In Plain Language: One nation – not two – under God

We have the chance – our best, perhaps final chance – to bring Jewish history to its greatest perfection.

temple destruction521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
temple destruction521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Back in the day, as we started our class in elementary school – a parochial, Orthodox Jewish day school, I should point out – we lined up like good little citizens, placed our hands on our hearts, and recited the following sentence, in unison with our teacher: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Until I came on aliya, I never realized just how powerful and profound that one little sentence could be, especially the part about “one nation, indivisible.”
This past week, we read in these pages that an op-ed recently appeared in Agudat Yisrael’s paper Hamodia, proposing that an autonomous, semi-sovereign, “haredi-friendly” entity be created within the boundaries of the Holy Land. The very fact that Hamodia – which carefully screens the op-eds that it permits to see the light of day – even printed this piece is an indication of the level of anxiety within the haredi community, which sees itself as being ever more marginalized and disenfranchised within the general society. There is a palpable concern among many ultra-Orthodox that their spiritual way of life is in danger of being undermined by the incoming government, to the extent that they see secession as a viable alternative to citizenship.
NOW, THE concept of a Jewish “state within a state” is neither revolutionary nor reprehensible. For centuries in the Diaspora, it actually allowed us to stay together and maintain our community in the face of both anti-Semitism and assimilation. When permitted by the host authorities, we created kehilot, or cantons, in which we could zealously maintain our traditions and safeguard our cultural and religious institutions.
The Jewish population contributed its fair share to the community fund in these cantons, which then used the moneys to build schools, consecrate cemeteries, and hire rabbis, mohalim and kosher slaughterers to service the public. If you paid up, you were “covered” from brit mila to burial. Other than perhaps seeking work in the wider world, you were insulated and needed never stray from the ethnic borders of the shtetl. As the late chief rabbi of Turkey, David Aseo, told me when I visited him some years ago in Istanbul, “This is how we kept our Jews faithful for close to a millennium: We are at once a part and apart from the Turkish people; patriotic and particularistic at the very same time.”
But as successful as this approach may have been throughout our wanderings, the question is, can it – should it – work in Israel? Can we tolerate two hearts beating within the same body? While haredi/hassidic groups have lived and thrived here since long before the state was established, and may be prepared to continue doing so into the foreseeable future, is that what is best for the Jewish People as a whole? Can we build the kind of commonwealth we envision if all the forces within society are not pulling in the same direction? In response to a column I wrote some years ago decrying the fact that the majority of Orthodox synagogues in the world do not recite the prayer for the well-being of IDF soldiers, I received a letter that was brutally honest.
“Others will tell you all kinds of excuses as to why they do not recite the prayer,” said the writer, “but the unadulterated truth is that, while we certainly wish no harm to the men and women in uniform, we do not want to connect in any way to any official arm of the State.
It is, simply put, not our State.”
To that individual, and to all who think like him, I say, you are wrong, on two counts.
First, practically speaking, you are already a part of this state. You walk down streets which were paved by city workers, illuminated by street lamps that are powered by the national electric company. The water you drink, even the air you breathe, are provided and protected by our government. And while we certainly may thank the Almighty for His protective shelter of peace, it is His messengers in the police force and the military who bring that blessing to bear.
Secondly there are innumerable things a country can do that individuals, even entire communities, cannot hope to accomplish. The amazing renaissance in Jewish learning, as well as the unparalleled ease in living a fully religious lifestyle, is a direct result of the viability of the state. Not only does the government pump hundreds of millions of shekels into the religious educational system, from kindergartens to yeshivot of higher learning, it also facilitates the building of religious institutions, from synagogues to mikvaot to the eruvin that allow one to carry things freely on Shabbat in every Israeli city. The preponderance of kosher food, the elevation of Jewish holidays into national holidays, even the rejuvenation of Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” imbues this country with an authentically Jewish atmosphere not seen, or felt, in 2,000 years.
True, we do not have a perfect society here, on any level, including religiously.
But what society, I ask you, has ever been completely flawless? Let us not forget that the great King Solomon – who built the first Beit Hamikdash (Temple) – so angered the Almighty with his excesses that God decided to split the nation into two separate kingdoms, Judah and Israel, shortly after Solomon died. And the generation of the second Beit Hamikdash, which the Talmud has characterized as irreparably infected by disunity and baseless hatred, was dashed to the ground and utterly destroyed, along with Jerusalem.
Yet having said all this, fully convinced that we, too, must have a state that is “one nation, indivisible,” we must be careful not to leave out the next clause, “under God.” There must be a constant, conscious attempt to continually enhance the Jewish character of the state, accentuating our connection to and closeness with God. We must understand that secularizing Israel only serves to rob it of its specialty, the thing that makes it stand out among the nations, a marvel and modern wonder of the world. The classification assigned to us – “Semite” – derives from the fact that God’s name, Shem, is constantly on our lips.
We tend to romanticize the past, fantasizing that somehow we had it better in the “good old days.” But fantasy is exactly what that is – not reality. The proximity of Holocaust Remembrance Day to Independence Day reminds us that historically Jewish life outside of Israel was, ultimately, more Holocaust than heavenly. We have the chance – our best, perhaps final chance – to bring Jewish history to its greatest perfection.
If, that is, we join together, secular and observant alike, in the effort. ■
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.