A few years ago, when I was studying in an Israeli yeshiva, I was getting very excited by the Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, as I usually do, singing, dancing, and praying with fervor. An American friend of mine asked me: “I am curious, why do you get so excited about Yom Haatzmaut? Did you sing and dance this much on Passover? Shouldn’t you have been more excited about Passover, a Biblical holiday?” It was a very interesting question.
Some see Yom Haatzmaut as an incomplete holiday, only the beginning of the redemption. I do not know if Israel is the beginning of the Messianic redemption, I am not a prophet. Honestly, I do not even care. I do not celebrate Zionism for what it can be, but rather for what it is. Zionism and the State of Israel are not add-ons to my identity as a Jew. Zionism is the vehicle which enables me to be a proud member of the Jewish People. Zionism represents the flourishing of a total Jewish culture. Israel has its own music, art, history, literature, people, and language, Hebrew, a mysterious, ancient, modern, and most beautiful language. Though I am not Israeli, the fact that Israel is the official home land of my people connects me to that culture. Israel represents the Contemporary Jew, not constrained to the demands of other nations, capable of advancing both Jewish culture and world culture on our own. Most importantly, we are now capable of taking care of our own poor and fixing our own society, and even capable of fulfilling the mandate of Tikkun Olam, improving the world in general.
These sentiments may sound strange coming from someone raised and living in an Orthodox milieu. My sentiments echo the sentiments of my heroes Ahad HaAm and Hayyim Nahman Bialik. These early Enlightenment Zionists believed that Halakha was useful for keeping a post-exilic community united, but served little practical purpose once the Jewish People were united under one flag. Though my perspective is slightly different, I do recognize that the reality of Zionism has fundamentally changed the meaning of Jews and Judaism.
The fact of the matter is that my life is not only Torah and Halakha. Though I ascribe to Torah and Halakha, my Jewish identity cannot be constrained to the Torah and Rabbinic literature. I find inspiration and meaning in the full gamut of culture, much of which simply cannot be found in traditional Torah literature. I am open to expanding the canon of a well-rounded, educated Jew from Talmud and commentaries to the realm of what Bialik called Aggadah—the story of the Jewish People, a part of which is Halakha, though only a part.
Having a national-cultural home enables me to proudly walk on the streets as a Jew, a holistic Jew. Without Zionism my cultural identity would be, by definition, not Jewish. If the Jewish story was limited to Torah, then anything outside that scope is not Jewish. I do not know how I would be able to live that kind of bifurcated life, being Jewish while engaging the world with a definitively non-Jewish lens. Because of Israel, a nation grounded in the reality of the world, when I engage the world at large I am able to do so as a Jew.
This sort of identity also brings with it challenges. Because of the fact that being a Zionist is so vital to my identity, I must be able to evaluate my Zionist identity with a critical eye. When your Zionist identity is a rooted in the pseudo-prophetic fulfillment of Messianic visions, then it is easier to wipe your hands of responsibility. Once you are discussing eschatology you are no longer working within the framework of this world and are free to act beyond reason. Alternatively, when Israel becomes nothing more than a safe haven for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, a sentiment still prevalent among many Jews today (even younger Jews), then it is easy to say that we are not interesting in promoting an agenda that extends beyond survivalism, and Israel becomes a symbol of Jewish isolationism. Because Zionism is so real, practical, and fundamental to my identity, I require an openness to issues, both internal and external, that I feel threaten the core.
After thinking about it for a few minutes I responded to my friend: “Because it is very hard for me to relate to Passover. It happened so long ago, to people I neither know nor identify with. It is so abstract. Yom Haatzmaut , on the other hand, is so real, it is in my face every moment of every day.” Israel is real, I can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell this wondrous land and state. I do not know anyone who left Egypt, but I do know people living in, working in, learning in, and defending Israel. I find meaning in the poetry of the Exodus, Az Yashir, but I also find profound meaning in “El HaTzipor” (“The Bird”), Bialik’s famous Zionist ode.
The Rabbis teach that in each generation a person must view themselves as if they left Egypt. Maybe that does not mean that we should literally feel that we left Egypt with the Ancient Israelites 1000 years before the Common Era, but rather that we should find that in our lives which helps us connect to God and our people. Passover and Yom Haatzmaut are not mutually exclusive. What would the Exodus and Judaism mean for me if I did not have a vehicle through which I can view Judaism as a living, breathing, and holistic identity?