They Rejected Our Heritage

Dear Friends,


Regarding the Torah – the Divine Teaching – it is written:


“The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).


Our people experienced intense religious persecution during our long exile; nevertheless, the Torah was passed down from generation to generation, and each generation would strive to reveal the deeper wisdom within the Divine Teaching. For example, regarding the persecuted Jews of the Middle Ages, historian Berel Wein writes:


“They built an edifice of scholarship and research, unmatched in human history, on the foundation of the knowledge and faith of previous generations. Their firm belief in the revealed Divinity of Torah was coupled with reasoned analytic exposition, monumental research, a flood of research books and commentaries, and a holy and individualistic life-style.” (Herald of Destiny)


In addition, the messages of our prophets that we read in our synagogues would remind us that we were chosen for a universal mission through serving as an example of the Divine Teaching of the One Creator. It is therefore not surprising that we defied our oppressors by chanting each morning the following introductory prayer with pride and joy:


“We are fortunate; how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance! How fortunate are we, who, early and late, evening and morning, twice each day, proclaim: ‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!’ ” (Introductory Morning Prayer)


There were some leading Zionist activists who rejected the spiritual message of the above prayer, for they rejected the inheritance itself! One of these activists was Joseph Hayyim Brenner, a prominent literary figure within the new Zionist movement. In his writings, he expresses disdain for his own people, and he mocks them for maintaining their religious beliefs and observances. Instead of saying the prayerful words, “how beautiful is our inheritance,” he writes:


“Yes, indeed, we have survived, we live. True, but what is our life worth? We have no inheritance!” (Cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg)


This negative attitude towards the Jewish spiritual heritage began to have a major influence on the secular schools which were established by the World Zionist Organization. For example, education in most of these schools began to stress the military victories of our ancestors in the Land of Israel, but it gave little attention to those writings of the Prophets of Israel which emphasize our spiritual mission in the land. In addition, most students were not taught about the creative spiritual accomplishments of our people throughout the ages. This educational approach was also maintained after the State of Israel was established; thus, the negative attitude towards our spiritual heritage had a major influence on Israeli society. A friend of mine told me the following story which serves as an example of how this educational approach can lead to Jewish self-hatred: 


My friend was serving as a rabbinic counselor in a religious-Zionist high school for girls in Jerusalem, and the principal decided to organize a dialogue between a spokesperson for the secular view and a spokesperson for the religious view. The program was held on Chanukah, and the theme of the dialogue was, “Greek Culture Versus Jewish Culture.” The secular spokesperson told the students that western culture is so much better than Judaism and that in her view, “Judaism is worthless.” The students, who were mostly Sephardic, became enraged. Her attack reminded them of stories they heard from their parents and grandparents about how the Israeli government tried to destroy their religious culture when they arrived as new immigrants, and how their religious traditions and beliefs were ridiculed by Zionist social workers and youth leaders who were attempting to westernize and secularize the new immigrants. The students began to argue with the speaker, and they passionately defended the beauty and honor of the Jewish spiritual heritage.

The following story serves as another example of this negative attitude towards our spiritual heritage: A number of years ago, Shulamit Aloni, the Education Minister of the State of Israel, publicly criticized Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin for his behavior when he visited the site of a concentration camp during his visit to Poland. What were the actions of Rabin that angered the Education Minister of the State of Israel? According to the Education Minister, the Prime Minister had betrayed the secular principles of the Zionist State by putting on a yarmulke during the ceremony of commemoration in the concentration camp; moreover, he also publicly proclaimed the following words of the Shema – Israel’s ancient proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity:

“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”  (Deut. 6:4)

Sad to say, there are young Jews who were educated in secular Israeli public schools who have never even heard of the Shema. This observation was discussed in an article in the Jerusalem Post by Daniel Gordis, a Zionist thinker and writer (“Why not Uganda?” Sept. 18, 2008). After describing his son’s encounter with a gifted high school graduate who never heard of the Shema, Gordis points out: “An exceptionally talented kid, he’d gone to Israeli schools his entire life and didn’t know something so basic that almost any American Jewish kid getting even a rudimentary Hebrew school education would have considered obvious.” After discussing the abandonment of our spiritual roots within the secular school system, Gordis writes:

“Israel’s children are the innocent victims of our collective educational failure. They – and their country – deserve more from us.”

As the following article indicates, the secular educational system of the Zionist State has even failed to instill in many students a bond with Jerusalem, the heart of Zion:

The Education Ministry-mandated trips to Jerusalem will include visits to the Western Wall, the Supreme Court, the Knesset, Ammunition Hill and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, according to reports.

According to the plan, students ideally will visit Jerusalem during elementary school and again during high school.  

As we discussed, there were Zionist leaders that adopted the slogan, “Let us be like all the nations!” Many Israeli Jews are therefore very proud of those aspects of Israeli life and culture which are similar to the life and culture of other nations. For example, when Israeli sports teams get a prize in international sports competitions, there is ecstatic and patriotic joy in much of Israel. I recall reading a story in the Israeli press about an Israeli wrestling team that competed in a sports event in the Far East: The Israeli wrestling team, after much struggle, had finally defeated an Asian wrestling team. The Israeli Jews in the audience then stood up and sang with great emotion the national anthem of the State of Israel – an anthem which concludes with the following words:


“Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”


Yes, there are some Jews who feel that the victory of the Jewish State’s wrestling team and similar victories represent our hope for two thousand years to return to Zion and Jerusalem. This, however, is not the end of Zion’s story. As we shall later discuss, there are converts who have come home to Zion, and through their loving embracement of our Torah, they are reminding us of the true goal of our return to Zion and Jerusalem:


“For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2, 3)


Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments and Insights:


1. There were a few Zionist writers who occasionally expressed some nostalgia for the spiritual heritage that many Zionists were rejecting. One of them was the writer and poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. In one of his poems, Ha-Masmid, he described the rich spiritual life of the yeshiva student who devotes himself to the study of Torah, and how this study is the strength of our nation.


And writer, Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, stated:


“That Israelite who laid down his life for a single one of the minor commandments, his blood cries out to me from the earth; and whenever I transgress that commandment, the image of that martyr, broken, shattered, blurred, and crushed though it may be, confronts me as a reproof.” (Cited in “The Zionist Idea”)


2. Our prophets spoke out against those of our people who rejected the Torah, and they warned that this would lead to our loss of the Land. They also conveyed to us Divine promises that conveyed the following comforting message: Despite these rebellions, the spiritual inheritance of our people will not be lost. The following quotes can serve as examples:


A. The Divine promise conveyed by Moses:


“It will be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 30:1,2)


B. The Divine promise conveyed by Isaiah:


 “A redeemer will come to Zion and to those of Jacob who repent from willful sin – the word of Hashem. And as for Me, this is My covenant with them, said Hashem: My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth nor from the mouth of your offspring nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, from this moment and forever, said Hashem.” (Isaiah 59:20,21)

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