Eliezer Berkovits, Theologian of Zionism

By David Hazony

Why statehood is not only vital for protecting Jewish interests, but central to Jewish faith.

Signup for FREE ACCESS to all content
on AzureOnline




any Jews are active, even vocal advocates of a Jewish state. Yet their support for Israel is rarely identified as deriving from their Judaism. Zionism is often considered to follow not from any specific religious belief, but from a concern for the well-being of one’s fellow Jews. The Jews were persecuted for centuries, it is said, and the State of Israel is the remedy. But whether such a Zionism is an aspect of one’s Judaism, understood as a faith, remains unclear.
This ambiguous relationship between Judaism and political Zionism is most in evidence when one considers the attitude of the great Jewish theologians writing after the emergence of the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century. Most Reform thinkers, for example, opposed the idea of a Jewish nation state, its theologians arguing for decades that Zionism contradicted Judaism’s universalist ethic.1 For leading Orthodox thinkers as well, Zionism was taken to be an affront to the messianic ideal, according to which it is God—and not secular Zionists—who will redeem the Jews in the end of days. While there were noteworthy exceptions, it is fair to say that the energies Jews brought to the Zionist enterprise in the pre-state period were largely despite, rather than because of, Jewish theological reflection.
A great deal changed, of course, with the rise of Nazism, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel. The Reform movement abandoned its opposition to Zionism, as did the great majority of Orthodox Jews. Jewish theologians of virtually all persuasions began to speak of the Jewish state mainly in positive terms. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the idea of sovereignty came to play in Jewish thought anything like the central role that it assumed in Jewish communal life. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading interpreter of Judaism within modern Orthodoxy in North America, endorsed the Jewish state in 1956 as a divine “knock on the door,” a wake-up call for Jews to the possibility of redemption and repentance;2 yet Soloveitchik himself chose to remain in the diaspora, and the thrust of his philosophical efforts continued to be the ethos of the individual living under Jewish law, or halacha. Similarly, the Reform theologian Eugene B. Borowitz, whose enthusiasm for Israel is reflected in his hope that the Jewish state will help Jews “sanctify social existence” in a manner impossible under conditions of exile, nonetheless continues to place the pursuit of the ethical and the development of the “Jewish self” at the center of his theology—a challenge that in his view is best met in the diaspora.3 In his landmark work Renewing the Covenant (1991), Borowitz distanced himself from the biblical ideal of Jewish sovereignty, emphasizing the failure of ancient Israelite rulers to meet the ethical standards established at Sinai:
Being human, the [Israelite] kings demonstrate the will-to-do-evil; being rulers, they do so on a grand scale…. The incongruity of Israel’s political behavior in the light of its covenant ideals prompts the theological wonder that God did not choose another social form for them rather than subject them to the awesome risks of collective power…. God makes Abraham’s family a nation in history in order to show that collective power can be sanctified through subordination to God’s rule. This does not, however, require Israel to fulfill its covenantal responsibilities through political autonomy or any other given social structure.4
What emerges from all this is a remarkable disjuncture between Jewish philosophy and Jewish communal life. While the Jewish people has collectively placed Israel at the center of its public agenda, to the point that it has become one of the few causes that unite the great majority of Jews, Orthodox and liberal Jewish thinkers alike have remained occupied principally with the faith and works of the individual. Jews continue to love Israel, but when asked whetherJudaism needs Zionism, most will simply shrug their shoulders or speak of the needs and history of the Jewish people.
In this light we may attach special significance to the understanding of Jewish nationhood put forward by the theologian Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992), who wrote extensively on the meaning of sovereignty and nationhood in Judaism. According to Berkovits, modern philosophers of Judaism have misunderstood the importance of nationhood—and in particular its expression in the form of an independent state—in interpreting the biblical faith and its talmudic expansion. While most Jewish thinkers, under the influence of Kant, tended to view the classic Jewish affirmation of nationhood and sovereignty as at best secondary to Judaism’s ethical or legal core, Berkovits offered an approach to morality and nationhood that understood the creation and maintenance of a sovereign Jewish polity to be essential to the fulfillment of Judaism.
In Berkovits’ view, the exile of the Jewish people at the dawn of the Christian era represented more than a physical and political tragedy for Jews. It was a calamity for Judaism itself, which would henceforth be incapable of fulfilling its central mission, that of creating an exemplary people in its own sovereign state. Following the eradication of Jewish national life in the second century c.e., Judaism entered a period of preservation, during which its wellsprings of creativity grew dry and its adaptive capacity withered, until the modern era arrived, offering Jews an alternative vision for which the keepers of the tradition were largely unprepared. The opportunity to re-establish the Jewish state in our own era, therefore, signified for Berkovits not only the protection of Jewish lives from the arbitrariness of nations—a tremendous achievement in its own right—but also the reconstitution of Judaism under sovereign conditions. “The creation of an autonomous Jewish body corporate,” Berkovits wrote in 1943, five years before Israel’s independence, “is the sine qua non for the regeneration of Jewish religion and culture. Without it, further development of Judaism is impossible; without it Judaism can hardly be saved in the present circumstances.”5
According to Berkovits, therefore, Judaism does need Zionism, and emphatically so. This fact places him among a handful of major Jewish theologians of the past century for whom Judaism and Zionism are effectively inseparable, forming a unified whole. Of these, however, Berkovits’ exposition is probably the most developed philosophically, and the most compelling in its refutation of competing approaches in both general and Jewish thought.
In what follows, I will explore Berkovits’ philosophical Zionism, with particular attention to three of his claims: First, that the Jewish collective identity is not merely a fact of history, but a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the Jewish moral vision; second, that the centrality of the collective translates into a demand for national sovereignty, not only today but as a permanent requirement of Judaism; and finally, that the resultant understanding of Jewish history, the predicament of exile, and the problem of enlightenment makes the Jewish state a precondition for the success and even survival of Judaism in the modern era. Together, these arguments offer a coherent and powerful account of the Jewish state as an integral aspect of Jewish faith.

David Hazony is Senior Editor of Azure. He is the editor of the collected works of Eliezer Berkovits. The most recent volume is God, Man and History (Shalem Press, 2004).

Signup >>
Forgot password? >>

From the

Locusts, Giraffes, and the Meaning of KashrutThe most famous Jewish practice is really about love and national loyalty.
The Political Legacy of Theodor HerzlBefore the melting pot, a different vision of the Jewish state.
Cato and Caesar
How Great Nations Can Win Small WarsIraq, Northern Ireland, and the secret strength of democratic peoples.
Far Away, So CloseHow the commandments bridge the unbridgeable gap between God and man.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2018