Zionism and Israel, Exile and Redemption in the Thought and Deed of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
The dawn of Jewish history was not characterized by a philosophical imperative or ordinary deed. Instead, our beginnings were characterized by a destination. God’s first commandment to Avraham is a charge to travel, to “Go forth for yourself from your land, to the land which I shall show you.”[i] When the Jewish nation proper appears, while in exile in the land of Egypt, they too have a destination that will constitute their “ascent from the poverty of Egypt,”[ii] they too are headed towards that same land that God commanded Avraham to settle centuries earlier. The nation’s travels in the desert mark the beginning of their journey to that Land. The final stanza of the legal revelation at Sinai discusses entry into the Land.[iii] The Land of Israel, that destination, seems central to the formation and identity of the Jewish people. They may leave the land, but always, they return.
This tension between being in the land and traveling toward it has pulled on the Jewish people from Avraham’s time until today. In the modern era, the Jewish people’s return to Israel and their subsequent creation of a sovereign state raise the thought of Messianic redemption. After all, the accounts of redemption mentioned in the Torah are intimately related to the land of Israel.[iv] Any Jewish ideology or thinker is then challenged to respond to the modern state of Israel and assess to what extent it is related to redemption, to the Messianic era. In the broadest sense, salvation, relationship with God, and redemption all seem somewhat intertwined with this land. What is so unique about this land? What is its significance? Why is it considered the arbiter of exile and redemption?
Perhaps more than any Jewish leader in history, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, popularly known as “the Rebbe,” had this explicit agenda at the focal point of his leadership: That the Jewish people be redeemed; in his locution, “with the true and complete redemption, by way of our righteous Messiah, in a moment, immediately, literally, and in our time.”[v] Perforce, we must consider, what was the Rebbe’s conception of The Land of Israel? How did he view the concepts of galut and ge’ulah? What role does the Land of Israel play in answering these cosmic questions of Jewish destiny? What might the Modern State of Israel have to do with these issues?
On Ten Shevat 5711 (January 17, 1951) the Rebbe delivered his inaugural address as the seventh leader of the Chabad movement.[vi] In this address, entitled “Basi le-Gani” the Rebbe set forth the vision that would guide his agenda for the next forty-one years of his leadership. In this address, he ignores both the land and state of Israel entirely, or so it would seem. Instead, the Rebbe develops the idea that this generation[vii] has the mystical status of the “seventh generation… who are found in the Ikveta di-Meshika, bi-siyuma di-ikveta,[viii] (“in the footsteps of the Messiah, at the very end of the footsteps”- that is, the Messianic redemption is imminent) and its task is to complete the [act of] drawing down the Shekhinah (God’s Divine Presence)… into the lower realms specifically.” This act is the ultimate purpose of creation, and its fulfillment ushers in the Messianic era. The Rebbe continued to explain that the resting place of the Shekhinah in the lower realms is “each and every individual of Israel.” That is, the Jewish people are bearers of the Shekhinah, and when they act righteously, they effect an indwelling of God’s presence within the physical world.[ix]
In much of his inaugural address the Rebbe speaks at length about “bringing the Shekhinah into the world.” Clearly then, the Shekhinah is currently absent, and if so, it would appear that the Shekhinah’s bearers, the Jewish people, are in some way not fulfilling their duty. The question becomes, why have the Jewish people failed thus far in their divine mission, and how can they ultimately “draw the Shekhinah down into the lower realms.” To answer this question, we must first understand the concept of exile in Chabad Hasidut.
Much of Chabad’s foundational philosophical text, the Tanya[x] is devoted to a discussion of exile and redemption. Indeed, one way to view the entirety of the Tanya is that it is a guidebook to personal spiritual redemption. Although, the word “exile” is common throughout the Tanya, Messianic redemption and Israel are not the work’s central focus. The focus is on personal exile, which is thought of as distance from God, effected through sin. Redemption is transcendence of the sin and reconnection to God. This approach transforms the general conception of exile from one that focuses on a physical reality to a spiritual one, and redemption from a focus on national return to the land of Israel to a focus on a personal relationship with God. It takes redemption out of a far off eschatological context and allows redemption to take place immediately within the life of the individual. When the Jewish people collectively undergo personal redemption, the aggregate effect is a general redemption of the Jewish people and the world.[xi]
Despite the work’s focus on the individual Jew, the Alter Rebbe does discuss Jewish national exile in two places in the Tanya. There he explains exile from Israel within the context of the Kabbalistic “Sod Galut ha-Shekhinah” [xii](the mystery of the exile of the Shekhinah) as follows:
“[Exile occurs when we] fall into the forces of evil, which is the mystery of the Shekhinah in exile, as our Rabbis, of blessed memory state, ‘When [the Israelites] were exiled into Edom, the Shekhinah went with them.’ That is to say, when a person practices the acts of ‘Edom’ he degrades and brings down the Divine spark [that is The Shekhinah into Edom]”[xiii]
“The cause of the exile is as our sages, of blessed memory, said: ‘They were exiled to Babylon, and the Shekhinah went with them.[xiv][xv] The Alter Rebbe continues to explain that by living a life of “mundane matters and worldly desires, which are referred to as ‘Babylon’” one enters exile as he shifts his identity “the innermost point of the heart” into exile.
Sod Galut ha-Shekhinah is based on an early Midrashic concept which states that wherever the Jewish people are in exile, the Shekhinah accompanies them.[xvi] Simply, this Midrash can be understood as an allegorical emphasis of God’s mercy on the Jewish people, that though He exiles them, He does not forsake them. He is still with them, and even, as it were, bears their suffering with them. The Alter Rebbe reveals that the deeper meaning of this homily is that the Jews are the cause of the Shekhinah’s exile. The Jew is the bearer of God’s presence in this world. Should a Jew perform acts of “Edom” or “Babylon” then he or she causes the Shekhinah to be exiled from the world. This is no magical or supernatural concept. Given that Torah and mitsvot are Hashem’s will, fulfilling them causes Hashem’s will to be revealed in this world. Conversely, if Torah and mitsvot are not fulfilled, God’s will, and hence revelation, is not manifest in the world in a practical sense, and therefore exiled. In Chabad philosophy, corporeal entities are by nature a reflection of higher metaphysical truths, and, conversely, metaphysical truths are reflected within the corporeal. It follows then, that if the corporeal reality is such that the Jewish people are engaged in acts of “Babylon” and “Edom,” the metaphysical reality is such that the Jewish people, and hence, the Shekhinah, are found in Babylon and Edom. Should the Jewish people perform acts of Babylon or Edom while in the physical land of Israel, they will soon actually find themselves in these foreign lands. The modern exile of the Jewish people then, is a reflection of their of the fact that they are in a state of spiritual exile[xvii]
Although Chabad philosophy accepts the traditional orientation that galut is a punishment for sin, at some level, it is the Jewish people who exile themselves. God, in donning his attribute of stern judgment, simply decrees that the temporal reality reflect the metaphysical one, instead of allowing the Jewish people to live a false reality supported by God’s abundant mercies.
IV. The Land of Israel
If Edom and Babylon are temporal representations of metaphysical evil, then we have found a key to understanding what the land of Israel is. By this logic, “Israel” is not primarily a temporal destination, but rather a destiny.[xviii] That is to say, “Israel” is a metaphysical reality. This reality may then be reflected in physical reality as the temporal land of Israel. In a dictum often cited by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe of Chabad) explains, “the land of Israel is [a] disclosure of divinity [giluy Elokut] by means of involvement with the Torah and worship of the heart.”[xix] Erets Yisrael, then, is primarily Torah and mitsvot, and the temporal Israel is supposed to be a reflection of those values.
Although the physical land of Israel is meant to be the model of God’s revelation on earth through fulfillment of the Torah and mitsvot by the Jewish people, it would seem that God’s revelation in all earthly things need not only apply to the land of Israel. The Rebbe strongly emphasized this point, quoting the Rabbinic adage “atida Erets Yisrael she-titpashet al kol ha-olam kulo”[xx] (“In the [Messianic] future, the Land of Israel shall spread to the world in its entirety”[xxi]) throughout his writings and teachings.
Chabad philosophy teaches that this statement is a description of the way in which the Messianic reality will come to be. As the Tzemach Tzedek directed his followers “aseh kan Erets Yisrael,”[xxii] “make here the land of Israel,” emphasizing the idea that every place in the world can be made into Israel by studying Torah and performing mitsvot there. As the Rebbe put it “The matter of the land of Israel is to make physical things a vehicle for divinity, and therefore, entry into the land, in the spiritual sense can be achieved even outside of the land. [“Make here Israel” means that] in any place within which one is found, he must make of the physical things a vehicle for the holy”[xxiii]
The Rebbe summarized his vision of Israel quite succinctly in the following comments:
Since the Children of Israel are similar to the land of Israel, it is within their power to make of the whole world the land of Israel, that is, to make all the physical matters around them vehicles for divinity a sanctuary for his [God’s] residence… With this we may understand the statement of our sages ‘Israel is destined to spread forth to all lands’ which, on the face of it, is unclear. Given that all matters of the future [the Messianic end time] come [to pass] through the service [avodah] of the time of exile, and if this is the case, what is the service whereby which in the future Eretz Yisrael will spread to all lands? The explanation is that the service of the children of Israel during the galut is to make of the entire world the land of Israel in the spiritual sense, and by way of this in the future ‘the land of Israel is destined to spread in all lands in the physical sense’”[xxiv]
If we understand the directive “make here Israel,” as a guiding principle of the Rebbe’s Messianic vision, then the Rebbe’s activism becomes clearer. The “army” of the Rebbe’s shelukhim are Tsevot Hashem[xxv] (God’s armies) engaged in a spiritual kibbush Erets Yisrael, conquest of the land of Israel. Their goal is to make the part of the world to which they are sent “Israel.”[xxvi] The wars of Hashem can be fought on the platforms of Grand Central Station just as they can be fought on the dunes of the Sinai Desert. Furthermore, the Rebbe’s policy of moral outreach to gentiles makes sense in this context. The Jewish people are charged to redeem the world, thus we must enlighten non-Jews such that they too may enter the redemptive state of “Erets Yisrael.” The Rebbe’s Messianic vision of Erets Yisrael is one that encompasses every person.
It is clear that the Rebbe saw Erets Yisrael primarily as a redeemed state of being, rather than as a physical location. Jewish destiny hinges on Israel not because of its geographic location or any magical qualities associated with it, but rather because of what Israel represents. In this respect, the Rebbe’s mission statement in his inaugural address “to create a dwelling place for Hashem in the lower realms” is precisely the same as his directive to “make here Israel.” And indeed the Rebbe conflates the two directives in some places. In this vein, the Rebbes of Chabad understood journeys to the land of Israel in Tanakh as journeys of redemptive consciousness, primarily as journeys towards spiritual redemption rather than physical location.
V. Modern Israel
If to be in Israel means to be involved in fulfillment of Torah and mitsvot, then one can be physically living in Israel while spiritually living in exile. Me’or Einayim,[xxvii] an early Hasidic leader who founded the Chernobyl dynasty, observes that just as Erets Yisrael may “expand” in the redemptive future, it can also “contract” in the exilic present. When the Rebbe referred to the Modern State of Israel as still being in a state of exile, he likely would have accepted this analogy. The Rebbe observed that the State of Israel is a ge’ulah from physical straits and captivity, but it is not the ge’ulah amitit, or true redemption.[xxviii] Viewing the modern State of Israel as unvarnished redemption, in the Rebbe’s opinion, actually brings the Shekhinah back into galut because it obscures focus on true spiritual redemption.[xxix] If we were exiled from Israel because of our sins, the only way to return is to rectify these sins. The cataclysmic events of the 1940s, the Holocaust and then the founding of the state of Israel, are not be understood as harbingers of the Messianic redemption, but rather as “hitorerut le-geulah”[xxx], an opportunity for “awakening for redemption.”
The Rebbe was suspicious of aliyah as a response to the State of Israel. The proper response to the hitorerut le-ge’ulah, the Rebbe felt, was teshuvah, for the Jew to make the place he or she is presently located in “Erets Yisrael.” This would then hasten the true redemption. The Rebbe argued that relocation to Israel was not an inherently an act of spiritual elevation, it smacked of escapism, for one could well enter Israel while they are in an exilic state, and change nothing internally.[xxxi] The Rebbe wrote: “If indeed we wish to travel to Israel, the single way [in which to accomplish this is] to rectify ‘because of our sins’[xxxii]… through the removal of the filth, we hasten the general redemption, and therefore also the personal journey to Israel.”[xxxiii]
For the Rebbe, Mashiakh will come as a result of the Jewish people’s efforts. For the Jewish people to be redeemed, they must take the initiative and bring about spiritual redemption in the world. This explains, to some extent, the Rebbe’s Messianic agitation. The Jewish people are entrusted with the task of redeeming themselves and the world. Unlike in other Jewish eschatological philosophies, the redemption has not already conclusively begun, nor is the redemption something that God will miraculously bring, whilst the Jewish people engage in Torah study and mitsvah observance in the context of their insular communities. The Jewish people have a mandate to actively draw God’s presence into the world, and then God will bring the Messianic redemption. Or perhaps it is not God who will respond, it is we who will be responding to His call to bring the Messianic redemption. The Rebbe’s constant refrain that Mashiakh is almost here seems to be intuitively true given the cataclysmic events of the past century, but Mashiakh will not come on his own, we must bring him.[xxxiv]
Ultimately, the Rebbe’s conception of the land of Israel seems radical. Israel is a land after all, not a state of mind or Torah and mitsvot. Yet, on further reflection, it is difficult to envision Israel as nothing more than a physical destination. In R. Soleveitchik’s terms, a land that is inherently sacred without qualification, “smacks of fetishism.”[xxxv] The land of Israel is a destination to be reached through fulfillment of our national destiny. The Rebbe offers us two practical lessons here that are of paramount importance. Firstly, the redemption is not a faraway, unattainable concept; it is something that we can choose to bring with specific acts. Secondly, soulful American Jews need not necessarily feel as if they are shirking their religious obligation by remaining in the diaspora. By fulfilling their mandate to make their homes and communities in the diaspora “Israel” they actively bring the Messianic future wherein “Israel is destined to spread to all lands” into the present.
Two issues in the above treatment of Israel in the Rebbe’s thought might strike some as philosophically troubling.
It might appear that the Rebbe holds an anti-halakhic conception of Israel: Kabbalistic systems speak of “ideal” (pnimiyut) and “real” (hitsoniyut) states. Everything in this world is said to be a representation of a metaphysical ideal. But the metaphysical ideal’s existence does not replace reality. So while every mitsvah is representative of an abstract ideal, the ideal never replaces performance of the deed. While the land of Israel is presented here as an idea, more than a place, the Rebbe never gave up the idea of returning to the actual physical land of Israel. The Jewish people will one day return to the land of Israel forever. When they do though, the hope is that they will have elevated the entire world to a higher state of Godly existence.[xxxvi]
The Rebbe’s opinions might sound like anti-Zionism: While to the casual observer, the Rebbe’s position on the Modern State of Israel may appear similar to that of the Satmar Rebbe (R. Yoel Teitelbaum)’s position in his anti-Zionist polemic Al ha-Ge’ula ve-al ha-Temurah, on further reflection it is clear that such a comparison is unfounded. Whereas the Satmar Rebbe saw in the Six-Day War “the force of Satan and his soldiers”[xxxvii] the Rebbe saw “open miracles from God… by way of the soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force.”[xxxviii] Where the Satmar Rebbe saw the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel as one continuous Satanic act,[xxxix] the Rebbe saw this process as a divine “hitorerut le-ge’ulah ”[xl] On a metaphysical level, the Satmar Rebbe held that building up the state effected a destruction of the metaphysical Israel.[xli] The Rebbe saw no such destruction. He even encouraged further building in the state, especially the settlements over the green line, provided such building would create settlements of “Torah and mitsvot” for they were a “miraculous gift from God.” The Rebbe may have believed that the gift of the Land of Israel was being used improperly, but that did not mean it was not a gift. In fact, the Rebbe’s pragmatic attitude toward the state seems more comparable to that of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, as the Rebbe encouraged and recognized the element of physical salvation in the state, but did not ascribe spiritual redemptive value to simply settling in Israel. Elliott Wolfson, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, puts it thus: “The Rebbe affirmed a religious Zionist ideology.”[xlii] It is interesting to note that the Rebbe agitated against territorial concession, and had his followers in Israel take steps to thwart it, from financial backing to settler groups to electoral support for anti-concession parties. To this day, this policy has created a political alliance between dati-leumi ideological followers of R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook and the Chabad movement. If anything, there was one Jewish leader who was certain that the Rebbe was no anti-Zionist. The Satmar Rebbe attacked the Rebbe as a supporter of “the Zionist enterprise.”[xliii]
Elisha Pearl is a Sophomore at Yeshiva College
[i] Bereishit 12:1.
[ii] See Shemot 3:8,17.
[iii] Shemot 23:20-33
[iv] See Devarim Chapter 30:3-5; Vayikra 26:42-45 Targum Yerushalmi, Rabbeinu Bekhaye, R. Samson Raphael Hirsh, to verse 42. This centrality of Israel (Zion) as a locus of redemptive tension is also a dominant theme in Nevi’im see for some examples Yeshayahu 35,42, 43, 52; Yirmiyahu 30, 50.
[v] The Rebbe used this phrase and variations thereof to close a major portion of his public lectures: Translation mine
[vi] See Sefer ha-Maamarim Basi Legani p. 29-36.
[vii] It is unclear if the modern era fits the Rebbe’s categorization of “the seventh generation.” Clearly, this question is contingent on the definition of the term generation. The consensus within the Chabad movement is that the modern era is a continuation of the seventh generation. Some thinkers in secular sociology are of the opinion that there was a global paradigmatic shift in thought soon after the Second World War that continues to the present day. In any event, the identity of the modern era in the Rebbe’s thought should not seriously impact an analysis of his perception of the land of Israel
[viii] Ikveta Di-Meshikha is a term used widely throughout Jewish history to reference the era immediately preceding the Messianic era. See Tehilim 89:52 and Sotah 9:16
Here the Rebbe innovates an amplification of the term, “bi-siyuma di-ikveta” the end of the footsteps. This amplification is likely an extension of the sixth Rebbe’s characterization of the 1940’s as Ikveta Di-Meshikha Mamash “literally the footsteps of the Messiah.” See Menakhem Brodt Ha-Ma’arakha Al Hageula, “Ma’ayanotekha” Gilyon MeYukhad Li-regel Gimmel Tamuz 32-36 (Hebrew).
[ix] Ibid. 31-32: Translation mine
[x] In this essay, I follow the accepted theory in the Chabad movement that the Rebbe’s works are to be understood in light of his predecessor’s work, and that the Rebbe viewed his philosophy as an extension and application of that of his predecessors. See Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret, (New York; Chichester West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2009) p. 24 who advances the theory that for the “critical scholar, no less than the pious adept” the meaning of a later Rebbe’s teaching in the Chabad dynasty’s leadership may be illuminated by the teaching of an earlier Rebbe, and vice versa.
[xi] See Tanya IV:12 For a discussion of the distinction between individual and general redemption
[xii] See Tanya III:6
[xiii] See Tanya I:17. Nissan Mindel, trans. Likutei Amarim Tanya Bi-Lingual Edition (Brooklyn, London: Kehot Publication Society, 1998) p. 73
[xiv] See note xvi
[xv] Tanya IV:4; ibid. J.I. Schochet trans. p. 403
[xvi] See Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo- Mesikhta D’Piskha Parsha 14 s.v. VaY’hi Miketz Shloshim Shana; Megilla 29a
Sifrei Bamidbar Piska 161 s.v. V’Lo Titama et Ha’aretz. among many others
[xvii] See Torat Chaim, Shemot I, 1a
[xviii] Here I am employing the distinction made by Rav Yosef Dov Soleveitchik. See Abraham R. Besdin, Reflections of the Rav: Man of Faith in the Modern World volume 2 (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1989) p. 70-72
Clearly, Rav Soleveitchik does not share the metaphysical framework advanced by Chabad. Nonetheless, at the abstract level, this distinction fits well with the Rebbe’s philosophy. Likely, this distinction is shared by all Torah allegiant thinkers. (My thanks to Adam Berman for calling this piece by the Rav to my attention)
[xix] Cited in Wolfson 133 and 351n1:1 Translation Wolfson’s
[xx] See Yalkut Shimoni Yeshayahu 503. This citation is based on the text that was available to Likkutei Torah cited on page 89b. An alternate text reads “Atida Eretz Yisrael Shetitpashet Bekhol Ha’aratzot” Modern standard editions of Yalkut Shimoni read “Said Rabbi Levi [In the future] Yerushalayim shall be like Eretz Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael like all lands”. There, Rabbi Levi is answering a factual question on Yeshayahu 66:23. How indeed will “all flesh come to bow” before G-d in the Messianic future?
See also See also Sifrei Devarim 1 s.v. KaYotze Bo Darash Rabi Yehuda.
[xxi] Translation mine
[xxii] Reshimot Section 9, v. 1 p. 255 referenced in Wolfson p. 351n11
[xxiii] Torat Menakhem: Hitva’aduyot 5742, part 3 p. 145: Translation mine
[xxiv] R. Yosef Havlin and R. Shlomo Bistritsky ed. Sha’arei Eretz Yisrael (Jerusalem: Heikhal Menakhem, 5762) (Hebrew): Translation mine
[xxv] See Shemot 12:41 and Basi Le-Gani cited above
[xxvi] See Avraham Shmuel Bukyet, Tiferet HaShlikhut (5760) p. 116
[xxvii] Sefer Me’or Einayim Parshat Matot s.v. Ma Rabu Ma’asekha Hashem Me’or Einayim was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov and Maggid of Mezritch, as well as a contemporary of the Alter Rebbe. He is one of the few non-Habad Hasidic masters who exhibits influence on the Rebbe’s thought.
[xxviii] Likkutei Sikhot volume 5, p 149n51
[xxix] Torat Menakhem Hitva’aduyot 5716, volume 3 p. 89
[xxx] ibid. p. 91
[xxxi] Torat Menakhem Hitv’aduyot Torat Menakhem Hitva’aduyot volume 13 5715 part 1 pp. 77-80
[xxxii] As in U’Mipnei Hata’einu Galinu Me’artzenu (“because of our sins we were exiled from our land”) of the Mussaf prayer for Rosh Hodesh.
[xxxiii] Torat Menakhem Hitv’aduyot Torat Menakhem Hitva’aduyot volume 14 5715 volume 2 p 191 see also pp. 183-192: Translation mine
[xxxiv] See Tanya I:37. This is a simplified version of a more nuanced position that runs throughout the Rebbe’s works, and those of his predecessors.
[xxxv] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2005), 150. (Cited in Gilad Barach, Rav Soloveitchik’s Bold Stance on Kedushat Erets Yisrael, Kol Hamevaser 7.2 (2013))
[xxxvi] See Torat Menakhem: Hitva’aduyot 5751 part 4 p. 64. Furthermore, as a brief survey of the Rebbe’s writing will attest, the Rebbe ends a copious number of lectures with the hope for the imminent redemption and return to the land of Israel in a literal sense.
[xxxvii] Cited in Aviezer Ravitzky HaKetz HaMeguleh U’Medinat HaYehudim (Tel Aviv: Am Oved/ Sifriyat Afikim, 1993) p 105: Translation mine
[xxxviii] Levi Groner and Moshe Leib Karishovsky (ed.) Karati V’en Oneh, Two Volumes. (M.L. Publications: Jerusalem, 2003) volume 2 p. 242-245
[xxxix] Ravitzky, see index entry “Teitelbaum Y.M.” for extensive analyses of the Satmar Rebbe’s position.
[xl] See note xxiv
[xli] See Jonathan Garb, The Chosen Will Become Like Herds (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p. 71 Yaffa Berkovits-Murciano Trans.
[xlii] Wolfson, p. 132
[xliii] Yitzchak Kraus, The Seventh (Tel Aviv: Miskal, Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books, 2007) p. 167-169