We celebrate Israel’s independence on fifth of Iyyar, this Tuesday. Although the modern state of Israel was founded on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyyar 5708) Jewish resettlement of the land began much earlier. Throughout the centuries, there were small pockets of Jews living in the holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed and Tiberias, but large numbers did not begin to immigrate until the late 19th century. In fact Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
Zionism’s intention was to resettle the land of Israel. Its vision was that the Jewish people must return to its ancestral home. And so by the time the state was established some 700,000 Jews lived there. Today, by the way, there are some six million Jews who live in the modern State of Israel.
In the 1920’s there were approximately 150,000 living there. Zionism was beginning to inspire Jews throughout the world. During the winter of 1926, Gershom Scholem decided to visit the land of Israel and see first hand this Zionist experiment. Scholem was a German Jewish scholar and the foremost expert on Jewish mysticism. His works are still considered groundbreaking and required reading for those studying mysticism. He penned a letter to his friend and colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers.
This letter was recently discovered. His observations are startling, his prescience frightening. Scholem opens the letter with the words, “This country is a volcano, and language is lodged within it.” He goes on to argue that the early Zionists are naïve. Their resuscitation of the Hebrew language, while a remarkable and unparalleled achievement, will prove dangerous.
He feared that even if secular Zionists do not believe in God, or wish to have nothing to do with Judaism, their everyday speech would evoke religious tropes. They may very well wish to banish God, and rebuild the nation and the land with their own hands, but their language makes this impossible. God’s spirit is awakened each and every day, when Israelis shop at the store, or listen to Waze’s navigation directions, or argue with each other.
It is part of what makes Israel so enthralling. It is also what gives me trepidation about its future.
Scholem believes that Israelis are playing with fire and do not even know it. Hebrew is the language of the prayerbook. It speaks about miracles. It is the language of the Bible. It speaks about prophecy. He continues: “It is impossible to empty the words so bursting with meaning, unless one sacrifices the language itself.”
Take for example one simple and mundane example. In Israel every street name is bursting with historical significance or religious import. In today’s Tel Aviv there is a street called “Kibbutz Galuyot.” It is not an insignificant street. Its name is also pregnant with meaning.
Prior to joining together in the words of the morning Shema, we recite the Ahavah Rabbah prayer. We gather the four tzitzit of our tallis together as we say: “Gather our people, in peace, O Lord, from the four corners of the earth; and lead us, in dignity, to our holy land, O God of great deliverance.”
Every day we pray that God will fulfill the Torah’s promise of kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles. For millennia this was only a prayer; this was some far off dream. We prayed that one day soon, God would send the messiah and bring us back to the land. We also conclude our Passover seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Now Jews have returned to the land of Israel from every nation of our diaspora. We have rebuilt our ancestral land.
Can a street name just be a street name?
What happens when the language of prayer becomes the language of reality?
Did the Jewish people rebuild the land? Or did God deliver us, in a miraculous salvation, and gather us from the four corners of the world and deliver us to our land? Our language determines reality. Prophecy and prayer have become part of everyday speech. The prayerbook appears on maps.
Walking the streets awakens these ancient dreams, everyday actions brings to life messianic longings.
In addition, after the Holocaust we were so desperate for miracles, and to see God’s hand once again manifest in our people’s lives, that we showered redemptive language on the State of Israel. God is no longer silent, we proclaimed. And then, after the 1967 war, when Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria and captured the Sinai, Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights, many could not help but proclaim God’s providence. In the weeks prior to the war we feared another Holocaust and then we watched as the shofar was sounded in our holy city of Jerusalem and soldiers stood weeping at the Western Wall.
God’s hand appeared before our eyes.
In Scholem’s view the Hebrew language leaves us no choice but to make such proclamations. Even when we do not intend to speak about a miraculous redemptions, our language does so effortlessly, and we perhaps unknowingly.
On the surface one might think this is a good thing, that a rabbi especially would find this ennobling. But when the modern state of Israel becomes a prayer, and the realization of a biblical prophecy, and we fail to see the complex reality that is a modern, democratic state, we do ourselves a disservice; we do our people and our nation an injustice.
While in my heart I sometimes feel that this state and the city that I love so much may very well be the fulfillment of my people’s millennial dreams, my head worries that too much God talk can crowd out our concern for justice. What is a miracle in my book may very well be a catastrophe in another’s. For the Egyptians the splitting of the sea is no miracle. In fact the exodus is not even mentioned in Egyptian records. But even our Torah records that people drowned so that we might be saved. God language (Hebrew?) makes little room for anything else, or anyone else.
If we speak about miracles can we still have concern for another people’s national aspirations? If we talk about the fulfillment of our messianic dreams do we leave room for Palestinian longings?
While walking the streets of Jerusalem stirs my heart in ways that I struggle to understand, I worry that too much talk about God and miraculous redemptions can damage democratic values. Miracles are about us and not them.
Democracies are instead about rights. They are best exemplified in how such nations guarantee the rights of minorities. How do they care for the underprivileged? How do they protect the non-citizen?
I wonder if Scholem is right. He concludes: “Because those who endeavor to revive the Hebrew language did not truly believe in the Judgment to which their acts are summoning us. May the levity that has accompanied us on this apocalyptic path not lead us to our destruction.”
Still I pray.
May Israel know peace—one day, soon.
May it realize the dream of its founders, immortalized in its Declaration of Independence:
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.