Today, Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook (1865-1935) and his disciples—literal and figurative—are the thinkers most associated with religious Zionism. But even before Kook began to develop his ideas about the Jewish people’s return to its homeland, many rabbis had joined the Zionist movement. Among these was Yehuda Leyb Don Yahya, a member of a family of Russian Chabad Ḥasidim and a leading disciple of one of the most prominent rabbis of his day, the fiercely anti-Zionist Ḥayyim Soloveitchik. Don Yahya published a pamphlet in 1901 in which he sought to reconcile traditional views of messianic redemption with Theodor Herzl’s secular, political Zionism. Bezalel Naor summarizes his ideas:
Don Yahya begins by clarifying that the return of the nation to its land can in no way be viewed as the complete redemption prophesied in Scripture. The prophets’ vision, while including the ingathering of exiles, extends beyond that to [all of] mankind acknowledging God and embracing His Torah.
[Yet] Don Yahya is flummoxed by various rabbis who adopt an all-or-nothing attitude to the Zionist organization’s [attempt] to secure from the Ottomans a safe haven for Jews in the Holy Land. Just because the Zionist dream does not encompass the comprehensive vision of the prophets of old is no reason to reject Zionism. Granted that the Zionist goals are much more modest in scope; that still does not justify opposing the movement.
Don Yahya’s own reading of the sources—biblical and rabbinic—is gradualist. He anticipates a phased redemption. The Jews’ return to the land is certainly the beginning, the first installment in a protracted process which will eventually . . . culminate in the restoration of the Davidic dynasty in the person of the messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple.
Don Yahya [also] points to the democratic character of the Zionist congresses. If more religious Jews would join the ranks of the Zionist movement, they would be able to turn the tide and steer the movement in a more religious direction. He chides those religious elements opposed to Zionism not to gloat and say, “We told you so,” in the event that Zionism deviates from Judaism. [Instead], these anti-Zionist agitators should be held responsible for bringing about that outcome by instructing observant Jews to stay clear of the movement.