In 1948, the leaders of the World Zionist Organization had to pick a name for the new Jewish state which they were establishing. According to our tradition, the main name for our entire people is Yisrael – Israel; thus, these Zionist leaders decided to pick the name, Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel.
Within the name Yisrael, we find a spiritual message, as Yisrael includes (in the last syllable) one of the names for Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. This serves as a reminder that our people are to represent the Divine Name to the world through serving as a social example of the Divine ways, as it is written: “Go in His ways; and all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you” (Deuteronomy 28:9,10). The Prophets of Israel would emphasize that our ultimate security in the Land of Israel depends on our fulfilling the mission to go in the Divine ways, and in this spirit, David, King of Israel, conveyed to us the following Divine message:
“If only My people would heed Me, if Israel would walk in My ways. In an instant I would subdue their foes, and against their tormentors, I would turn My hand.” (Psalm 81:14,15).
The Prophets of Israel also foretold that, during the messianic age, other peoples will journey to Jerusalem, the spiritual center of the Land of Israel, in order to learn about the Divine ways. For example, the Prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
“Many peoples will go and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the Mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will come forth Torah and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” Isaiah 2:3)
The above verses indicate that the People of Israel are to serve as the messengers of Hashem in the Land of Israel. It is therefore not surprising that the religious members of the Zionist council in charge of drafting the text of the Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel also wanted the Declaration to include a reference to the God of Israel. They were opposed, however, by certain secularists on the council who felt that it would be “heretical” to mention God in this historic Zionist document.
David Ben Gurion, who became the State’s first prime minister, therefore suggested the following compromise: The text would say, “With trust in the Rock of Israel.” This was a traditional Jewish term for God which could satisfy the religious members of the council, while the secular members could interpret “the Rock of Israel” as a reference to the strength and power of the nation. The compromise was accepted.
With the birth of the State of Israel and with its leaders trusting in the nation’s own strength and power, many Jews began to feel that our people had finally achieved true independence – the fulfillment of the hope mentioned in Israel’s national anthem: To be a free people in our land. At a later stage, thoughtful Jews began to question whether the State of Israel is truly independent and whether we are indeed a fully free people in our land.
Some of them point out that world pressure has always prevented the State of Israel from gaining a complete victory over enemies that sought its destruction. In addition, they recall how world pressure has often interfered with the ability of the State to make decisions which were best for the security of its people.
Some of them also point out that the State of Israel is not truly independent with regard to developing its culture and values. It is this concern which I wish to address in this letter. As an example of this concern, I will review the following lament of a noted Israeli secular thinker, Hillel Halkin, who wrote over three decades ago:
“We have developed a society whose one demand from everything, from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of that outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes, as paupers once indentured themselves to a master when they could no longer earn their own bread to eat.” (Letters to an American Jewish Friend, Letter 5)
I came across another example in a magazine published by the Gesher Organization in the winter of 1988. It included an article by Asher Shiloni, a journalist and kibbutz member who belonged to the leftist Mapam party. The article, which originally appeared in the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, is a passionate lament over the high rate of emigration from Israel which is found among the members of the secular kibbutzim. According to Shiloni, a major factor leading to emigration from the secular kibbutzim is the failure of the kibbutzim to give their children an adequate Jewish education which would connect them to their roots. He writes:
“With our own hands, we are lopping off the roots of our national being, and where there are no roots, one can awake the next morning to see that we are not a nation; it is possible to move out tomorrow, from this difficult and troubled land, to migrate and gradually assimilate – that is what will happen and what is already happening. If it is true that there is no future without a past, then we must draw the past of this nation closer to ourselves; we must understand it and respect it.”
About ten years ago, I read an article in the Jerusalem Post about a “cultural exchange” program which brought a group of American teenagers to Israel. The reporter noted with delight that the American teenagers discovered that the Israeli teenagers sang the same songs and had the same cultural heroes as they did! This is an example of “cultural exchange”?
When I studied the history of the World Zionist Organization, I discovered that most of its leaders wanted secular nationalism to replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of our nation. In this way, they hoped that we would become a nation like all other nations; in fact, some of them adopted the following motto: “Let us be like all the nations!” Through abandoning the unique spiritual culture of our nation, these Zionist leaders actually developed a secular Israeli society which tends to “imitate” all the nations.
Halkin admits that the Chareidi communities foresaw this problem when the secular Zionist movement began, and he writes that “they were the first body of opinion to raise the possibility that a Jewish state might paradoxically prove as effective an agent of cultural assimilation for its inhabitants as the Diaspora” (ibid). In recent years, this concern has also become a major topic of discussion within the National Religious communities.
There were those who thought that the establishment of the State of Israel would bring a quick end to the loneliness and pain of Israel’s exile among the nations. Today, we find a more realistic attitude. The growing threat to the State of Israel’s survival, the indifference of most nations to this threat, and the increasing anti-Semitism in the world have caused many of our people to feel that the exile is not yet over, despite some of the amazing and miraculous accomplishments of the State of Israel. In addition, there is a growing realization that we are still in exile when many of our people slavishly imitate the cultures and values of other nations due to a lack of understanding and appreciation of our own spiritual heritage.
When my friends and I discuss these current challenges, we feel a great yearning for the complete end of our physical and spiritual exile. One of the ways in which I express this yearning is through singing at the table on Friday night the following verses from the Shabbos hymn, Kah Ribon Olam:
“God to Whom belongs honor and greatness, save Your sheep from the mouth of lions, and bring Your people out of its exile, the people that You chose from all the nations.”
Chorus: “O Creator, Master of this world and all worlds, You are the Sovereign Who rules over all sovereigns.”
May we and all Israel be blessed by the Creator and Master of all worlds with a good and uplifting Shabbos.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
P.S.The composer of the hymn, Kah Ribon Olam, is Rabbi Yisrael ben Moshe of Najara, a noted sage of the 16th century. He was a student of the Arizal in Tsfas (Safed), a city in northern Israel which became a center for the study of Kabbalah. He later became the rabbi of Gaza.
A recording of the above passage from the hymn, Kah Ribon Olam, was sent to those on our music list. The Aramaic words of this hymn are sung without the accompaniment of musical instruments.