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Once again we hear voices raised throughout the world questioning the existence of the State of Israel and the right of the Jewish People to a state of its own. Once again we hear that Israel exists only because of the Holocaust. The President of Iran states it most forcefully, but he is not alone in his stance. It is important, therefore, that we emphasize the religious significance of Israel and the ancient roots of Zionism in Jewish theology.
Although the State is a secular-political entity which is a creation brought about by the Zionist Movement through the offices of the United Nations, it is, nevertheless, the modern embodiment of Jewish sovereignty and as such the inheritor of the status of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah and then of the post-exilic State of Judea.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, surely one of the most important theological figures - Jew or Christian - of the 20th century - wrote an entire book about the state, Israel: An Echo of Eternity. He wrote there, "The ultimate meaning of the State of Israel must be seen in terms of the vision of the prophets: the redemption of all men. The religious duty of the Jew is to participate in the process of continuous redemption, in seeing that justice prevails over power, that awareness of God penetrates human understanding."
For many Jews, including many Zionist thinkers, although the state is to serve as a place of refuge (this long before the Holocaust) most importantly it serves as the place in which Judaism and Jewish culture would be the majority culture thus strengthening Judaism and Jewish communities throughout the world. This also includes a religious, almost a messianic, vision as we see in the words of Israel Friedlander, written in the early part of the last century: Palestine is the land of promise not only to the Jew but to the entire world - the promise of a higher and better social order.
Upon the gates of the Third Jewish Commonwealth will be inscribed the same prophetic words which greeted the establishment of the Second Jewish Commonwealth: "Not by might, nor by power, But by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts."
This approach comes close to what I believe to be the Biblical view of the importance of the land, seeing it neither in terms of how it benefits other Jewries nor as a physical haven for Jews in danger, but in terms of its intrinsic value. The Torah envisions the creation of the Kingdom of God in the land as a necessary component of the fulfillment of God's divine plan. This is a utopian, not a utilitarian, concept in which Jewish sovereignty in the land becomes an end in itself.
The story of the book of Genesis is the story of God in search of a people that will be His people and actualize His will on earth. It begins with the search for an individual.
The first to be chosen is Noah, but his descendants disappoint and again one person is singled out for the task - Abraham. "I have known him so that he may command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment... " (Genesis 18:19). This is then passed on through Isaac and his son Jacob, after which all Jacob's prodigy become the bearers of this promise and this task, becoming a people - the children of Israel (Jacob), the people Israel.
The task assigned to that people is reiterated over and over again in the Torah and is best summarized in the prologue to the Decalogue itself: If you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My particular treasure from among all the peoples, though all the earth is Mine. And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
The land is an integral part of this promise. Without the land they will not be able to fulfill their task. The centrality of Israel, then, lies primarily not in providing a safe place for Jews but in being the focus for the realization of the Torah's ultimate goal, as reiterated by the prophets and reaffirmed in rabbinic literature: God has found this people and appointed them His people and they will be able to fully fulfill His will only in the land, the end result of which will be the establishment of the Sovereignty of God on earth.
For Judaism the establishment of an independent Jewish society in the land of Israel stands at the very core of the message of Scripture. It is both the purpose of the Exodus and the means of fulfilling the Divine purpose. For the Jew it is the dream that has never died and the hope that is eternally new.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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