Competing rabbinic visions for Israel’s Independence Day

Reflections on the Koren Mahzor for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day

April 21, 2015 21:05
The Kotel

ULTRA-ORTHODOX MEN walk past soldiers at the Kotel in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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There have always been competing visions and narratives about the meaning of religious Zionism, and in today’s age, all of these models are facing pressing ideological challenges. The messianic model most closely identified with Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook and Mercaz HaRav has been in retreat since the Yom Kippur War and has taken a severe blow after the withdrawal from Gaza. The messianic euphoria after the Six Day War has been hard to sustain in the current geopolitical situation. The message that we are on the threshold of the Redemption has been hard to pass on to youth hardened by the second intifada and the Gaza disengagement.

Even in the religious Zionist community, there has been much less enthusiasm for Jerusalem Day (the flagship day of the redemptive ideology movement), not to mention that for most Israelis, it is a normal work day.

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Another religious vision has been for the establishment of an halachic state, and that dream has also dissipated in the past decades. Rabbis Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Shaul Israeli and Eliezer Waldenberg wrote volumes on how a modern state can function according to halacha. However, there has only been limited impact of halacha on civil law in Israel and even in areas where the Chief Rabbinate used to have a monopoly there is a growing awareness that the current situation cannot continue.

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For example, the calls for civil marriage and public transportation on Shabbat. In addition, there is little talk of national Shmita (sabbatical year) observance (or of the religious and spiritual significance of shmita or other mitzvot that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel) and for most Israelis, the sale of the land every seven years goes completely unnoticed. The Chief Rabbinate, once graced with giants such as Rabbis Kook, Uziel and Herzog, does not have religious significance or provide moral inspiration to most Israelis, religious or secular, and the system of religious courts has not flourished as hoped for.

The other model, identified with Rabbis Reines and Soloveitchik, has been based on the religious significance of the State of Israel for the survival of the Jewish People. In Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s famous formulation of his religious Zionist theology he identifies six “knocks” that heralded God’s intervention in the formation of the Jewish state: 1. The miracle of the political establishment of the state 2. The triumph of a small outmanned and outgunned IDF 3. The triumph over Christian anti-Semitic theology 4. An answer to assimilation 5. The ability for Jewish self defense 6. A refuge for Jews worldwide While it is certainly true that each of these “knocks” were highly significant in 1948, how many truly speak to today’s Israeli youth and young Jews in the Diaspora? Does one truly feel safer in Beit Shemesh (where I am writing from) than in the Five Towns or London when the threat of a Iranian nuclear missile hangs over us? Does the history of Christian theology really interest our children? Has Israel had an impact on rising assimilation? Of course there is the mitzvah imperative to live in the Land of Israel, but that argument itself has problems.

Firstly, one sees many religious people living in the Diaspora with tacit support from their rabbis and secondly, basing one’s Zionism solely on the commandment to live in Israel reduces the importance and significance of the state.

So we must ask: what does Zionism mean in a post-modern word? The birth of a post-Zionist ideology takes classical Zionism to task and essentially claims that Israel should lose its Jewish character. The State of Israel, this approach claims, should be based on universal human values as opposed to particularly Jewish ones. These claims have increased significance as the percentage of non-Jewish citizens increases.

These fundamental issues come to the forefront when we consider if and how to add religious content to the celebration of Independence Day.

The newly released Koren Mahzor for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day is an impressive attempt to struggle with these weighty dilemmas. It should be noted that the decision to call the prayer book a “mahzor” is itself an important ideological statement as the term has traditionally been used to describe a book used for the High Holy Days or the Jewish festivals. The editors made the conscious decision to equate Independence Day and Jerusalem Day with the holidays of biblical origin.

The new Mahzor is really two books in one. A collection of the prayers recited on these days with a new commentary composed by Rabbi Moshe Taragin, an introduction by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and a collection of masterful essays written by the leading lights of the religious Zionist community, including Rabbis Soloveitchik, Kook, Yitzhak Nissim, Yehuda Amital, Nahum Rabinovitch and Janothan Sacks.

There are no traditional prayers written for the holiday, and there is no biblical or Talmudic text specific to the occasion. Therefore, shortly after the establishment of the state, the Chief Rabbinate was confronted with the issue of how to infuse Independence Day with some religious meaning. The difficulty is obvious. In his fascinating essay, Rabbi Shmuel Katz documents how rabbis Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel and Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog established specific guidelines for the prayer services for Independence Day in consultation with Rabbis Shauk Yisraeli and Moshe Tzvi Neriah, and mandated that a festive meal be eaten and charity given to the poor. Dr. Yoel Rappel notes in the Mahzor that the Religious Kibbutz Movement objected to the suggested service because the selections chosen (e.g. “Lekha Dodi,” customarily recited on Sabbath eve) deny the unique spirit and status of Independence Day.

In her essay in the volume, Dr. Erica Brown expresses a similar sentiment: “The prayers as they are currently organized fail to move me precisely because they are not specifically for this day alone.”

In response to the dilemma, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun’s essay attempts to demonstrate that Psalm 107, which opens the Independence Day prayer service, “captures the intentions of the psalmist, who wrote this hymn as a song of praise to celebrate the independence of the Jewish people and their return to their own land.”

Efforts to personalize the prayers of Independence Day included in the volume are a new version of the “Dayeinu” song written by Rabbi Doron Perez and six versions of an Al Hanissim prayer specific to the day. Rabbi Binyamin Lau recounts the custom of Kibbutz Sa’ad to recite Kiddush at the beginning of the festive Independence Day meal and the custom of the Bin-Nun family who would open the meal with a recitation of the verses read upon bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem and the “custom of eating matza together with leavened bread to express the transitional nature of this festival, which falls between Passover and Shavuot.”

Many of the essays in the book deal directly with the question we started with. What is the religious significance of the State of Israel for the modern Jew? Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch maintains “that the existence of the state makes possible the fulfillment of two great aims of Torah: the ingathering of the exiles and the building of a just society.” The state has truly been a place of refuge for European Jews before and after the Holocaust, for Sephardic Jews in the 1950s and for Russian Jews in the early 1990s, but have we been successful in building a just society? Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein writes that the establishment of the state “brought about a revival of Jewish identity or, in other words, a revival of the brit avot (the covenant of our forefathers). The renewal of the covenant, more than anything else, lends meaning and significance to [Independence Day] and turns it into an exalted day of celebration,” similar to what occurred at Hanukka and Purim. He bemoans the fact that the establishment of the state did not bring with a concomitant acceptance of the covenant of Sinai, the Torah.

In one of the most perceptive and insightful essays in the volume, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, founding Rosh Hayeshiva of Har Etzion and himself a Holocaust survivor, writes, “Someone who cannot see the past will also be incapable of seeing the future and of perceiving God’s hand...only someone who looks at the entire two thousand years and sees Jews being led into exile by Titus, sees the Crusades and pogroms – only someone who sees all of this understands the meaning of Jewish independence.”

The significance of the state is intimately connected to an historical consciousness and the challenge of today is installing that consciousness in our youth and “strengthening the moral foundation of our nation, to fight materialism and to raise the moral, religious, Torah and cultural level of the nation.”

Rabbi Eli Sadan, founder of the Bnei David army preparatory mechina in Eli, looks to the future and extends a challenge: “The world redemptive mission of the Jewish people can only be accomplished by the nation as a whole, when living a vital and exemplary national life in the land of Israel...the patriarchs set a precedent for future generations, engaging in the routine tasks of the world while remaining fully conscious of God’s presence.”

To add an element of diversity to the collection, it would have been nice to include essays from outside the national religious world, particularly from the secular or academic world. All of these essays and the others included in the volume leave much room for future study and the Mahzor, written in the aesthetically pleasing style of Koren, should enhance anyone’s observance of the holiday as expressed beautifully by the psalmist: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:24).

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