[E]ven among many Jews absolutely committed to the continuing relevance of the Bible the idea of humans starting a state in Israel was long considered destructive—even blasphemous. Israel Prize winner and Hebrew University Jewish Thought Professor Aviezer Ravitzky begins his widely respected Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism with a startling fact: the first Hebrew appearance he can find of “The State of Israel” (Medinat Yisrael) is in the writings of the Polish Rabbi Elyakum Shapira of Grodno in the year 1900. Shapira, outraged by secular Zionist plans for a humanly created Jewish state rather than, as Jewish law requires, a Davidic kingdom led by a divinely chosen Messiah, wrote: “How can I bear that something be called ‘The State of Israel’ without the Torah and the commandments (heaven forbid)?”
And the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, wrote in 1770 that “The Talmud forbids us to even think of a return to Palestine by force. Without the miracles and signs mentioned in the Scripture, we must not take the smallest step in the direction of forcing a return and a restoration of our nation.”
It turns out that opposition to a Jewish state isn’t an isolated theological quirk but a central conviction among Jews for most of the history of Rabbinic thought. It’s contained in the Talmud itself, expounded by Rashi (the most important Jewish Bible interpreter, whose interpretation every Jewish Day School student learns first), and detailed by Maimonides, arguably Jewish tradition’s single most influential thinker.
Indeed, according to Ravitzky, Shapira’s response and that of the many Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists today reflects “fundamental tendencies and patterns of thought anchored in a long-standing tradition. In fact, they faithfully reflect the Messianic view prevalent among Jewish believers for many generations.”
This Messianic view is anchored in the Talmud, which says that the Jewish people must swear to keep faith in God’s plan for the world. The messianic end, when God will redeem all of reality, is a goal so desirable as to be like a bride in waiting for marriage. Thus it is in a mystical commentary on the Song of Songs that Israel is first commanded to swear three oaths: not to “ascend the wall” to where the Messiah (the Bride) waits, not to “rebel against the nations of the world,” and not to “force the End [times].”¹
The statement is enshrined in the Babylonian Talmud, the richest source of Jewish law and theology. Rashi and later authoritative commentators make clear that they understand this to mean that it is forbidden to use political or military power to establish a Jewish kingdom. In keeping with these admonitions, Maimonides does not include any command to settle Israel among the 613 commandments Jews are divinely obliged to keep, and authorities from the medieval Ashkenazic Pietists (who transmitted much of the earliest known mystical literature) through 15th century Spanish Kabbalists held to it.
Theological resistance to the early Zionist movement was thus based in the mainstream of Jewish tradition. This resistance spanned the theological spectrum from Orthodox to Reform Judaism which, through the early 20th century,² officially opposed a state of Israel. A principle adopted at its 1869 conference in Philadelphia could scarcely have been more clear:
“The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God.”
A principle adopted a few years later at the 1885 Pittsburgh conference only reinforced this view:
“[w]e consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
On the other end of the spectrum, one of the founders of the populist Chabad movement, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sholom DovBaer Schneersohn) who was most influential in bringing Hasidism to the masses, describes political Zionism as an out-and-out denial of central tenets of Judaism; namely that, because it’s the prerogative of God alone to bring a messiah, and because human activity merely usurps his role, placing the state in the role of God indicates that “the Zionists must give nationalism precedence over the Torah.”