In order to understand the present-day spiritual situation in Israel, in light of prophecy, it is necessary to present a historical description of the religious trends that marked the Jewish people since the late 18th century until modern times. Together with this, I want to present some insights of one of the greatest Rabbinical giants of modern times – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935) – the first chief rabbi of Palestine. (He lived before the formation of the modern state of Israel then called Palestine) In an essay that he writes in 1906, called the “Generation”, he talks about unique changes in the psyche of the Jewish people of his time. These changes Rabbi Kook sees as a spiritual awakening on the “soul level” of Israel- testifying to the beginning of a new stage in the process of the final redemption.
Rabbi Kook’s essay was written at the beginning of a historical period know as the “Second Aliyah” (1903-1914). The “First Aliyah” (1881-1903) was mainly a religious return to Israel by members of the Hovevei Zion Movement from imperial Russia catalyzed by a severe wave of pogroms that struck Odessa, Kiev, and Warsaw. On the other hand, the second Aliyah was primarily comprised of young socialists who were totally non-religious. It too was a result of antisemitic pogroms that took place in Kishinev, the present-day capital of Moldova, in 1903 and later in 1905. Rabbi Kook, who moved to Israel in 1914, was part of this wave of immigration.
Despite the fact that the members of the second Aliyah were secular socialists and anti-religious, Rabbi Kook views favorably their ethical, scientific, and idealistic aspirations. He saw tremendous potential within this new generation of Israelis. They were very different then the Jews of the first Temple period that were led estray from Torah observance to worship false gods as a result of severe corruption and hedonism. On the contrary, their rebellion against the Torah, explains Rabbi Kook, stemmed from an inner spiritual yearning to achieve a high-level moral standard that they did not see coming from Torah observance.
In order to gain insight into what led to this generation of secular Jews, one must go back to the roots of Jewish secularism. Until the mid to late 18th century the Jews around the globe, as a whole, were Torah observant following a Torah way of life inherited from father to son from generation to generation. This pattern that seemed unbreakable was undermined when the enlightenment movement rose in Europe. Ideas like science, philosophy, liberty, tolerance, progress, and brotherhood that weakened the authority of the church and monarchy and eventually led to the French revolution of 1789, did not skip over the Jews of Europe. A small group of Jewish Torah observant intellectuals, mainly from Berlin, like Moses Mendelssohn, Isaac Satanow, and Naftali Hertz Wiesel, wanting to keep up with the times, began to make changes in defining Jewish values by stressing rationalism, ethics, and the importance of secular education. This, in time, led to the creation of two new streams of Jewish society. One that eventually assimilated, abandoning in its entirety Torah observance and Jewish education. They chose a secular lifestyle and received their education from German universities. The other group sought of ways to maintain a basic Jewish way of life but at the same time mingle into European society and culture. This led to the formation of the conservative and reform movements of Judaism. This Jewish enlightenment movement, which was first considered an outcast minority amongst the religious Jewish majority, eventually rooted itself deep into eastern Europe as well. It led to a more radical direction with the establishment of totally secular schools calling for the doctrines of atheism.
It is important to note that for religious reasons Jews weren’t allowed to live in Russia prior to proper to 1772. Only after the Russian empire annexed Poland between the years 1772-1795 did, de facto, hundreds of thousands of Jews become part of the Russian Empire. A common antisemitic attitude prevailed within the leadership of Russia with dire discrimination against Jews as they were labeled “Jesus killers” and were held responsible for his crucifixion. The empress, Elizabeth Petrovna who reigned over Russia after a coup from 1741-1762 is famous for her antisemitic statement – “I don’t want to receive any benefit from enemies of Jesus”. Catherine the Great (1762-1796) didn’t allow Jews to become part of the middle class and made them pay a double tax. Jews were considered foreigners and not granted citizenship.
One positive result of the mistreatment of the Jews was that it kept them united and prevented assimilation. This all came to an end during the reign of Alexander the second (1855-1881). Alexander exhibited a liberal approach toward the Jews. The Jews that he defined as “beneficial” like wealthy merchants, artisans, academic scholars, and medical practitioners, were allowed to settle in Russia proper enabling them to leave the Pale of settlement. Jews that were graduates of Russian high schools were granted special privileges. They began to take part in many areas of Russian society like culture, art, finance, literature, media, law and more. Although this group numbered only about 60 thousand, it had a huge impact on the 2 million Jews that were living within the Pale. They sought to copy the success of their brothers and many saw the only way out of their difficult financial state was to join the Russian school system. For the above reasons, a huge change took place in the mindset of the young generation. Until this point of time, it was enough for Jewish parents and educators to speak on behalf of Godliness and loyalty to the family and congregation – the focus was on – “what to do”, not “why do it”. This new generation did not accept the “do it and don’t ask why attitude”; they demanded answers, especially in the climate of extreme suffering at the hands of the gentiles. Their teachers and Rabbis whose faith was unbreakable and came natural to them didn’t see a need to spend their time on deciphering the “Why” questions. Their concern was how to become true servants of G-d. Therefore, they lacked readiness when confronted with the questions of faith like – why should I keep the commandments – is this really what G-d wants? Prove to me the existence of G-d. Why is there so much suffering in the world? Etc. Questions regarding faith are easy to ask but hard to answer. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to master a true understanding of faith. It is a lifetime’s work and never ends! Without having an organized system of teaching faith, coupled with the lack of patience on part of the young students, it was very hard for educators to prevent some these soul searches from going astray. This led to even more assimilation and the eventual abandoning of Jewish religious practice on a much larger scale.
Many Jews thought that by forsaking Torah practice and assimilating amongst the nations would make them equal citizens in the countries they lived in; much like we see in trends in the USA as well as other countries in the world outside of Israel. This was proven wrong as waves of antisemitism jealousy and hatred targeted the secular Jews as a result of their financial success. As mentioned above, it took the pogroms of Kishinev to make them realize the necessity of a Jewish homeland!
In the wake of this antisemitic atmosphere prevalent in Europe, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French army, was unjustly accused of treason in 1894. Binyamin Ze’ev (Theodore) Herzl (1860-1904), known as the father of modern political Zionism, was a journalist in Paris at the time and covered the trial. He was granted permission to enter the large square where the degrading ceremony of stripping Alfred Dreyfus of his military rank took place. Herzl was not only witness to the unjustly treatment of Dreyfus but, in addition, he observed the antisemitic crowd chanting death to the Jews. Later Herzl writes in his diary that it was the Dreyfus trial that made him a Zionist. The political Zionist movement strengthened and led to the first Zionist congress in Basel Switzerland in 1897 which eventually led to the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. In the wake of democracies and liberty sprouting in the world, nations sought independence – so did the Jews.
Some of the famous figures that shaped the secular Zionist movement were cultural Zionists like Asher Tzvi Hersch Ginsberg (1856-1927) known as Achad Ha’Am and Martin Buber (1878-1965), socialist Zionists like the like Chaim Weitzman (1874-1952) and Leo Motzkin (1867-1933) who were founders of the Democratic Fraction. The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion (1886-1973), was a socialist Zionist part of the labor party leadership. There were also conservative right-wing secular Zionists like Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920), Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940).
It was secular Zionists that founded the modern state of Israel. To this very day most key leadership roles in the IDF, police, the Judicial system, politics, media, are controlled by secular Jews who were schooled in secular systems of education.
Because of the above facts the ultra-orthodox world did not accept the modern formation of the state of Israel as part of the redemption process. “How can a secular Jewish state devoid of Torah practice and values be considered the beginning of the redemption?” They asked and many still ask this even today.
On the other hand, the orthodox religious Zionistic camp, followers of Rabbi Kook, view this entire process as Divine! Rabbi Kook’s deep insights that he outlined a hundred fourteen years ago in his essay “The Generation” and in his other writings give us the ability to understand how this indeed is no doubt part the final process of redemption.
At first glance, one may say that the secular Jews of Israel are the furthest away from Torah observance as they have ever been. Secular Israel has adopted western doctrines of postmodernism that base itself on an ideology that there is not ideology. They call for extreme liberalism and pluralism and dare to challenge the basic morals and ethics that have been the backbone of a healthy society from time immemorial. They seem to be concerned only with personal achievement and self-satisfaction. Is there any positive side to this secular world? How does this situation coincide with the words of our prophets that talk about the final return of the exiles of Israel and the building of the Third Temple?
Rabbi Kook, who rests all his teachings on the deep kabalistic understandings of the Torah and the prophets, explains that the Torah in messianic times will reach a level never seen before. What sufficed for Israel during the exile is no longer enough. The entire world is progressing in all areas imaginable like science, technology, medicine, etc. in the same way the level of Torah and spirituality must rise to greater heights. The adopting of postmodern culture are just external symptoms of a deep yearning for self-development which is in reality a yearning to connect to G-d.
Until now, we were discussing mainly the non-religious side of Israel. It is important to mention that by far the majority of Israelis today are either traditional or religious. Even among those who are not at all traditional, the majority of them believe in G-d and maintain some religious practices. In Israel you hear a siren when Shabbat approaches. These statistics are very encouraging considering that in most western countries there is a steady decline in religious practice and atheism is on the rise. When speaking in non-Jewish circles around the world I can’t help to notice that the majority of the audiences that I addressed were over fifty years old. In Israel it is amazing to see how the young generation is drawn in the masses to Torah study and religious events! In addition, there is a tremendous movement of non-religious Jews returning to religious practice than ever before. The huge orthodox camp in Israel has a great mission to reach out to their fellow brothers and sisters who seek to return to Torah. At the same time those who study Torah must rise to much greater spiritual heights in order to be an example to others that have not yet merited in the sweetness of Torah. This is all setting the stage for prophecy that will no doubt return to the land.
I would like to conclude this essay by taking a glance at some prophecies that clearly support the process that we spoke about above.
“Then said He unto me: ‘Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host. Then He said unto me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy, and say unto them:” (Ezekiel 37:9-11)
Here it seems quite obvious that the prophet is referring to the holocaust. He mentions the slain, the bones, the graves and the lost hope – all powerful descriptions of what the Jewish people experienced in Nazi Germany.
Then just when it seems that there is no hope for Israel anymore – Could we be lost forever? “Thus, saith the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.”(Ezekiel 37:12)
The prophet reveals to us that after the terrible holocaust Israel will be consoled with the formation of an Independent state again. How fortunate we are to live in a time when we are witnesses to the fulfillment of prophecy! Is there any greater proof that Hashem keeps His promises? After 2000 years of praying: “let our eyes behold the return of Zion”, we were the generation that was blessed to live and see this happening.
The prophet Ezekiel continues and speaks of additional stages in the redemption process. “But ye, O mountains of Israel, ye shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to My people Israel; for they are at hand to come. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn unto you, and ye shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, even all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited, and the waste places shall be built;” ( Ezekiel 36:8-10) Here Ezekiel tells us that upon the return to the land there will be first a renewal of agriculture and the building of communities and cities.
The prophet Zechariah consoles us: “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the streets of Jerusalem, every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the broad places thereof.” (Zechariah 8:4-5) Today we are all witness to this every time we walk the streets of Jerusalem!
Ezekiel goes on to describe how Israel will become an economic super power greater than ever before. Just recently Israel began producing natural gas that it is exporting to Egypt, Jordan and soon it will be reaching Europe as well.
“and I will multiply upon you man and beast, and they shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited after your former estate, and will do better unto you than at your beginnings; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 36:11)
Interestingly, until now Ezekiel relates only to the physical and materialistic success upon returning to the land, he does not yet mention the spiritual side – the return to G-d, until the last part of the verse. “and ye shall know that I am the LORD”(ibid)
“For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” (Ezekiel 36:24-25)
Here the prophet carefully outlines the order of things. First Israel returns to the land and only then does the purification process begin! This supports the fact Israel first will become a secular state not knowing G-d and slowly it will purify itself until it returns to Hashem. This is what is known as the two stages of Messiah. The messiah of Joseph – a physical restoration, and the messiah of David – a spiritual return.
The material success that the prophet describes above in verse 11 as being a catalyst of knowing G-d, can be understood in two ways in both a positive and negative light. The orthodox world will draw closer to Hashem and want to thank Him for the amazing blessing of bounty for turning Israel into an economic super power. On the other hand, the secular world will be drawn to Hashem by not finding satisfaction despite all the materialistic success. This is supported by the words of Amos the prophet:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, and shall not find it. In that day shall the fair virgins and the young men faint for thirst. (Amos 8: 11-13)
Here Amos describes how the young generation will despise the postmodern culture. The materialistic world will not satisfy their needs. The only way of consoling this generation of redemption will be through the renewal of prophecy!
“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes, and ye shall keep Mine ordinances, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be My people, and I will be your God.”
Here the prophet reveals to us the blessings of the final redemption when all of Israel will unite together in serving the Creator of the universe. An once Israel has truly returned to Hashem it will then be able to fulfill its goal as a light unto the nations uniting the entire world in faith and service to Hashem. Amen!
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)
I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and have taken hold of thy hand, and kept thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations; (Isaiah 42:6)
For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one consent. (Zephaniah 3:9)
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith