The Revolution of Chassidut in Religious Zionism
BY DR. NETANEL FISHER
20 years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a Religious Zionist-Chassidic event; Chassidut was seen as being too individualistic and Charedi. Today, large annual events like the Tzamah concert are symbolic of a major shift, as the Religious Zionist community has adopted many of the ideals of Chassidut. At the same time, Rav Kook has lost some of his centrality in the community, with the spiritual void of many now being filled by Rav Nachman. How did this shift happen, and what are its consequences?
On the 19th of Kislev each year, there is a massive concert called Tzamah held in Binyanei Ha’uma in Yerushalayim. It is arranged by Chabad to celebrate their “Chag HaGeulah,” the day the first Lubavitcher Rebbe was freed from jail in 1798. I booked my tickets months in advance as the concert, which features Ishay Ribo, Eviatar Banai and other famous singers, is always sold out. But the people buying the tickets are not only the Chabad Chassidim, but knitted-kippah-wearing Jews like me. Thousands of Religious Zionist Jews attend the event, dancing and singing to the tunes of Chabad.
In recent years, the Religious Zionist community has adopted many aspects of Chassidut. This is a positive phenomenon, but there are two sides to every coin, and I worry whether our community now prioritizes the individual’s spiritual journey at the expense of a commitment to the needs of Am Yisrael.
20 years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a Religious Zionist-Chassidic event; Chassidut was seen as being too individualistic and Chareidi. Chassidut was barely studied in the mainstream of Religious Zionism. The teachings of Rav Kook, “HaRav”, formed the spiritual core of the Religious Zionist yeshivot, Bnei Akiva seminars, and the words of Torah we heard in our synagogues. On every yeshivah student’s table was the “Shas HaLavan” (the “White Talmud”), the complete writings of Rav Kook in their distinctive white binding. As Religious Zionist students, we studied and grappled with questions about building up Am Yisrael, how to repair an imperfect world, our relationship to secularism and above all – we were imbued with an absolute and steadfast commitment to building our state, our land, and our people.
It was into this milieu that I arrived at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav as a young student in the 90s. I arrived at Religious Zionism’s flagship yeshivah with excitement and anticipation, but to my surprise, after a few months I felt that my soul was yearning for something else. I just couldn’t keep listening to classes about Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.
“Wait, what about me?” I said to myself. “Where do I fit into this big picture?” I felt confused, and gradually I stopped going to most of the classes on Jewish thought, except for those given by Rabbi Elisha Vishlitzki, where we spoke openly about character development (though that, too, with a Kookian bent).
I then happened to hear that Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known as Rav Shagar, was giving classes in Chassidut at a nearby local shul. I attended with a group of “underground” students from Merkaz, and Rav Shagar opened up the gates of Chassidut for us. For the first time, I opened the Tanya, Rav Nachman and the Zohar, and I felt them quench the thirst of my soul. I felt that this Torah spoke to me; it was a Torah that spoke to the individual and to the perfection of the internal world within each person. I felt the lights, the Orot – not the Orot of Rav Kook, but the Orot of Chassidut. I could feel that I was part of a shift within the Religious Zionist community, that a group of us were moving away from the classic nationalistic outlook we had grown up with to a more individualistic spiritual world.
Within a short period of time, I switched to Yeshivat Otniel, which was one of the leaders of the Chassidic revolution in Religious Zionism, a revolution that can now be seen in many parts of our community. The “White Talmud” of Rav Kook has been replaced by the brown covers of the Chassidic sefarim. Carlebach tunes have taken over within our shuls. One is more likely to hear the teachings of the Sfat Emet or Netivot Shalom in a derasha in shul than the Torah of Rav Kook. There is even a movement among the “hilltop youth”, the fringes of Religious Zionism, that sees themselves as “post-Religious Zionist”, led by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg.
Over the last few years, I have begun to question this Chassidic revolution in our community. Have we lost something by replacing Rav Kook with Rav Nachman? In our commitment to our personal spiritual quests, have we lost something of our commitment to the broader community of Am Yisrael?
What are the core ideals that our children are now growing up with? I feel confident today that the religious education system incorporates a lot about personal growth and spirituality. But will the students of today grow up with the sense of commitment to Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael that we grew up with? Does anyone still talk in terms of those ideals and ideology any more?
The Religious Zionist community is still a warm, caring community with an admirable sense of mutual responsibility. However, I think the Kookian revolutionary spirit is being replaced by the existentialism of Breslov, and I believe it has reduced our desire to help the broader community. Exacerbating the problem, the Religious Zionist community has simultaneously become more bourgeoisie and suburban, which has caused us to focus more on ourselves than on others.
I don’t want to return to the Religious Zionism of 20–30 years ago. My soul yearns for the songs and dancing of Tzamah. But my soul also yearns for the collective spirit of Rav Kook. Is anyone else yearning for the Torah of both the individual and the nation? In the years ahead, will anyone still be teaching the Torah of Rav Kook?
● This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yediot Achronot.
Dr. Netanel Fisher is Head of School of Public Administration, Governance and Law at the Academic Center for Law and Science (Sha’arei Mishpat) in Hod Hasharon.