Rav Soloveitchik and social issues: Jews of fate and Jews of destiny

Jews of the Diaspora and Jews of Israel.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Two ways of living Jewish history

Rav Soloveitchik teaches us in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek” that sometimes the Jew lives his history as an act of compulsion-Fate, and sometimes he experiences history as a creative act of advancing Jewish, covenantal Destiny. For example, on the recently celebrated festival of Purim the Jews, under the leadership of Mordecai and Esther, transformed the ‘fate-compulsion’ of Haman’s persecution, into creative, historical acts of destiny fulfillment, such as the military victories of Adar 13, and the second receiving of the Torah.

This article shows how the Rav’s prescient analysis of Jewish history explains the differing historical experiences of the American and Israeli Jewish communities today.

The drifting apart of American and Israeli Jews

A  couple of weeks ago I received a letter from a very close brother which painfully indicated the very real difficulty liberal, secular, proud American Jews have understanding and identifying  with the socio-political perspectives of the center-right majority of Israeli Jews. My brother and his family love Israel. They have visited Israel almost every two years. And this  fact only makes his straight forward, not to sympathetic, remarks on the Israeli responsibility for the current, deteriorating security situation cause me to feel  an even more painful sense of rejection.

We are incrementally experiencing the tragedy of a drifting apart of the American Jewish community (which is solidly liberal and secular) and the Israeli Jewish community (which is increasingly conservative, nationalistic and religious). These feelings, which I have written about over the last year, were factually proven by the results of the recently released results of the Pew survey which statistically showed Israeli Jews to be twice as religious and nationalist than American Jews.

It is nothing new in Jewish history that Jewish life in the Diaspora and Jewish life in the Homeland evolve differently. But this historical fact does not detract from its tragic nature.  

Living Jewish history as an experience of Fate

The Rav’s teaching concerning living Jewish history as an experience of Fate, or as an experience of Destiny, can help us understand this drifting apart of American and Israeli Jews.

The last two and half thousand years has shown that History very frequently compels the Jew to experience history AS a Jew, whether he wants to or not. Even in the extreme case of a Jew out rightly rejecting his Judaism by assimilating or converting, this act of denial is, in reality, an act imposed upon him, due to his Jewishness, by the surrounding social forces of History. Historical Fate has frequently acted to impose ‘our Jewishness’ upon ourselves. Through most of our history this has meant coping with various levels of social persecution, and then devising various means of self defense and survival (such as migration and assimilation). We have frequently experienced our Jewishness as an identity accompanied by a sense of compulsion. In many cases, these surrounding dynamics of compulsion and survival have encouraged the Jews to unite.

The Rav teaches that historical ‘fate’ has thus caused Jews to engage in four positive methods of coping: 1) the development of a sense of shared fate (one for all and all for one); and a  2) a sense of shared suffering, empathy and bonding; 3)which has expressed itself in feelings and deeds of shared obligations and responsibility; 4) and culminates in acts of charity and loving-kindness. All of these attributes have become prominent elements of Jewish communal and national life throughout our history. The Rav terms these attributes, those forged by historical conditions of coercion, as ‘the covenant forged by the slavery and Exodus from Egypt’.

Living Jewish history as an experience of Destiny

However Jewish history has been forged not only by our meeting with the challenges posed by frequently hostile peoples and cultures, but also by our meeting with G-d at Mt. Sinai. This meeting, G-d’s gift of the Torah, gave us the ability to transform a life of compulsive fate and survival, into a life of creative, redeeming fulfillment of destiny, sanctity and choseness.  The Rav explains this in his own voice:

“What is the content of the Covenant of Sinai? It is a special way of life that directs the individual fulfillment of an end beyond the reach of the man of fate-(it is) the striving of man to resemble his Creator via self transcendence. This creative act….flows…from a longing that impels him to a more enhanced and sublime form of existence. Acts of loving-kindness and fraternity (the Covenant forged at the Exodus) are (then) integrated into the Covenant of Sinai(and   thus become) motivated by the sense of unity experienced by a nation forever betrothed to the one G-d….at Sinai G-d elevated the Covenant of Fate….to a Covenant of Destiny with a collective of people (acting upon  ) a  free will and volition that directs and sanctifies itself to confront the Almighty. ….The people of loving-kindness were elevated into a holy nation. The basis of shared destiny is the sanctity that is formed from a distinctive (unique, Jewish) existence.”

In brief, the Rav argues in “ Kol Dodi Dofek” that because of the covenantal, G-d-Jewish People relationship forged at Sinai, the Jew becomes capable , through heroic spiritual choice and creativity, of    transforming even the hell of the Holocasut into the redemptive experience of establishing a sanctifying State of Israel.

Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis of secular and religious Zionism

The Rav wrote the above teachings in 1956. He felt that American Jewry (unintentionally) sinned in not more forcefully protesting and struggling against the recent Holocaust. He was spiritually trying to find meaning in the juxtaposition of G-d’s ‘seeming wrath’-the murder of six million Jews- and G-d’s beneficence-the creation of the State of Israel.

Secular Zionism-even given its success in establishing a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel after 2000 years-seemed to him to be an ‘inadequate’, existential-historical response to these events. Secular Zionism emphasized creating Jewish ‘normalcy’, that we should be a nation, with its own state, like all other nations. It emphasized securing Jewish survival, creating a refuge from anti-semitism and persecution, and from economic poverty. It emphasized adopting much of Western politics, such as socialism and liberal Western culture. Most important, secular Zionism understand this political-socio agenda to be an End in itself, and not to be the  Means to fulfilling a higher Destiny, the sanctified redemption of a historically, ‘lonely’ people.

 In this way,  the Rav contends, that secular Zionism did not truly understand Jewish history; a history, if properly interpreted, shows that we have a destiny of spiritual choseness. The forces of history- when studied through the perspective of our Torah-call upon us to create a life of sanctified national existence. We will always be a different nation, a nation apart. We must take and ‘cherish’ this historic ‘fact-fate’, and transform it into a . The Rav thus writes that   purpose of a historically True (Torah based ) Zionism is:

“to raise ourselves from a people to a holy nation, from the Covenant of Egypt to the Covenant of Sinai; from a compelled existence to an original way of life, permeated with morality and religious principles, that transcends history….The task of religious Zionism is to fuse the two covenants, the Covenant of Egypt and the Covenant of Sinai; the covenants of fate and destiny….by combining all the elements of the nation…into one community, a nation unique in the land”.

The American and Israeli Jewish communities Today: Jews of Fate, or Jews of Destiny?

Sixty years after the Rav composed these teachings in ‘Kol Dodi Dofek’, how would he describe the dominant trends of the Israeli and American Jewish communities? Are we experiencing history as Jews of Fate? Or Jews of Destiny?

Very tentatively I would argue that the majority of American Jews, for several compelling reasons, find it difficult to existentially experience the unique destiny-the chosen exceptionalism- of modern Jewish history. First, American Jews feel particularly comfortable in America. For most, their Jewish self identity is in third place, after their self identification as Americans, and after their self identification as progressive liberals. They thus tend to understand and interpret their Jewish identity in terms of their American and liberal identities.

For example, most American Jews  today do not see a contradiction between Jewish self identification and intermarriage, which they see as a matter of individual choice. Most important, they tend to think of their Jewish identification in terms of ethnic-culture (food, humor, or family), or spiritual religious experience, and not in the sense of a covenantal people hood. They do not feel obligated to primarily see themselves as actors on a 3000 year state of Jewish historical destiny. For most, their  Jewish identity was determined by birth - ie. Fate - and each one ‘tries to make the best of it’.

In contrast, living in Israel challenges the Jew to experience his Jewish identity as that of an actor on the existential stage of Jewish, covenantal destiny. The Land is literally ‘peopled’ with landmarks of the destiny of the Jewish people, from the Kotel to archeological findings of earlier Jewish settlements. We are historically challenged to creatively use Jewish-Torah sources to build the economy, welfare and culture of our developing Jewish state. Every combat soldier is challenged to understand that when he goes to battle he literally has the destiny of his people in his hands. As the Rav teaches, we must pray that G-d will give us the wisdom and desire to meet these challenges, and create in our new state the self understandings that will help us to creatively advance the covenantal destiny of the Jewish people.


The Rav’s teachings challenge every Jew, and particularly those in the Land of Israel, to meet our historical challenges in a way that fulfills Jewish destiny. Compared with American Jews, Israeli Jews are ‘destiny-challenged’. G-d has given us a state after 200 years. It is up to us to advance our people’s covenantal Destiny.