During controversy over the Hetter Mechirah in 1910, Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky (the “Ridbaz”) of Safed leveled a serious accusation. He accused Rav Kook of abandoning his religious beliefs and becoming a Zionist in his old age. (In fact, from a very early age Rav Kook was imbued with a great love for Eretz Yisrael.)
For an Orthodox rabbi to support a secular movement that publicly proclaimed that it “has nothing to do with theology” was close to heresy. Why should a religious scholar with a deep love for all peoples be supportive of a secular nationalist movement? Indeed, Rav Kook’s outlook on Zionism is a complex topic, the subject of numerous books and academic articles, and certainly beyond the scope of a brief essay. Nonetheless, the following excerpts from his writings and letters shed light on his views on this nonreligious (and sometimes anti-religious) movement.
Rav Kook noted that our generation is not the first to experience a return to the land of Israel comprised primarily of Jews lax in religious observance. When Ezra led the return to Eretz Yisrael in the beginning of the Second Temple Period, many of the Jewish pioneers who joined him were Sabbath-desecrators and worse; and yet this period witnessed the rebuilding of the Temple and tremendous advances in Torah scholarship.
Centuries later, during the corrupt reign of Herod, the nation suffered from a cruel king, far removed from the ideal Jewish leader. The irony of the holy Temple built by Herod, a brutal and paranoid despot, is even greater than the current phenomenon of the Holy Land being resettled by secular pioneers. The actual construction, Rav Kook wrote, “may be carried by those who fail to penetrate the profound secrets of the righteous. And not just the stonemasons; they may even be the ones orchestrating the construction.” Yet this does not sully the innate purity of the lofty objective.
Rav Kook suggested that we need not be overly concerned about the religious level of the pioneers, since the Land on its own will determine who is deserving of living in it.
“There is no need to check the level of kashrut of those who come, for the Land will vomit out the true chaff; and “all those remaining shall be called holy” (Isaiah 4:3). This is similar to how we do not separate food from its waste elements before we eat it, but leave this [separation] process to life’s natural functions.”
Furthermore, the merit of Eretz Yisrael helps even the unworthy:
“The merit of the Land even protects the wicked. Even a gentile maidservant in the land of Israel is promised a portion in the World to Come (Ketubot 111a). Clearly the Talmud is not speaking of a righteous maidservant, who would anyway merit the World to Come... Rather it is referring to an ordinary maidservant, with sordid deeds and coarse traits. Nonetheless, the merit of living in the land of Israel enables her to gain a portion in the World to Come....
“All the more so [regarding the secular Zionists, since] one may find in every Jew, even the most unworthy, precious gems of good deeds and positive traits. Certainly the land of Israel helps elevate and sanctify them. And if this is not evident in them, it will become so in their descendants.”
Despite the current secular nature of Zionism, the return to Eretz Yisrael in recent times was first promoted by great tzaddikim — starting with the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna and the Baal Shem Tov — and Zionism derives its spiritual nourishment from these holy roots.
“[It was] the lofty righteous of previous generations who ignited a holy inner fire, a burning love for the holiness of Eretz Yisrael in the hearts of God’s people. Due to their efforts, individuals gathered in the desolate land, until significant areas became a garden of Eden, and a large and important community of the entire people of Israel has settled in our holy land....
“Recently, however, the pious and great scholars have gradually abandoned the enterprise of settling the Holy Land.... This holy work has been appropriated by those lacking in [Torah] knowledge and good deeds.... Nonetheless, we see that the [secularists'] dedication in deed and action is nourished from the initial efforts of true tzaddikim, who kindled the holy desire to rebuild the Holy Land and return our exiles there.”
For Rav Kook, the fall of Zionism into the hands of the secularists was a form of shevirat keilim, reminiscent of the Kabbalistic “breaking of vessels” that occurred when the universe was created. The original light and holiness was simply too great to be contained within the limitations of the physical vessels; and it is our task to return these fallen sparks to their elevated source.
But why did the return to the land of Israel need to be appropriated by a secular nationalist movement? Rav Kook attempted to solve this riddle by noting certain qualities lacking in religious circles:
“The fundamental moral force hidden in [the Zionist movement] ... is its motto, “the entire nation.” This nationalism proclaims... that it seeks to redeem the entire Jewish people. It does not concern itself with individuals or parties or sectors.... And with this perspective, it reaches out to the land of Israel and the love of Zion with a remarkable bravery and courage.
“It is clear that we cannot confront this adversary if we lack the same noble sense of responsibility that speaks in the name of the entire nation, all of Israel. We may not distinguish and divide. We may not say, “This one is one of ours so we will take care of him, but not that one.” ... [We must] care in our hearts and souls for the good of the entire nation and its redemption, in the most inclusive way possible.”
Additionally, Rav Kook explained that the pre-Messianic era requires a more practical, down-to-earth orientation, so that the Jewish people may return to their land as a healthy, balanced nation, after centuries of detached statelessness in exile.
“We have a tradition [see Sotah 49b] that there will be a spiritual revolt of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael during the initial period of national revival.... The aspirations for lofty and holy ideals will cease and the nation’s spirit will sink....
“The necessity for this revolt will be the tendency for materialism, which must be powerfully generated in the entire nation after the passage of so many years in which the need and availability of material pursuits were completely absent. When born, this proclivity will trample angrily and stir up storms; these are the birth pangs of the Messianic era.” (Orot HaTechiyah sec. 44, p. 84)
However, secular Zionism can only bring about the material rebuilding of the Jewish people in their homeland. The nation’s complete renewal will only come about when Zionism is restored to its original holiness.
“Secular nationalism may be defiled with much defilement, concealing many evil spirits. But we will not succeed by trying to expel this movement from the nation’s soul. Rather we must energetically return it to its elevated source and combine it with the original holiness from which it emanates.” (Orot HaTechiyah sec. 22, p. 75)
And what about the Ridbaz’s accusations that Rav Kook had descended to heresy, becoming a secular Zionist? Rav Kook responded that Zionism, when based on its true ideals, is nothing to be ashamed of:
“My dear friend! If all Zionists would love the land of Israel and seek the settlement of the Holy Land for the same reason and holy goal that I have in mind — because it is God’s land, special and beloved out of the entire world, containing unique holy qualities that foster prophesy and Divine inspiration... then it would be certainly a great honor for every important rabbi and Torah scholar and tzaddik to be such a Zionist. Even your honor should find nothing objectionable in this form of Zionism.”
To summarize the salient points in Rav Kook’s views on Zionism:
(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 175-180. Based on letters from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I, pp. 56, 88, 207–208 (1907); vol. I, p. 448 (1910); vol. II, pp. 171–172, 194–195 (1913); vol. III, pp. 157–158 (1918).)