Leibowitz’s later view of Zionism was also well known and a source of repeated controversy. He defined Zionism as nothing more than the collective efforts of the Jewish people to gain political independence in their ancestral land, so as not to be subjected to »gentile« rule anymore. In keeping with his highly compartmentalized conception of religion, he apodictically condemned any attempt to endow Zionism and the State of Israel with religious meaning and declared that doing so is religiously idolatrous and politically fascistic. Leibowitz became an ardent opposer of the Israeli presence in the West Bank and warned that the religious-nationalistic hubris that swept through Israel after the war of 1967 would result in moral bankruptcy and bring about an authoritarian ethnocracy.
In Leibowitz’s later view, Religious Zionism, which rose to unprecedented prominence in Israeli society after 1967, was an oxymoron. In light of this, the articles he published in Zion in 1930 appear all the more surprising, and point to a largely forgotten chapter of Leibowitz’s life and thought – namely his past as a proponent of Religious Zionism and as leader of the Cologne branch of the Young Mizrachi.
In Thoratreuer Zionismus, Leibowitz highlighted two interconnected issues. One was his view that the Torah is meant to embrace every aspect of Jewish life and regulate all areas of Jewish society. The other was the fundamental importance of »Jewish peoplehood« (Jüdisches Volkstum) for the implementation of the Torah itself. Precisely because the Torah is all-encompassing, its true potential can only be fulfilled within a society that willingly adopts it as its cornerstone. Centuries of life in exile, however, marked by ghettoization and acculturation, increasingly diminished the Torah’s jurisdiction over Jewish life and allegedly brought about the disintegration of Jewish peoplehood. Leibowitz believed that even for observant Jews, the Torah had been reduced to nothing more than a »spiritual, ethical or esthetical sport,« since the society in which they were immersed was completely non-Jewish. »Where there is no full life,« he proclaimed, »there can be no full Torah!«
According to Leibowitz, the Torah could be restored to its ideal role only within an independent Jewish society, free to define its own character and values. The establishment of that society was the collective task of the Jewish people of that generation, embodied by the Zionist enterprise. In his second article, Ein Versuch zur Klärung, Leibowitz reiterated these views even more emphatically. He dismissed Rosenblüth’s optimistic evaluation of individual religiosity by claiming that, without a solid collective sustaining it, the Torah was bound to become »withered« and »lifeless.« He accused the Orthodox Jewish establishment of being unable to cope with the deep crisis of Judaism and argued that Zionism was the only way to preserve Judaism as a living religion and the Jewish people as a collective. Zionism, in other words, represented the political manifestation of both the national and religious destiny of the Jewish people.
The gap between the young and the mature Leibowitz is astounding. The latter became famous for his unrelenting rejection of nationalism, and especially religious nationalism, which he considered a form of modern-day idolatry. He called for a clear separation between religion and state and relegated the significance of religious practice to the private sphere. In 1930, on the other hand, young Leibowitz came across as a fervent Religious Zionist, convinced that the Zionist path, paired with halakhic observance, was the only way to ensure Judaism’s continued existence and the Halakhah’s relevance. What could have caused such a radical change?
In other early writings, Leibowitz expressed his indignation at the corruption and cronyism holding sway within the Mizrachi movement. After his emigration to Palestine in 1934 and the founding of Israel in 1948, he found that the political and religious establishments in the new state were equally corrupt and operated on the basis of narrow sectorial interests. The »unholy covenant« between the secular ruling class and the rabbinate, whereby the latter provided religious legitimacy to the former in exchange for financial benefits and a modicum of influence, shattered Leibowitz’s hope that the Torah could flourish again within the new Jewish society. Recurring episodes of nationalist violence against Arabs alerted him to the danger of a militaristic Zionism imbued with religious undertones, which became increasingly virulent after 1967. By that point, Leibowitz’s ideological parable was completed, and his thought crystallized in the shape that made him famous and controversial. His early articles, however, are reminiscent of the very different starting point from which this iconic thinker emerged.