Zionism: The great Jewish ethical project

I recall the time when, living in Israel, I stood with more than 100,000 Israelis as a link in a human chain. Our purpose that day in the desert was to spread a message of hope, peace, and solidarity. For me and my Jewish identity, this event was particularly formative. For too long, the focus by the religious community has been on the land and we are overdue to solidify the real Jewish priority.

“The people demand social justice!,” chanted hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets during last summer’s tent movement. I am inspired by the demonstrations spread throughout the country, from Tel Aviv and Haifa down to Beit Shemesh and Eilat. I am inspired to learn that after a devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Israeli medical relief team was first on the scene. I am inspired by the new wave of Israeli Jewish social justice organizations such as Bema’aglei Tzedek, MiMizrach Shemesh, Yahel, Zika, B’Tzedek, Kolot, Atzum, Atid Bamidbar, Elul, Bina, and Hillel.

I am a Religious Zionist. For me, Zionism is the great Jewish ethical project to create a just state guided by Jewish values. Zionism is not fulfilled merely through achieving sovereignty but through building a society of ideals that transcends its own borders and bottom line. The Midrash refers to Jerusalem as ir tzedek, city of righteousness, since the city should ideally serve as ohr lagoyim, a light to other nations. When we do not meet the mark, I feel pained.

Many see the recent social justice movement as an attempt to uphold the values of Religious Zionism. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the head of a yeshiva in Petach Tikva, explained his decision to join the tent social justice movement calling for more affordable living for all Israelis:

“The question of our existence as a society of justice and morality is the most important thing. I’m putting things mildly. There is the possibility that this movement will turn us into a more just society. There is nothing more important in religious terms… Secondly, this gives us a chance to break down the dichotomy… between the political right and the economic right. That’s why I think it is important to be part of the attempt to turn this protest into a movement for making amends.”

I am inspired by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

Only in our own land can Jews fully actualize, in such a sustainable and systemic way, the Jewish values of tzedakah, mishpat, rachamim, and chesed (righteousness, justice, mercy, and kindness). We are more responsible when we have a homeland. We are watched and we have no excuses. We control the country’s destiny.

Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and Talmudist, explains that the purpose of Jewish law is to perfect the body and the soul. In Platonic parlance, by “well-being of the body,” he means the creation of the just state; by “well-being of the soul,” he means intellectual perfection. However, he goes on to explain that the primary purpose of Jewish law and our main priority must be to create the just state, “because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured” (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27).

Our responsibility is to intertwine our tikkun medinah (healing of state) with our tikkun olam (healing of world). Thus, it is our responsibility as Zionists to further internal moral and spiritual progress within the country and to ensure that Israel is giving this example beyond its borders.

Religious Zionism, in many ways, is broken as factions fall into various forms of extremism. It is time that the foundation of Religious Zionism be social justice and the model just state. While the country has a long way to go to create the model state or model citizen that can inspire the world, we should be proud of how much progress we have made in 64 years and be excited about how much more important work we have to do together.

As an American Jew, I feel a responsibility to bring our culture of tolerance, diversity, and civic engagement to Israel to strengthen the commitments there.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.