The centrality of the land

As we prepare to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, it is important to remember that for the Jewish people today Israel has a status more important than a mere political entity.

As we prepare to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, it is important to remember that for the Jewish people today Israel has a status more important than a mere political entity. Although the state can be challenged and criticized, since as a human creation it can err, as did the rulers of the ancient states of Israel and Judah, its existence is nevertheless crucial to Jews and Judaism. For many Zionist thinkers, the raison d'etre for the creation of the state was the need for a place of refuge, a place to escape anti-Semitism (this long before the Holocaust). But for some it also included the need for a place in which Judaism and Jewish culture would be the majority culture, thus strengthening Judaism and Jewish communities throughout the world. In some cases this also includes a religious, almost a messianic vision. Thus Solomon Schechter, a fervent Zionist and founder of Masorti Judaism, wrote: "The rebirth of Israel's national consciousness, and the revival of Israel's religion, or, to use a shorter term, the revival of Judaism are inseparable... History may, and to my belief, will repeat itself, and Israel will be the chosen instrument of God for the new and final mission; but then Israel must first effect its own redemption and live again its own life, and be Israel again, to accomplish its universal mission... 'Out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.'" This approach comes closer to what I believe to be the biblical view of the importance of the land, seeing it neither in terms of how it benefits Jews in other lands 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. To begin with, 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. 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 ultimate purpose of this was enunciated clearly by Isaiah: "On that day shall Israel be the third, with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth. Whom the Lord of Hosts will have blessed, saying, 'Blessed be My people Egypt, and Assyria the work of My hands, and my heritage Israel'" (19:24-25). The land is an integral part of this promise. Without the land Israel will not be able to fulfill its task. An analysis of the Torah, Israel's constitution, shows that the narrative is basically the story of how Israel got to the land and what it was to do there. It is entirely the story of a journey. Take away the chapters that deal with getting to the land and you would have a very brief book, ending with Genesis 11. The granting of the land is not simply the gift of a place to live. As Amos points out (9:7), God has taken other nations out of captivity and given them lands. In the case of Israel, the land is a place in which it can live according to the terms of the covenant and actualize the commands that God gives. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "To abandon the land would be to repudiate the Bible." The extreme position on this matter is the rabbinic saying (Sifre Deuteronomy 43) that when exiled, "you are to continue to observe the commandments so that when you return they will not be new to you." 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 it His people and it 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. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Bet Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly.