In Christian theology the days of the messiah often involve great upheavals and calamities, giving birth to the Messiah through great pain and suffering. That’s the reason “apocalypse” has come to mean not vision, as it does in Greek, but catastrophe. Ironically, this grand messianic scheme has played out in actual 20th century Jewish history, as two major messianic movements erupted out of the post-holocaust Jewish world, movements that in many ways are coloring significant aspects of it to this very day.
These movements, Chabad and Gush Emunim, exemplify two different genres of messianism. While the former is of centered around the charismatic figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the latter is a headless creature, conceived from the richly optimistic teachings of Rav Kook, and moving forward on the high octane motivational energy of modern nationalism.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865–1935) was an extremely creative mystic and thinker. Based on a Hegelian view of history wed to a panentheistic vision of God, Kook interpreted the braking away of significant numbers of Jews from their religious tradition, followed by their adopting of Zionism and their efforts to found a Jewish state, as an indispensable and foreordained stage in the path to Jewish redemption. Since Geula must involve the rebuilding of the Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land, and since the orthodoxly observant are reluctant to leave the Diaspora, God has mandated the “uppity bound-breakers” (his words) to do the dirty – but momentously paramount – work.
Rav Kook the elder did not live to see the State of Israel being founded, but his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, was blessed to witness it. Yet Kook junior wept tears of sorrow when the United Nations proclaimed the Jewish people’s right to an independent state, because the same UN decision also stated that the land would be divided between the Jews and the Palestinians. In his eyes, the biblical Promised Land had to be forever undivided. What’s more, because in Zvi Yehuda’s eyes the state itself was holy (indeed, he considered it to be “the Seat of the Divine on Earth”), the actual military and political control of more and more of its promised territories were the very steps on which the messiah ascends (or is it descends?) toward final redemption.
With this in mind, we can understand why after the Six-Day war, Judea and Samaria’s coming under Israely control was construed by Zvi Yehuda and his followers to be a clear signal from the Heavenly Hand that the setback in the redemptive plan was over. With Israel finally broadening its borders it seemed that the messianic momentum was shifting gear, and that Salvation was ours for the taking. “There is not an End clearer then this!” proclaimed Kook Jr., and his followers announced that “The Third Redemption [after the exodus for Egypt and the return from Babilon in Ezra’s days] is without a stop!”.
In Kookist circles, then, it was a given that Geula has clearly begun, and that it was most surly irreversible. That did not mean, however, that we are to sit idly by and let God do all the work. In fact, it is after the Six-Day war, and in greater effort still after the Yom-Kippur war, that the first settlements were founded on the other side of what were the ’48 Israeli borders. That is the time when Gush-Emunim was born, then a young and spirited messianic-but-pragmatic movement, organized and peopled by Zvi Yehuda’s followers, but supported by many secular Israelis and quietly encouraged by elements from within the government.
Gush-Emunim started populating the hills and the occupied cities (such as Hebron) of the West Bank, sometimes by state permission and sometimes using trickery and lies.* Not less of import, The Gush’s messianic ideology occupied the hearts and souls of leading figures, and large numbers, of the Zionist-Religious public, imbuing it with renewed pride and the exhilarating feeling that its members were finally moving to the head of the Zionist enterprise. Not many years passed, however, before the first crisis of faith erupted.
A messianic vision’s weakness lies in the very thing that allows it to generate so much hope: its unabashed and uncompromising confidence. With the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 the vision of an ever advancing redemptive plan was shattered, as the Sinai desert was promised to be handed over to Egypt. Instead of gaining more and more of the Promised Land, the state of Israel was now breaking parts of it away. Note also the theological sprain the kooknics now found themselves in: it was the same Israel which they believed to be holy that is in fact crippling God’s plan.
The withdrawal from Sinai, followed later by the handing over of the Palestinian cities after the Oslo accords, the retreat from south Lebanon and, most devastatingly, the razing of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip have become almost an insurmountable challenge to the kookist messianic worldview. Its adherents today are experiencing a major crisis of faith, and their response to it divides them into a number of distinct groups.
Some, like Rabbi Shmuel Tal, have given up all hope for the state of Israel, no longer see it as divinely ordained, and have for all intents and purposes joined the Haredi world (allowing them to shift the center of their religious life from Zionism to Halakha). Some, led by the prominent Rav Tao, have delayed redemption indefinitely, and while still sure it’s on its way, have transferred progress toward it to the dimension hidden from the unlearned eye. At present they concentrate their efforts on strengthening Halakhic observance and education, while waiting for the masses to embrace their tradition.
Others, like the Jewish Underground of the early ‘80s or the Bat Ayin Underground from 2002, have turned to terrorism, in an attempt to force an apocalyptic event (or simply an all-out war) that will force the state to conquer its forsaken lands. And some, led by the post-Zionist and deeply Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, aim to overthrow the secular government in a revolution of consciousness that will reconnect every Jew to his innermost soul. Most Religious-Zionists, however, are simply living their bourgeois life, hoping for the best, somewhat less convinced of the state’s divine status, and ever more wary of sweet-talking prophets bringing tidings of The End.
* For one of many examples, see חגי סגל [Chaggai Segal], אחים יקרים [beloved Brothers], page 237. Rabbi ehoshua Zuckerman says that “while settling the Shomron we did some illegal things.” On the same page, Ze’ev Hever, one of the leading figures among the settlers, says: “The dry law in itself is not holy to us, is not holy to any of the people sitting here.”