Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Why Doesn’t Judaism Celebrate National Sovereignty?

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Temples and the loss of Jewish political sovereignty. Commendable. But why doesn’t the Jewish religion also do the reverse: celebrate attaining and/or regaining sovereignty in the Holy Land?

We don’t usually think about things that are not there, but “holes” in the calendar can be just as instructive as the holidays that do exist. For instance, there is no commemoration whatsoever of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and the establishment of Jewish political nationhood (Passover celebrates national freedom, not political sovereignty). There’s no place in the Jewish calendar for the return of Jews from Babylonian exile under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah and the reestablishment of Jewish autonomy (but we still have a fast day for some assassinated Jewish viceroy named Gedaliah whom very few Jews even know existed?).

And then there’s Hanukkah – the quintessential Jewish holiday of the Maccabees’ victory in regaining political sovereignty. Except that’s not what Hanukkah was made into! The rabbis turned it into a “spiritual” holiday celebrating a miracle of light. The problem is that in both Books of the Maccabees (quite different Greek and Hebrew versions), there is no mention of such a miracle. So, the Rabbis simply sent those books into canonical exile, deciding that they wouldn’t be part of the official books of the Torah because they glorified political sovereignty through military victory. Indeed, what is the core song that we chant on Hanukkah? Ma’oz Tzur – a litany of Jewish history’s persecutions!

Thus, it was left to the secular State of Israel to establish an official day for celebrating national independence (5 Iyar) and the redemption of Jerusalem (28 Iyar). At the moment (more than seven decades later), the best that Judaism can do is a blessing for the State of Israel (every shabbat) and some religious Jews will say “Hallel” on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

There is nothing wrong with religious commemoration of historical, national disasters. But there is something amiss (literally and figuratively) when the positive highlights of the Jewish People’s political life are ignored or shunted aside. The problem is one of “balance”: do we want our religion to mainly commemorate the “bad” – or at the least give equal memory to the “good”? In short, should we continue emphasizing “lachrymose Judaism”? Not very healthy or wise, especially given the incredible accomplishments – political and otherwise – of Judaism and the Jewish People over their long and illustrious history.

Which brings me back to Tisha B’Av. No one is suggesting that we abolish this important day of fasting and mourning. However, many serious and sincere Jewish scholars and practitioners are beginning to raise the possibility of returning some perspective to the day. The main question is what precisely is Tisha B’Av commemorating: the Temples’ destruction or the loss of political sovereignty? Although the former symbolizes the latter, they are not the same for the simple reason that we have regained our political sovereignty but have not rebuilt the Temple – out of national choice. Indeed, Jerusalem today has a Jewish population far larger than at any other time in Jewish history. And the State of Israel is (arguably) more powerful than ever before in our past.

Shouldn’t that too be part of Tisha B’Av? We could fast half a day and Jewishly celebrate the other half (the secular celebration is already taken care of). We could chant the Book of Lamentations (Megillat Aikha) in the evening as always, and then in the ensuing afternoon read something from the Book of Ezra (and perhaps also a few texts from 1948). Other variations of the theme easily come to mind.

It is worth remembering that Tisha B’Av is not a holiday mentioned in the Torah – it was established by the Rabbis after the Second Temple’s destruction. Thus, it could be “revised” to take into account the continuation of the historical narrative regarding the Jewish People’s political sovereignty. Indeed, tradition has it that when the Messiah arrives and rebuilds the Third Temple, Tisha B’Av will turn into a day of joy and celebration. For now, with at least political sovereignty reestablished, we can use that tradition to render half the day a celebration.

Judaism should always remember the past, but it shouldn’t be stuck in a religious/historical quicksand as if nothing has changed since.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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