Of Priorities and Perspective: Land for Peace in the Thought of Religious Zionist Thinkers

In the aftermath of the Baruch Goldstein massacre,[1] Rabbi Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Arba and rosh yeshiva of its hesder yeshiva, eulogized Goldstein in front of the beit midrash of the yeshiva. This eulogy horrified Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and despite his general tendency to not interfere with the practices of other hesder yeshivot, he felt compelled to protest against this act and did so via an open letter to Rabbi Lior. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s letter elicited a number of sharp responses. The most jarring response was a joint letter penned by Rabbis Avraham Kurzweil and Shmuel Haber, the roshei yeshiva of Yeshivat Karnei Shomron. They argued that despite Rabbi Lichtenstein’s sincere intentions, his opinion should be entirely ignored due to his perceived support for the peace process.

This shocking correspondence poignantly illustrates the deep divides in the Religious Zionist world regarding the peace process. As Rabbi Yair Kahn put it:

In no area were the disagreements as intense and impassioned as those relating to the “question of Erets Yisrael” – the debate regarding the future of the territories which Israel had gained as a result of the 1967 war.[2]

The divides are primarily due to the variety of sensitive issues related to the peace process which include halakhic, hashkafic, and security concerns. These points of contention were brought to the forefront during Israel’s return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, the Oslo Accords, the Wye River Memorandum, and especially during the disengagement from Gaza. A close examination of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s, and Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s approaches to territorial compromise will serve to elucidate the nuances of the land-for-peace perspective as well as identify critical elements of their broader Zionist ideologies.

Historical Background

Immediately following its victory in the 1948 War of Independence, the new state found itself surrounded by enemy countries. After the 1967 war, Israel gained possession of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other territories from the states that surrounded them. A wide variety of interactions with these enemy states took place in Israel’s ensuing history. In 1982 Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, which uprooted the Jewish community of Yamit and other settlements and in 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed, which were intended to make Israel give land to the Palestinian Authority so they could have a Palestinian state. Most recently, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, thereby uprooting a number of Israeli settlements. These events caused much tension and strife in the Religious Zionist world both in Israel and worldwide.

Points of Contention

Broadly speaking, the critics of the land for peace agreements raised three different issues with the plans. The first issue raised was a halakhic issue with territorial compromise, namely, whether it is prohibited to give up land in Israel in any circumstance. Those who believe that giving up land for security reasons is prohibited often quote R. Yisrael Babad, author of the Minchat Chinuch, who views the protection of the land of Israel as a milchemet mitzvah [a war by commandment] and considers death as an inevitability in the course of battle.[3] Yet, even assuming that giving up land is not inherently prohibited, some contend a separate prohibition of pikuach nefesh [saving a life] applies because ceding land to Palestinians or other groups would endanger the lives of Israelis.

Perhaps one of the strongest articulations of this approach came from a group of American rabbis, namely Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Rabbi Moses Tendler, and Rabbi Hershel Reichman. They argued that the Wye River Memorandum was a violation of halakha. They wrote it “is a life-threatening danger to all residents of Israel and presents a real danger to many Jewish settlements that would be surrounded by an enemy authority. Therefore, we have determined that it is prohibited by Jewish law to participate in this tragic and terrible agreement. It is prohibited by Jewish law for it to be ratified by the Israeli government.”[4] Prominent Messianic Religious Zionist rabbis expressed similar opinions as well.[5]

Such sentiments led extremist Yigal Amir to consider Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a halakhically-categorized rodef [pursuer] and therefore, Amir believed himself licensed to kill the Prime Minister. In the same vein, during the Gaza disengagement, various important Religious Zionist Rabbis ruled that soldiers should disobey orders to evacuate Gaza, particularly the Jewish portion of Gush Katif.[6] Other efforts, including protests and establishing settlements, were among the tactics used to try to prevent territorial compromise.

Hashkafic Issues

The second set of issues may be characterized as hashkafic issues. These objections do not presuppose any inherent halakhic issue with territorial compromise, but consider it to be against Jewish values and moral priorities. One issue raised is the educational message implicit in the willingness to give away land of Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Hanan Porat, a famous Gush Emunim activist, described Rabbi Amital’s willingness to compromise on areas in the West Bank and Gaza as “an educational disaster.”[7] Presumably Rabbi Porat meant that giving back parts of the Land of Israel indicates a lack of appreciation for the land.

There are two other philosophical issues with territorial compromise which are in direct conflict with the values of Messianic Religious Zionism and “thus provoked a theological crisis for followers of Mercaz Harav’s philosophy.”[8] This group believes they are following the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Y. Kook and have claimed that those who support territorial compromises go against Rav Avraham Y. Kook’s entire worldview.[9] As Rabbi Kahn describes:

For the Mercaz Harav school of Religious Zionism, the imperative to preserve the integrity of the entire Land of Israel was not only a political viewpoint, but the very cornerstone of Religious Zionist thought.[10]

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Rabbi Avraham Y. Kook as well as a primary disciple, strongly believed that the founding of the State of Israel and conquest of the land is reishit tsemihat geulateinu, the flowerings of the Messianic redemption.[11] This presented the Merkaz HaRav community with a tremendous dilemma: how could the founding and conquest of the State of Israel be the flowering of our redemption if Israel was giving back land and thereby seemingly taking steps backwards?[12]

The second hashkafic issue is related to the supreme importance ascribed to the Land of Israel and its holiness. There were rabbis who believed that conquest of Eretz Yisrael superseded all other mitzvot. Since the Land and its inherent holiness were of the utmost value to this group, it was implausible that the direction of the State of Israel would stray from that value.[13] The Six-Day War was a monumental victory for this group. A touching story told by Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun illustrates this camp’s feelings towards all areas of Eretz Yisrael. R. Bin Nun recounts that Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, in a sermon just prior to the Six-Day war, related that in 1947 when the UN Partition Plan was announced, he was not able to join in with the rest of Am Yisrael in celebration. Rabbi Bin Nun quotes Rav Kook as saying “I sat alone, and burdened. In those first hours I couldn’t make my peace with what had happened, with the terrible news that the word of God in the book of Prophets had now been fulfilled: ‘They divided my land!’” Then Rav Kook suddenly cried out: “Where is our Hebron? Have we forgotten it? And where is our Shechem- have we forgotten it? And where is the other bank of the Jordan River? Where is every clod of earth? Every piece of God’s Land? Do we have the right to cede even a centimeter of it? God forbid!”[14] This story demonstrates the love and deep connection towards Eretz Yisrael so passionately felt by the leader of this community as well as what it would mean to regain possession of these areas.

Professor Motti Inbari, in his book Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises, addresses how this community dealt with these issues. He summarizes their basic approach to Eretz Yisrael as follows:

Merkaz Harav followers… emphasizing two key concepts: the holiness of the Land of Israel and the holiness of the State of Israel. According to the junior Kook, the Land of Israel - comprised of land within the 1948 borders, the territories acquired in 1967, and even Transjordan - is one unit, a complete organic entity imbued with its own will and holiness. This entity is connected and united with the entire Jewish people- present, past, and future - so that the people and the land are in complete oneness. Therefore no one has a right to give away a part of the land.[15]

For the Messianic Religious Zionists, their beliefs that the establishment of the State of Israel is reishit tsemihat geulateinu and that both the conquest and possession of all of the Land of Israel preempt other mitzvot, led them to strongly protest any type of territorial compromises and even consider it sacrilege.

Pragmatic Objections

Finally, the third type of objections to territorial compromises are pragmatic objections. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein puts it: “There are certain people who are opposed to the peace process because they feel that it is counterproductive. These people believe that territorial compromise will not bring to peace, but rather to the opposite, God forbid. This approach, opposes this process on strategic grounds.”[16] Implicitly, this group that Rabbi Lichtenstein describes makes two assumptions. The first is that they are capable of gauging the viability of peace agreements. Secondly, they believe that their ability to assess what is strategically most viable for the State of Israel grants them the right to vigorously protest and oppose the government’s actions.

A Bedieved Situation

Prior to describing the side that is not in principle against territorial compromise, a prefatory note is in order. Regardless of whether one supports territorial compromise, it is a sad situation and certainly not ideal for either side. Mori-verabi Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig articulates this point in an essay published just prior to the disengagement:

We now stand at a painful crossroads as the Israeli government prepares to implement its controversial “Disengagement” policy, ceding sovereignty not merely over real estate but a part of the heritage of Klal Yisrael… Irrespective of one’s ultimate stance on the halakhic, military, and political validity of the “hitnatkut” decision, these are not only days of crisis and uncertainty but also of profound sadness and loss as thousands of Jewish families stand to be uprooted and as Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael stands to be diminished.[17]

Despite differing nuances in opinion, the comments of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Amital are to be understood within this framework.[18]

Halakhic Issues

In a rare instance of intervening in Israeli affairs, Rabbi Soloveitchik made a dramatic pronouncement in his 1967 teshuva drasha.[19] He proclaimed:

In my opinion, the greatest deliverance, and the greatest miracle, is simply that He saved the population of Israel from total annihilation. I want you to understand, I give praise and thanks to the Ribono Shel Olam for liberating the Kotel Hamaarovi [Western Wall] and for liberating and for removing all Eretz Yisrael from the Arabs, so that it now belongs to us. But I don’t need to rule whether we should give the West Bank back to the Arabs or not to give the West Bank to the Arabs: we Rabbis should not be involved in decisions regarding the safety and security of the population. These are not merely Halakhic rulings: these decisions are a matter of pikuach nefesh for the entire population. And if the government were to rule that the safety of the population requires that specific territories must be returned, whether I issue a halakhic ruling or not, their decision is the deciding factor. If pikuach nefesh supersedes all other mitzvos, it supersedes all prohibitions of the Torah, especially pikuach nefesh of the yishuv [settlement] in Eretz Yisrael. It is not a topic appropriate for which Rabbis should release statements or for Rabbinical conferences.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s main argument against those who claim it is halakhically improper to give away land is that pikuach nefesh preempts these other mitzvot.[20] In a later correspondence, R. Soloveitchik reiterated his position:

All decisions regarding the State’s borders must come from the security experts based on considerations of statesmanship, for everything is dependent on one factor: the welfare of the people dwelling in Zion and the protection of their lives.[21]

Implicit in this line of reasoning is that it only applies when it is assumed that lives will actually be saved. Thus, as Rabbi Shalom Carmy describes, “the Rav did not endorse any particular peace plan then and would not have presumed to judge later proposals.”[22] Rather, the Rav’s point is simply that these decisions should be put in the hands of security experts. Rabbi Lichtenstein similarly believed in this notion: “Rav Lichtenstein subscribed to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view that territorial compromise in the land of Israel, however painful–he compared it to amputating a limb to save a life–is permissible for the sake of peace.”[23]

Hashkafic Issues

In terms of the hashkafic issues at play, a guiding quote by Rabbi Lichtenstein establishes what he believed Am Yisrael’s priorities should be. He writes, “It is not that we love the Eretz Yisrael less, it is that we love Am Yisrael more.”[24] Rabbi Yehuda Amital concurred with him on this point. In an interview with the newspaper Hazofe, he argued for what he believed to be the appropriate hierarchy of values, “calling for the priority of the people of Israel over the Land of Israel. ‘If God forbid, I would one day have to answer the question of which is preferable, more people or more land, I would answer without hesitation: more people.’”[25] In both their perspective and the Rav’s, the people of Israel are always more important than the Land of Israel and public policy should be guided by this hierarchy of values.

In terms of the second hashkafic issue of reishit tsemihat geulateinu, Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein held strong opinions on the matter. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach is presented by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler as a “strong belief that God’s hand was manifest in the founding of the State of Israel. Yet the fact of yad Hashem being present in Israel’s creation does not necessarily mean that the State of Israel is the first flowering of our redemption.”[26] Moreover, R. Nathaniel Helfgot describes that the Rav’s perspective contained “no messianic undertones… and the value of the State of Israel was seen in instrumental terms.”[27] Similarly, Rabbi Lichtenstein is described as “having long expressed his skepticism about viewing the state as the beginning of redemption.”[28] Thus Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein have no concern with territorial compromise conflicting with the notion that the State of Israel is reishit tsemihat geulateinu as they did not believe in that themselves.

Practical Issues

Furthermore, with regard to the practical concerns about territorial compromise, the stance of those who are not against it in principle is summed up by a quote from R. Carmy: “The decisions should be made, not by rabbis but experts in the field, just as regarding mortal questions of health we rely on physicians.”[29] Thus, while this camp is also concerned with the practical dangers of ceding territory, they argue that it is appropriate to leave these questions to the experts and not to armchair politicians.

Relationship to Their Broader Philosophy of Zionism

The responses of Rabbis Soloveitchik, Lichtenstein, and Amital reflect broader messages that are key to understanding their approaches to the State of Israel. As can be gleaned from the Rav’s 1967 teshuva drasha (quoted above), the Rav’s perspective on the significance of the State of Israel was not just that people could live there and feel sanctified because of the land. For the Rav, the significance of Eretz Yisrael is not the kedushat haaretz [sanctity of the Land] alone, but the opportunities having the State of Israel creates for the Jewish people. Rabbi Ziegler neatly describes this point by writing that “he does not perceive any inherent value in sovereignty, other than fulfilling the specific mitzvah of settlement, nor does he assign any inherent spiritual value to the State, seeing it rather as a base from which to attain other objectives.”[30] Having the State is not enough for the Rav, but rather it needs to provide opportunities for the advancement of Am Yisrael. The same can be said of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s philosophy, although he “discerns in Israel the possibility of leading a more organic and integrated existence.”[31]

Finally, a value that Rabbis Soloveitchik, Lichtenstein, and Amital consider to be of the utmost importance is the value of real peace. This value is a distinguishing factor between their camp and the Messianic Religious Zionist camp and is articulated by Rabbi Lichtenstein in one of his sermons:

It is important to appreciate the significance of this value. Very often, people tend to neglect the significant nature that shalom [peace] plays within Judaism, and it is important to keep this in mind. In light of the current state of affairs here in Israel, it is important to remember that ultimately peace is a very high ideal… It is important to appreciate at least the theoretical significance of peace, even if not the practical application to our day. In…order to achieve our goals as a nation, the Jewish people must aim toward peace as a central goal. This is true for all of the above-reasons - because peace is quantitatively the best blessing, it serves as the framework for further blessing, and is the qualitatively different mode of existence for which we ultimately yearn.[32]

Hence we can discern another difference between the two camps: the emphasis on the value of peace.[33] These two points, the value of Eretz Yisrael and peace, are key to understanding a non-messianic philosophy of Zionism. Simply put, this means peace with neighboring states is a desired goal and that the State is insignificant if not for the opportunities created by its existence. Both of these points are fundamental elements of this philosophy. Thus, while the topic of territorial compromise is important in its own right, more significantly, it helps clarify what values are key to these thinkers in their philosophy of Judaism.

Avraham Wein is a third-year student studying Tractate Kiddushin, Jewish Studies, and Psychology at Yeshiva College. 


[1] For a description of the details and ramifications of the massacre see Dennis Ross, From Oslo to the Palestinian Authority: The Missing Peace: The inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), 126-28.

[2]  Yair Kahn and Kalman Neuman, “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Disengagement,” Tradition 47:4 (2014), 159.

[3] Mitzvah 425. For a more extensive analysis and critique of this opinion see Yair Kahn and Kalman Neuman, “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Disengagement,” Tradition 47:4 (2014), 165-167.

[4] Greenberg, Eric J. “For Modern Orthodox Rabbis, Wye Is Okay.” Thejewishweek.com. The Jewish Week, 26 Nov. 1998. Web. 26 May 2016.

[5] This list includes Rabbi Goren and Rabbi Avraham Shapira. See http://www.yeshiva.co/midrash/shiur.asp?id=702

[6] See Avraham Shapira and Aharon Lichtenstein, “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Gaza Disengagement,” Tradition 40:1 (2007), 17-44.

[7] Elyashiv Reichner, By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital (New Milford, CT: Maggid, 2011), 193.

[8] Motti Inbari, Messianic Religious Zionism Confronts Israeli Territorial Compromises (New York: Cambridge, 2012), 5.

[9]  By Faith Alone, 189.

[10] A Rabbinic Exchange, 165.

[11] See Zvi Yehuda Kook, Shelomoh Ḥayim Aviner, David Samson, and Tzvi Fishman, Torat Eretz Yisrael: The Teachings of HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook (Jerusalem: Torat Eretz Yisrael Publications, 1991), 149-50. Also see Nathaniel Helfgot, “Divrei Harav Vedivrei Hatalmid,” Tradition 47:4 (2014), 103.

[12] By Faith Alone, 203.

[13] ibid. 191.

[14] Yossi Klein Halevi, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 33. For a similar account of that story, see Yaakov Shapira, “Remembering Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook, (d. Purim, 1982).”Arutz Sheva. Arutz Sheva News, 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/12939#.V0ceQJMrLR0>.

[15] Messianic Religious Zionism, 5.

[16] Lichtenstein, Aharon. “And I Will Bring Peace to the Land.” Virtual Bet Midrash. Vbm-torah.org, 5757. Web. 26 May 2016. <http://etzion.org.il/en/and-i-will-bring-peace-land>.

[17] http://www.torahweb.org/torah/2005/parsha/rros_massei.html

[18] For an explicit formulation of this point by Rabbi Lichtenstein see Religion and Jewish State: An Interview with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in Yeshiva College Commentator, April 2006.

[19] Available at http://www.mesora.org/Rav-Disengagement.htm

[20] Rav Ovadia Yosef had a similar perspective. For a summary of his position see “5 of Ovadia Yosef’s Most Significant Halachic Rulings,” Times of Israel. Web. Also see Marc Angel’s comments in Tradition 28:4 (1994), 6.

[21] Letter to Ernst Simon, 5728.

[22] Shalom Carmy, Mentor of Generations (New Jersey: Ktav, 2008), 242.

[23] https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/08/2015/on-complexity-and-clarity/

[24] Bar-On, Mordechai Bar-On, In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1996), 172.

[25] By Faith Alone, 188

[26] Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, 292-293.

[27] “Divrei Harav Vedivrei Hatalmid,” Tradition 47:4 (2014), 103.

[28] By Faith Alone, 206

[29] Mentor of Generations, 242.

[30] Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, (New York, NY: OU Press, 2012), 294.

[31] Ibid. 295.

[32] http://etzion.org.il/en/and-i-will-bring-peace-land

[33] I have also heard mori ve-rabbi Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein articulate this point on a number of occasions.