I’ll be joining JTS colleagues and students tomorrow in saying Hallel to mark the occasion of Israel’s 69th birthday. When asked how and why I give thanks for Israel, despite injustices and inadequacies that I too have loudly criticized on occasion, and how I can give thanks to God for Israel, thereby implicating God in Israel’s failings as well as its achievements — I reply that on Yom Ha’atzma’ut I cannot not give thanks. I am a religious Jew and a committed Zionist. My relationship to Israel is fundamental, non-negotiable, and unbreakable. Ask me my thoughts about its politics and policies on other days of the year, and I will respond with appropriate complexity. This day, however, is not like others. After 24 hours devoted to the memory of those who died so that Israel might live, I will spend the next 24 focused on the many reasons Israel has given all Jews, and me personally, for thanksgiving. Here are three of them.
Israel taught me to imagine and build the Jewish future out of hope and pride rather than fear. I arrived at the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem in the summer of 1975 to do graduate work, and found a country still recovering from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. A tank battle on the Golan had stood between victory and possible destruction. A friend of mine had been seriously wounded in that battle; virtually every Israeli I met had suffered personal loss; the danger from Israel’s enemies had by no means disappeared. Astonishingly, Israeli society was vibrant and self-confident. The cafeteria overflowed with passionate debate about what the future should be, but I heard little doubt that that future would be bright. There is something profound about this attitude, one virtually required of every true leader. “Things will work out — and if they don’t, we will deal with it.” Jews had faced worse, as a people, and emerged eventually stronger for the ordeal. The lesson has stuck with me. Israel confers the tangible blessings of pragmatic confidence on Jews everywhere, even if some of its politicians have recently appealed more and more to fear.
Israel inculcates another character trait that I greatly value: a kind of seriousness that seems far less widespread in America. It stems perhaps from the fact that peace is so elusive in the Middle East. Everything Israelis accomplish is done in the face of real enemies. Moral choices — and moral failings — are glaring. When my friends in Israel want to compliment someone, they say he or she is retzini, serious: a person to be reckoned with, whether in scholarship or the high-tech world or sports. Judaism, even while making ample room for joy and celebration, has always insisted that life matters, and the world matters; history is not just “one damn thing after another” but an opportunity to use the time allotted to us, as individuals and communities, to do good. That is true of Judaism whether (like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) you practice it as a religion or (like Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan) as a “civilization.” Either way, Judaism blesses and burdens you with responsibility and weights life with meaning. Israeli Jews bear the burden of Jewish history and Jewish meaning whether they want to or not. For better and for worse, this weight inflects how they act and speak.
Christians and Muslims too bear the burdens of faith and history in the Holy Land. Religion matters in ways that are not so obvious in America, where — for constitutional reasons I treasure — religion remains confined largely to the private sphere. The ubiquitous presence of religion in Israel can be infuriating, as when ultra-Orthodox rabbis use state power to discriminate against forms of Judaism they do not like, including mine. At other moments, however, the call of the sacred can be bracing and inspirational. It often bears wisdom. I will never forget the declaration of an ultra-Orthodox Jew to me one day, as we looked out over the Old City from the balcony of his tiny apartment in Mea She’arim, that “either the world’s great religions will learn to live with each other in peace here, or this will be the site of Armageddon.” I think of that warning each time I pray to God for peace, using the same words as my host in Mea She’arim. Our understanding of the words is probably as different as our politics, but we both value prayer as well as peace.
I do not believe, when I recite Hallel, that God is personally responsible for the events of the day — not for the triumph of one candidate or army, or the defeat of another; not for the cancer that afflicts one child, or the cure that saves another. God did not sentence the six million to die at the hands of the Nazis, or stand with sword outstretched on the battlefield in 1948, or 1967, or 1973. Heschel spoke for me on this subject, as on so many others, when He wrote in the wake of the Six Day War, that “the presence of God in history is never conceived to mean His penetration of history. God’s will does not dominate the affairs of men.” For a mere mortal like me to understand how revelation works, or creation, or redemption, I’d have to understand God — and that is beyond me. “The ultimate secrets belong to the Lord,” the Book of Deuteronomy avers. We have to rest content with “what is revealed” — namely, the commandments designed to help us add compassion and justice to the world — two of the attributes declared by the Torah to be God’s.
The religious significance of Israel to my mind lies in that summons. I do not see the state as an arena in which divine politics is played out in messianic time. Israel is rather a precious chance for Jews, gifted with sovereignty, to enact covenantal obligations in a way that has not been possible in the Diaspora. Israel is a public space where social policy can be governed and guided by the commandments and teachings of the Torah. That is why Heschel declared, “The great sacred deed for [Jews] today is to build the land of Israel.”
I know there is something old-fashioned about that utterance from a half-century ago. Five long decades have passed since the conquest of the West Bank. We have seen so many signs of peace prove ephemeral, have swelled so often with hope and suffered disappointment — and the sufferings of Israelis and Palestinians has been incalculable. They continue. One does not close one’s eyes to all that when giving thanks for Israel, as we do not block out the harsh realities of sickness and death when praising God for life and blessing. On the contrary: praising God each morning for “healing the sick” and “raising up those who are bowed down” obligates us to undertaken actions that advance that work. The same holds true for the prayer for peace. “When will You reign in Zion? Speedily, in our day, forever more.”
I am grateful for the gift of a democratic Jewish state in the Land of Israel, where Jews have the chance to work with others to make wrongs right under the guidance of Torah. It is better by far to bear the sins that inevitably come with the use and abuse of power than to suffer the sort of powerlessness that many generations of Jews in exile knew all too well — and Israel’s virtues far outnumber its sins. Its achievements in some areas are amazing.
When I say Hallel tomorrow, I will more than anything be singing praise for Israel’s life and the manifold opportunities for goodness that it has brought to the Jewish people, and through us to the world.