For the religious Zionist Jew who wishes to grasp Israel’s present situation in a rational way, the hardest act is to shake off the messianisms that envelop his society - ranging from overt and imminent “end-time” scenarios, to the hazy metaphor of the “beginning of the dawn of our salvation”.
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What they share and engender is an optimistic feeling of ultimate victory and security. We are assured that the Jews’ political failure and physical catastrophe is as finished as the Galut (Exile). But in the actual psyche of the religious Zionist, the persistently suppressed horror of that past repeating itself propels us further - into a delusional messianism that needs to be coupled to a secular rightwing ideology promising salvation by standing ‘strong’ and ‘proud’, that is confirmed by our increasing isolation.
This messianisms must be confronted, and in the language of Jewish thought from whence it emerged. If one reverts to a rigorous halakhic realism – one that says that we will know the Messiah when he arrives and not before – then how do we approach our current situation? The Torah recommends “Your Elders will tell thee”. Luckily we have had three tough, smart old guys as our reference points. Neither political liberals nor lovers of the Palestinians. Hardly. But their combined message is clear – we need, we must get out of our Palestinian embrace.
The greatest Talmudic theologian of modernity was my master, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Both Kantian and existential, he elucidated absolute legal concepts and the aloneness of the covenantal model. But he did not allow halakhic absolutism or mystic tilting at windmills to cloud the truth of a situation.
Already back in 1967, the Rav was clear that while sanctity of place such as the Temple Mount have great meaning in Jewish law, they are nothing compared to the safety of the Jewish people. The meaning of the Six Day War was the preservation of Jewish lives and the integrity of the State, all else was meaningless: “But I don’t need to rule whether we should give the West Bank back to the Arabs; we rabbis should not be involved in decisions regarding the safety and security of the population. These are not merely halakhic rulings, they are a matter of pikuach nefesh (preservation of life) for the entire population. And if the government were to rule that the safety of the population requires that specific territories be returned, whether I issue a halakhic ruling or not, their decision is the deciding factor….”
Self-referential religious pronouncements are “silly statements” alone. Soloveitchik maintained: “These decisions require a military perspective which one must research assiduously. The border that must be established should be based upon that which will provide more security.” In brief, the religious law is determined by security issues alone, and that decision must be made by the experts.
But can we give back the land? The greatness of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s public position is that it was delivered in public forums designed for policy and Halakha Pesuka (decided law). Yosef had an uncompromisingly clear attachment to the sanctity of the Land of Israel, meaning that both that a Jew (merely by living in the land) can be seen as an observer of the commandments, and that, conversely, it is forbidden to give up the land to non-Jews including monotheists such as Muslims.
Nonetheless, the attachment of the Jew to the land and the prohibition for selling it to non-Jews are overridden by the same imperative of pikuach nefesh – “if the military chief of staff with expert statesmen establish that there is an issue of pikuach nefesh, if we do not return the territories, we rely upon them and permit the return. And just as when there is a concern of danger regarding a sick person whether he should fast on Yom Kippur or not… that even 100 doctors say he can fast, while the Tur [1270-1340] says he must eat, we feed him, for in life or death cases we are lenient… one must therefore return the territories out of concern for the danger of war.” In this concern for pikuach nefesh the views of the greatest Ashkenazi and Sephardi interpreters of Jewish law in recent history, both Rav Soloveitchik and R. Ovadia Yosef concur completely.
And so we also turn to the experts. For that we can’t do better than Ariel Sharon. Arik discovered that despite his high evaluation and ready use of Jewish power, Israel cannot survive controlling the Palestinians. Seeing in Alistair Horne’s The Savage War For Peace, a book he kept on his bedside table, that just as France understood itself inextricably identified with Algeria, but De Gaulle needed to sever that suicidal link, so too Israel needed to separate from the Palestinians and consequently much of the land they occupy, for what we halakhically call pikuach nefesh.
These old guys, call out to us from their graves – “Wait for the true Messiah, but in the meantime - get out while you can, or you will inevitably join us here.”
The writer is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. His views are his own.