A Kaplanian Zionism and the Return of the Hostages

Personal Prelude

Like many of our readers, I struggle to make sense of the events occurring on and after October 7th. Perspective is almost impossible to gain. I wake up daily hoping to hear that all the captives of Zion have been returned.  I try to make sense of the absolute evil that came with the slaughter of October 7th. I also try to come to terms with the relative evil that is Machiavellian: the “necessity” of killing thousands of Palestinian innocents as the IDF seeks to uproot Hamas from Gaza. 

Because of this continuous disorientation, I am doubly appreciative of any perspective that provides me with new insight. As often in this case, I find ideas from Kaplan’s thought valuable. Perhaps this notion of the “double Torah” of Kaplan’s Zionism will be illuminating for our readers as well.

Kaplan’s Zionism in Broad Stroke 

Kaplan located himself in the mainstream of “cultural Zionism.” More closely aligned with thinkers like Achad Ha-Am than Herzl and Nordau, he would measure the new Zionism born in Eretz Yisrael by its cultural vitality rather than the physical survival of the Jewish people. Though not dismissive in any way of the need for Jewish security in a new homeland, it was not the ultimate measure of the Zionist enterprise. The flourishing of Jewish civilization at its fullest, the most organic best as only could happen in a Jewish homeland was the prize.

Two Sources of Torah and the Current Hostage Situation

In the events surrounding the first return of the hostages, one can see the critical elements of this vision play itself out in real-time. Kaplanian Zionism digs its wells from two sources, two Torahs as it were. The first Torah is that of traditional Jewish values. The second, as Kaplan so beautifully explicated in his 1963 The Purpose and Meaning of Jewish Existence are the truths of contemporary behavioral science (particularly psychology) and the practice of the healing arts.  

It is perhaps easiest to recognize the first Torah because we traditionally call it “Torah.” The energy and motivation for our determined efforts to bring the hostages home derives from a complex of at least three Jewish values:

כל ישראל ערבים זה הזה

All Israel is responsible for one another. 

מי מציל נפש אחת מקים העולם 

The person who saves a single life saves the entire world. 

פדיןן שביון ציון

Of all of the mitzvot, redeeming captives is the highest priority.

These three Jewish values provide the bedrock foundation of our efforts to work on behalf of all forms of Jewish peoplehood but are particularly active in the hostage situation. Yet, as Winston Churchill once wryly observed, good intentions and motivations are poor substitutes for skill and insight.  

At this second level, we need to access the Torah of human feeling and behavior. This is a Torah of the deepest knowledge we have of the human body, soul, and mind. Mel Scult links this Torah to shlemut, the completeness of our humanity. One can see it at work as Israel prepared to receive  the traumatized hostages, particularly the children. I am awestruck, for instance, by the first encounter of children with the soldiers escorting them from Gaza to Egypt and on to Israel. The manual prepared for soldiers says.

Do not lie to them about the fate of their parents, but do not be the ones to reveal it either. Say, “Sweetheart, our mission is to get you home safely. Soon, your family can let you know about these things.”

I believe this insight (along with many others) is what Kaplan meant by a Torah emerging from contemporary behavioral science. It is חכמה /wisdom drawn from the deep well of human experience and naturally “Judaized” because it furthers the goals of both Jewish peoplehood and a deeper humanity.

The Torah of Text and Torah of Healing 

Kaplan concludes his 1955 New Zionism with this passage.  

Zionism can emerge from its present crisis strengthened by the experience of challenge and danger. It can become the custodian of the Jewish future. It can lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy that “from Zion shall go forth Torah.  But before the Torah can go forth from Zion, it will have to enter into Zionism”.   

As a twenty-year-old studying in Jerusalem in 1968, I encountered many examples of the confluence of deep and compassionate wisdom emanating from Judaism and the everyday living of Israeli culture. This Judaism deeply and sometimes mysteriously buried on the Israeli “street” provided much inspiration.

Over the decades I would perceive less of it. When I reread A New Zionism last year, I found the conclusion stirring but quixotic. I read it differently on November 24, 2023. I see happily and hopefully some evidence of the vision of a “twin Torah” operating in service of a better world. Perhaps some of the responses of the Israeli people and world Jewry can indeed be seen as an אור לגוים., a light unto the nations.