Zionism and Judaism

A New Theory

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David Novak
  • New York, NY: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Novak’s book, Zionism and Judaism, proposes what he calls a “new theory” founded on the rejection of numerous theories of, or about, Zionism. His new theory rejects the following: first, that Zionism is, or even can be, a secular movement; second, that Zionism embodies the divine unfolding of messianic redemption; third, that theocracy in Israel would necessitate clerical (rabbinic) authority; fourth, that Jews have a historical right to the land of Israel by being its sole surviving indigenous inhabitants; fifth, that Jews have a political right to the land of Israel via United Nations resolutions; and sixth, that Zionism has a theological connection to the Holocaust. The book unfolds by discrediting each argument, showing how each undermines what is for Novak the founding principle of Zionism: God’s promise to the Israelites/Jews based on divine revelation that both serves as the right to, and also the foundation for, the Zionist enterprise. In short, Novak holds that Zionism as “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish polity” is a formal “mitzvah” (divine commandment) and its legitimacy rests solely on the acceptance of that notion. He is very clear that he means mitzvah in the theological sense; the product of divine revelation. For Novak, then, Zionism requires the Zionist to believe in the truth of divine revelation, part of which is a command to establish a Jewish polity in the land of Israel. For Novak, to be a religious Jew is to be a nationalist, and to be a Zionist one must believe in revelation.

And yet for Novak the mitzvah of Zionism does not mandate any particular political system. Thus the reinstitution of a theocratic monarchy is not part of the present mitzvah but is pushed off until the messianic end-time. For Novak, only theocracy can root Zionism as a religious obligation based on the belief in a commanding God and only that obligation can justify why the Jews should have a nation-sate on this land even at the expense of its other inhabitants (the Palestinians).

Regarding what a Jewish polity would look like, Novak argues that Western political and philosophical systems and ideas should be adopted in order to meet the social and political needs of the state. That is, for Novak, democracy is purely pragmatic and thus not an obligatory or mitzvah-driven system of government. It simply functions as the best system to ensure human flourishing, for both Jews and non-Jews, albeit not equally. Again, democracy is not an integral part of the mitzvah to create a Jewish polity, only an ancillary part of its application. In Novak’s Israel, democracy need not, and perhaps cannot, be a liberal democracy because it must insure Jewish majoritarianism, not only for practical but also theological reasons. But, using the seven Noachide laws as a model, Israel can ensure minority rights and the flourishing of the non-Jewish population. He would simply call it a democracy founded upon the revelatory principle that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews to set up as ethical a polity as possible given that assumption.

On the question of Zionism as a mitzvah and in favor of theocracy, Novak cites Numbers 33:53: You shall inherit the land and settle it. He remarks, “The commandment to settle the land of Israel, which is Zionism in action, is such a covenantal commandment. It directly bears on the relationship between God and the people Israel” (90, 91). The notion of the biblical command to settle the land as an expression of “Zionism in action” is not only a leap that is never quite defended but it is a repudiation of any form of Zionism that views its legitimacy, or necessity, as part of the condition of modern Jews—politically or otherwise. He writes, “So if the Jewish people have a more cogent claim on the land, that claim should be the biblical one that pertains to the land of Israel alone, that is, it is because God chose this land for the Jewish people to settle there as permanently as is humanly possible” (141). Zionism cannot be a modern phenomenon since modernity places the collective subject as the arbiter of its destiny. Once Zionism is viewed solely through the lens of mitzvah it must be theocratic because its only legitimacy lies in the divine promise. If we remove God, Zionism collapses into an exercise of racial inequality. By what right, then, do the Jews have the claim of rightful ownership of the land of Israel? For Novak Judaism does not grant the Jew any right to the land other than as a divine gift.

Since for Novak Zionism is only theologically justifiable, invoking the Holocaust is not permissible. According to Novak, making a theological argument for the Holocaust can only damage the memory of its victims. He also acknowledges that from a covenantal standpoint, and here he pushes aside an entire school of post-Holocaust theology, the weight of tradition rests on the side of those who view the Holocaust purely from the perspective of divine reward and punishment.

On Novak’s reading, secular Zionism must collapse for Zionism to retain any sense of legitimacy on the world stage, but also more importantly to make a case that it is an extension of Judaism. And herein lies the weak link in the argument. By fusing any legitimate Zionism to Novak’s form of revelatory Judaism, Novak’s only firewall against radical, mystical, or messianic visions of Judaism is that the reader must accept only his view of Judaism posing as what I would call an “enlightened theocracy.” The social context, the cultural renaissance, the historic need of Zionism cannot survive Novak’s theological critique. For Novak, Zionism without revelation is no more than racism, as the United Nations itself decided (and then revoked). Of course this is because the U.N., and most Zionists, do not accept Novak’s views on revelation. While I understand and hold some sympathy for Novak’s attempt to wed the Western enlightenment tradition with his revelatory theology, the price here is very high. The project undermines the very legitimacy of most forms of Zionism that exist today, demanding fidelity to a combination of revelation and the enlightenment held by Novak and, I am afraid, only a few others.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaul Magid is The Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David Novak, University of Torontoholds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair in Jewish Studies as Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the American Academy for Jewish Research. He is President of the Union for Traditional Judaism, and Vice President of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. Novak also serves as a Consulting Scholar for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, New Jersey and as a Project Scholar for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Washington DC.



Atalia Omer

Magid highlights the deeply problematic aspects of Novak's thesis with great precision. Novak's "new theory" is indeed an old one and one quite blind of the sociopolitical complexities generated by Zionist histories. Novak's theory is especially blind to Palestinian narratives of displacement. Magid  illumines this issue.


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