How Religious Zionists become the Modern-Day Qórach

Just in time for our sojourn into the desert

By David Ramírez

The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron. Fresco by Sandro Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel, 1480-82. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron. Fresco by Sandro Botticelli in the Sistine Chapel, 1480-82. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

In spite of how world Jewry at large wants to project itself in its nationalistic allegiances, the State of Israel remains an uncomfortable notion in the deep recesses of our historical collective memory, even for its most self-deluded staunch supporters.

Ever since “Zionism” emerged as a political movement in the 19th century, it has remained a contentious philosophy, and the very diversity and expressions of this movement serves as proof of that.

There is no contest in Judaism as to when Shabbat is celebrated. As to what “Zionism” is, really, there is no universal consensus on the books or in our minds.

There is a general rule in Jewish jurisprudence (halakháh) that when there is no debate among the Sages about any particular aspect of Law, then the legal rule is said to be an authentic settled tradition. Zionism does not enjoy such status.

The most eminent, prominent and celebrated American rabbi of the 19th century, Sábato Morais, considered the then still emerging political Zionism contrary to the principles of Judaism and the messianic age. As most rabbis of his time, he rejected proposals to create a Jewish polity, though he encouraged colonial and development enterprises to improve the life of Jews in the then very impoverished Holy Land. In the classical traditionalist view, creating an autonomous independent polity would be a betrayal of what Jews had stood for the ages. This is how Morais explained it:

“The very thought [of creating a Jewish state] is an offense to the memory of the immortal seers in their illuminated vision Israel stood purified seven-fold as the embodiment of a humanizing belief as the acknowledge educator of mankind… Not the mere possession of a patch of ground guaranteed by protocols is the aspiration of pious hearts among the remnant of the tribes (emphasis added)… [Efforts to create a state] would prove worse than a chimera. It would be an absolute evil…”[1]

As a marriage of convenience would have it, the sliver of rabbis who projected the political restoration of Israel as a prerequisite for the messianic age were integrated by the nascent Israeli state to its nationalistic apparatus, in exchange for mutual political support and favors: The God-and-Jewish tradition-hating atheist Jews in bed with the God-kingdom-come-believing Religious Zionists, two entities that hate each other at heart, but are united in their totem-worship for the Land of Israel.

Ever since, the Religious Zionist clerical leadership has slowly but surely introduced faux-halakhic innovations that are meant to imbue and reinforce a religious meaning to nationalistic cycles of the Israeli state. A prime example of the latter is to encourage the Religious Zionist Orthodox community to commemorate Israel’s Independence Day by adding the full Hallel after the morning prayers.

To appreciate the full impact of this move, one must understand that the Hallel[2] is a prayer designed to give thanks for God’s redemption of Israel, and it consists of Psalms 113–118.  It is recited with a preceding blessing in the High Holidays of Holy Convocation of Passover (Pésach), Festival of Weeks (Shabu‘oth), the Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkót), and the Rabbinic instituted post-Biblical celebration of the Festival of Lights (Hanukkáh); the latter having a slight alteration in the preceding blessing compared to one used for the first three.

Each celebration commemorates slightly different Biblical national events. Passover celebrates God’s rescue of Israel from Egyptian slavery; the Festival of Weeks celebrates God’s deliverance of the Jewish Law to Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai; the Festival of Tabernacles celebrates God’s protection of Israel in her forty-year sojourn through the desert. While the non-Biblical and Rabbinic instituted celebration of the Festival of Lights celebrates the commemoration of the restored Temple of Jerusalem after the defeat of Seleucid army, which offers—very important to note—a very brief mention of the Maccabean insurgents who made the defeat possible.

Very important to note too for the present article is that the people descended from Maccabean insurgent leadership became the Hasmonean rulers, which the Pharisees (the precursors to the Rabbis of the Mishnáh and Talmud) detested due to their marriage of convenience with Rome and its overall rampant corruption of government and high priesthood. (Any resemblance with present reality may not be purely coincidental!!).

The Rabbis never included the Books of the Maccabees as part of the Biblical canon, and their mention only remains a footnote in the Rabbinic and post-Rabbinic projection of Jewish history.

Not even the non-Biblical celebration of Purim, a liberation celebration in its own terms, enjoys the recitation of the Hallel.

There is a debate in the Talmud whether the recitation of the Hallel is Biblical or Rabbinic in origin, but the obligation was undoubtedly fixed by Rabbinic tradition during the Talmudic period, and there had not been any changes since. This is because the traditional consensus is that no rabbi in the post-Talmudic period has the authority to introduce those type of changes, much less in the absence of a Sanhedrín, the Jewish Supreme Court, whose majority vote is necessary to decide those matters.

The introduction of the Hallel recitation as part of the Israeli Independence Day celebrations was spearheaded by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in 1950-1951. Religious Zionist rabbi Shlomo Goren (1917-1994), the very rabbi who had brokered a deal with the nascent Israeli government to include the chief rabbinate as part of its government institutions, tried to introduce the preceding blessing in its practice, which was nonetheless opposed by rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik[3] (religious chief ideologue of the Modern Orthodox, who also happened to be a Religious Zionist) and ‘Obadiáh Yósef[4] (religious leader of Oriental Jews in Israel). Soloveitchik even called it an “acute halachic mental retardation.”[5]

Other past attempts to include the blessing on the Hallel outside the canonical use were opposed by none other than Rashi and Maimonides.[6]

It is in this anti-nomistic and tradition-disrespecting vein that we have the likes of Religious Zionist rabbi Daniel Bouskila wanting to compare the Passover story to the current Zionist politics of the day. In the recent Jewish Journal article “Passover: A Lesson in Political Science,”[7] Bouskila attempts to lather us with honey in yet another attempt to change Rabbinic-bound tradition in the recitation of the Haggadáh (“Seyder” for Ashkenazim).

Bringing a Talmudic debate over the content of the Haggadáh, another Rabbinic institution, Bouskila wants to remind us as to why Jews fell our of favor in Pharaoh’s eyes.

“[Rabbi] Shmuel’s lesson is a bit harsher. When it served the pharaoh’s political interests with Joseph, he was friendly toward the Jews. But now that he perceived them as problematic, he changed his policy from friendship to enslavement. Shmuel reminds us that even while in power, the same leader who acted as our friend yesterday can change his policies at the drop of a dime.”

This is no doubt a veiled reference to the recent spat between PM Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama. And in the expected Religious Zionist bent to distort traditional Jewish decorum, he dares to inquire in a faux-innocent tone:

“In light of our experiences in the Diaspora at the mercy of different leaders and governments, it is peculiar that in 1948, after Ben-Gurion’s historic declaration of the State of Israel, the rabbis did not change the opening words of the Haggadáh to reflect our new political reality: ‘Last year — slaves, this year — free. Last year in exile, this year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisra’el.’”

Well, if all the preceding does not make it clear to anyone why rabbis were “peculiar” in not changing the opening words of the Haggadáh after 1948, then those are truly lost cases.

(By the way, the word “peculiar” is a favorite word used by anti-Semites through history to describe how “strange” and “anti-social” Jews are).

The entire recitation of the Haggadáh is set in the context of exile, and the formation of the State of Israel has not changed the intention for which the Haggadáh was created. Neither it has changed the numerous mentions of the people of Israel still being in Exile in the book of prayers, whether for the daily ones or the High Holidays. This of course sits in acute cognitive discomfort to the idea that the establishment of the state of Israel ended the Exile; I am sure these Zionists cheerleaders get a lot of anxiety-filled questions from perplexed followers, because deep in their souls and collective memory they know something does not fit quite right. But that does not stop Bouskila from trying to emend the contradiction though; he must surely know more and have more authority than Chazal themselves!

We are in good company indeed!

Moreover, the fact that this stance is coming from a self-proclaimed Sephardi, who thanks Ben-Gurion—a noted and unrepentant hater of Sephardim—for changing our political reality, is even the more eye-gouging.

But none of us should count our lucky charms in the hopes of divine redemption, no Sir! The State of Israel is here, and references to Exile must be erased, with or without the Sanhedrin’s approval.

This is the way that these faux-religious leaders—who know what they are doing, and knowingly do wrong—slowly and inconspicuously introduce changes under the noses of an unsuspecting public. A modern-day Qórach[8] who replaces a tradition-bound purposed etiquette with a totem-like idolatry.

Don’t get me wrong, I think celebrating a country’s independence is a beautiful thing, specially when it is meant as a corrective to past injustices; but not necessarily when such correctives create other injustices. And this soliloquy is not meant to prevent Israelis loyal to their country, and whomever wants to join them in spirit, to enjoy and memorialize those accomplishments. But from that to change the entire meaning of the Jewish people and its trajectory in history is where any tradition-bound conscious Jew, as Sábato Morais certainly was, ought to draw the line.

Furthermore, even though the Land of Israel is meant as the perpetual inheritance of the children of Jacob-Israel, we the children are under no obligation to celebrate and show allegiance to any of its sitting governments who act contrary to Toráh, and which try to pull the wool over the people’s eyes, leading us all to the mental slavery of hypocrisy, lack of self-respect and uncouth behavior.

If in doubt, the post-Pentateuchal writings, our Prophets and the Pharisees—and above all their prime promoters through the ages, the Rabbis of old—give us plenty of examples regarding the twisted traitors of tradition.

Feliz Pascua de Cenceñas



[1] “Golden Ages Promised Lands: The Victorian Humanism of Sabato Morais” by Arthur Kiron, Columbia University (1999), p. 239. First brackets are mine; emphasis in bold and second brackets in Kiron’s thesis.

[2] “Hallel.” 2013. Web. March 28 2015.

[3] Shalom Carmy (2008). “Teacher Not a Spokesman”. In Zev Eleff. Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. p. 246. ISBN 978-1-60280-011-3. “He strictly prohibited reciting a berakha [blessing] on the Hallel.” Cited in “Yom Ha’atzmaut.” January 15 2015. Web. March 28 2015.

[4] Alfred S. Cohen, ed. (1984). “Reciting Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut”. Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 7–10. Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. p. 17. Cited in “Yom Ha’atzmaut.” January 15 2015. Web. March 28 2015.

[5] Jewish Action 66. Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. 2005. p. 93. Cited in “Yom Ha’atzmaut.” January 15 2015. Web. March 28 2015.

[6] “The early sages boldly undertook to give this custom the force of Scriptural command by prefixing the benediction, “Blessed . . . who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to read the Hallel.” This, at least in the German ritual, is the form used on all occasions, while with the Sephardim it is used only before the incomplete “half Hallel”; on the days of the “full Hallel” they bless Him “who commanded us to complete the Hallel.” These benedictions were in general use during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and though both Rashi and Maimonides (“Yad,” Megillah, iii. 7), the greatest authorities on Jewish law, protested against the use of such a benediction before half-Hallel as unauthorized, on the ground that the recital of Hallel on New Moons, etc., was not even a commandment of the scribes, the benediction has kept its place in the prayer-book.” “Hallel.” 1906. Web. March 28 2015.

[7] Bouskila, Daniel. “Passover: A lesson in political science.” March 25 2015. Web. March 28 2015.

[8] Qórach (קֹרַח) is the quintessential Jewish rebel trying to usurp the authority of the Supreme Court, hence of all Biblical and Rabbinic legal traditions, and lead the Jewish people to rebellion in his attempts to repudiate Moses’ authority. Given that Moses was designated the head of the Court and confirmed by the Jewish People to lead them in the decisions of jurisprudence, this nice epitome is reserved for like-individuals who share in Qórach’s spirit. See “Korah”. 1906. Web. March 28 2015.

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