There is a trend of Americans rabbis going to Israel for a few weeks and upon return exclaiming: “how come we don’t have a Rav Shagar world here? Think of what our educational institutes would look like.” They imagine that Religious Zionist institutions, rabbis and youth are following Rav Shagar. It is somewhat akin to an Israel visiting Drisha, Mechon Hadar, and the 92nd St Y, then proclaiming that the lectures he heard are what is being preached by the RCA-OU. In actually, one of the leading intellectual influence of the Religious Zionist world is Rabbi Eli (Eliezer) Sadan (b. 1948) the architect of the religious military preparatory programs, Bnai David, which in turn became a model for the others. There are many other important figures including the heads of the yeshivot. I am offering this blog post as somewhat of corrective. (I will correct any errors as they are pointed out.)
In 1988 , Rabbi Eli Sadan together with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein set up the first pre-military preparatory program, Bnei David in the community of Eli Shvat Shomron , which encouraging them to serve in combat units and officers. Rather than studying Talmud at a Hesder Yeshiva or going straight to the army, the yearlong program in the preparatory program get the the HS graduates for success in the army and a religious Zionism world view.
Sadan was a paratrooper and then studied for 15 years at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva , where he studied for 15 years under Zvi Yehuda Kook and Rabbi Zvi Israel Tau. His worldview is basically part of the world of the Yeshivot Hakav, that avoid secular culture, avoid academics, and would reject everything the liberal Orthodoxy of Israel represents. This yeshiva world has been aggressive in the placement of their graduates and the average school principal or teacher is a product of his worldview.
More significantly, the graduates of the preparatory programs have entered in large numbers the military and command echelons of the Israeli government including the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad Intelligence Agency, the ISA (Israel Security Agency – Shin Bet) and the State Prosecutor’s Office. This ideology has become part and parcel of the current Israeli leadership
Rabbi Eli Sadan major work is His Hands Remained Steady (2001, reprinted in a new edition 2013) [Hebrew] is an essential book to understand todays religious Zionist work. A translation is a desideratum. His work is easy to digest and quite lucid.
I am summarizing the book to let my American readers understand the backdrop against which Rav Shagar and all the New Religious Zionists are working. I am not interested in discussing the political implications of this work, which are more significant than can be imagined. Please do not start sending me emails of your political views. I am interested in his view of Judaism.
The main purpose of Sadan’s preparatory program and of his teaching is to mediate the tension between the ideal Torah view and the requirements of the State, the government and the army (described here in a prior post by Elisheva Rosman-Stollman). To do this, Sadan invests the government and the army with messianic import as the realistic arm by which God’s providence takes place, similar to the kings in the Bible. The two other related goals is to apply the messianic teachings of Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook to the politics of the last 25 years as well as decrying the there media, liberals, the arts, and academic as entirely false and the enemy of religious Zionism.
In his vision, there is never a heresy in the authority of the state. Religion and Torah scholars define democracy. Unlike like Rabbi Tau who teaches that one can disobey orders. for Rav Sadan, one is not to disobey orders. In Rav Sadan’s conceptualiztion, the basic values of secularism and non-Merkaz Torah are the individualism of self-realization and fulfillment of personal desires. (This would condemn Rav Shagar.) In contrast, the ideal Religious Zionist knows they are part of a collective messianic destiny.
The approach has come into the news recently with their condemnation of the LGBT community, his attacks on accuses the army’s Education Corps as trying to “re-educate” religious soldiers, and with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s condemnation of women in the army. On a broader level, some critics feel that his disciples are attempting to create a religious army and establish a halachic state.
Rav Dreyfus, the head of Yeshivat Siah Yitzhak carrying on Rav Shagar’s legacy, stated in an offhand biting comment that most Religious Zionist Jews are only interested in the ideas of Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and not those of Rav Shagar. In 2016, Bennett awarded Rav Eli Sadan the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievements. The summary of the book below will explain his importance and the connections.
The most important chapter is chapter four where he defines democracy as the collective work of the Jewish people to realize the messianic vision. He is against any form of minority rights, civil rights or liberal democratic principles. Additionally, since the government is like the kings of ancient Israel, he affirms Divine right of Prime Minister and he thinks the military police advance humanity. The message is that the current state is the Divine presence on earth and we have to study the current events through Torah eyes. This is a very strong exceptionalism outside of all secular and liberal understandings of politics and in which everything in the world and in Israel revolves around religious Zionism.
It is worth comparing this pre-millennial dispensation model to the Evangelical versions in the United States or the anti-liberal democratic Muslim thinkers. How does this compare to American dominionists like pastor Hagee or Islamic democrats like Yusef Al-Qaradawi. My own interest is what does this make of the Jewish religion? Torah study, prayer, ethics, and mizvot take a back burner to realizing the millinarian vision. One should compare this Torah to other recent formulations of Torah, either spiritual or intellectual conceptual.
His Hands Remained Steady
Rabbi Eli Sadan major work is His Hands Remained Steady (2001, reprinted in a new edition 2013) is a ten-chapter book that includes his own ideas, expositions of the classic positions of Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and Rav Tau, and question and answers on contemporary issues. One can hear in the background the original setting as lectures to eighteen year olds. One should note that the Hebrew word Emunah is translated as steadiness (as in Exodus 17:12), not faith, belief, or trustworthiness. The goal is to remain steady in the messianic vision. I acknowledge again that this book is quite political but my interest is in its pre-millennial dispensations of current event and its vision of Torah. I apologize in advance to all those will offended by reading this ideology, but it should be better known.
Chapter One is an educational vision on the importance of understanding our Messianic age; we need to study inner process of history as known through the writing of Rabbbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, Maharal, and the forged Kol HaTor ascribed to the students of the Vilna Gaon. We have to devote ourselves to studying this order of redemption and then to actually sense it in our lives. We also need to see where current events fit into this pre-millennial dispensation scheme. Once we know the meaning of history, then we respond without vigilante actions or personal overstepping of the state, we respond with nerves of steel, and with a self-sacrifice for the entire people of Israel. You will notice how far this agenda is from those of the past that stressed Talmud, halakhah or Jewish thought.
Chapter Two is on loving every Jew. But there is a strong paternal and judgmental sense of the need to love them even if they go to movies, watch TV, and go to theater, all of which destroy and make their souls impure. The removal of these cultural deviations is as important for our messianic future as settlement and security. Nevertheless, the non-religious are our brothers in building the state even if they are leftists, especially since many of them have left have done good things for the state at earlier points in their lives.
In this chapter, he also sets out that baseless hatred destroyed the Second Temple, it was not destroyed because the Romans defeated the Jews militarily. Our success today is through all working together- religious and secular. When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked for Yavneh and her sages, he was not a pacifist or accepting political realism as often preached, rather he knew the baseless hatred of brothers was going to lead to the downfall of the Temple.
The Religious Zionists are being falsely accused as an act of baseless hatred of killing Prime Minister Rabin, but that was a political, not a religious, act. Besides, Oslo was terrible.
Finally, chapter two brings up a theme that reoccurs often in the book that all Arabs and all Palestinians are terrorists who teach their children to be martyrs. They are entirely outside of the State of Israel, which is only for Jews as their messianic destiny. (For more on this see later chapters, especially on what he calls democracy.) He does acknowledge that we all know fine Arabs who are decent people in the sense of “some of my best workers are wonderful Arabs.” Nevertheless, his negative generalizations stand in his mind.
The Third Chapter is on the ideological battle his students will face. For Sadan, there is no freedom of thought in Israel because the left controls everything. Liberal pluralism is entirely wrong and nonsense. We need truth and justice of the Torah to be stressed in the public sphere. Pluralism is not tolerance but against truth and the Torah. For example, didn’t Bibi Netanyahu’s “Terrorism: How the West Can Win” 1986 already prove that all Palestinians are terrorists but this truth does not matter to the Israeli pluralists and the media who ignore the truth. Bibi’s book becomes part of the secrets of the redemption.
Chapter Four is the major innovation of the book and the most theoretical chapter offering his view of politics and democracy. I would assign this chapter to a class to understand his views. For Sadan, democracy means partnership (shutafut), a partnership of Jews only. For him, the original meaning of democracy of the Greeks was only a polis of Greek citizens they excluded others. Fpr Sadan, Jewish Israelis don’t and should not accept the liberal democracy of minority rights at all. Nor any other Western ideas of democracy. Rather for us, democracy means that since the coming to be of the Jews as a political nation in 1948, we are to work as one nation, a partnership of all Jews and we will agree to work out of differences by political means despite our differences. We are the nation of Jews as a state and no longer just the Jewish people.
This is where Sadan makes effective use of questions and answers.
Question: But isn’t much of our agenda religious coercion?
Answer: Absolutely not! Coercion is only when you throw rocks at car on Shabbat but if we decide as a people that a law is needed as a nation for the nation then it is not coercion. Liberals think that there should be civil marriage to avoid coercion but it would break up the nation with potential mamzerim and non-Jews. Hence, is not coercion because the law is needed or else it would break up the nation, the partnership. Even though the Knesset has atheists and anti-religious members they are all nevertheless working for the Jewish people and we listen.
The liberal world would claim such a law is not moral because it violates individual rights to make decisions but we as Religious Zionists have no interest or concern with being an American style democracy. We are a democracy only in the sense that we collectively work out the destiny of the Jewish people as a collective.
In fact, Western democracy is really religious coercion because I am put upon and have to tolerate decisions against my beliefs. In contrast, our democracy is working out the best for the people and they should be strong and accept it.
Question: Should we have a king? Answer: This is a debate of Maimonides and Abarbanel, but we restore a king only if and when the people want it and they do not want it yet.
There is no objective media. They are biased against religious Zionism. The left stirs up the other nations against us. The media supports our worst enemies. Their ideas are dead. They are like the woman in the book of Kings whose baby died and claims the others baby as her own.
Question: What do we do if the Torah contradicts the state? Answer: The ethics of the Torah comes first, that is why the prophets often rebuked the king.
Chapter Five is on the need to learn Emunah meaning steadiness. We need to see clearly the stages of the unfolding of redemption from the 16th century to today, and how our politics is miraculous.
Question: Aren’t we mixing religious mysticism with topics that should be approached rationally and as human events? Saying the “dawn of the messianic age” make me worry!
Answer: The concept “dawn of the messianic age” is not mystical or nebulous but is exactly defined. It is the removal of our subjugation and living as a free people. It started as a miracle in 1948 but is now a natural process. We follow a natural political process. When we say that this is the dawn of the messianic age it is to not evaluate the state now as a messianic state, rather it is on steady on how it will be in the future. You cannot call the prophets of Herzl mystical. They were rational and so is our vision. (150)
Chapter Six is on the holiness of the State. The building of the state is a mizvah of Torah. The centrality of inheriting the land is the pillar of the Torah. Statements in the Bible such as being a “nation of priests” or “one nation” and all other statements are about nation building. The whole Torah and its very essence is about state building. The State of Israel is God’s presence on earth.
State building is a supernal holiness in the eyes of all the nations. It is also a rebuke to the Christians who stole our scripture and gave it a different meaning based on the claim that God left the Jews. Everyone in the world will see how God keeps his promise to return the Jews to the land. There is an inner sublime holiness to the state guided by the spirit of God. Yet we still see its human faults.
Question: But isn’t Israel a secular state with secular leaders, how is it divine? How do we work with secular if our goal is holiness and the presence of God’s spirit?
Answer: It still has Torah values, since (1) Most even secular Jews want Jewish values (He quotes newspaper surveys to prove this.) (2) We are confident that in time everyone will return to religious observance (3) Their inner soul and their decisions are part of the divine plan for the coming to be of the state even if they don’t consciously know it.
Question: But arent security, economics, health, transportation and other governmental departments secular realms and you make them sacred? Maybe we should separate the holy from the secular?
Answer: This is true about every other nation but Israel, which is not to be treated like other nations like France or the USA. We are not a state in the Western liberal sense. We are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests living according to a divine promise. We don’t want to rule others either by Jihad or religious mission, like other nations, but we just want the fulfillment of the biblical promise to the patriarchs. We are the unfolding of the messianic age. I even dress for a religious holiday on election day because I rejoice in our becoming a nation.
Chapter Seven is the importance of honoring the State in all its branches as fulfilling the Biblical promise. Responsibility toward maintaining the public sphere is holiness. “The military police advance humanity” because they create a presence of the state. Providence is shown in through the natural workings of government.
Chapter Eight is on the possibility of tensions between religious Zionism and the State. He answers that there are not any tensions if everyone is working for the collective. The Prime minister should be treated as an angel of God; he is like a king of ancient Israel given by God. There is a divine right of prime Ministers as God’s chosen leader. We are not to change what most people want. We need to pray for the success of the Prime Minister.
Chapter Nine presents the need for protest when governments go against God’s will and the need for rabbis to act as prophets to stand up to the Prime Minister the way the prophets stood up to the Biblical Kings. Sadan does not go into details.
Chapter Ten is the capstone of the book on how redemption is making itself manifest. He considers the use of rationalism as limited to what is now seen in the country, but emunah –steadfastness is the firm knowledge of the future, an optimism that the vision will be realized.. We believe in evolution not just in the physical realm but also in the realm of the spirit and the meaning of life. For us the evolution is the Jewish national revival to create a Jewish state. The state building is an inner redemption by natural means.
All of humanity will be raised by means of the Jewish nation. We are approaching the end of history when God will be revealed to the world in the nation of Israel.
We should not hasten the redemption and take it into our own hands by individual action outside the government. The Jewish underground in the 1980’s of Gush Emunim did not fully recognize the importance of the State. One should not go against the state because (1) It is easier to break than to build, the state army and the concept of citizenship cannot be broken. (2) When you break things, you also destroy the positive forces. (3) You are not truly grappling with the problematic and impure when you destroy rather than raising it. (4) We don’t want anarchy.
Redemption is a natural process, arising from free will. When we do what is right, God will help us.
Question: Is Zionism faith or rational?
Answer: The authors Amnon Rubinstein, Gadi Taub, and long ago Yehoshafat Harkavi all wrote books about the Settler’s movement and Gush Emunim in which they each portrayed religious Zionism as irrational dreamers and a religious faith. They all wrote that the settlements are against rationality, against security and against what the state needs. They presented the settlers as chasing an illusion of messianic mysticism.
However, everything they say is complete nonsense. The Settlers are entirely rational. The country was founded with Divine guidance and miracles. We are destroyed as a nation if we do not see this country as an unfolding of redemption.
Question: Doesn’t the messianic vision make us do immoral acts and then legitimates these actions in the name of a higher holiness. Aren’t we like radical Islam?
Answer: This is also nonsense. This question is only from a lack of understanding. Yigal Amir was political and Baruch Goldstein was worried about attacks against Jews. You cant compare us to other religions, in that, we are all ethics, love, compassion, justice and uprightness. They In contrast are crusades, inquisition, programs, and Holocaust. The entire process of redemption is the victory of the good over the bad.