Wrestling with the Jewish State

At first glance a law defining Israel as a “Jewish nation state” would seem to reflect the core of what Israel means to the Jewish people, not a radical proposal that has drawn bitter controversy within Israeli society and beyond. After all, Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 declared the new nation to in fact be “medina yehudit b’eretz yisrael, a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.” However, though the bill has the strong support of Prime Minister 

Netanyahu and many supporters, those who oppose it include both Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel and his successor Reuven Rivlin, who hails from the same Likud party as the Prime Minister. This opposition is also inspired by the very same Declaration of Independence which goes on to guarantee that the State of Israel will be founded on the principle of “equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” In the eloquent words of President Rivlin “Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined, and continue to be so. These are not merely words. This is the beating heart of the State of Israel” 

For me these words evoke an image that is central to the Torah that is read this week. Jacob, returning from his exile from his home, hears that his brother Esau, from whom he fled. still waits for him and comes with an army of 400 men. Fearing not only for both his own life and the lives of his family, Jacob splits away from his camp and spends a night alone in prayer. 

However he is not alone­ he finds himself locked in a struggle with an angelic figure who “wrestles with him until daybreak.” Whether this angel a representative of Esau, himself, G*d or all three is unknown to us. What we do know is that the struggle results in both a wound to Jacob’s thigh and a new blessing. In fact, a new name: Jacob will now be called Israel, the “one who struggles with G*d and mortals and prevails.” Immediately after this blessing, Jacob finally encounters Esau and learns that his brother wants nothing more than to live in peace. 

Israel, the very name given in 1948 to the Jewish state established in the land promised to Jacob, recalls the struggle that would forever be central to the life of his offspring. And this struggle in all of its facets is reflected in the tension being a Jewish and a democratic state that beats within us and to which the proposed new law threatens to put an end. Our fear would cause us to reject permanently the full participation of our cousins, the non Jewish citizens of Israel, mostly Arabs of the Muslim, Christian, and Druze faiths. We would also codify the definition of Jewish imposed by a particular interpretation of what Judaism is, losing out on the way other movements within Judaism have wrestled with G*d. And, most significantly, we would cease to see I the great project of Israel itself, a state for the protection of Jews and the protection of Jewish values ­­ as a dream still in progress. 

Of course it is tempting to do just that. To shrug off the challenges inherent in our history and heritage and secure what was, after all, the most urgent need: a homeland for the safety of the Jewish people. However, to do so would disconnect the State of Israel from all of its founders: from those like Herzl who dreamed her, from those like Ben Gurion who declared  her, from those like Jabotinsky and Begin who provided alternative visions, and from Jacob, the one who first won the right to be called Israel through his refusal to stop wrestling. 

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.