One of Religious Zionism's biggest problems is that the movement is often mistaken by others for being something that it isn't. (Frankly too many within the community make this mistake but that's another story)
On one side, many believe that Religious Zionism is merely the Israeli equivalent of Modern Orthodoxy. While there is some overlap between the two movements, they are certainly not the same thing. The religious centre of Religious Zionism sits to the right of Modern Orthodoxy as it currently is constituted. In addition, the raison d'etre of the two movements is entirely different. While Modern Orthodoxy is about reconciling the demands of the outside world with the living of a Torah-true lifestyle, Religious Zionism is about acting on the belief that God has moved history to a point where a rebuilding of the Jewish state in the Jewish land is now a religious imperative. In religious terms, being Dati Leumi gives one more in common with the Chareidi community than with the Modern Orthodox one.
On the other side there are those who believe that Religious Zionists are just the frum version of secular Zionists. This is also a mistake. The purpose of Secular Zionism, al pi Theodore Herzl and his followers, was to create a secular socialist European-style state somewhere in the world, preferably in Israel, where the population would be Jewish in order to show to the Western world that Jews were just as capable of creating an enlightened modern liberal society as the gentiles were. As noted above, Religious Zionism is a diametric opposite of this. The purpose of the Dati Leumi movement is to create a Jewish State on Jewish land. Anything else is a deviation from this goal.
It is therefore interesting to read a decent article from Azure magazine in which the missing promise of Religious Zionism is examined, albeit not in those terms. The article starts off noting something that I have written about before:
In one of the Talmud’s most famous stories, the invading Romans are readying their final blow to the Second Temple in Jerusalem. R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, realizing that defeat is imminent, sneaks out of the city and escapes to the tent of the Roman general Vespasian, who he announces will soon be appointed emperor. When the prophecy comes true shortly thereafter, Vespasian grants ben Zakkai a boon. Yet instead of asking the emperor to spare Jerusalem and its Temple, as might be expected, ben Zakkai pleads for a seemingly marginal coastal town: “Give me Yavneh and its sages!”1 Less known, however, is what many scholars consider an earlier version of this story, found in Lamentations Rabba. In this telling, ben Zakkai does ask for Jerusalem. And when Vespasian refuses, but lets him try again, ben Zakkai still does not ask for Yavneh and its sages; rather, he asks that one of Jerusalem’s gates be left unguarded for several hours, thus enabling the sages of Jerusalem to escape.
The difference between these two versions reflects the wrenching change that Judaism underwent following the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. and the Jews’ subsequent exile from the Land of Israel. For more than 1,200 years, a Hebrew commonwealth had existed in that land, interrupted only by the relatively brief Babylonian exile (587-538 B.C.E.). For the last 1,000 of those years, Jerusalem had served as the Jews’ political capital, and the Temple as the center of their religious life. Moreover, the Torah was clearly intended for a sovereign people in its own territory: Numerous commandments, such as those connected to the Temple service or agriculture, can be performed only in the Land of Israel. Many others, on issues ranging from commerce to the courts to a prototypical welfare system, are the type of regulation only applicable to, and enforceable by, a sovereign state. Understandably, then, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction, the idea of Judaism’s surviving without sovereignty would have been almost inconceivable. It was likely hard for the author of the version in Lamentations Rabba to imagine a Jewish leader of that time making anything but the requests he cited: first, the survival of Jerusalem, the Jews’ capital city, and second, the survival of the Jews’ politicalleadership. (The sages of Jerusalem for whom ben Zakkai pleaded included the members of the Sanhedrin, a combination legislature/supreme court.)
As time passed, however, it became clear that the Jews faced a lengthy exile. Their rabbinic leaders therefore began a centuries-long project of converting Judaism into a form capable of surviving outside its land. The Temple service was replaced by prayer. Holidays were reinterpreted. A fixed calendar was instituted. Torah study became the supreme value, compensating for all the commandments that could no longer be performed. And the importance of sovereignty was downplayed: For the sake of Jewish survival, the message had to be that sovereignty was not essential so long as rabbinic leadership—“Yavneh and its sages”—remained.
In short, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai's brilliant move was to adjust Judaism from being nationalist and Temple centred to a more religious movement that would accomodate the new Jewish fact of the diaspora. One can draw an important conclusion from this based on the writings of Rav Kook who, for purposes of this discussion, is the Anti-Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Given that history has moved to a point where the ingathering of the exiles has begun along with the first glimpses of the final redemption, it is time for the Jewish rabbinic leadership to begin the reverse of what RYBZ did and restore the nationalistic version of Judaism, in effect replacing the golus-based version that we are currently working with.
This task is no less tremendous than RYBZ's 1800 years ago and, unlike during his time, we lack the towering figures of halachic leadership who can call upon the loyalty of the entire Jewish world instead of their parochial sub-communities. This does not mean the task is any less essential and its lack of completion is a serious problem within Jewish life today. Essentially we have before us a Jewish state in which the religious model is entirely diaspora-based and therefore ill-fitting for a role in national life.
Consider, for example, the role religion plays in marriage in national life. Officially the State of Israel is a secular state but try telling that to a Jewish couple that wants to get married or divorced. It would be one thing if the constitution of the State was the Torah and the law was based on halacha but neither is true. Yet we expect non-religious couples with no connection to Judaism save by birth to adhere to halacha out of the blue at this important time of their life. How many times does this insistence cause resentment or just plain hatred of Judaism? One could go on from there to talk about the Shabbos laws and other Jewish legal parts to the state that cause more friction than positive benefit.
There is also the issue of vested interest. Too many leaders in the Jewish world, especially within the Chareidi community, have added an additional value to RYBZ's model of diaspora-based Judaism: the idea that this model cannot change save by direction Divine intervention. Short of that, any thought of change no matter how obvious the need is rejected. Thus we have people fighting to maintain a model of Judaism that is no longer viable at so many national levels simply because the principle "Thou shalt allow nothing new" is more important than Jewish survival.
To be sure there are some weakness with the Azure article. It is clearly written from a left-wing Modern Orthodox perspective and after some insightful historical background enters into the usual "We have to change halacha and the Torah if necessary" type of arguments which weakens its otherwise overall excellent point.
It is into this gap that it is the responsibility that Religious Zionism must step. The transition from diapora-based Judaism to Israel-based Judaism is needed. There are certainly enough luminaries within the community who can analyze nationalist issues and answer the questions they raise from a perspective of halacha without any need to concede to secular liberal values that LWMO treasures. But instead of rising to this challenge Religious Zionism has receded to become yet another sector group within the State.
It is imperative that Religious Zionism break out of this turpor and resume a position of national and religious leadership within Israel and the Jewish world. There is too much of the Jewish future at stake to allow those who either do not care about Judaism or those who only care about their own specific brand to lead us atray much longer.