People gather on a seaside promenade in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021.
People gather on a seaside promenade in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Often, in response to my posts on aliya, religious Jews living outside of Israel comment on the “rampant immodesty” in Tel Aviv as a reason for their not moving to Israel. Of course this excuse is absurd. The Holy One Blessed Be He commanded Araham Avinu to go to Israel even though it was populated with primitive idol worshippers. Similarly, Hashem commanded Moshe and Yehoshua to lead the Children of Israel into Eretz Yisrael even though all of its inhabitants were savage heathens. The mitzvah to dwell in Israel is not dependent on how many religious Jews live here or how kosher the government is. The criticism of Jewish life in Tel Aviv by the today’s modern Meraglim is obviously just another one of their many excuses to dodge the mitzvah of living in Israel, Yishuv HaAretz, which is considered equal in weight to all of the commandments in the Torah.

Last week, I decided to travel on the high-speed train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to take a personal tour of the city and see for myself what “the city which never sleeps” is like. Descending from the train at Hashalom Station, I tried to experience my fact-finding tour through the eyes of Rabbi Kook, Israel's first Chief Rabbi and the revered Torah luminary who is the icon of Religious Zionism..

How would he react to the Tel Aviv of today? Needless to say, he would be overjoyed with the incredible building, the skyscrapers, the roadways, the traffic, and the myriads of Jews of all shapes and sizes who have been ingathered from all over the world filling boulevards and streets which stretch for kilometers in all directions. Remember, Rabbi Kook arrived to the port of Yafo in the year 1904 when the city was little more than sand dunes and clusters of small cottages. Gazing at the miraculous transformation of modern Tel Aviv, no doubt dozens of verses of Torah and the visions of the Prophets of Israel of the Nation’s future rebirth and rebuilding would joyfully stream through his head. Unquestionably, his heart would fill with gleeful song.

Leaving the train I stood on an elevated outdoor passageway enjoying the panoramic view of the city. Then I followed the stream of passengers into the Azrieli Mall. Once again, beyond any doubt, Rabbi Kook would be astounded by the swarming beehive of activity inside the vast indoor shopping center. Even for me it seemed like an explosion of vibrant energy. Wherever one looks, from one floor to the next, escalators and elevators speed up and down crammed with happy Jews. The spirit of life in the mall radiates with an atomic-like fusion in all directions. Once again verses from the Prophets would fill Rabbi Kook’s head.

And yes, along with all of his great joy experiencing the happy spirit of the shoppers, Rabbi Kook would have glanced immediately downward to avoid the immodest attire of teenage girls, in contravention of the modesty Jewish Law demands.

Would Rabbi Kook have recalled the parable in the Midrash about a king who exiled his rebellious son from the kingdom in order to teach him a lesson, all the while yearning for the prince’s return: “The Holy One Blessed He said: ‘If only it would be that My sons would dwell in Eretz Yisrael even if they pollute it” (Yalkut Shimoni, Eicha). My humble opinion is that Rabbi Kook, with his usual all-encompassing, history-sweeping vision, would view this breach as a temporary decline, like the misbehavior of children captured and raised by non-Jews. In the book “Orot” he writes:

“We recognize that a spiritual decline will come to pass in Eretz Yisrael amongst the people of Israel in the beginnings of the nation’s revival. The material comfort which will be attained by a percentage of the nation, convincing them that they have already completely reached their goal, will constrict the soul, and days will come which will seem to be devoid of all spirit and meaning. The aspirations for lofty and holy ideals will cease and the spirit of the nation will plunge and sink low until a storm of rebellion will appear and people will come to see clearly that the power of Israel lies in its eternal holiness, in the light of G-d and His Torah, in the yearning for spiritual light which is the ultimate valor, triumphing over all of the worlds and all of their powers” (Orot, Eretz Yisrael, 8).

To make a long day short, I strolled through the car-honking, traffic-filled, super-energetic city, visiting Rabbi Kook’s old neighborhood in Yafo not far from the vibrant outdoor market where the endless stalls of fruit and vegetables would surely have led Rabbi Kook to quote the Gemara:

“And Rabbi Abba said, there is no more revealed sign of the end of Exile than this, as it says, ‘You O mountains of Israel shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they will soon be coming’” (Sanhedrin 98B). Rashi comments that there can be no surer sign of the end of the Exile than this, when the trees of the Land of Israel give forth their fruits in abundance.

My tiyul didn’t take me past the half-dozen flourishing yeshivot in the city as they are tucked away from all the noise and bustle. I walked along the Tel Aviv promenade bordering the beach, passing the string of first-class hotels housing visitors from all over the world. Once again, it is certain that Rabbi Kook would have averted his eyes from the immodest scenes along the seashore, but his ears would surely have heard the shouts of happiness and joy. Certainly we are not proud of the “rampant immodesty” cited by certain Jews in the Diaspora who attempt to hide their own shame in not living in Israel by criticizing things here which lack perfection. Rabbi Kook was not proud of these shortcomings as well. While known for his great tolerance and love for all Jews, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel could be exceedingly harsh and condemning when seeking to redress public infractions of Torah. For example, in a proclamation entitled “The Wounds of a Lover” distributed throughout the country he wrote:

“Turn back! Turn back children! Return to the spirit of our People, to the Torah of our God, the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer. Keep the Sabbath free of desecration and turn your hands from all evil! Can it be true that we have no other occupation and no other calling in life in the Land of Israel than to fill up life with the worst, cast-off customs of other nations? Is being carried away with all kind of dances and constantly wasting money and time on moving pictures and their like what we lack these days? Must our women follow immodest fashions, and all of this just to imitate the ways of a dying Europe in our ancient Holy Land and thus bring shame to the glory of our rebirth and all of its majesty?”

I hope the point is clear. We do not deny that there are problems in Israel and matters demanding Tikun. In returning to the Holy Land from foreign Diasporas all over the world we brought many good things with us that we learned from the nations and many bad things as well, most especially the immodesty, immorality, and heresy which characterizes modern Western culture. But as Rabbi Kook has taught us, patience is needed along with the understanding that after almost 2000 years of exile in foreign lands our national return to physical, psychic, and spiritual health is an unfolding developmental process which transpires gradually like the ever-increasing light of dawn (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot, 1:1).

Come evening I strolled past crowded pubs and sidewalk cafes bursting with Jews, young and old, enjoying the shared togetherness with smiles and gleeful chatter. And yes, I spotted an assortment of weird-looking creatures, pathetic souls hungry for attention and searching for a healer like Rabbi Kook whose loving gaze could burn away their painful husks of confusion and return them to themselves.

And finally, after his tour of the outwardly, secular-looking city, I think Rabbi Kook would ask in some alarm, “Where are the religious Jews?”

And a passer-by would answer assuringly, “There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of religious Jews in the neighboring city of Bnei Brak, and in Yerushalayim, in Betar Elite, Modiin Elite, and religious yishuvim and communities all over the country, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Not to mention all of the religious Jews in Chutz L’Aretz.”

“Religious Jews in Chutz L’Aretz?” Rabbi Kook would ask in anguished bewilderment and disbelief. “Still? After the unparalleled and obvious miracle inherent in the revival of our Nation in the Promised Land? After all the kindness which Hashem has bestowed upon us in returning us to Zion? Religious Jews remain amongst the Gentiles? Can it possibly be?”

“Maybe a million of them.”

“How can it be?” the great Torah Scholar and mystic would ask in profound and solemn sorrow. “How can it be?”

Then suddenly he would understand the source of all of the moral and spiritual shortcomings he had noticed during his tour of Tel Aviv:

“Don’t they realize that if they were here in Israel, all of our brothers and sisters who remain scattered over the globe, captivated by alien lands and their polluted cultures, that everything would be different in the Holy Land if they came? Don’t they understand that the Shechinah would return with them in the full force of her glory, inspiring all of the House of Israel to gladly return to the Torah with joy and song as King David declares, ‘Then our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with ringing song.’”

In the meantime, we are left with Rabbi Kook’s assurance: “This process (of national teshuva) will surely come about. The light of Hashem, which is buried away in the fundamental point of Zion and which is now concealed by clouds, will surely appear. From the lowly valley it will raise up G-d’s Temple and Kingdom and all of its branches. All those who cling to it, the near and the distant, will be uplifted with it for a true revival and an everlasting salvation” (Orot HaT’shuva, 12:12).

May it be soon.