Yom Haatzmaut 88.
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Each year, Jews throughout the world gather in synagogues on the fifth of Iyar to celebrate the newest holiday of the Jewish year, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day. Less than 60 years after the founding of the Jewish State - the first independent Jewish state to exist in nearly 2,000 years - this day has found its place together with such holidays as Purim and Hanukka on the religious calendar of Judaism and has been given liturgical expression in our prayer books.
True, a distinction is to be made between Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel - and Medinat Yisrael - the State of Israel. 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 (even though not all its citizens are Jews and not all Jews are its citizens) and as such is the inheritor of the status of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah and then of the post-exilic State of Judea.
The Land of Israel, on the other hand, is a geographic designation, the exact borders of which are difficult, if not impossible, to define, since there are different definitions found in Scripture. It has theological implications in that it is the land promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Certain religious obligations exist only within it, and it has the status of holiness both according to Scripture and to Rabbinic Tradition. The Mishna, for example, speaks of "10 degrees of holiness," and "the Land of Israel is holier than all other lands" (Kelim 1:6). Of course, the holiest of them all is the Holy of Holies within the Temple (Kelim 1:9).
There is no holiness to the state as a political entity, and therefore theoretically it would seem that there is no religious significance to the state. Nevertheless, in the perception of most of us, these distinctions are - to put it mildly - blurred, if they exist at all. Yom Ha'atzma'ut, after all, celebrates the creation of the State - within the Land.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, surely one of the most important theological figures - Jewish or Christian - of the 20th century, wrote an entire book about the state, Israel: An Echo of Eternity. The title says it all. He wrote there: "What is the meaning of the State of Israel? Its sheer being is the message. The life in the land of Israel today is a rehearsal, a test, a challenge to all of us. Not living in the land, non-participation in the drama, is a source of embarrassment" (224). "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" (225).
Therefore, although there is a definite distinction between the two, it is obvious that for the Jewish people today the State has a status more important than a mere political entity. Although it can and should be challenged and criticized - as were the rulers of the ancient states of Israel and Judah, since as a human creation it can be wrong - its existence is nevertheless crucial to Jews and Judaism.
The centrality of Israel 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 completely fulfill His will only in the land, the end result of which will be the establishment of the Sovereignty of God on earth. 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.
In the post emancipation days of the 1800s there were attempts by certain Jewish groups, eager to establish citizenship and equality for Jews in Western Europe, to reinterpret Judaism in such a way as to eliminate the place of the land within Judaism. Slogans such as "Berlin is our Jerusalem" were coined. Zion was eliminated from the prayers. The irony of these misguided reformations is bitter and obvious. How fortunate we are to live in a time when Israel has returned once again to Zion. The centrality of the land to Jewish belief has been restored, but with it comes the responsibility of those who live there, those who govern there and those who look to it to make certain that its meaning and promise are fulfilled.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.