the Babylonian exile of 6th century B.C. (Edelheit, 579). Zionism is derived from the word “Zion,” which in a biblical sense, is both the City of David (2 Samuel 5:7) and the City of God (Psalms 87:2-3). It is therefore the name of the ancient fortress in the city of Jerusalem. It was only after David captured “the stronghold of Zion,” that it was called “the City of David.” In Psalms, Solomon builds the temple in Jerusalem, and the word Zion is used to include the temple and the area adjacent to it (Psalms 2:6, 132:13). By Isaiah (40:9), Jeremiah (31:12), and Zechariah (9:13), the term Zion was used to encompass the city of Jerusalem, the land of Judah, and the Israeli people.
The first place to examine when discussing the concept of Zionism in the Jewish tradition is the most holy of the sacred writings of Judaism, that of the Torah and the Talmud (Coggins, 1). The Torah is made of five books, those of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (Torah, 1). These books, which also appear as the first five books of the Bible, are believed to have been handed down from God to Moses at Mount Sinai. In addition, God gave Moses verbal instruction for each mitzvah, or commandment, which became the oral Torah (Finkel, xiv). The oral Torah was just that: verbally transmitted explanations of the laws in the written Torah (Finkel, xiii). This oral transmission was possible through the Roman expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem in AD 135, but after that, the survival of the oral tradition was questionable. R. Yehudah Hanasi, in an effort to preserve the tradition, compiled the oral Torah and recorded it in the Mishnah, which became the framework for the Talmud (Finkel, xv).
The core belief of religious Zionism stems from the Torah its self and the promise of the land of Israel to the Jewish people by God. In Genesis 12:1-3 in the Torah, God tells Abram to leave Ur, and to go to the him. God promises to make the land into a “great nation,” that he and those who bless him will also be blessed, and that all people on the Earth will be blessed through Abram (Torah, 29). In Genesis 15:18-21, God makes a covenant with Abram, stating “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Torah, 36).
When examined closer, there are three main aspects to the covenant, and some of them are expanded later in the Torah, showing more support for Zionist claims. First, God promises land to Abram in Genesis 12:1 and this is reiterated in Genesis 13:14-18, and the dimensions of this land are given in Genesis 15:18-21. Abram was also promised descendants in Genesis 12:2, and that promise was made stronger in Genesis 17:6 when God promises that nations and kings will descend from Abram. Finally, Abram was promised blessing and redemption in Genesis 12:3. These three aspects were promised to Abram without condition, as mentioned, and this is shown through affirmation to Isaac in Genesis 26:3-4:
Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your heirs, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. 4 I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs” (Torah, 52).
Note that in this affirmation, as well as in the original covenant, God does not specify conditions on which this agreement is to be in existence. When God again confirms the covenant to Jacob in Genesis 28: 14-15, he states:
Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”(Torah, 77).
Again, note the terminology of “I will,” indicating a promise by God without conditions. In this way, God not only made promises of land to Abram, but also extended that promise and blessings to the children of Abram.
It is this covenant between Abram and God that Zionists look to for the start of their argument that the Jewish people have a right to their homeland, and that this homeland is based in Jerusalem, as was promised by God. The argument continues with the belief that it is only the descendants of Abram that are covered by the covenant, since in Genesis 17:7-10, God tells Abram the covenant is established between “me and thee and thy seed after thee.” Under this portion of the Torah, a Jew must be a descendent of Isaac or Jacob or Ishmael in order to reap the benefits of the covenant (Abushaqra, 1).
Some Zionists exclude Ishmael and his descendants, however, from the covenant, because later in the Torah, God reiterates his promise to Issac and Jacob, but not to Ishmael. They also exclude him, and his seed, because instead of being the son of Sarah, he is the son of Hagar, a concubine. However, critics argue this does not mean God’s promise excluded Ishmael, but only that the promise was not reiterated. Ishmael is never exclusively excluded, and neither are his descendants (Abushaqra, 1).
Still another aspect of the covenant with Abram is the eternal nature of the promise of Israel. Genesis 17: 7-8 states:
will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.” (Torah, 39).
In this passage, God states twice the covenant is one that is eternal and everlasting. Thus, it is clear God intended the descendents of Abram to inherit the lands of Jerusalem for time everlasting. This is the promise to which Zionists refer.
The second show of Zionism in the Torah, following the Abram covenant with God, is the Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy 30: 1-10, specifically 3-5, which reads:
He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the LORD your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers.”
Here, God promises to gather Israelites from all over the world, and to bring them back to the land that was promised to them (Edelheit, 4).
Records of the scattering of the Jews are clear if one examines the rest of the Bible, which does hold a reliable historical account of the exile of the Jews on countless occasions from Israel. In or around 721 B.C., Israel was defeated by the Assyrians, and the Jews were exiled to the Halah (Kings 17:6). In or around 586 B.C., the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezar, destroyed the remaining kingdom of Jerusalem (Kings 25:1-22), completing the exile of the Jews.
However, the Jews were partly restored to their lands with the Persian rule of Cyrus in 539 BC. Cyrus decreed that all captured and displaced people were free to return to their homes, and to establish their previous religions and ways of life. However, Judaea was not autonomous, but rather was incorporated into the Empire (Harding, 56). As a result, the Jews did not retain their own identity, but instead were assimilated into the existing culture. Additionally, Jewish communities were still in existence in Iraq and other areas (Isseroff, 1).
In 300 BC, Jews were again exiled to Egypt by Ptolemy. His capture of Jerusalem led to the deportation of thousands of individuals to Egypt, and still others left of their own accord. Those that were left were often assigned to Ptolemy’s garrison, since they were extremely loyal. These exiled Jews formed the Jewish colony in Alexandria, but again, the Jews were spread even further apart into the Diaspora (Harding, 58).
In 70 AD, Judea was yet again destroyed when Titus, son of emperor of Rome Vespasian, destroyed the Temple. Jewish captives were put to death, or taken to Rome (Harding, 92). Following the revolt of Bar Kochba in 136 AD, even more Jews were exiled. Still more Jews left due to economic conditions, and were scattered in Cyprus, Syria, Alexandria, and elsewhere (Isseroff, 1).
The resulting Diaspora produced a longing for the Jewish homeland, and an overall sense of a rejection of this life, which brings us to the central idea in Zionism. There is no question that the Jewish identity is strongly related to Zionism, in that in every generation that has passed since the original exile, a great number of Jews, including strong spiritual leaders, have rejected the concept of passively waiting for God to complete his promise made in the Palestinian Covenant. Instead, these leaders and other citizens have taken action to bring the gathering of Jews upon themselves. In Ezra 7:9, the scribe Ezra laid the foundation for aliya, or the leading of large numbers of Jews from Babylonian exile to Jerusalem, and for centuries, this has been the chosen path of Zionists. Despite dangers involved, such as financial hardship, difficult travels, travels through areas of war and destruction, and illness, Jews from around the world annually attempt to travel to Palestine to restore the sovereignty of the Jewish people in Israel (Morgenstern, 1).
This daily desire for aliya and a longing for Zion can be found in the prayers of Judaism, as well. First, traditional Judaism stresses the importance of praying in Hebrew, the native language of the Jews. Judaism notes the Hebrew language is the language that links Jews around the world, and that any other language contains connotations of that languages culture. Since Zionists believe the culture of the Jewish state is the one that should be preserved, it only makes sense to pray and do all things religious in the language of Hebrew, so this fits well with the Zionist belief. Additionally, Judaism stresses that Jewish thought can only be expressed in Hebrew, since the subtle concepts of Jewish ideals are only expressed in Hebrew words and phrases. Author Tracey Rich gives the example that the English word “commandment” has the definition of an order, whereas the corresponding Hebrew word of “mitzvah” implies an honor bestowed on man by God (Rich, 1).
Further, many of the prayers of Judaism are expressed in first person views. The reasoning for this is the cohesiveness of the Jewish people, and the linked responsibility and fate of all the Jewish peoples (Rich, 1). Again, this fits well with Zionism, in that the Zionist belief is based on the idea that all of the Jewish people are God’s chosen, and that they have a collective right to their promised lands.
In addition, some of the prayers of Judaism contain phrasing that agrees with the basic tenets of the Zionist movement. For example, the Amidah, or standing prayer, is recited three times daily while the person praying is facing Jerusalem. As with many other prayers of Judaism, it ends with a plea for a return to Jerusalem:
Sound the great horn for our freedom; raise the ensign to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth… And to Jerusalem, Thy city, return in mercy and dwell therein as Thou hast spoken; and rebuild it soon in our days as an everlasting building…” (Schoenberg, 1).
In the Reform version, this prayer is even more in line with the Zionist belief. The Reform version extends the hope for a gathering of exiles to a hope for the universal freedom of the Jews. The blessing for justice is rewritten to pray for a hope of universal justice. Additionally, the blessing for Jerusalem is rewritten. In the original version, the prayer requests that God rebuilt Jerusalem. In the Reform version, the prayer is for the welfare of the land and people of Israel. It also contains a statement connecting Zion to the messianic hope (Schoenberg, 1). Clearly, these new ideas stem from an overall belief in the right of the Jewish people, regardless of location, to return to Israel and receive the blessings promised to them by God.
There are other prayers that show a link to Zionism, as well. The grace after eating meals includes a blessing for rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. During the marriage ceremony, the groom prays to “elevate Jerusalem to the forefront of our joy.” During circumcision, Psalm 137:5 is read, which states “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” On Passover, each Jew notes within his or her prayer that they will be in Jerusalem in the next year (Neugerber, 1).
The Bible contains several passages that pertain to the future of Israel, as well. There are several passages in the Old Testament that speak of the future blessing of Israel and of the land promised to the Jews and to Abram. Ezekiel 20 has several references to the restoration of Israel, including: “I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered — with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath” (Ezekiel 20: 34). Romans 11: 25-27 states:
do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
This clearly shows God’s intentions for Israel to become a nation of forgiveness, and a nation restored to his chosen people.
Critics of Zionism hold that Zionism as a whole is completely against the teachings of Judaism. First, these critics note that a State of Israel is only allowed according to specific principles as set forth in the Torah. The only time the People of Israel were allowed to have a right to the land was in the past, and in the future when God restored them to their lands, without and human intervention (Corrigan, 1). According to this train of thought, any gathering of the Jewish people through means other than divine intervention is a denial of the true point of the Palestinian Covenant. To gather to form a state of Israel without God would be to cast off God in place for worldly materialism, according to some (Corrigan, 1). In other words, the salvation of the Jewish people is dependant upon God, not the return of the Jews to Jerusalem.
A second criticism is that the Torah strictly forbids the Jewish people to end the exile before God redeems them. These critics note that the Vayoel Moshe explains clearly that the people of Israel are to remain under the rule of the countries of the world until they are redeemed, and that to return from exile prior to redemption is to ask for terrible punishment (Corrigan, 1).
A third criticism is that Zionism pushes for a secular state, as opposed to a religious state, and that such a state would create a nonreligious Jewish identity that would be contradictory to Judaism, the religion under which Zionism is even possible. The end result, then, is a conflict between the secular and , which only furthers the separation of the population, rather than bringing it together as Zionism claims to desire. One critic noted that Zionists condone acts that are against the Torah, such as nuclear war, apartheid, human rights violations, and racism, in the name of a Jewish state (Corrigan, 1).
Still another criticism of Zionism is that the Zionists who wish to end the Jewish Diaspora are removing a key part of the Jewish existence. Throughout history, as shown in the Bible passages mentioned above, the Jewish population has been through vast changes because of exile. Their entire history is filled with relocation and a continued sense of cohesive religious and cultural despite such relocation. Critics note that the accounts within the Torah of the exiles of the Jews serve not to push for a return to the land of Israel, but instead as a historical account of those chosen by God who will someday be returned to their promised lands. They note that the Abram covenant was not without conditions, but that when all conditions are met, the chosen people will be returned (Corrigan, 1).
There can be no question that Zionism is rooted in Jewish tradition. The Torah speaks clearly several times of the return of the people of Israel to their lands, the promises of God to Abram and his disciples, the promises to return the chosen ones to their rightful homes, and the rights of those individuals to return from their exile. Many prayers of Judaism speak of a return to Jerusalem and a hope for a united people of Israel. The Holy Bible, too, speaks of these same issues in depth. On the other hand, there is no specific Jewish position on Zionism. Many Jews oppose the belief system, whether in response to the religious, political, or social aspects of the movement. Many claim the Zionist belief is against the Torah and thus, against the theology of Judaism.
The Torah, as well as the Bible and many other documents in history, show us that the people of Israel have been exiled many times, by many different populations of people. Their exile often resulted in attempts of assimilation, only to have alienation be the end result. Whether one is in support of Zionism or against it, the thousands of individuals who travel to Palestine every year in pilgrimage show that Zionism is a movement that is not likely to disappear until the people of Israel are restored to their rightful homeland.
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