(Post) Modern Alienation and Hope: Zionism as a Longing for Meaning


Jews throughout the world who became ardent Zionists during the 19th and 20th centuries relate the same personal testimony heard time and again in different voices: Zionism was, for them, first and foremost, a personal, existential redemption, a one-time opportunity to endow their lives with meaning. In leaving their homes in the country of their birth, they were not making a sacrifice, but rather reclaiming their souls from assimilation, emptiness, decadence and alienation; the alienation modern culture has insinuated between a person and her/his body, family, religion, nation, and between individuals.

This is why, in our post-modern era, which constantly undermines every norm and thus forces alienation on every individual, it is relevant to reflect on those moments that preceded Zionism and explore the complex personal stories to understand how Zionism redeemed the personal lives of Jews from the chaos surrounding them, of which Anti-Semitism was but one facet. This internal dissonance is experienced by every individual who seeks cultural continuity in family and contemporary culture, while confronted with a cultural imperative that demands radical, uncompromising change. The Jewish people, however, whose identity is essentially dependent on such continuity, experience the breach more deeply.

Then as Now, Existential Sterility and Zionism: Herzl’s Life as Parable

Amos Elon, Herzl’s biographer, aptly conveys the emotional-spiritual mood of Western European youth, several generations after the advent of the “enlightenment”: “what, therefore, was the meaning of being Jewish during those crucial years in which the seeds of the future Holocaust were sown, unconsciously, in people’s hearts? […] could the new Anti-Semitism be the fault of the Jews themselves? There were quite a few sensitive Jewish youths who convinced themselves to believe that was the case. Some destroyed themselves in this process.” (Amos Elon, Herzl , p. 80 – 84).

Yet, from within this void Herzl found the insight that led to his Zionist enlightenment that: “the Jewish dilemma is not nationalistic, nor religious, but rather social.” (Ibid, p. 137) and has its origins perhaps, in “a social structure for which wealthy Jews should also be held responsible” (Ibid, p. 126). This recognition, which glimmered in the darkness of European Jewish bourgeois decadence in late 19 th century Vienna, was the foundation for an unbelievable burst of political creativity whose source was one tormented man, who transformed his anguish into a catalyst for an orderly, organized enterprise of returning the Jewish people to their homeland, their roots and themselves.

Five years after Herzl’s death, during a cold and rainy winter after the tragic death of his wife, Aharon David Gordon, the “grand old man” of the second Aliyah who emigrated from the East European Podolia region, wrote the following passage from his home in Petah Tikvah. His description of modern alienation as a severe human problem which afflicts Jewish youth is the prolegomena to his marvelous philosophical essay, Man and Nature:

Love of all creatures, love of family, love between friends, the measure of compassion decreases as man “progresses”, especially as social life becomes more centered in large cities…[…]even when these feelings are found, you see that for the most part, they do not come from the heart, but are influenced by the brain. […] and even the more essential feeling, which one would think would flow more naturally – love between man and woman – is decreasing (in enlightened society as a whole, and not just among Jews). […] there is no love without ulterior motives, no faith, no ideals, no justice, no truth; but there is an insatiable “I”, there is an appetite, there is lust and self delusion. […] it is little wonder, therefore, that such a lack of strength and vigor, such spiritual distortion leads the man of our times to exchange his ideals (or to “break idols” in the epic phrase of our day) at the speed of an electron, and lately – to complete heresy, devastating emptiness, and utter despair. They say: the rationality of science has enlightened our vision and done away with the shadows of fantasy and mystery of the old world, but this statement does not provide any explanation. For the power of science is restricted to that which may be perceived and those opinions belonging to the realm of contemplation and observation, but not the realm of feelings and those opinions which stem from feelings. (“Man and Nature”, year, The Writings of A. D. Gordon , 1911, Volume I, p. 45 – 48).

The return to nature, which Gordon advocated both in his writing and way of life, was more than a return to manual labor, agriculture and the conservation of the ancient landscape of the land of Israel; more than a return to life in the physical sphere of the land. It was essentially about the natural emotional connection of the individual to circles of affiliation from which modern Jews of his children’s generation had been severed, by the decrees of Marxism and the Enlightenment. The return of that generation to the homeland and their integration in the Zionist national enterprise, is imbued with the possibility of rejuvenation and return to those feelings that were eliminated by the decree of modern times and skepticism: the feeling of belonging to the Jewish nation and the feeling of continuity of one’s personal and extended family, even though this entailed a painful separation from family in Europe for them all.

Redemption of the Individual through the Redemption of the People

These voices, calling for finding personal, existential meaning in the Zionist enterprise, were heard from the members of the first generation of Zionism, despite the hardships and personal sacrifice that Zionism claimed from each and every one. Many felt that they had redeemed their souls from emptiness through immigrating to the land of Israel, joining in the task of building and protecting the land and helping others do the same. Sara Malchin, one of Degania Aleph’s pioneers wrote of the moment she was requested to join the search for a plot of land for Jewish settlement to be purchased by Hakeren Hakayemet in the Jordan Valley: “It was a day filled with dreams and happiness. Here, between the mountains and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), on the curving banks of the Jordan River whose waters flow with a pleasant murmur. In this place, replete with historical memories, where we were about to embark on a new life of freedom – here, on that very day, we forgot all the agony and hardships we had endured in exile and in our own land. Here we were healthy, strong and free. Oh! That we would have had a thousand Jews with us on that day!” (Sara Malchin, First of the Pioneers in the Fields of Israel , p. 72 – 73).

David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel and the man who was courageous enough to declare its independence, explained as follows, his decision to make his home in Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev: “I never went to Sde Boker to become a symbol or role model for Israeli youth. I came here because I loved the place, I loved the fellows who dared to build a settlement in the heart of the desert and I loved working the land and wanted, as long as my strength endured – to return to the task of working the land and making the desert bloom, which I view as the ultimate human calling. I did it for myself, for my own pleasure and with love.” (Excerpt from a letter to Yoram Porat, Sde Boker, 13.01.1954)

Zionism and Alienation in Our Time

With the passage of time, living the Zionist dream became more difficult existentially and spiritually than in the days of creating the dream. Why is that? Some might say it is easier to preach than to practice what you preach. The cloak of Zionism, just as the cloak of the Torah, provided shelter for villains as well as righteous individuals, men and women who betrayed the public’s trust and embezzled public funds while the common folk were risking their lives for the sake of their people and country. Mistakes were made, whether intentionally or not. Gathering in Jews from the four corners of the earth initially resulted, whether consciously or not, in undermining the worth and cultural heritage of immigrants from Muslim countries and remaining oblivious to the overwhelming pain of the Holocaust survivors. The desire to create “a new Jew” left women – half the Jewish people and equal partners in the Zionist enterprise – at the fringes of national memory and consciousness. A never-ending war, replete with difficult moral dilemmas, exists between us and the Palestinian people destined to share with us the land of Israel, and no end is in sight to this complex struggle. Zionism has become for many a cliché, an object of ridicule and in consequence, a source of cynicism and alienation. The personal experience, in which personal redemption is intertwined with national redemption, has eluded our grasp.

However, it is not only due to the difficulties involved in rebuilding an exiled nation upon its own ruins that we have lost the path to personal-national redemption. We have also witnessed the return of the demon of modern alienation in post-modern guise –gleaming, computerized, and virtual. Zionist education, which emphasized personal and national initiative, creativity, relinquishing comfort, mutually recognizing and attending to the unique qualities and needs of different Jewish groups, seeking compromises between different world views from a sense of community and aspiration towards unity – even among those who are not unified in their beliefs – has disappeared. Instead, the Marxist “discourse of rights” has returned, this time in its post-modern incarnation, saturated with grudges and “legitimate” hatred towards the oppressors. The “sons of light” are once again fighting the “sons of darkness”, the enlightened against the fundamentalists, the Jews against the assimilators.

In the post-modern world, where everyone competes over carrying the banner of the oppressed, the Holocaust, rather than the resurrection of the Jewish people, became the cornerstone of Jewish existence in Zion. The scholars Isaiah Leibowitz z”l and Hanna Javlonka have critiqued the danger in an educational agenda which focuses on “that which has been done to us” rather than on the manner by which we have earned and are still earning our independence, by taking responsibility for our own fate, before, in the midst of, and after the Holocaust. Conversely, in the argumentative discourse over the superiority of one’s wretchedness there are no winners. That is why the spiritual philosophical strengths of Herzl, A. D. Gordon, Bialik, Ben Gurion, Henrietta Szold, Sara Malchin, Matilda Gez and many others are no longer extolled.

Why should we wonder that the youth of today hide behind television and computer screens, finding comfort in alcohol and drugs, seeking virtual love that is perfect and unattainable in a world whose values are fluid and fluctuating?  In a world of amalgamation (globalization) there is no room for uniqueness. No room for the singularity of the complex relationship between man and woman, for the closeness between different generations within the family, or any singularity of vision in either the national or religious spheres. However, there is no identity without uniqueness.

With time, the claim of enlightenment has become, once more, hostile to the privilege and duty to assume responsibility for a unique, Jewish identity. From day to day, the position that advocates Jewish singularity becomes more defensive, threatened, and distanced from anyone who is unwilling to yield to its absolute authority.  Simplistic arguments on the left reflect simplistic arguments on the right and in the absence of dialogue between divergent Jewish sectors which represent diverse world views, the grudge is intensified. Thus in terms of the internal consciousness of the Jewish people we are regressing to the time preceding the birth of Zionism: alienation from our Jewish culture and as a result, alienation from ourselves as a people and as sons and daughters of the Jewish nation.

How shall we instill in ourselves once more the idea that we are part of a large family, sharing a “covenant of faith”, a term coined by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik? How shall we resurrect the familial feeling whose loss was mourned by A. D. Gordon? Or the feeling of Shabbat that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sought to revive? Perhaps the first Mishna in the Peah Tractate indicates the way to shift our view from the television and computer screen, the shapers of consciousness and breeders of illusions and disperse the post-modern illusion of unlimited freedom:

These are the things that have no measure: the peah of the field, the first fruits, the appearance [at the Temple in Jerusalem on Pilgrimage Festivals], acts of kindness, and the study of the Torah.
These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world,
while the principle remains for him in the World to Come:
Honoring father and mother, acts of kindness, and bringing peace between a man and his fellow.
But the study of Torah is equal to them all.
(Peah 1: 1)

Why have Hazal (Sages of blessed memory) determined the commandments enumerated in this Mishna as being without measure, i.e. as commandments which are considered fulfilled even if one abides by them to the smallest degree. And yet one should practice them to the greatest extent possible? This was first of all determined by the Halachic hermeneutic system of interpreting the Bible.

Nevertheless, I wish to suggest an additional interpretation:  that the aforementioned commandments, those that “have no measure” and those which benefit a person in this world, may serve as a foundation for a national Jewish existence. The commandments that depend on the land: the peah (corner edge of the field), bringing the first fruits of the harvest and the appearance connect the people to the land of their birth, the land of Israel. The commandment of peah commits us to allot a permanent share of the revenues of our harvest to the poor.

But the lives of Jews in Israel depend on additional fundamental values that extend beyond this commandment. They are: respect for one’s father and mother as the primary religious social core (in which is embedded the assumption of a society that instructs the parents to respect one another as well). Charity, which means assisting others with our body and not only our money;  making peace between one person and another; and the study of Torah above all. When we transfer these commandments to Jewish life in the land of Israel in our time, it becomes apparent that they apply to all. The political and ideological barriers between us hold no power over them. It is possible to construct a Jewish society in Israel founded on these commandments imbued with mutual responsibility within the family and in society as a whole.

We should therefore strive to create neighborhood or regional societies which would combine Torah learning with Modern Hebrew culture and the stories of Jewish inner, spiritual strength, both recent and historical. These societies, in accordance with their study, would cultivate and encourage a sense of responsibility for others and for the environment, which is charity; and act to diminish the sense of alienation within family and neighborhood circles, which is making peace. From within these societies would arise an affinity between the diverse sectors of the Jewish people, without diminishing their unique qualities. And if you will it, it is no dream.


Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon is Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a lecturer in Jewish Thought at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

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