The nature of independence

Attempts to imbue the state with religious significance may backfire.

flags 88 (photo credit: )
flags 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's Independence Day is a new holiday in Jewish historical terms. While religious longing for a "return to Zion" has always been part of our tradition, the advent of our actual return to our ancestral homeland has yet to be formally canonized in our prayers. Within Orthodox circles there has been much controversy as to the manner in which traditional Judaism should relate to the establishment of a basically secular state. There are those who reject the Jewish state's sovereignty because it was founded not by the will of God, but by an act of mortals. For this segment of the Orthodox world, it is impossible to invest the liturgy with any changes that would acknowledge the reality of a Jewish state. More dramatically, these Orthodox Jews refuse to celebrate Israel's birthday in any form whatsoever. There are other elements within Orthodoxy which recognize that Israel needed to be established by the Jewish people. They hold that the present state is a preparatory stage for an eventual messianic state. For them, adding liturgical elements of the tradition to Israel Independence Day is necessary to guarantee religious significance to the Jewish people's return to Israel. Thus, on Independence Day, they include the Hallel prayers in the morning service, thereby elevating the holiday to the level of the three-pilgrimage holidays of Succot, Pessah and Shavuot. THERE IS a serious conflict between religion and state in Israel. This became evident during the disengagement, when primarily Orthodox Jews battled Israel's secular army; and when halachic intrusions were proffered by some rabbis who "divinely" commanded soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements. The conflict is intensified by the unholy alliance between religion and politics, whereby national symbols, like the Western Wall, the Israeli flag, and even Jerusalem have been institutionalized with such religious rhetoric that those who relate to these symbols in historical or cultural terms are considered impostors. Indeed, the religious language of today's Israel has become emotionally charged. Religious concepts that might be chosen in order to add to the sanctity of Independence Day could very well take on a political meaning that could lead to dire consequences. Religious concepts like "messiah," "redemption" and "Promised Land" are all loaded. They are terms that, when transformed into absolutes, taken to extremes and laced with political force, have even been used to justify violence. DAVID BEN-GURION often used religious terminology to lend support to the needs of the modern state. In a play on the talmudic concept "concerning three things one should die, lest he perform them - idolatry, incest and murder" (Sanhedrin 74a), Ben-Gurion added his own "three things": "Concerning freedom of Jewish immigration, the right to build up our land, and the political independence of the Jewish people in its land." But, even Ben-Gurion's seemingly innocuous application of an important religious paradigm can have its dangers. Once religion is called upon to set absolute standards of behavior, as opposed to guidelines for human interchange, regrettable actions can result. Suppose the independent State of Israel turns out to be racist in practice, or pursues a foreign policy that would extend its borders to match the biblical borders of ancient Israel? Should Jews feel so religiously bound that they would willingly die to defend such a Jewish state? One needs to be extremely cautious when contemplating the religious significance of the establishment of any nation-state. Often a cozy relationship that exists between religion and state leads to extremism. The Jewish religious tradition in the Diaspora had as one of its themes the return to Israel "from the four corners of the world." It does not follow from this that the establishment of the Jewish state necessarily means that the Jewish religious tradition is the sole raison d'etre for its sovereign being, or the singular prop by which to govern that state. IN FACT, it may even be unwise to have any permeation of Independence Day celebrations with ceremonies whose prevailing mood is one of religious somberness. The conclusion of Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers serves as the opening ceremony for Independence Day. It is comforting to many to see Israel's chief rabbis and army cantors intone mournful Jewish prayers. But one must be careful that such religious overtones do not exclude the secular Jewish population, and most significantly the Israeli non-Jewish population, which comprises almost 20 percent of the total citizenry. It can be discriminatory when a ceremony of a national secular holiday finds its expression in Jewish religious terms, thus leaving out Druse, Beduin and Christians who have fought and died for Israel. Religious beliefs (essentially a private matter) can take on state-like proportions and breed exclusivity. Exclusivity can beget intolerance; intolerance can beget prejudice; prejudice can beget hatred; and hatred can beget death - to both Arabs and Jews. The role that holidays, especially national ones, as opposed to religious ones, plays in Israeli society must be approached delicately. Israel's independence should be "dependent" on religious influence but "independent" of religious control. An enlightened society should be governed by religious persuasion, not by religious coercion. Given the political passions that abound in Israel today - much coming from the religious Right - it would be best if Israel shed Independence Day of any religious content. Israel's Independence is the realization of the ultimate victory of the Jews over our enemies - and of freedom. The celebration of this holiday must never contradict this singular most important lesson.