Ysoscher Katz

Preparing for the day after: The Nature of the Jewish State

There is an impending national panim chadashot beyond the war’s still-dark horizon. We’d better start preparing for it now. (Panim chadashot is a halakhic term for something already in existence that has been granted like-new status.)

Allow me to explain.

There is no denying that the current barrage of M16 bullets ricocheting across the battlefield and the heavy bomb smoke billowing over Israel and the Gazan sky are making it hard to see very far, clouding the vision of both our physical eyes and our mind’s eye. Nevertheless, if one looks really hard, one cannot help noticing the tremendous spiritual, cultural, and sociological potential waiting on the horizon.

Once the bombing stops and shooting subsides, Israel will be, spiritually, like what halakha calls a “panim chadashot,” a newly reconstituted version of the original.

In hilkhot kashrut we have the concept of “chazara le’kivshan,” which in turn creates a form of panim chadashot. Chazara le’kivshan (literally, return to the furnace or kiln) is the term used to describe how we kasher earthenware vessels. The rule is that they cannot be kashered in the conventional manners used to kasher other materials (metal, etc.). Therefore, if they become non-kosher, the only way to make them kosher again is by returning them to the kiln and reconstituting them. This way, they are legally considered like a new utensil (panim chadashot), replacing the past one that became unkosher.

Regarding Israel’s spiritual and political state, something akin is underway.

On October seventh, the day widely referred to as the “Black Shabbat,” when more than 1,200 Israelis were tortured and murdered by blood-thirsty terrorists, more than 250 were kidnapped to Gaza, and several kibbutzim were all but burnt to the ground, Israel was consumed by flames, metaphorical and real, as if being returned to the kiln. With the smoldering kibbutzim something else went down in flames as well: many of our first-principle cultural, sociological, and theological assumptions. Old paradigms crumbled under the enormous weight of the October 7th calamity.

That fire of October 7th is still burning as Israel battles for the return of the hostages and safety for the entire state. When that fire finally subsides, there will be a new Israel, with many of the modern Jewish state’s foundational principles lying in heaps of ashes. We will have a real panim chadashot moment: the contours of a state will remain, but it will be in tremendous need of new content.

Creating that content is the task and privilege of the thinkers, philosophers, theologians, and all stakeholders in Israel and in the diaspora. It will be an opportunity to revisit many of the first-principles of Jewish sovereignty, statehood, authority, and the like. On the “day after,” we will have the chance AND responsibility to reconstitute a new ethos for the state, a fresh vision of what Jewish sovereignty and statehood should look like culturally, spiritually, and religiously. There will be many macro and micro questions waiting to be answered anew.

Macro: The two parallel strains of Zionism, secular and religious, have been around for very long. Ideas, however, like plants, atrophy with time, unless they are tended to. Like flora, they require pruning, weeding, and occasionally even holistic rehabilitation. The dual Zionisms (secular and religious) are long due for all of the above. Some aspects of their respective philosophies need to be discarded, others rehabilitated, while others still require some fine-tuning.

Micro: What are the concomitant privileges and responsibilities of being a sovereign state? How will the religion-state dynamic look, and how can these powers work in tandem, collaboratively rather than antagonistically? What does it mean to be a Jewish state for all kinds of Jews, whereby every Jew, regardless of denominational affiliation, has access to the privileges Israeli citizenship affords, nor is any Jew, regardless of their level of piety, exempt from sharing in the burdens imposed upon Israeli society? What will the public square look like? What is the correct relationship between Yiddishkeit and the state: how can we create a healthier dynamic between the state and classical Judaism? And, along those lines, how could the Rabbanut be revamped, whereby it becomes a source of pride and inspiration for all Jews, secular and religious alike?

The task is enormous and the questions weighty, and the solutions therefore are neither easy nor obvious. Arriving at the correct answers demands time, effort, delberation and much dedication. One thing is clear though: the current solutions to these vexing challenges do not work and have failed Hashem, Amo ve’Torato, God, His nation and His Torah.

Granted, the war is still raging. At this time Israeli society is grappling with questions of life and death. We nevertheless should not completely ignore the questions of what happens afterwards, when the war comes to a halt and the fissures in our cultural and political edifice are no longer obscured by the clatter of war.

We are taught, “Hachacham einav be’rosho,” the wise person thinks ahead and does not wait for when things are too urgent, thereby making it difficult to respond methodically and with forethought. Instead, wisdom entails thinking ahead so that when the time comes, we are prepared. It is our task to prepare now so that when that privileged time arrives, when the bloodletting has come to an end, we are ready to go, set to get started on the tortuous journey of rehabilitating a state whose confidence and self-understanding have been crushed.

It is undoubtedly a scary task but also one that is filled with promise and excitement. We pray every morning “Or chadash al Tziyon ta’ir–[God,] shed a new light on Zion.” The silver lining in this very dark cloud is that we will have the opportunity to partner with God in the enormous task of enveloping Israel in a new and bright light.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.