Restoring universality to religious Zionism

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook believed his teachings were for the entire world, but this idea has been badly neglected in today’s Israel.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1924. Source: National Photo Company collection at the Library of Congress
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1924. Source: National Photo Company collection at the Library of Congress
Pinchas Polonsky
Pinchas Polonsky

Many Modern Orthodox Jews, especially in the wake of the recent elections in Israel, are worried that religious Zionism, which originally served as a bridge between Israeli hilonim (secular Jews) and their Haredi brethren, has radicalized and abandoned liberalism. What can be done to arrest this trend and preserve the bridge between the two communities?

I believe the answer is to be found in the thought of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the founder of religious Zionism, particularly his idea of olamiut, “universality.”

Rav Kook originally called his Jerusalem school Yeshiva Merkazit Olamit—“The Central Universal Yeshiva.” The word olamit, “universal,” referred to universal, global values.

The leaders of the new religious Zionism who attended Rav Kook’s yeshiva were taught to identify these global values and make them compatible with Judaism. Rav Kook called this “the integration of Judaism with the values of the liberal-universalist group in the Jewish people.”

The concept of olamit, “universal,” was matched with the concept of merkazit, “central.” Olamit is the appeal to all mankind, while merkazit is the appeal to the center of this world: Israel and the Jewish people living in Zion. This integrates the universalist aspects of Judaism with the particularist values of Zionism. In other words, merkazit olamit is the Jewish version of the Roman urbi et orbi—“to the city and to the world.”

However, over time a change of language occurred. Colloquially, the name of Rav Kook’s yeshiva was shortened to Merkaz HaRav, “center of the rabbi.” I do not think this was accidental or for the sake of convenience. The name represented the first stage of the dissemination of the teachings of Rav Kook. These teachings were directed towards “the center”: the land and people of Israel. This dissemination was successful. But the dissemination to the rest of humanity has yet to be undertaken.

This is because the second stage of Rav Kook’s process has been badly neglected. As a result, his teachings have not only failed to reach the world, but failed to attract liberal and secular “universalist Jews” to Judaism.

Fortunately, the idea of universality is not unrealistic. One of the foundations of the modernization of religion today is to appeal to the entire world as a manifestation of God, not just to religious tradition. This is in keeping with the principles of Judaism. After all, God created not only the Torah, but the entire universe. God manifests himself to us in two ways: revelation and the creation. Unfortunately, for centuries, religion was only interested in the manifestations of God through revelation, and neglected the creation. This left the study of creation and the realization of its potential to secular science and culture.

This one-sided knowledge of God is the cause of the crisis of religion over the last two centuries. It can only be corrected by the principle of universality. But to accomplish this, a new movement is required.

In accordance with Rav Kook’s teachings, the name of such a movement should be Tzionut Datit Olamit—Universal Religious Zionism.

Such a movement should unite not only the followers of Rav Kook, but all modernist rabbis. Indeed, Rav Kook himself emphasized to his students that they should not learn Torah only from him, but seek out a multitude of teachers. Different rabbis seeking modernization will inevitably have different approaches to many contemporary issues, but olamiut, “universality,” is a concept that could bring them together in all their diversity.

My suggestions for how to recalibrate the ideology of religious Zionism towards the integration of universal values are outlined in a systematic way here and briefly here.

It seems to me that it is worth uniting the efforts of all modernist-oriented rabbis in order to engage in discussion and specific analysis of universal values in accordance with Judaism, aiming at the development of a new educational program.

I would like to thank Rabbi Uri Sherki, who uses the concept of olamiut to suggest new directions for the development of religious Zionism, and on whose ideas this article is based.

Dr. Pinchas Polonsky is a researcher of the teachings of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and the author of Bible Dynamics: Contemporary Torah Commentary.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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