Moses – The First Zionist

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The most important figure in the Hebrew Bible and who endured as the most authoritative prophet in Jewish tradition from the biblical era until today is Moses, who delivered the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery to redemption in the Land of Israel.
But the identity of the Hebrews or Israelites pre-dates Moses, in spite of the fact that there was not yet a written Torah or the covenant that would bind the Jewish people to God at Mount Sinai. Prior to this, there was both a distinct Hebrew/Israelite identity and a faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This faith and identity was distinct enough that Pharaoh decided to enslave them. Jewish tradition and the Bible itself describes the Hebrews in terms that are not too dissimilar to the Jews of our own day and in later periods. Some had strayed from the faith of Abraham in Egypt and had become accustomed to Egyptian Pagan beliefs and practices whilst there were elders and others who held on to their faith that one day God would send a redeemer to fulfill the promise He made to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Land of Israel.

Moses is not only the most central figure in Jewish tradition he is also arguably the first political Zionist. The biography of Moses resembles that of the founder of the modern Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl.

In the contemporary mind, Moses is often thought of as a religious figure, a prophet, a leader and a law giver. Moses was not brought up with a yeshiva education, from a family of Rabbinic scholars keeping Shabbat and Kashrut.

Moses’ awakening and return to his people did not begin with his encounter with God at the burning bush but when he witnessed a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian. Moses kills him and flees Egypt.

Herzl was brought up in affluent European society within the assimilationist camp. Herzl’s awakening and what led him to found the Zionist movement was his witnessing the Dreyfus affair in France. Herzl faced opposition from the majority of the Jewish people in Europe.  The Reform sought salvation through the enlightenment, believing that the age of hatred towards the Jews of the Medieval period would soon disappear and Jews would become equal and accepted. The Communist/Bolsheviks threw their lot in with the utopian visions of the day. Both believed that a return to Zion and a Jewish state would undermine that objective.

Most of the Orthodox world among other reasons, primarily opposed Herzl and political Zionism because of its largely secular following and particularly among the Zionists emerging from Eastern Europe. Unlike Herzl, they came from religious backgrounds and their Zionism was combined with Socialism and in large part a rebellion against tradition and anti-religious.

The Biblical account describes a very similar situation that Moses encountered. We forget that according to tradition, not all of the Hebrews left Egypt with Moses, 4/5 remained behind! Out of those who did leave in the Exodus, they regularly complain to Moses that want to go back to Egypt. Moses finds this very frustrating and at times God does too. Recall that when Pharaoh increases the work load on the Hebrews in response to the plagues, they blame Moses.

The central story of the Jewish religion is of the Jewish peoples freedom from oppression under foreign rule in someone else’s land to independence and sovereignty in their own. Diaspora and exile is the most common experience of the Jewish peoples 3000 year history but it has never been its ideal, or played any role in the grand vision of Judaism or the biblical narrative. Exile and Return are common themes, reinforcing the central role of the Land of Israel and Jewish sovereignty in Judaism. The Bible later tells the story of Purim, where the Jews again are in exile in Persia and face Haman who sought to persuade King Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish population.

The movement that Herzl founded, Zionism, is accused of being a ‘perversion,’ ‘hijacking,’ or ‘usurpation’ of authentic Judaism. It is labeled as a secular nationalism that ‘distorts’ Judaism in order to practice colonialism, ethnic cleansing, genocide and every human rights violation one can imagine.

Notwithstanding addressing the veracity of such allegations – the anti-Zionists of today argue that because the early Zionists were largely secular, this makes Zionism and Israel not truly Jewish. If they lived in Moses day or thereafter, they would have argued that he is not an authentic Jew and possibly even attempt to argue that he isn’t even a Jew, but an opportunistic Egyptian prince, self proclaiming himself as the leader of the Hebrews, contrary to the views of most Hebrews who are anti-Zionist and want to stay in Egypt. If the BDS movement were to exist then, they would not be short of finding a biblical equivalent of JVP to oppose Moses and demonize him the way Netanyahu is today.

What Moses was bringing to the Hebrews was a new beginning, a new status, no longer subject to a foreign ruler, no longer oppressed, an end to years in exile and self determination. This was not only a Judaism that was completely contrary to how the Hebrews would have experienced Jewish identity in Egypt but it was the Judaism that endured for the next thousand years. The Judaism of Moses’ vision is what definitively shaped not only Judaism but is what resonated enough in the human conscious that it gave birth to two of the worlds greatest religions whose combined adherents are more than half of the worlds population.

Herzl, and the Zionism he spearheaded is not a departure from Judaism. It was a departure from the prevailing trends of thought of many Jews of his time.

The anti-Zionists are correct that Zionism emerged in a climate of modern political ideologies. It is also true that at that time ideas such as Socialism and secular thought had a significant impact on many early Zionists. The state of Israel was founded and led by Ben Gurion under the Mapai (Socialist) leadership and other left wing Zionist parties until the 1970’s when they were defeated by Menachem Begin.

The Zionist leadership was not perfect and has many things to be critical of. Not just from an outsiders perspective, regarding the conflict with the Arab world but also internally amongst Jews and even intra-Zionist conflicts, such as the sinking of the Altelena during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The discourse however over Zionism has shifted to not being about specific policies of Israel or its conduct in conflicts but to undermining one of the most central concepts of Judaism, of the Land of Israel and Jewish governance and sovereignty there.

What deterred Jews who were traditionalists from Zionism was not the return to and love of Zion and the messianism of the early idealists to be reborn and redeemed in their ancestral homeland. Rather it was the anti-religious component of many of its adherents who were hostile to the idea of organized religion and a religious pacifism that developed as a result of years of exile. This might be ascribed to the influence that the Christian notion of the Messiah had on the Jews. The Christians wait for the return of Jesus and the redemption is seen as a divine act. The Jews throughout their exile and at times of hopelessness adopted a more pacifistic waiting for God to intervene to redeem them miraculously rather than redeeming themselves and the world through human action.

There is another central figure in the Jewish story who also had a very hard time amongst his contemporaries and Jewish leaders after him, but who, like Moses before him and Herzl later, would forever transform Judaism – Moses Maimonides. It is said that from ‘Moses to Moses there was never anyone like Moses.’

Maimonides made two major contributions to Judaism, he codified the Talmud, the oral tradition and he wrote the Guide for the Perplexed. Maimonides, unlike Moses and Herzl, did come from a family of great scholars, he was a product of the great academies of Spain. But what he shares in common with Herzl and Moses is that he didn’t have an inherent authority. He was sometimes opposed by the Rabbis who lived in Babylonia who were the heirs to the Talmudic academies. He lived a lot of his life as a refugee. Maimonides was heavily influenced by the ‘modern’ non-Jewish ideas of his day, particularly Aristotelian philosophy and works by Islamic scholars.

Maimonides in the Guide, sought to reinterpret the Biblical and Talmudic tradition in light of some of these ideas that he believed to be universal truths, bridging the science and thought of his day, with Jewish tradition.

Like Moses, and Herzl, Maimonides too was offering something new, that was necessary for his time and perhaps even more necessary today for ours. It is almost impossible to address the challenges that Jews face today from modernity without referring to Maimonides. However, Maimonides too, was branded as a heretic by those who opposed him. To such an extent that his books were burned in France by the Church, with the approval and prompting of anti-Maimonidean Jews. Later they would also burn the Talmud.

Maimonides ideas were not universally accepted to begin with, but later many became authoritative. Maimonides works too, not only inspired his Jewish adherents, but his work influenced and gained admiration also from Christian and Muslim scholars. But what Maimonides contributed to Zionism is found in his Mishneh Torah at the end of the Laws of Kings. Here Maimonides talks about the messianic era. His description of the messianic era is not in the realm of the miraculous or even particularly utopian. It is naturalist and realist.

He writes: “One must not presume that the Messianic King must work miracles and perform wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is [definitely] not true.” (MT Laws of Kings 11:3) He adds: “Do not presume that in the Messianic age any facet of the world’s nature will change or there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern.” (Ibid 12:1) “Our Sages taught: There will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except [the emancipation] from our subjugation to the [gentile] kingdoms.” (Ibid 12:2) “The Sages and prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, [they desired] to be free [to involve themselves] in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come… In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust.” (Ibid 12:2-3)

In the same chapter Maimonides notes that the order of events leading up to the Messianic era is not known and will not be known until they occur. A far cry from those who argue that Judaism forbids a Jewish return to the Land and Jewish sovereignty.

What anti-Zionists are correct about is that Israel is not embodying its grand vision. It has not reached its peak. This is because unfortunately for all the praise that we have for the achievements of Israel and the miraculous success of Zionism, what has been missing is that it often lacks the Jewish moral vision. A key belief of many early Zionist leaders was of ‘normalization.’

Some branches of secular Zionism didn’t accept the Jewish concept of being a ‘light unto the nations,’ they wanted to be treated as a nation like any other. David Ben Gurion famously said “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other.” This is hardly something to aspire to today, but it is now the reality. The solution is not that Israel requires less Judaism and less Zionism. It requires more. However, Israelis will then have to do some real soul searching to define what in practice a Jewish state consists of.

One can of course argue that modern Israel is not yet and not always embodying Judaism’s ultimate purpose. However, this is also not an issue that is unique to Judaism and Israel, it applies also to other religions as well. A future with no Jewish state in any form in the land of Israel, is antithetical to what Jewish sources have taught for thousands of years.

The Talmud in Ketubot 110b states:

“Our rabbis taught: One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are idolaters, but let no one live outside the land, even in a town most of whose inhabitants are Israelites; for whoever lives in the land of Israel may be considered to have a God [literally, “it is like as if he has], but whoever lives outside the land may be regarded as one who has no God.”

From this Rabbinic statement, Nachmanides in his commentary to Genesis 28:21 understands this to mean that God’s power and providence is only exercised in the Land of Israel for it is a holy land. God therefore, set up other powers in other lands. People who live in those lands are therefore under their influence and it is as if they have no God.

Also relevant to this discussion concerns the fulfillment of the commandments outside of Israel. It is the normative view found in the Mishna in Kiddushin 36b that “Any commandment that is not dependent on the Land (of Israel) must be performed outside of the Land, and any of them that is dependent on the Land is not performed except for in the Land.”

But we also find a view in the Sifre comments on Deuteronomy 11:16-18, which says:

“Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them and then the Lord’s anger be inflamed against you, and he shut up the heavens, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not its fruit; and you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you. And you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul…”

The Sages in the Sifre explain this verse to mean:

“Even though I am about to exile you from the Land (of Israel) to a foreign land, you must continue to be marked there by the commandments, so that when you return they will not be new to you.”

In this opinion, the commandments are meant to be performed in the Land of Israel, but for those who perform them outside of the land are doing so just for practice. Almost like as a training exercise in the event that they may return to the Land and have to perform them for real. This source in the Sifre is quoted by Nachmanides in his commentary on Leviticus 18:25 along with many other sources to support this view.

It is certainly not the mainstream view held by traditional Orthodox communities today that fulfilling commandments outside of Israel don’t really count. But the essence of this discussion does continue albeit in a much more secularized form today in relation to Zionism. The Zionist belief that as the Jews are a nation, for a Jew to live outside of Israel, they are not fully participating in a Jewish national life. Their Judaism can only be expressed in individualistic and personal, religious terms as a minority in a non-Jewish culture. It is not impossible to live a Jewish life outside of Israel, but it can’t be fully expressed in national terms. In the strictly religious sense, individual Jews can worship God everywhere, but there are some commandments specific to the land that can’t be performed outside of Israel. In terms of Jewish national identity, a Jew outside of Israel really can’t fully replicate this in a meaningful way.

We clearly do see some evidence for an opinion that God is less present outside of Israel and that commandments performed outside of Israel are considered less important than those who perform them in Israel. From the perspective of the individual in terms of his/her reward or punishment and ability to serve God through commandments this seems to be possible to be performed anywhere. But taken as whole, the fulfillment of the Jewish mission is dependent on there being a functioning Jewish nation in the land of Israel. The notion of being a Light unto the nations is in relation to it serving as an example to everyone else through being a holy, righteous role model society. This is the Judaism of Moses, which through Zionism, Herzl and his followers sought to restore in the late 1800’s. 

Far from being a modern corruption, we see that the uniqueness of the Land of Israel and redemption of the Jewish people through the restoration of Jewish self governance there is central to the Rabbinic tradition, the Mystical tradition led by Nachmanides and the Rationalist tradition of Maimonides.



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