Just a Thought...On Zionism: Embracing all Jews

Instead of rejecting from afar the state’s institutions as devoid of Torah, how about accepting the invitation to come and try to influence from within?

Yemenite immigrants gather for a photo at Rosh Ha’ayin, in the early years of the state. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: GPO FLICKR)
Yemenite immigrants gather for a photo at Rosh Ha’ayin, in the early years of the state.
The rise in terrorist attacks against Jews in Israel and abroad the last few months puts into focus the question of what we Jews are trying to accomplish here in our little country. Is the purpose of Israel to serve as a safety zone? Are we here only to ensure the physical well being of the Jewish people? Is there not some loftier greater goal to which we aspire? In a sentence, to borrow from the old Zionist credo, we are here to “build and be built.”
Our goal is to take the brilliance of the Torah, which has been exiled along with the Jewish people, and redeem it from the synagogues and kitchens to which it has been banished. We aim to apply its wisdom and light on a national level. No longer should the questions asked of rabbis be confined to the kashrut of our pots, pans and meat; but are our social welfare policies kosher? Are we applying the Torah’s dictum of “Justice, justice shall thou pursue” in all the areas of our statecraft? Are we living up to the Torah’s challenge of us to be a “treasured people” and “light unto the nations”? For 2,000 years we were able to rightly hide behind the unfortunate position of Jews in their dispersed lands; “everywhere a guest, nowhere at home.” This allowed us to avoid the responsibilities that sovereign nations carry to create a just and fair society.
The establishment of our state in 1948 did not just establish our sovereignty, but also declared our independence. Independence is not just freedom from subjugation, but it is a declaration of responsibility. We are now responsible to take care of our own people in our own special way.
When Zionism was first promulgated at the end of the 19th century and early 20th, it met some of its fiercest opposition from the Jews themselves. Orthodox Jewry was unprepared for a redemption that fell way short of the supernatural miracles promised by the Bible and ancient rabbis. After struggling for so long to keep the mitzvot against some of the harshest of conditions, they just could not imagine a redemption brought about by people who did not keep Shabbat or the dietary laws.
On the other side of the coin, the Reformists and secularists were unprepared for any redemption at all. They sought their messianic ideals in the integration and assimilation of the Jews within European society. For them, “Berlin is our Jerusalem” and “France is our Zion.” History has proven how naive those hopes were.
Zionism is not just the restoration of the Jewish People to their historical homeland; it is the restoration of Judaism to its rightful place as the center of our national life. For too long Judaism was confined and shackled into the corner of most people’s lives; that dark, often ignored, space called religion. Zionism is the extraction of Judaism from its prison and the rescue of its values. It’s an opportunity to prove that religion is not irrelevant nor out of touch with the fundamental needs and concerns of the modern man.
Our haredi brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel are in an unique position to help make this happen. They represent some of the most loyal Jews to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. They are fully committed to Jewish education and have a birthrate that puts the Jewish secular and religious-Zionist camps to shame. The haredim believe in the primacy of Torah, it is “their lives and the length of their days.” What they fail to understand is their responsibility to the rest of the people of Israel. By continuing their “siege mentality” the haredi world is disconnecting themselves from their fellow Jews and thus rendering the Torah they represent impotent.
No one is asking the haredi public to abandon their values. Nor are we asking them to embrace secular life and culture. What we are asking for is an embrace of Jews who are different from them. An embrace of their fellow Jews is not an acceptance of a lifestyle they do not condone. What it does entail is affording the secular public the “right to be wrong.” After all, is that not the very same right that the secular majority has afforded them for close to seven decades now? An embrace of our fellow Jews is itself an extension of the same Torah values they hold so dear.
Our sages caution us that derech eretz kadma la-Torah, the way of the world precedes the Torah. We must first be part of the world before we can be part of Torah. If the haredi world believes they have a mission to be a “light unto the nations” then they must become part of Israel beyond backroom politics securing budgets for their continued separatism.
We need the haredim.
In a generation in which we are beginning to question our rights to this land and our role as the Chosen People, the haredim offer an unabashed narrative asserting our connection to the land and the special role the Jewish people play in history. But the haredim also need us! They need us to provide the goods and services necessary to sustain the yeshivot and their way of life. They need us to provide the infrastructure that a state requires in the 21st century. They need us as to serve as the utensil for the content they are producing.
Instead of rejecting from afar the state’s institutions as devoid of Torah, how about accepting the invitation to come and try to influence from within? I have no doubt that such an influence will be beneficial to all parties involved and will yield a true example of Jewish unity.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.