Eretz Israel is our unforgettable historic homeland...The Jews who will it shall achieve their State...And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind. (Theodor Herzl, DerJudenstaat, 1896)

We offer peace and amity to all the neighbouring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all. The State of Israel is ready to contribute its full share to the peaceful progress and development of the Middle East.
(From Proclamation of the State of Israel, 5 Iyar 5708; 14 May 1948)

With a liberal democratic political system operating under the rule of law, a flourishing market economy producing technological innovation to the benefit of the wider world, and a population as educated and cultured as anywhere in Europe or North America, Israel is a normal Western country with a right to be treated as such in the community of nations.... For the global jihad, Israel may be the first objective. But it will not be the last. (Friends of Israel Initiative)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Why Zionism is integral to Judaism

As a comment on my previous post reminds me, one of the many ways in which Israel's enemies attempt to undermine the Jewish State is by denying a connection between Judaism and Zionism.  So, in order to prick that particular anti-Zionist bubble, I've decided to post this survey of the Zionist idea in Jewish thought.  It's based on something I once prepared for a class of students. 

In the Bible, the Promised Land is frequently called Canaan, the territory west of the River Jordan which was promised by God to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people (he is depicted here by the great Jewish artist and Zionist E. M. Lilien, who lived from 1874 to 1925).  The land given to Abraham as part of the Covenant he made with God is described in Genesis (15:18) as "from the river of Egypt unto ... the river Euphrates", but other biblical passages draw less extensive boundaries, as in Numbers (34:1-15), where God describes the land of Canaan to Moses, and Judges 20:1, where the land stretched from "Dan even to Beersheba".

The land possessed by the ancestors of the Jewish people was at one time divided into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah).  The size of the land varied in biblical times, being at its largest during the reigns of King David and King Solomon.  The holiness of the land (ha-Aretz; whence Eretz Israel="Land of Israel") is an integral part of Jewish tradition, which holds that the land was first sanctified by Joshua's conquest.  However, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land and drove its inhabitants into exile (often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity), the land lost its holiness and was resanctified following the Israelites' return from captivity.  This second sanctification is generally considered by the rabbis to have endured through the centuries.

During the Babylonian Captivity the exiles pined for the Promised Land.  Their anguish found eternal expression in Psalm 137:1-6, evoked by dispossessed Jews throughout the ages: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion ...."

The term Zion ("landmark" or "sign") was first used of Mount Zion, one of the hills of Jerusalem, upon which in very ancient times a tower stood making it visible from a vast distance.  Eventually the term was widened to be applied also to the Temple in Jerusalem (the Jews' principal place of worship, first built by King Solomon and reconstructed by King Herod), to Jerusalem itself, and to the whole of Eretz Israel.  Zion became synonymous with the spiritual centre of Judaism.  "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3).  Zion is regarded as the dwelling place of the Shekinah ("divine presence"), and traditional (Orthodox) Judaism teaches that with the coming of the Messiah Zion will be illuminated by God's glory, and from there divine gifts will issue forth.

With the Roman Conquest of Judea in the first century of the Christian Era - symbolised by the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the suicide of the Jewish defenders of Masada three years later (and confirmed by the suppression of Bar Kokhba's rebellion in 135 CE) the process of dispersion, begun during the Babylonian Captivity, intensified - yet wherever they were Jews retained their spiritual connection to Eretz Israel.

Deuteronomy 11:12 describes the Promised Land as "A land which the Lord thy God careth for: the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it".  Exodus 3:8 describes it as "a good land and a large ...  flowing with milk and honey".  Various biblical passages (such as Jeremiah 3:19 and Deuteronomy 8:8-10) attest to its pleasantness and abundance.   Consequently, in Jewish thought - in Judaism - it's a land where everything positive is to be found - "a desirable, good and ample land", to quote the second blessing of the Grace After Meals.  The seven indigenous species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 (wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, dates) are regarded as especially important - if there are several kinds of fruit on a table, a blessing must first be said over those specified in that verse, and a special blessing recited after eating them.

Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot - which in biblical times were harvest festivals as well as commemorations of historical events - are celebrated by Jews worldwide in accordance with agricultural seasons in Eretz Israel.  Similarly, the traditional prayers for dew and rain are recited during the dry season there, regardless of their relevance to prevailing conditions in the countries where they are being said.

Jewish worship is replete with yearning for Zion, with consciousness of the special status of Eretz Israel.  The ark in synagogues (the receptacle whre the Torah scrolls are kept) is traditionally positioned at the wall nearest Jerusalem, which in western synagogues means the eastern wall.  Customarily, seats along the eastern wall were reserved for men of high standing in the community.  In accordance with 1 Kings 8:48 ("and pray unto thee toward their land") Jews face towards Jerusalem when praying.  Traditionally, prayers are believed to rise up to God through that holy city, which is regarded as the gateway to heaven.  References to Zion pervade the liturgy, and in the Orthodox prayer book hopes for restoration to Zion abound in tandem with expectation of a messianic redemption. Those hopes are encapsulated in the affirmation at the annual Passover Seder: "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Following an old custom, the eastern wall of many Jewish homes is decorated with an ornamental plaque known as a mizrach ("rising sun" or "east").  The mizrach might include an appropriate illustration or inscription, such as Psalm 113:3.  The purpose of the mizrach is to indicate the direction in which to turn for prayer: if Jews at prayer have no way of ascertaining the direction of Jerusalem they should ensure, as it were, that their hearts are directed there.

Jewish tradition teaches: "He who does not mourn over the destruction of Zion will not live to see her joy".  Mourning for that destruction is preserved in the traditional liturgy, especially that relating to the four fasts which commemorate the fall of the Temple.  The most notable of these fasts is Tisha b'Av, which takes place following a three week period of mourning in which no weddings are solemnised, no music is played, and in which traditionally observant Jews avoid buying new clothes, shaving, or having their hair cut.  For the final nine days they abstain from wine and meat.

Tisha b'Av and its prelude is not observed by Reform (or Progressive) Jews, who regard the precepts and liturgy of that day as anachronistic, and, in view of the existence of the State of Israel, others have ceased to observe it.  But for those who continue to mark it, Tisha b'Av is a day of deep grief, not only for the destruction of Solomon's Temple by the Babylonians and of Herod's by the Romans, but for all the major disasters that have dogged the Jewish people.  In the darkened synagogue, the mournful worshippers, seated on the floor or on low stools, recite the series of dirges which comprise the Book of Lamentations.  "Judah is gone into captivity ... The Lord hath swallowed up all the habitations of Jacob ... The Lord hath ... kindled a fire in Zion, and it hath devoured the foundations thereof." (Lamentations, 1:3, 2:2, 4:11).

The loss of Zion is commemorated in other ways.  For instance, at weddings the groom shatters a glass with his foot, a custom believed to represent the destruction of the Temple, so that amid rejoicing the wedding party recalls that sorrowful event.  Jewish custom ensured that whenever a house or synagogue was built, a square yard of one of the walls remained unfinished, and that on it was inscribed Zecher l'Churban
 ("In memory of the destruction").  Jews were enjoined to tear their garments as a sign of mourning when they saw the site of the Temple for the first time.  "May the Almighty console you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem" is a traditional condolence for the bereaved.

Inherent in kadosh ("holiness") is the sense of "separate, designated for a divine purpose".  The Mishnah, the code of oral laws contained in the Talmud, declares that "There are ten degrees of holiness.  The Land of Israel is holier than any other ...".  Whether or not Jews are obligated in Jewish Law (Halakhah) to reside in Eretz Israel is a matter of contention, but among countless statements by the Sages in praise of Eretz Israel are the assertions that whoever lives in the Land of Israel "is as if he worshipped God, while one who lives outside it is as if he worshipped idolatry".  It was said that no resident of Eretz Israel should leave except in order to study Torah, to marry, or to rescue property abroad, and that the relocation must be temporary.  Both men and women were given the right to demand that their spouses move with them to Eretz Israel, failure to comply being grounds for divorce.  Because Eretz Israel has always been considered spiritually higher than other lands, Jews who move there are known as olim ("those who ascend").  Settling in Eretz Israel is known as aliyah l'aretz ("going up to the Land"), usually shortened to aliyah ("ascent"). 

Jerusalem, the location of the first and second Temples, which after its capture by King David became the capital of the ancient Hebrew kingdom (and from 1967 has been the capital of the State of Israel), is regarded in Judaism as the holiest city in Eretz Israel.  Jewish tradition teaches that it was formed at the beginning of Creation, and that Adam, the first man, was formed out of its dust.  The akedah ("binding"), the term which denotes Abraham's intended offering of Isaac, occurred there.  It was in Jerusalem that Jacob, asleep on the Temple Mount, dreamt of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven.  Jerusalem is traditionally said to contain nine-tenths of all the beauty in the world, and was credited with miraculous properties - none of its inhabitants fell ill, no building within it ever caught fire, and its dimensions seemed to expand in order to accommodate everyone who entered it.  When the Messianic Age arrives, the Temple will descend at Jerusalem ready-made from heaven.  Then all nations will gather within the city's walls.

Three other cities in Eretz Israel are, through biblical or historical connections, holy to Jews - Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias.  Of the various Jewish sacred sites in Eretz Israel, the holiest is Kotel Maaravi, otherwise known as the Western Wall.  It is the westen section of the outer wall which enclosed Herod's Temple.  It's been considered sacred since Talmudic times, owing to its proximity to  the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, which was situated at the western end.  As is well-known, it's a site of pilgrimage for Jews, who pray there and kiss its stones.  Belief in the divine presence at the wall explains the practice of inserting in its cracks pieces of paper containing requests to God.  Between 1948 and 1967, when it was liberated by Israeli troops, it was in Jordanian hands - and inaccessible to Jews.

In addition, there are about twenty Jewish sacred sites in Eretz Israel.  Among the most notable are the Tomb of David on Mount Zion (the focus of much pilgrimage during the period when the Western Wall was off-limits), the Tomb of the Patriarchs (or Cave of Machpelah) in Hebron, and the Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem.  Other sacred sites, which are particularly numerous in Jerusalem and Galilee, include the actual or supposed graves of prophets and sages, such as those of Maimonides in Tiberias and Isaac Luria in Safed.

From the time of the Babylonian captivity, the concept of the "ingathering of the exiles" (kibbutz galuyot), first expressed in Deuteronomy 30:3-5, gathered momentum.  The concept is found in Jewish eschatology as well as in prophetic literature.  In the era when the Talmud was being compiled the concept became an essential tenet of Judaism, "equal in significance to the day on which heaven and earth were created", as one rabbinic sage put it.  The dream of "ingathering" found expression in prayers for the return to Zion, faith in the coming of the Messiah, and a firm belief in the final redemption of Israel.  But, in traditional thought, it would be effected by divine means, not by human beings.

Long before Herzlian Zionism, Jews in the Diaspora - in galut ("exile") - returned to Eretz Israel and established settlements there.  The celebrated traveller Benjamin of Tudela visited the country at the end of the twelfth century and found a flourishing Jewish presence.  Several important Jewish scholars were based there during the Middle Ages, and a Hebrew printing press was established at Safed in the sixteenth century.  The messianic ferment that followed the terrible massacres of Jews in the Ukraine and southern Poland in 1648-9 by Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki contained the expectation of an imminent return to Zion.

Various sects of Orthodox Jews settled there in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Jewish population of what was a sparsely populated land ruled by the Turks significantly grew.  Visitors to and settlers in Eretz Israel were mindful that they had achieved what had been denied even to Moses, who had glimpsed the land from afar but had not set foot there.  Even the envelopes of letters sent from Eretz Israel were treasured by Diaspora Jews.  And often, over the centuries, elderly Jews would travel to Zion to die and be buried there - thus avoiding the fate cited in Amos 7:17 ("Thou shalt die in an unclean land").  The sages taught that anyone interred in Eretz Israel is as if buried beneath the altar (Exodus 20:24) and receives atonement.


  1. Fascinating, really enjoyed this piece and learnt a lot.

    I noticed this phrase:

    Temple will descend at Jerusalem ready-made from heaven

    Is this not more Christian than jewish thought. I only ask as we see this most clearly in the book of Revelation and so I'm wondering if there is other scripture that alludes to this event.

    I'll put up the first couple of para's on our blog and link to the rest of this if that's OK.

  2. Many thanks for the encouragement, Stuart - of course you may post that to your blog. I'm always happy for you to do that.
    I prepared this piece many years ago for a class of non-Jewish students in Australia, and the sources I used were all Jewish. So I really can't answer your question - someone more learned in comparative religion than I am might hopefully be able to do so.

  3. Daphne - this is scholarly. A great introduction to Jews' connection with the Land and its primacy for Jews.

    This should be compulsive reading for anyone who is fooled by the revisionists who seek to create a Holocaust of Jewish history, belief, philosophy, culture and ethics.

    I have one small quibble. The Second Temple was built after the return from the Babylonian Exile. Herod demolished much of that temple and rebuilt and expanded it. The temple destroyed by the Romans was the third building on the site but is still considered the Second Temple because the rituals and sacrifices were continuous throughout the period.

    Another interesting point is that many Orthodox Jews believe that with the coming of Moshiach (the Messiah) all synagogues throughout the world will be miraculously transported to Eretz Israel. An interesting and poetic concept.

  4. It should of course be noted that it was the European Roman invaders who renamed Judea "Palestine," quite inconvenient for the forces of Arab imperialism who invaded later because there's no "P" in Arabic but very appropriate considering the "Philistines" currently leading the "Palestinian" people.

  5. Thank you, Ray and Anon, for your welcome comments.

    Ray, it's a distilled excerpt from a booklet distributed to students that I did before I had a computer (which was unfortunate, for I typed it out last night and it took longer than anticipated, with several uncaught typos). I had readings from various sources to go with my introductions. I also had a potted history of the Zionist movement from Herzl to 1948 in the booklet - remember, it was meant for non-Jewish students who knew little or nothing about it. So I may post that as a blog, under the title Zionism 101 or similar. It might be of interest to some people.

  6. Yes, that would be brilliant

  7. "Brilliant"? You may wish to reserve judgment until you've seen it! ;~)
    OK, I'll do that soon, Ray.

  8. Very nice to see someone who can write, stand up for the Nation of Israel!

  9. Thanks so much, Fr. Robert - your remark is much appreciated.