Column

06.15.12

The Religious Zionist You Didn't Know

There's a certain kind of educator one finds in Israel, especially, and especially in the past, on the kibbutzim. While learned, their moral authority derives less from formal credentials, if they have any, than from their life in their communities. Their ideas emerge from daily engagement and from lifelong learning, in a classically Zionist dialectic of individual self-realization and commitment to the whole.  At their best they live and teach a riveting mix of moral passion and political moderation, synthesizing ideological conviction with rich humanism. One of the greatest of these educators, the last major thinker of the religious kibbutz movement, and maybe of moderate religious Zionism, died last week, leaving many of us are asking, is it all over?

Yosef Achituv, known to one and all as Yoske, was a slight man, whose unfailingly gentle soft-spokenness, vaguely luftmenschlich air and easy benevolence were almost comically at odds with the power of his intellect and moral clarity, and the depth of his passions.  Born in Germany in 1933 he came as an infant with his family, studied in a Haredi yeshiva and religious Zionist high school, and, in the course of his army service in the early 1950s joined Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, in the south near Ashkelon, where he lived, worked and taught for the rest of his life.

Almost all the religious kibbutzim are inside the Green Line, and are regularly been lonely redoubts of moderation in the religious Zionist camp.

The religious kibbutz movement as a whole, Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Dati, is an insufficiently-known side of the Zionist story, one very much worth telling, even, or especially, now that Yoske is gone. 

While religious Zionism was historically driven by the moderate, statist, bourgeois Mizrachi movement, and later by the redemptive messianism of the latter-day followers of Rav Kook, the Kibbutz Ha-Dati, founded in the interwar years, drew on different cultural sources: the moral pathos of Samson Rafael Hirsch's German neo-Orthodoxy, the fervent existentialism of Polish Hasidism that stamped the Religious Workers' Party, Ha-Po'el Ha-Mizrachi, and, later, (in the person of leading thinker Eliezer Goldman) a mix of Maimonidean rationalism and American-style pragmatism, all leavened with a healthy mistrust of authority.  Yoske was shaped by all these currents, while reworking them by his own lights in endless teaching (to both young people and adults) one major volume, dozens of studies and hundreds of essays.  I could go on at length about his ideas, but three key themes will have to do for now.

First, he understood Judaism, community-building and education in terms of one another.  Thus Judaism is about forging a range of dynamic spaces that counter the "arousal culture," as he put it, of consumerism, fostering individual flourishing and mutual responsibility, in a never-ending lifelong process of education that "creates the human atmosphere befitting the ability to serve God and keep His mizvot."

Second, humility.  Yoske's personality was inseparable from his ideas, and he was as humble in lifestyle and deportment as he was about what religious teachings and Zionism could and couldn't claim or achieve. In recent years, the traditional term for modest restraint, tzniut, has (in many circles) become a watchword for policing women's bodies.  But Yoske took on this discourse with patience, calm and erudition, arguing against the objectification of women by ad agencies and rabbis both.  Modesty, he maintained, is moral education—It’s about how we consume as much as how we discipline our desires.

Third, he railed against the transformation in religious Zionism of the land and people of Israel into metaphysical abstractions that crush human beings. This was another front in his struggle with objectification. In a sense, he thought Religious Zionist theology went both too far and not far enough. Too far in essentializing, reifying living, breathing realities into inhuman abstractions, and not far enough in recognizing that Zionism is a genuine revolution, a new situation— one of Jewish sovereignty, internal and external diversity, and newfound power—that requires a critical deep reinterpretation of traditional concepts and categories in terms of human equality from within the halakhic process itself. 

Now Yoske is gone, and Rav Amital too, Kibbutzim are less central to Israel than ever (though the religious Kibbutzim are in better shape than most);  where does this leave moderate-left religious Zionists? I wish I knew.  But reflecting on Yoske's life and, hopefully, legacy, for now at least, leaves me thinking the following:   

Michael Walzer wrote years ago about "connected critics," who remain faithful to the societies they criticize, and to those societies' best ideals. I would add that those critics need to be connected not only to the larger society, but to one another, to be rooted in communities of commitment, focused inward on their mutual responsibilities and individual development, and outward towards the larger society, through, what Yoske called "a screen in our windows, a membrane" the porous space where life and creativity can happen. 

Yoske said that religion in general and the religious kibbutz in particular was, ideally, that space, that sacred counterculture, humbly aware of its own limitations. Can Israeli left-moderates and humanists, religious or not, create those indispensable communities of commitment and sustain them over time? I have no idea, but I think that's the question, and I'm grateful to Yoske for leaving it, and so much more, behind.