Book Review: New customs

Are the traditional symbols of patriotic sentiment too goyish?

Independence Day ceremony (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Independence Day ceremony
Few if any issues divide the world community of Orthodox Jews more than their approach to the Jewish state.
The extent of dissent on this matter is remarkable. For many Orthodox Jews, particularly those who define themselves as haredi, the creation of the State of Israel was nothing less than a rebellion against God.
This was a transgression of one of the three oaths forced upon the Jews as they were exiled from their land for their sins – “Do not rise up [to take the land] by force,” God was said to have warned.
The Zionist Movement was illegitimate in the eyes of most Orthodox rabbis because of its open rebellion against religious faith. Zionism was seen as particularly dangerous because it sought to replace traditional Judaism with Jewish nationalism.
This position was epitomized by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the grand master of Satmar Hassidism, in his book Vayoel Moshe. But it was a position shared by most of the rabbinic leadership – in both the yeshiva and hassidic worlds – before the Holocaust and to a certain extent after as well, though more pragmatic approaches have developed over the decades since.
A significant segment of the Orthodox community begged to differ. They saw in the establishment of the State of Israel nothing less than a miracle performed for the Jewish people by God. How else could the ingathering of the exiled Jews from the four corners of the earth be perceived? The tremendous military victories in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War were additional proof that God was with the Jews.
As the State of Israel has continued to flourish and thrive, these Orthodox Jews have tended to see their positive theological view of the Jewish state vindicated. To explain the centrality of secularism in the Zionist movement, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook resorted to a Hegelian-like historical dialectic in which this antithesis would eventually be synthesized.
It was for this second Orthodox group that the Koren Mahzor for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day was produced. A hefty volume, the prayer book contains an extensive compilation of most of religious Zionism’s founding texts on the subject of the State of Israel. There are selections from the late rabbis Tzvi Yehuda Kook, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Yehuda Amital and Shaul Yisraeli, as well as rabbis who are still with us such as Nachum Rabinovitch, Jonathan Sacks and Herschel Schachter.
The mahzor – a term normally used for High Holy Day prayer books – contains the liturgy that religious-Zionist rabbis have over the years incorporated to reflect a feeling of awe and thanksgiving for the establishment of a Jewish state, and for its expansion after the Six Day War to include areas with immense historical and religious freight – such as Jerusalem’s Old City and the Temple Mount, as well as Judea and Samaria.
Some of this liturgy has not made it into formal practice, such as the reciting of the Hallel prayer on Independence Day evening – a practice instituted by Rabbi Shlomo Goren – or adding Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria’s “For the Miracles” prayer to the Amida and the blessing after a meal on Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, patterned after the prayers added on Hanukka and Purim. These customs are presented as optional in the prayer book.
A running commentary, written by Rabbi Moshe Taragin, also notes that some communities do not recite the blessing preceding the Hallel prayer in the morning.
The impression one gets – both from the prayer book and from actual practice – is of a striving to strike the right balance.
On one hand, there is a desire to give expression to the sentiment that the creation of the State of Israel was a supremely positive event. For people of faith to want their religion to give expression to their own personal convictions is only natural.
But at the same time, Orthodox Jews are a very conservative group who are cautious about making changes to liturgy and custom. They are very conscious of the fact that many of their Orthodox counterparts – the haredim mentioned above – are not a party to their enthusiasm. As a result, there is a great deal of ambivalence surrounding Independence Day.
As a Jew who grew up in the Diaspora and was educated at the haredi Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, there is something that is to my mind un-Jewish about imbuing an essentially secular nation-state with religious meaning. Flags, military parades, sirens and other symbols of patriotic sentiment seem so goyish. Can I honestly say that the Belz Hassid whom I watched walk down a street in Mea She’arim, oblivious to the morning siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day, is less Jewish than the religious Zionist who is so respectful of the state-imposed moments of silence? Belz Hassidism was nearly wiped out by the Nazis and their collaborators; yet that Belzer’s act of defiance against the Zionists was, for him, a continuation of his Jewish tradition.
But that is a matter of taste.
It is a historical fact, however, that if not for the secular rebellion against traditional Judaism’s political passivity, Jewish history would have been very different.
Indeed, if the Jews had remained faithful to their religion – and the political passivism it dictated, at least with regard to the reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth – there would be no State of Israel today. Without resorting to the sorts of Hegelian historical dialectic preferred by Rav Kook, to what extent can we truly say that the State of Israel is a religious construct? The Koren Mahzor for Independence Day and Jerusalem Day is an attempt to institutionalize special liturgy and customs that reflect a positive Jewish approach to the establishment of the Jewish state. But the very act of affirmation – which is a very conscious, even political act – ends up achieving the opposite result: It reveals Orthodoxy’s theological ambivalence with modern Jewish sovereignty.