Religious Zionism, Creativity, and the Future of the Jewish People-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

In a recent Jerusalem post article rabbi Daniel Gordis wrote that in his view there is no creativity in the torah of religious Zionism and that indeed since rabbi Solovetchik and rabbi kook there has not been any.   As a result he does not feel that religious Zionism is able to speak to secular Jews in Israel.   The article can be read here:

My vehement disagreement with him was published as a letter to the editor in the Jerusalem Post last week.   In it I argue that the only place in the Torah world today (think Machon Hertzog,  Siach Yitzchak and others) in which there is any creativity is in the world of Religious Zionism, that this creativity is a result of its relationship with the land and people of Israel, and that only this approach has any hope of truly engaging the nonreligious population.

Here is the letter:

February 28, 2010

Letter to the Editor

Sir, -I vehemently disagree with Daniel Gordis’ pronouncement that Religious Zionism has not produced any creative thinkers.  It is in fact only in the world of Religious Zionism today in Israel that creative thinking about Torah and Talmud is taking place.

One example: As an Orthodox American Rabbi on sabbatical in Jerusalem, I commute to Lod each day to learn from Rabbi Israel Samet, the Rabbi of the Religious Zionist garin in Lod and head of its yeshiva.  Rabbi Samet’s ground breaking approach to Talmud is based upon the observation that the Talmud, like the Bible, is not a legal work.   Both are primarily narratives of which the law is but a part.  The rabbis of the Talmud, according to this new vision, were not halachists but are rather telling the story of the Jewish people, integrating the law with the narrative of the Talmud to do so.

It is in fact only Religious Zionists that can understand the Mishnaic Rabbis in this wholesome way since they live lives closest to those of the ancient rabbis, speaking their language, living in their land, and seeing the Jewish People as a nation, not solely as a religion to which Judaism in Diaspora must of necessity be limited.

This approach to Talmud will soon affect a sea change in the way that the Talmud and Torah speak to our people in Israel who have moved from observing laws in a vacuum (or for much of Israeli society, not observing them)  to living the continued narrative of the Jewish Nation.  This approach which emerges from and speaks directly to the Jewish nation living in its land, has the potential to finally bridge what it means to be a Jew with what it means to be an Israeli, thus engaging the world of non-religious Israelis who feel the Torah and the Talmud offer little of relevance to their lives today but are thirsty for something that does.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Bais Abraham Congregation

St. Louis, Missouri (currently on sabbatical in Jerusalem)

10 Responses to Religious Zionism, Creativity, and the Future of the Jewish People-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. R' Daniel says:

    Are any of Rabbi Samet’s shiurim or writings available for purchase?

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      His way of learning and teaching is new. There are no books but he has published articles in some journals and some articles are online. they are all in Hebrew.

  2. Apikorus says:

    It is nice that Rav Shafner found a rabbi to learn from but he does not address Gordis’ fundamental point which is the lack of creative leadership in the Religious Zionist world. These “leaders” have been failures at showing the Israeli population at large-read secular Jews- the beauty of Jewish learning and Torah. Instead they have hitched their horses to the settlement movement in the West Bank which is doomed to failure. They align themselves with those who live in Dati- only settlements and have not integrated themselves with the non-Dati population. No wonder today’s young israelis find more spirituality in Goa than in Safed. Religio-zionists have succeeded in separating themselves from the secular population and widening the religious/ secular divide- an abject failure of leadership even without Moti Elon and his homosexuality issues.

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      You have a good point that their creativity has not really been used to engage secular Jews in Israel. I think there are several reasons for this. 1. They are engaged in keeping the religious Jews in Israel interested in learning. 2. In America almost all Orthodox synagogues are involved in outreach, this is not true in Israel since synagogues are merely places to pray, not communities. One needs communities to engage people not just great creative and open approaches. 3. I think the very creative approaches are fairly new and it is not usually the creative thinkers that want to create organizations to spread their knowledge and approaches especially if they are humble, Rabbi Alon is an exception since he is so charismatic.

      Instead of “dising” the people who are creative as Rabbi Gordis has done, one has to leave Baka to find the creativity and then help to spread it. I think if we bring together the amazing, deep and open creativity of the Religious Zionist world with funds and community structures we will engage the nonreligious and change the face of Israel’s religious life. It is no different than in the United States where the majority of outreach organizations are Charedi and do a good job of engaging those that are looking for identity and spiritual passion, but do a bad job of engaging those who are not already looking for something, who already have happy, balanced lives. That is something the more open-minded Orthodox Jews could do well but have not really engaged in except as “Morethodox” synagogues.

  3. David S says:

    Mr. Gordis tends to be a bit negative in general, although thoughtful and many times on the mark. In your final paragraph you predict the future without giving any evidence to suggest that it will in fact occur. Wishful thinking is good, but why are you so sure that this approach (which to my knowledge is not widespread) will soon affect a sea change?

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      I do not think anything else will and I think non-religious Jews in Israel are looking for something deep from Judaism with the recent near death of idealistic Kibbutz Zionism. Witness the rise of secular yeshivot of which there are now several.

  4. Apikorus says:

    As for the future, I think your mention of secular yeshivot is important. These Jews are establishing their own ways of studying and being Jewish outside of Orthodoxy and they are the ones that are best able to attract their secular neighbors. Religious Zionism has already lost its capacity to lead mostly due to R. Zvi Yehuda Kook’s false messianism starting after the 6 day war. Morethodox Rabbis(really not sure who they are anyways) will not be a factor as they mostly come from the galut and cannot relate well to the average Israeli and because Morethodoxy(or Open Orthodoxy if you will) will remain a small and relatively insignificant factor as they will not break from Orthodoxy itself(not even in its title!). What Israelis need is a new religious paradigm outside of Orthodoxy that is 1. organic to the modern state of israel -not brought from abroad. 2. recognizes that in Israel religion and state must be separated for the good of klal yisrael and 3. that the existing Orthodox religious establishment(zionist and non-zionist) does not religiously represent the majority of israelis, and must be therefore must be dismantled. Just a few thoughts…

  5. Hyim Shafner says:

    I think that is precisely what the more open wing of religious Zionism can be. In fact Rav Alon was already going there. And I think it will have more learning and more passion to bring to the table than secular yeshivot.

  6. Apikorus says:

    You”ll excuse this comment but passion is what got Rav Elon into trouble in the first place!

  7. evanstonjew says:

    There is an assumption in this discussion that I think is flawed. The underlying premiss is there are depths in torah, that if only revealed would speak effectively to everyone including secular Jews.I doubt that. I think a better way is to find a spiritual path that speaks to oneself, and then see if it speaks to others. Starting with classical texts in a serious way, and not just as window dressing, is extremly limiting.Why should the thinking of Jews of the third century or the thirteenth hold the key to understanding the world we live in today? Why should apologetics for torah ever work?

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