Rav Shagar: Zionism and Exile Within the Home - tzerufim

Rav Shagar: Zionism and Exile Within the Home

Ari Ze’ev Schwartz and Levi Morrow

12 April 2021
Reading time: 45 min read

reading Rav Shagar on Zionism felt like a breath of fresh air. It was the first time I can remember when I came across Zionism that was passionate, but non-dogmatic.

Feeling in exile while also feeling at home, being both a guest and a host, means caring about the space, but also recognizing that it does not belong to you.

a Jew who lives outside of Israel (exile) has something that the Jew who lives inside of Israel (home) is lacking.

Being unsatisfied with reality can be a strong motivator, in this case for seeking transcendence, creativity, and God.

Rav Shagar interprets HaTikva as a reminder that the years spent in exile were not a waste of time nor an embarrassment; that living in the physical land of Israel is not considered our ultimate success.

one of the most attractive parts of reading Rav Shagar’s writings is his brutal honesty.

For Rav Shagar, post Zionism means moving beyond our current perception of what the State of Israel is supposed to be; it is a way of opening ourselves up to new spiritual and ethical possibilities.

A dialogue about Rav Shagar's complex views of Zionism, redemption and the state of Israel.


‘I believe that State of Israel is able to actualize the prophetic vision of a righteous and miraculous state. Yet I often feel that realizing this dream is dependent on us specifically. We, the religious and chareidim, must change our ways in order to cause this transformation. Indeed, it is very possible that we are the ones who are the main obstacles to redemption; because of our obsession with the old, the accepted, the frozen and the alienated.’1

Rabbi Schwartz: Rav Shagar was born in Jerusalem, lived in Israel his entire life, and spoke, wrote and read in Hebrew. He studied and taught at several religious Zionist Yeshivot and fought in the Israeli army in the Yom Kippur war. In short, the land of Israel and Zionism are a natural part of Rav Shagar’s religious and spiritual identity.

And yet, Rav Shagar’s deep love of Zionism does not hold him back from criticizing Zionism in general and religious Zionism specifically. Rather than simply complain about the problems he sees in Israel, Rav Shagar spent his life trying to find solutions to transform and change Zionism into a more honest and healthy version of itself. While it is true that Rav Shagar writes about Zionism in all his books, nonetheless, it seems that his Zionist manifesto is the book ‘BaYom HaHu: Sermons and Essays on the Month of Iyyar.’

Levi, before we begin discussing specific ideas, can you share your general impressions of Rav Shagar and his relationship to Zionism? Do you remember how it felt when you first read the writings of Rav Shagar, a religious Zionist Rosh Yeshiva, who is so honest about both his love and criticism of Zionism?

Levi Morrow: As I have remarked in other parts of the book, reading Rav Shagar on Zionism felt like a breath of fresh air. It was the first time I can remember when I came across Zionism that was passionate, but non-dogmatic. It was really trying to understand reality, rather than ideologically denying it, while also dreaming of a better tomorrow. I found a way of thinking about the State of Israel and the various demographics that live in and around it without either denying their real existences or falling into despair. It was a combination of realism and hope that I found to be truly redemptive.

Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, usually Zionism is full of ideological slogans. ‘Make Aliya.’ ‘The State of Israel is the beginning of the Messianic times.’ ‘The IDF is the most ethical army in the world.’ ‘Zionism is the only place for a Jew to live.’ ‘The diaspora is bad and Israel is good.’

Yet Rav Shagar doesn’t want to live in a world full of utopian slogans of ideology. This is one of the most attractive parts of Rav Shagar’s ideas: he wants us to be honest with ourselves, to be honest with the reality in front of us. Faith in God means being honest to the reality that God has put in front of you. It is easy to talk about the State of Israel as a spiritual experience, as the land of God; but Rav Shagar wants us to be real with ourselves and acknowledge that most of the country is not religious. In one place, Rav Shagar says that Israeli society is often very materialistic and prouder of Start Up’s then studying Torah and connection to God.

To give another example. It is easy to talk about the obligation for every Jew to live in Israel; but Rav Shagar wants us to be real with ourselves and acknowledge that many Israelis are actually leaving Israel to find themselves in India. Rav Shagar can see that clearly something is missing. The actual reality of Israel does not fit with the utopian ideology that we have become used to preaching.

For Rav Shagar, the most obvious tension between ideology and reality is the utopian faith in the IDF. After the miracles of the Six Day War, Israelis began believing that the IDF was invincible, that they could defend themselves against any threat. Yet Rav Shagar fought in the Yom Kippur war. Two of his friends were killed in his tank; his body was heavily burnt; many people were tragically killed; the State of Israel was caught by surprise. In general, Rav Shagar experienced a Zionism that is not perfect, that has much to work on and fix.

On the other hand, Rav Shagar does not fall into despair. He does not say that we should give up the Zionist dream. Instead, Rav Shagar writes,

I believe that this State is able – in one way or another – to actualize the prophetic vision of a righteous and miraculous state. Yet often I feel that realizing this dream is dependent on us specifically. We, the religious and chareidim, must change our ways in order to cause this transformation. Indeed, it is very possible that we are the ones who are the main obstacles to redemption; because of our obsession with the old, the accepted, the frozen and the alienated.2

We can read in these words so much hope. Rav Shagar has not given up on Herzl’s words ‘If you will it, then it is no dream.’ The State of Israel still has the potential of becoming a spiritual and ethical country. And yet, Rav Shagar also wants us to be honest with ourselves, to let go of our utopian slogans and perfect ideology. We must take responsibility to confront the reality that God has placed in front of us.

As you said Levi, Rav Shagar’s Zionism is a combination of realism and hope. This is a powerful message. On the one hand, we must be passionate about the land of Israel, about the Zionist return to Israel. On the other hand, we must be honest with ourselves and the imperfections of the current State of Israel- politically, spirituality and ethically.

Let’s begin with Rav Shagar’s concept of ‘Exile within the Home’ (Galut BeToch Beitiut). Can you explain what Rav Shagar means by this phrase? Why is it relevant to the Zionist reality we are living in?

Levi Morrow: This is essentially one specific instance of Rav Shagar’s Kierkegaardian irony, what Rav Shagar describes as ‘seeing through both eyes at once.’ Rav Shagar wants us to affirm two contradictory ideas simultaneously, in such a way that each idea helps refine the other and remove its flaws. Affirming a sense of exile while also feeling at home means feeling like a minority and a majority at the same time. Someone who is in exile does not identify with the space in which they live, they do not feel like it belongs to them, like it should respond to their interests or concerns, and they do not feel like they should be able to control who else exists in that space. Someone who feels at home identifies with the space in which they live, they feel like they own it and that they should determine the nature of the space, including who lives there.

While this seems a little abstract, I think it is easier to grasp if we think about being a host versus being a guest within a house. If you’re the host, it’s your house, you know where everything is, you care about everything there and want to take care of it, you like living there even though you sometimes take it for granted, etc. However, you also don’t just want people wandering in off the street and making themselves at home in your space. And even if you invite someone in, or you agree to let someone live there, you want them to do so on your terms.

In contrast, if you’re a guest in someone’s home, you feel a little out of place, you’re very grateful for the place to stay even when things aren’t exactly to your liking, you don’t feel like the host or other guests shouldn’t live there, etc. However, you also aren’t super concerned about the state of the house. You might not actively damage it, but you won’t feel bad if something happens to it.

Feeling in exile while also feeling at home, being both a guest and a host, means caring about the space, but also recognizing that it does not belong to you. It means being okay with other people living there but still caring about what happens to it. It means loving the space, but also not taking it for granted.

I would note that this resonates deeply with biblical themes around the land of Israel, which the Torah describes as given to the Jewish people but actually belonging to God. This leads to a situation where the people must follow God’s laws or being ejected from the land, and must treat the land as per God’s instructions rather than as they might desire. They are at once at home and in someone else’s home. They are both residents and aliens within the land.

Three Types of Zionism

Rabbi Schwartz: In an important essay called ‘BaYom HaHu: Between Nature and Mysticism, Between Zionism and Post Zionism,’ Rav Shagar says that there are three different Jewish spiritual thinkers who represent three different types of Zionism. 1) Rav Kook 2) Franz Rosenzweig 3) Rebbe Nachman.

1. Rav Kook’s ‘Zionism of Nature’

According to Rav Shagar, the first type of Zionism is Rav Kook’s. ‘Rav Kook’s Israel is the land of holy nature (etetz kedushat ha teva)’ (Ibid. p. 179). In other words, Rav Kook believed that Zionism is all about returning to our natural home: being involved with the physical nature through building up the land, speaking our natural Hebrew language, having a Jewish army, and being sovereign of our own State.

For Rav Kook, the Zionistic return to our homeland helps the Jewish people come back to the physical elements of life. Such physical things will become natural for us again. While in exile, we had to rely on non-Jewish army’s and police; in Israel we would be able to defend ourselves in a natural way with our own army and police. While in exile, we had to rely on non-Jewish governments; in Israel we would be able to rule our own State.

Even the language we speak in exile is unnatural and foreign; in Israel we would be able to return to speaking Hebrew, our natural tongue. Rav Kook wants us to leave the unnatural state of exile and return to our natural home.

Levi, can you share your thoughts on what Rav Shagar likes and dislikes about this first type of Zionism? What are the strengthens and flaws of ‘Rav Kook’s natural Zionism’? And where does Rav Kook’s understanding of Zionism fit with Rav Shagar’s idea of ‘Exile within the Home’?

Levi Morrow: The positive sides are that Rav Kook’s Zionism believes in being at home in the land and the state. It believes in the Jewish people returning to history and the world stage. Jews can once again rejoice in the hills and plains of the land of Israel. They can return to the agricultural rhythms of land and of Tanakh.

The problems are exactly the same. In feeling at home, the Jews may forget that the land belongs to God and not to them. They may forget that the life of the Jewish people is bound up in Torah and God as much as the land, if not more. They may begin to think that material accomplishments are all that matters, ignoring cultural and religious pursuits.

Moreover, this return to history is itself bound up with the violence inherent to modern politics. Rav Kook’s Zionism, at least as it appeared in Rav Shagar’s day, seemed to ignore this problem, rather than trying to find solutions for it.

Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, the positive part of Rav Kook’s ‘Natural Zionism’ is that it helps us fall in love with the land of Israel, to feel safe there, to feel that it is our natural home. Rav Shagar writes:

Inspired by Rav Kook’s attitude, we equate the holiness of the land of Israel with the Zionist ideal experience. There is a type of ‘Shabbat inner harmony’ that we feel when we take a trip in the nature of the land of Israel; in its beauty and splendor. There is a feeling of nostalgia toward the life of the Moshavnic working the land listening to the songs of Naomi Shemer.3

In other words, Rav Kook’s love of the nature of Israel helps us recognize that Zionism is not some abstract idea, but a real home that we live in, take care of, and appreciate. This is one of the reasons why Rav Kook is so passionate about Aliya: you do not simply talk about your home, you live in it. In addition, those who follow in the footsteps of Rav Kook’s ‘Natural Zionism’ are dedicated to defending the land, to protecting it. These two points – living in the land and protecting it – are consequences of experiencing Israel as your natural home, as a natural and essential part of your people’s identity.

2. Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’

Rabbi Schwartz: However, as we have mentioned, Rav Shagar thinks that there is a flaw in Zionism when it only focuses on the home of the Jewish people, of building itself up. Rav Shagar thinks a balanced approach to Zionism is ‘exile within the home.’ In other words, there is also a great value to ‘exile Judaism.’ Can you talk a bit about what Rav Shagar likes about the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s second type of Zionism, what Rav Shagar calls ‘the land of longing (eretz haga’aguim)’?

Levi Morrow: Right, I think the primary aspect that Rav Shagar is interested, particularly in context of Rosenzweig, is the sense of longing for something greater. Rosenzweig talks about the Jew as a traveling knight, whose loyalty to his home is expressed most when he is traveling outside his homeland, but for its sake. So too, Rosenzweig says, a Jews relationship with the holy land is most expressed when the Jew is outside the land.

Rav Shagar doesn’t go as far as Rosenzweig (who in later years softened his stance somewhat, though it remained essentially the same), but he does want us to feel a sense of longing for the messianic land. One of Rav Shagar’s deepest worries when it comes to Zionism is that we will be satisfied.

As Rav Shagar points out, a simplistic reading of Rambam’s ‘Law of Kings’ chapters 11-12, which depict the messianic era, might seem to suggest that the creation of the state of Israel has essentially satisfied the conditions of redemption. Have we already been redeemed? Has Mashiach already come? These are questions which Rav Shagar answers strongly in the negative, in both his earliest and latest writings:

All the sages of Israel have agreed that the meaning of redemption, and not just the World to Come, which ‘eyes other than God’s have not seen’ (Isaiah 64:3), which the human mind cannot comprehend, but also the lower redemption, the Messianic Era, cannot be summed up by physical or political redemption.4

We yearn for more than just ‘natural’ redemption, which some of the rishonim, such as Maimonides, thought would be realized in the Messianic Era, differing from this world only in terms of ‘subservience to the Nations.’ Our messianic pathos also contains the melody of the open miracle, what Rebbe Nachman called the melody of the land of Israel, which stands opposed to the melody of nature. This miraculous redemption means the shattering of nature’s lawfulness. Reality itself will metamorphose.5

Despite the great achievements of the establishment of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews to their homeland, we cannot be satisfied – we are not yet redeemed. Redemption requires holiness, both religious and ethical perfection. It requires an entirely different form of existence. Until that happens, what we have is Rosenzweig’s longing.

Rabbi Schwartz: So, what your saying is that for Rav Shagar, Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’ helps us to never be satisfied with the current version of Zionism. Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’ challenges us to understand that Israel always has room to improve, transform, and get better. The State of Israel can always become more ethical, righteous, religious and spiritual.

Another way I like to think about this is that a Jew who lives inside of Israel, at ‘home,’ often gets distracted from the higher goals of spirituality and ethical Zionism; this is because a person has to deal with the practical issues of paying taxes, working, and shopping. In contrast, a Jew who lives outside of Israel, in ‘exile,’ is able to romanticize, brainstorm and dream about the highest goals of Zionism.

In this way, a Jew who lives outside of Israel (exile) has something that the Jew who lives inside of Israel (home) is lacking. Rav Shagar writes, ‘Rosenzweig’s Israel is a world of wonder…a world that will never be fully actualized’ (BaYom HaHu. p. 178). In other words, what Rav Shagar likes about Rosenzweig is that he contains the utopian idealism of a diaspora Jew, of someone who is forever yearning about the dream version of Zionism and Israel.

On a personal note, in my own life I often experience this positive aspect of Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Yearning.’ I teach mainly in Yeshivot and Midrashot to 18-year old’s who have come from outside of Israel (exile) to spend a year studying Torah in Israel (home). I am always amazed by these diaspora Jews utopian expectations of Israel. ‘Why don’t Israelis have better manners!?’ ‘Why isn’t everyone in Israel spiritual and in love with God!?’

I used to feel frustrated at these diaspora Jews; why are they not being more realistic about their expectations of Israel? Yet after studying Rav Shagar’s writings, I now realize that there is something healthy about hearing the idealism of Jews from the diaspora (exile) while I live in Israel (home). These students of mine remind me not to give up dreaming about the best possible Israel; they help me reconnect to the Zionistic idealism I had before I made Aliya and started actually living and working here.

Levi, before we move onto Rebbe Nachman – the third attitude of Zionism – can you share your thoughts on what Rav Shagar thinks are the faults of Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’?

Levi Morrow: Well I think the fault with a ‘Zionism of Longing’ is that it’s really not a Zionism. Rosenzweig himself was a non-Zionist, rather than a Zionist (or an anti-Zionist, for that matter). He didn’t reject the validity of Zionism, he just wanted it to be better and didn’t think it was strictly necessary.

When I say ‘Zionism of Longing’ is not really a Zionism, I mean that it isn’t really interested in the Jewish people returning to the land or returning to history. The moment that happens, you don’t really have a ‘Zionism of Longing’ anymore. That may be why Rav Shagar ultimately does not suggest maintaining a ‘Zionism of Longing’ in Israel, but rather suggests containing an element of ‘Zionism of Longing’ within a larger Zionist framework.

Rabbi Schwartz: There is this amazing moment in Rav Shagar’s writings where he is in the middle of praising and describing Rosenzweig’s love of living in exile, outside of Israel, always yearning for the ideal redemption. And then suddenly, Rav Shagar puts a short but powerful footnote at the bottom of the page acknowledging the flaws and weaknesses of Rosenzweig’s Zionism. At first he writes:

Exile is a sign of spiritual greatness. The individual Jew specifically, and the Jewish people in general, have a natural yearning for the highest spirituality, for the greatest desires. Therefore, the Jewish people cannot hold on to one specific location and see it as the ultimate vision. The place of the Jewish people is beyond a particular location, and its identity is beyond the narrow confines of nationalism.6

In other words, Rav Shagar really appreciates Rosenzweig’s idea that we should not be satisfied with simply making Aliya to Israel and achieving political Zionism. Instead, the ‘Zionism of Longing’ means that the Jewish people’s ultimate redemption can never become fully materialized in a specific land, and that we must consistently yearn and long for a better world, a more spiritual and ethical existence.

And yet, in a short but powerful footnote on the same page as the above quote, Rav Shagar acknowledges the flaws and weakness of Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing.’ Rav Shagar writes, ‘It is not by chance that Rosenzweig opposed political Zionism in his time period.7

In my opinion, this footnote is Rav Shagar’s way of reminding us that even though he thinks we have much to learn from Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing,’ nonetheless, Rav Shagar wants us to acknowledge the major flaw of Rosenzweig’s exile-focused Judaism: it will not lead the Jewish people back to actually living in the State of Israel, in the physical (and political) land of Israel.

One way of understanding this critique is by comparing it to a person who fantasizes about the romance of love, but never chooses to get married and move in with their partner. At the end of the day, love is not simply a beautiful idea, it is a relationship with a real person, which demands living with them and interacting with them on a day-to-day basis. One’s partner is not only your soul mate, but also your roommate. Being in love with someone means not only experiencing romantic emotions, but also working together in the functional and pragmatic parts of life- cleaning the house, washing the dishes, paying the rent.

In a similar way, Rav Shagar wants his readers to understand that at the end of the day, Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’ is not enough. What we desire is to live in the land of Israel, and not only romanticize about it. This is the flaw in theoretical Zionism: a person lives outside of Israel and talks about the ideal Israel from a distance, they do not engage with the land in a real living way. Rav Shagar wants us to be a part of building up the land, and not simply talking about it.

3. Rebbe Nachman’s ‘Zionism of Miracles’

After recognizing the good and negative qualities of Rav Kook’s ‘Zionism of Nature’ and Franz Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing,’ Rav Shagar goes in search of a new Zionist hero. Which Jewish thinker has an attitude toward Zionism that contains multiple truths, that is able to acknowledge the paradoxical benefits of home and exile? It is no surprise that Rav Shagar’s hero is yet again Rebbe Nachman. This is a constant theme in all of Rav Shagar’s writings – Rebbe Nachman holds the keys to confronting our spiritual and ethical struggles.

Levi, can you explain how Rav Shagar understands Rebbe Nachman as a symbol of the third type of Zionism, what he calls the ‘Land of Miracles’? Why does Rav Shagar think Rebbe Nachman’s ‘Zionism of Miracles’ holds the key to redemption?

Levi Morrow: For Rav Shagar, nature represents order and rules, while miracles represent freedom. Nature follows logically from the past, while miracles are something entirely new. Rebbe Nachman’s ‘Zionism of Miracles’ means a Zionism committed to transcending the simple reality we see before us, not by denying it but by building on top of it. Being unsatisfied with reality can be a strong motivator, in this case for seeking transcendence, creativity, and God. Zionism that only cares about nature, ultimately may forget about everything else, Rav Shagar worries. Only the ‘Zionism of Miracles’ can maintain our drive for the infinite, and for expressing the infinite through the finite.

Rabbi Schwartz: Rav Shagar writes, ‘Rebbe Nachman’s Israel is a faith in miracles that can come true. In a similar way to Rosenzweig, he has faith in miracles even if they don’t come true. This faith is powerful enough to shock the world of a religious person and inspire within them a powerful yearning and desire. Yet Rebbe Nachman is not satisfied with this theoretical Israel. Rebbe Nachman, just like Rav Kook, wants the actual land itself. But Rebbe Nachman doesn’t want the natural land like Rav Kook does, but rather the supernatural miracles that exist in Israel’.8

In other words, Rav Shagar sees Rebbe Nachman ‘Zionism of Miracles’ as a third option that includes the best of both previous Zionism’s. On the one hand, Rav Shagar believes that Rav Kook’s ‘Zionism of Nature’ is important because it gets us to return to the physical land, to have a strong economy, army, and stable political system. Yet for Rav Shagar, the danger of this attitude is that it will turn Israel into a normal, materialistic, and power-driven culture. Rav Shagar doesn’t believe that the Jewish people have yearned for thousands of years to return to a ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ country, lacking spiritual and ethical values.

On the other hand, Rav Shagar believes that Franz Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing’ is important because it challenges us to never to be satisfied with the physical land. We must never allow ourselves to believe that we have been redeemed and arrived in the ideal Israel; Zionism is a symbol of infinite spiritual and ethical possibilities. Yet in Rav Shagar’s eyes, the danger of this attitude is that it will not motivate us to actually live in the land, build a real living army, and make practical political decisions. The ‘Zionism of Longing’ is forever talking and dreaming about this romantic vision of Zionism, but never takes the risk of trying to accomplish it.

This is why Rebbe Nachman’s ‘Zionism of Miracles’ is so attractive to Rav Shagar. It simultaneously embraces the actual living in Israel as well as the possibility of infinite miracles.

Rebbe Nachman, just like Rav Kook, wants the actual land itself. But Rebbe Nachman doesn’t want the natural land like Rav Kook does, but rather the supernatural miracles that exist in Israel.9

Rav Shagar quotes the famous statement of Rebbe Nachman ‘Wherever I walk, I am walking to the land of Israel.’ Rav Shagar is excited that Rebbe Nachman wants to arrive in the physical land of Israel (and indeed Rebbe Nachman risked his life to travel to the land of Israel in his life). On the other hand, Rebbe Nachman believed that because in Israel God’s providence is present, therefore anything is possible.

As you said Levi, Rav Shagar understands the idea of ‘miracles’ as a symbol for infinite possibilities. The ‘Zionism of Miracles’ means that even while we live in the physical land of Israel, we must never give up the dream of achieving the miracle of peace in the middle east. The ‘Zionism of Miracles’ means that even while we live in the materialistic culture of Israel, we must never give up the dream of achieving the miracle of a more ethical, religious and spiritual goal Zionism. The word ‘miracle’ means opening ourselves up to greater possibilities.

The National Anthem ‘Hatikvah’

Rabbi Schwartz: Levi, Rav Shagar believed that the national anthem ‘Hatikvah’ (both the lyrics and the melody) contained within it the secret to achieving this third option of the ‘Zionism of Miracles.’ Can you explain Rav Shagar’s logic?

Levi Morrow: Rav Shagar remarks on the very literal internalization of exile within the home that is manifest in the state of Israel’s national anthem, ‘Hatikvah.’ Hatikvah was not written by a citizen of the state in order to commemorate it’s victories, because it was written before the state existed, before the state could be anything more than a hope. It was written by Naftali Imber in Romania in 1877, and you can feel his exilic existence underlying every line of the poem. It’s all about not having a home, but hoping to have a home one day. This is matched, Rav Shagar notes, by a deeply melancholic melody.

There’s something deeply strange about this anthem. Most other anthems, as I mentioned, celebrate victories, and they have proud, bombastic tunes. They’re meant to inspire confident, patriotic national identities. Hatikvah inspires a national identity of meek hope, confident in the future but not in the present. Inspiring that identity in the citizens of a sovereign state is a paradoxical, even radical departure from the norm. For Rav Shagar, it opens up the possibility of exile within the home, of maintaining the good things we learned from exile even after returning to the land.

Rabbi Schwartz: Before I comment on what you just said, I want to confess that I think it’s amazing that Rav Shagar, a Rosh Yeshiva of religious Zionism, is so attracted to the idea of exile. Usually we think of Zionists as people who are negative toward the diaspora, toward anything to do with Jews living outside of Israel. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, is famous for saying ‘Eliminate the exile (galut), or the exile (galut) will surely eliminate you.’ Indeed, most of the original leaders of Zionism were very negative about the ‘Galut Jew,’ the exile Jew, who is usually depicted as weak and impractical.

Yet, Rav Shagar, again and again, is excited by the energy contained in Jews who were born in exile and yearn for the land of Israel. Here are Rav Shagar’s own words describing what he finds so powerful about the national anthem ‘Hatikvah:’

The energy that I feel when singing HaTikva often awakens within me a deep sense of astonishment regarding our national anthem, and its melancholy melody. Compare our anthem to the more military and masculine anthems of other nations; to that of the French and Egyptian anthems, which are full of power and strength. It is amazing that our anthem describes our homeland from the perspective of exile, with the hope of a yearning soul’.10

As you said Levi, this anthem is a powerful example of Rav Shagar’s idea of ‘Exile Within the Home.’ Most countries want their anthems to help their people forget any form of national exile or imperfections; instead the anthem should focus on national victory, perfection and success. Rav Shagar says that even the melodies of these anthems are usually very upbeat and militaristic which expresses national power and strength. In stark contrast, Rav Shagar points out that the song ‘HaTikva’ has a melancholy melody which expresses a deep yearning; its lyrics are from the point of view of a weak exile Jew longing and hoping for the ideal redemption.

Rav Shagar interprets HaTikva as a reminder that the years spent in exile were not a waste of time nor an embarrassment; that living in the physical land of Israel is not considered our ultimate success. Another way of saying this is that even while we are physically living in our homeland, we must never forget all the spiritual and ethical dreams and yearnings that we had during our years spent in exile. Here again, we can see Rav Shagar’s attraction to the paradoxical truth of ‘Exile within the Home.’

In this way, Rav Shagar sees HaTikva, the national anthem, almost as a mantra, a spiritual meditation, that helps a Zionist keep a balanced mindset. We must always remind ourselves of ‘Exile within the Home.’ On the one hand, we are proud that we have returned home, we are a living nation, with a real army, language, economy and political system. On the other hand, ‘HaTikvah’ literally means ‘The Hope.’ We must never forget our thousands of years spent in exile hoping and longing for a righteousness, religious, and God-focussed State of Israel.

Rav Shagar says that the anthem – due to its melancholy melody and lyrics which focus on a future redemption – helps to humble us so that we will never be completely satisfied with the status quo. There is always more the nation of Israel can and should hope and aspire toward. As Rav Shagar writes:

This anthem is not an anthem about a nation redeemed, but rather about a nation that anticipates redemption. This anticipation is commemorated at the time of redemption itself… a redemption that remembers and internalizes exile…this is the anthem of the state of Israel.11

Saying Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut

Rabbi Schwartz: Another place where Rav Shagar sees the secret to achieving ‘Exile Within the Home’ is when we pray Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut, the day of Israel’s National Independence. There are two opposite attitudes toward saying Hallel. One way is a person who says Hallel with a full bracha, symbolizing that the Israel we presently live in is the ultimate redemption. The second way is a person who refuses to say Hallel at all because the Israel we see isn’t religious or ethical enough and therefore is not connected to God’s will or redemption.

Levi, can you discuss Rav Shagar’s third way of saying Hallel? And how does this approach help us experience the paradoxical truth of ‘Exile within the Home’?

Levi Morrow: There has long been a debate within the religious communities, in Israel and beyond, regarding how to best commemorate the creation of the state of Israel, and the relevance of the holidays created by the state itself for this purpose.

One of the most critical questions, from the perspective of halakhah, is whether or not to say the traditional thanksgiving liturgy of Hallel, and if yes, then whether or not it should be said with a blessing invoking God’s name (with the opposition considering this a biblical sin of saying God’s name in vain). Rav Shagar deftly points out that these debates are not simply technical disagreements but are tightly connected to how you understand the nature of the state and redemption.

Rav Shagar argues for the middle path between saying Hallel with a blessing and not saying Hallel at all, namely saying Hallel without a blessing. This approach, he says, maintains the sense of thanksgiving for the redemption inherent in the creation of the state of Israel, while also calling into question our ability to be satisfied with this redemption. If we were fully redeemed, then we would say the blessing too. The process of saying Hallel while refraining from saying the blessing performs our sense of exile within redemption.

Rabbi Schwartz: It is amazing how this small action of saying Hallel contains so much religious, spiritual and ethical significance for people.

When I was learning in Chariedi yeshivot, almost everyone I knew did not say Hallel on Yom HaAtzamut since they did not believe that the State of Israel represents God’s will. In contrast, when I started learning and teaching in certain religious Zionist organizations, I was amazed to see everyone say Hallel on Yom HaAztmaut. What I like about Rav Shagar’s attitude of Zionism is that he embraces paradoxical truths. He writes:

It seems that that saying Hallel while refraining to say the technical blessing expresses the greatest portion of the religious Zionist community…This custom expresses our current reality and attitude. There are those who mock this imperfect version of Hallel…And yet, this custom expresses the very feeling that we haven’t yet arrived at perfection… What is better? A true contradiction or a false harmony?12

In other words, in Rav Shagar’s eyes, we have not yet reached the ultimate redemption; Zionism still has a long way to go; there are so many spiritual and ethical goals we are still striving towards. In this way, the critique of the chariedim has much truth, and we are still in a type of exile. How can we say Hallel and give thanks to God?

On the other hand, it is obvious that something revolutionary has taken place: we have returned to our historic homeland; we live in the modern State of Israel, with a real army, economy, language, and political system. In this way, the Zionist idea that we have been redeemed from exile has much truth. How can we not say Hallel and give thanks to God?

And so, for Rav Shagar, the most honest response to Yom HaAztamut specifically, and Zionism in general, is to embrace both contradictory truths: ‘Exile Within the Home.’ We must say Hallel in an imperfect way, of singing the words of Hallel but refraining from saying the technical blessing.

Yom Kippur War and the Disengagement

Rabbi Schwartz: There are two very traumatic and significant Zionist events that happened in Rav Shagar’s life. The first was the Yom Kippur War. Rav Shagar fought in this war, two friends were killed in his tank, and he himself was burnt very badly. This war was not only a shock to Rav Shagar, it was also a shock to the entire Jewish people. After the Six Day War, many secular Israelis assumed that this was a proof that the IDF was invincible, while many religious Zionists assumed that this was a proof that God loved the State of Israel and would always protect them. In a profound way, the Yom Kippur war shattered the naive faith of many religious and secular Jews.

The second traumatic event was in August 2005, when the Israeli army forcibly removed the 8,600 religious Zionist residents of Gush Katif from their homes. During the Yom Kuppur war, Rav Shagar was not even a rabbi yet; while during the Gush Katif evacuation, Rav Shagar was now a Rosh Yeshiva. He witnessed the shock of religious Zionists; how could the State of Israel, which they believed was so holy and Godly, do such a seemingly irreligious and unethical act?

Levi, throughout this chapter we have been discussing Rav Shagar’s idea of ‘Exile within the Home’ as a way of understanding the challenge and complexity of the present Zionist situation. Can you share your thoughts on how the idea ‘Exile within the Home’ helps us understand Rav Shagar’s reaction to both the Yom Kippur War and the Gush Katif evacuation?

Levi Morrow: I think what is significant about the idea of ‘exile within the home’ in context of those events is the ‘home’ part more than the ‘exile’ part. The definite sense I get from reading Rav Shagar is that these events could well lead a person to give up on Zionism and the sense that Jews can feel at home in the contemporary state of Israel.

The Yom Kippur War deprived us of any sense that God clearly wants us to dwell comfortably and securely in the state, and in a sense the Disengagement taught us that even the state doesn’t want us here. How can we feel at home knowing that we could at any moment be attacked by a foreign army or uprooted and expelled by the state? Given all of that, it would be hard to blame someone for choosing ‘exile’ over ‘home.’

Rav Shagar is so incredibly dedicated to Zionism, and Religious Zionism more specifically, that he never really raises that option. The closest he gets is saying that we have to push off the dream of a religious/messianic state until the messianic era (for the strongest formulation of this, see the end of the essay ‘We did not win in Amonah’ in Nahalekh BaRagesh). Instead, he wants to look for ways of maintaining the sense that the state of Israel is our home, without denying the reality of the exilic elements of our existence.

Rabbi Schwartz: I have said this before and I want to say it again, in my opinion, one of the most attractive parts of reading Rav Shagar’s writings is his brutal honesty. He refuses to lie about the reality he sees in front of him. Karl Marx famously criticized religion for being an opium of the masses, a drug that turns people’s minds off from dealing with the harsh reality of life. Yet for Rav Shagar, faith in God does not mean accepting abstract beliefs, but instead, seeing the reality that God has put in front of us. A word that Rav Shagar loves to use is ‘mamashi’ – the real. Religion and faith in God should motivate us to be more ‘mamashi’ – real.

In a sermon he gave leading up to Yom HaAtzmaut not long after the Gush Katif evacuation, Rav Shagar asks a very honest question:

What is Yom HaAtzmaut for us today? For many of us, it is difficult to celebrate. Not even a year of mourning has passed since the ‘hitnatkut’ (gush katif evacuation)… How can a child sing Hallel (praise) about the State of Israel the morning after the violent knock on the door, which cutoff their childhood paradise, a childhood that will never return? How can a person who was forced into exile…give thanks with a song?13

Rav Shagar wants his students to be honest with themselves. Celebrating Yom HaAtzmaut will never be the same again. Rav Shagar says that the Gush Katif evacuation was traumatic not simply because we lost our home (bayit), but also because we lost our feeling of homeness (baytiut). Rav Shagar writes:

The grief is very heavy, and it is centered around the true loss, which is not simply losing a physical home, but losing the very feeling of homeness (baytiut). The physical destruction is traumatic, but it includes within it an additional trauma, one of the greatest pains a person can feel. A home is not simply walls, wood, and stones. A home is one’s place, roots, birthright, a feeling of connection.14

Rav Shagar goes on to write that many of his contemporary religious Zionist rabbis continue to praise and believe in the State of Israel as if nothing significant has just taken place. On the other hand, there are religious Zionist rabbis who have completely lost their faith in the State of Israel. The first group of rabbis responded to the ‘hitnatkut’ by saying we are still at home, while the second group of rabbis reacted by saying we are now in exile.

Rav Shagar embraces both of these contradictory truths. We are still in our homeland, but we feel a sense of homelessness, almost if we are in emotional and spiritual exile. Rav Shagar wants his students to embrace the complexity of the current Zionist situation. ‘Exile within Home.’

Post Zionism

Rabbi Schwartz: Levi, this leads me to my next question. Rav Shagar uses the phrase ‘post Zionism’ a lot. Usually religious Zionists perceive post Zionism as a negative term referring to people who have lost faith in the Zionist narrative, and are leaving the land of Israel (yerida). In contrast, Rav Shagar tries to find the good qualities of post Zionism. Can you explain what this term means for Rav Shagar? Why does he believe that post Zionism holds the key for ethical and spiritual redemption?

Levi Morrow: For Rav Shagar, this means moving beyond the state of Israel as it is today when we think about redemption. He at one point proposes a more universal form of political redemption, but he is more interested in turning from collective, political redemption to individual, spiritual redemption. Redemption means living a life of covenant with God, understanding your life as guided by God, even if you don’t always see it or understand it. According to Rav Shagar, losing faith in the state after the Disengagement actually enables many Religious Zionists to focus on this sort of individual redemption.

Rabbi Schwartz: Yes, the distinction you made is very important. For Rav Shagar, post Zionism means two different things. 1) a focus on universal redemption 2) a focus on individual redemption.

In many places in Rav Shagar’s writings, he says that he is a student of Rav Kook, that he wants to follow the pathway of Rav Kook. Rav Shagar makes it clear that this does not mean that we should copy every idea that Rav Kook says, but instead, that we should follow in Rav Kook’s essential idea of being open to the values of the current generation, to seeing the divine providence (hashgacha pratit) in the current historical situation.

In one piece, Rav Shagar says that just as Rav Kook tried to find the good qualities in secular Zionism, so too, we must search for the good qualities in post Zionism.

We need to revive the project of Rav Kook, where he was involved in searching and elevating the good qualities of secular Zionism. In a similar way, we need to elevate the good qualities of today’s post Zionism. We must search and elevate it and not push it away completely.15

As you said Levi, for Rav Shagar, post Zionism means moving beyond our current perception of what the State of Israel is supposed to be; it is a way of opening ourselves up to new spiritual and ethical possibilities. Post Zionism challenges us to let go of our preconceived beliefs about how God runs the world; it is an act of humility. The Yom Kippur War and the Disengagement helps us recognize that we must be humble before God, that we must accept that there are many ways history could go.

Rav Shagar quotes a famous piece of Rav Kook where he says that there are two Mashiach’s who symbolize two different time periods and states of consciousness in Jewish history. Mashiach Ben Yosef is secular nationalism that focusses on itself (political independence, building the land, army and language), while Mashiach Ben David is a type of universal Zionism that sees itself as a spiritual center that gives light to the world.

Rav Shagar gives a powerful interpretation to this piece. He says that after the Disengagement, we can see the death of passionate nationalism – Mashiach Ben Yosef consciousness. Yet instead of being negative about this type of death and destruction, Rav Shagar says that this opens us up to the new possibilities of post Zionism, which he associates with Mashiach Ben David.

As a consequence of the Disengagement, there is this increasing sense that we are losing a feeling of homeness (baytitut)…Perhaps this terrible destruction is actually a way of moving forward. Post Zionism is really the death of Mashiach Ben Yosef, which paves the way for the path of Mashiach Ben David.16

Levi, this is an extraordinary piece. I remember being blown away by it when I first read it many years ago. Essentially, Rav Shagar has found the voice of post Zionism in Rav Kook, the father of religious Zionism. Levi, can you share your thoughts on this provocative Rav Shagar piece? What does it mean that Mashiach Ben Yosef had died? And what are the good qualities of post Zionism, Mashiach Ben David, that Rav Shagar is referring to?

Levi Morrow: It’s worth tracing the idea of Mashiach Ben Yosef and Mashiach Ben David from the Gemara, through Rav Kook to Rav Shagar.

The Gemara records a debate about how to understand a verse from Zechariah, which describes a mysterious figure dying. The rabbis debate whether that figure is Mashiach Ben Yosef or the Evil Inclination.

Rav Kook asks how there could be confusion between such radically different characters. He answers that Mashiach Ben Yosef, as the messianic figure who fights the wars of Israel, is motivated by particularistic self-love. Loving yourself is fine, even good, Rav Kook says, but when it becomes too particularistic to the exclusion of universalism, then this is the root of the Evil Inclination. The Evil Inclination and Mashiach Ben Yosef are these two very different inclinations of the same aspect of existence. If the Jewish people’s love of itself becomes too particularistic, then it becomes the Evil Inclination and it must die, in order to make way for a greater, more universal messianic principle.

Rav Shagar identifies the Zionism of 2005, and I would say much of today’s Zionism as well, with overly particularistic self-love. We must therefore move past it towards a messianism that is not about the Jews but about all people; global, universal redemption.

Rabbi Schwartz: I like how Rav Shagar’s vision of post Zionism is not about negating Israel, but about developing an Israel that includes a love for the entire world. Can I be passionate about Zionism in a way that motivates me to be sensitive to non-Jews who live in the land of Israel? Can I be dedicated to developing a Jewish State while also making room for people who practice other religions in this country? These are the beginnings of a universal Zionism.

I also like how Rav Shagar’s universal Zionism and universal redemption is both a new and ancient Jewish idea. Indeed, we can hear the echo of Rav Shagar’s post Zionism, universal Israel vision in the words of the prophet Yeshayahu:

God has said to me, I have a greater task for you, my servant. Not only will you restore to greatness the people of Israel who have survived, but I will also make you a light to the nations – so that all the world may be saved’ (Yeshayhu 49:6).

Personal Redemption

Rabbi Schwartz: Levi, I want to end this chapter by discussing with you the second part of post Zionism that you mentioned above. Rav Shagar’s post Zionism is not only about universal redemption but also (and mainly) about individual and personal redemption. Rav Shagar writes:

‘My perspective on redemption is a personal redemption. This seems to me to be no less important than the collective redemption. As it is written, ‘Draw near to my soul, redeem it’ (Tehilim 69:19). At the end of the day, the true expression of redemption is the individual. Therefore, the redemption of the Torah, the redemption of those who study Torah – the spiritual redemption – seems to me to be as real and significant as the political and collective redemption.17

What does Rav Shagar mean by a personal redemption? What would it mean to embrace a Zionism that focuses on individual meaning?

Levi Morrow: Well, as with what you called Rosenzweig’s ‘Zionism of Longing,’ I would point out that the term ‘Zionism’ doesn’t really apply here. ‘Zionism’ is essentially about the relation of the Jewish people as a collective to the land of Israel, a relation that for Religious Zionism is redemptive. When Rav Shagar says that Religious Zionism needs to focus on individual redemption rather than collective redemption, that is essentially a turn away from what we typically consider ‘Zionism,’ toward other pursuits.

However, in a note on a Hanukkah derashah about religion and state, Rav Shagar suggests that political redemption should be seen as a means to individual redemption. So this really would seem to push for a ‘personal Zionism’ of sorts. What Rav Shagar seems to mean by this, there and in other essays, is the way that the Religious Zionist community, in Israel and beyond, has renewed the study of Torah. Torah study has become much more connected to real life, both through historical study of Jewish texts and their contexts, and through an emphasis on personal meaning and relevant.

If Zionism was an attempt to return the Jewish people to history, then this might be seen as the return of Torah to history. Individual redemption happens through pursuit of the divine Torah, within context of the collective redemption within human history.

Rabbi Schwartz: Whatever you call it, personal redemption, personal Zionism, or post Zionism, what is clear to Rav Shagar is that we have entered into a new and exciting phase of Zionism. He writes:

There has been a change in the yeshiva world. Some yeshivot spend much more of their time concentrated on prayer, studying chasidut, kabbalah, and niggunim of Carlibach. The slogan, ‘Torat Ertez Yisrael,’ which used to be connected to anything that had courage to innovative in learning Torah, has transformed into ‘Chasidut Eretz Yisrael’.18

In his own life, Rav Shagar saw young religious Zionists focusing less on nationalism and politics, and more on individual meaning – mysticism, chassidut, yoga, and meditation. In one piece, Rav Shagar predicts that this new more mystical and personal religious Zionism will eventually lead to a new spiritual movement similar to the Baal Shem Tov’s revolutionary chassidic movement.

It is clear to me that even though this trend of mysticism amongst the youth of religious Zionism is still in its infant stages… nevertheless, it has a great future. I can foresee in the not so distant future a great explosion of spirituality that is no less powerful and meaningful than the explosion of Chasidut in the time period of the Baal Shem Tov and his students.19

And who will be the founder of this new Israeli Chassidut movement? There are some people who say that it is none other than Rav Shagar himself who is behind this new and exciting spiritual movement within religious Zionism. Indeed, Rav Shagar was one of the first rabbis and Rosh Yeshivot to introduce and encourage the study of Rebbe Nachman and other spiritual writings into the world of religious Zionism. His students went on to establish some of the most influential religious Zionist institutions in Israel (Mekor Chaim – a spiritual focused high school, Maaleh – a religious film school, Otniel – a mystical and chassidic focused Yeshiva, and of course Siach Yitzchak, a philosophical and mystical Yeshiva which Rav Shagar himself founded).

While Rav Shagar says that he has great belief in this new phase of spirituality within the State of Israel, nonetheless, he acknowledges that he does not know exactly how it will take place.

I do not know whether there will rise up a new Baal Shem Tov, or if the renewal of Chasidut will be a collective movement; I also don’t know which form it will take. Nevertheless, it is my great belief that it will be no less meaningful and important than the previous movement of Chasidut.20

What is clear to Rav Shagar is this: the physical, natural and political Zionism of Rav Kook must be combined with the spiritual, miraculous and individual focused Zionism of Rebbe Nachman. In Rav Shagar’s eyes, Rebbe Nachman is the hero of this new and exciting phrase of post Zionism.

The founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl ended his famous book ‘Altneuland’ with the following famous words, ‘If you will it, then it is no dream.’ What is Rav Shagar’s post Zionistic dream? It is not a political dream, but a spiritual dream. It is not a national goal, but a personal goal. Mysticism, individual meaning, post modernism, universal ethics – all of these are elements of Rav Shagar vision. These are Rav Shagar’s own words describing his dream:

What will the citizens do in a State of Israel when they do not need to wake up in the morning to go to work, who are not involved in politics and other news items? People will spend their days immersed in thoughts about God, experiencing God (Daat Hashem), divine meditation, if you will.21


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