Religious Zionists are often confused by fellow Torah observant Jews who oppose Zionism and the State of Israel. The Religious Zionist community sees the State of Israel as one of the greatest gifts to the Jewish people; how, they wonder, could anyone oppose it?
The objection that many Torah observant Jews have towards Zionism is they see it as a violation of God’s decree about the Jewish people’s time to return to the land of Israel. In their viewpoint, God punished the Jews with exile and only God will decide when the Jewish people merit to return to their land. The notion that Jews should take their future into their own hands, go to war, and return to the land of Israel without a direct prophecy and charge from God contradicts their belief in how the redemption of the Jewish people is designed to unfold.
This particular objection is based on a teaching in the Talmud and the Medrash commonly referred to as the “Three Oaths.” The teaching is found in Mesechet Ketuvot page 110b and is grounded in a debate between two early Jewish scholars, Rabbi Zeira and Rabbi Yehuda, about whether Rabbi Zeira should move from Babylonia to Israel. Rabbi Yehuda was Rabbi Zeira’s teacher, and maintained, “Anyone who moves from Babylonia to the land of Israel transgresses a mitzvah. Rabbi Yehuda supported his position from a prophecy of Jeremiah, “They shall be taken to Babylonia and there they shall remain until the day that I recall them, said the Lord.” Rabbi Yehuda maintained Jews shouldn’t return to Israel without God bringing them back. When challenged about Jeremiah’s prophecy and why he still felt he should move to Israel, Rabbi Zeira explained Jeremiah’s prophecy was about the vessels from the Beit Hamikdash, not people.
As the discussion continued in the Talmud, another verse, this one from King Solomon, is mentioned, “I command you to take an oath, daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, that you not awaken or stir up love, until it please.” Rabbi Yehuda used this verse to prove the Jewish people shouldn’t perform an act of redemption, like returning to Israel, without a directive of God. Rabbi Zeira maintained that the oath mentioned by King Solomon meant that the Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael as a people together whereas individuals may immigrate as they wish.
The Talmud’s discussion moved on to highlight that there are three oaths mentioned by King Solomon, One, so that the Jews should not ascend to Eretz Yisrael as a force together, but little by little. The second, that God adjured the Jews that they should not rebel against the rule of the nations of the world, and the last one is that God adjured the nations of the world that they should not subjugate the Jews excessively. Opponents of Zionism point to the first two oaths as prohibitions against the Jewish people returning by force and founding a state.
The anti-Zionist case made from the three oaths is compelling. Verses from Tanach and teachings of the Talmud aren’t always meant to be taken literally; many are metaphoric in nature. Torah observant Zionists understand the three oaths in a way that is consistent with their support of Zionism. Maimonides, in a letter to the Yemenite community wrote, “The prophets predicted that pretenders will appear in great numbers at the time when the Messiah will come, but they will not be able to make good on their claim and they will perish with many of their supporters. King Solomon foresaw that the prolonged duration of the exile would incite some of our people to seek to prematurely end the exile before the appointed time, and as a consequence they would perish. King Solomon adjured the Jewish people in metaphorical language to desist from trying.” Zionists understood Maimonides to have interpreted the oaths as non-binding and meant to teach a lesson about Messiah’s arrival. King Solomon wasn’t teaching about the Jewish people returning to the land of Israel.
A proper attitude towards the Messiah was important to Maimonides. Elsewhere in his writings he explained Messianic times and how Jews should relate to Messiah’s arrival. He wrote that the order of the occurrence of these events, or their precise detail are not among the fundamental principles of faith. A person should not occupy himself with the tales and homiletics concerning these and similar matters, nor should a person consider them as essentials, for study of them will neither bring fear or love of God. The events that occur before and during the coming of the Messiah cannot be definitely known by man until they occur for these matters are undefined in the prophets’ words and even the early scholars have no established tradition regarding these matters except their own interpretation of the verses. Therefore, there is a controversy among them regarding these matters. Similarly, one should not try to determine the appointed time for Mashiach’s coming. Jewish tradition stated there will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except freeing the Jewish people from the persecution of the gentile kingdoms. The Messiah will establish peace within the world.
Maimonides wrote that the Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come. It’s counterproductive to make the Messiah and his arrival a fundamental of Judaism. The entire point of a Messianic era is to understand God better. If one makes their Torah study and mitzvah observance secondary to acts aimed at bringing the Messiah, they are confusing priorities. This is the lesson Maimonides taught from the “Three Oaths.”
While the anti-Zionists’ interpretation of the “Three Oaths” is well known it is far from a consensus understanding of the verses and the teaching of the Talmud. Only a small minority of scholars over the past fifteen hundred years have agreed with the anti-Zionists interpretation. The overwhelming majority of scholars understand the “Three Oaths” to be metaphoric just as Maimonides understood them to be metaphoric.
Not only do Torah observant Zionists maintain that there is no prohibition for individuals and the nation to return and govern the land of Israel, but they subscribe to the opinion of Nachmanides who wrote, “In my opinion, settling in the land of Israel a command. We are commanded to settle and dwell in the land for it was given to them, and we cannot reject the portion of God. If it would ever occur to us to go and capture the land of Shinar or the land of Ashur, or anything like it, and to settle there, one would be violating this positive command.”