Monday, May 9, 2011

The Religious Significance of Yom ha'Atzmaut

I wrote the following column for the Canadian Jewish News, and it ran this past week. If they put it on-line, I'll take this down and put up a link to the article instead, since I am fine with them having Internet rights to it. Until then, though, here are my thoughts on the religious significance of Israel's Independence Day:

Long before the United Nations’ vote of November 1947 and David Ben Gurion’s declaration of the following May, much of the Torah-observant Jewish world was skeptical regarding the significance of a secular Jewish state. Could “secular Jewish” be anything other than an oxymoron? How would Judaism fare under a government composed of people who were often indifferent to religious law? And, as with every other entity in the known universe, the ultimate question was asked: Would it be good for the Jews?

Even Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, champion of religious-secular cooperation, insisted upon the ultimate religious character of the State he envisioned. As an alternative to the HaTikvah anthem, with its hope “lihyot am chofshi b’artzeinu, to be a free people in our land,” Rav Kook composed HaEmunah, a song which dreamed “lashuv el eretz kodsheinu, to return to our holy land.” Rav Kook believed that secular administration could contribute toward the ultimate rejuvenation of the Jewish nation in its land, but would be nothing more than an interim stage in the journey toward our national destiny.

This rejection of secular government has led some to argue that Yom ha’Atzmaut, the anniversary of the establishment of that secular government in Israel, is not to be accepted as a religious holiday. However, the weight of Jewish tradition insists that despite its secular character, the fact of independence - the ability of Jews to live in, develop and govern the land of Israel - is worthy of religious celebration and gratitude to G-d. There are at least three reasons for this celebration.

First, we celebrate our independence for the safety it brings; not for millenia has the viability of the Jewish nation seemed so strong. While the theory that creation of a Jewish state would eliminate anti-Semitism has proved incorrect, Jews living on their own soil are still best suited to defend themselves. The pogroms of Kishinev, the Inquisitions of Europe and the Klansmen of North America are impotent ghosts to a country with a Jewish majority.

The sages of the Talmud (Rosh haShanah 18b) saw religious meaning in this safety, ruling that most of the ritual fasts observed in our exile are suspended in “a time of peace”. Eleventh century commentator Rashi explained that “a time of peace” refers to a time when “the hand of the nations has no power over Israel.” [It is noteworthy that thirteenth century Nachmanides understood this differently, arguing that “peace” refers to the time of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.]

Rabbi Meshulam Roth, who emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1949, underscored the religious significance of our safety when he wrote of Israel’s Independence Day (Responsa Kol Mevaser 1:21), “Here is redemption from slavery to freedom, in that we were redeemed from enslavement to become free, we achieved independent government, and we were saved from death into life, saved from the hands of enemies who stood against us to destroy us. We are obligated to establish a holiday!”

Second, we celebrate the opportunity to dwell within our own boundaries, as a majority, and so evolve a true Jewish identity as a community. As much as our globalized culture and economy have rendered borders porous, neither Internet meme nor multimedia fad can trump the card of physical proximity in shaping the independent identity of a community. A contiguous nation develops its own memes and fads, and on a deeper level its own morals and ideals, via the vectors of neighborhood, school, workplace and shared experience.

The Torah itself declares the importance of physical separation for our evolution; one of the messages sent to the Jewish people via the prophet Balaam (Numbers 23) blessed them as “am l’vadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone.” The sages sought to encourage this separation, enacting dietary laws as well as Shabbat restrictions which would encourage Jews to occupy unique physical space.

This vision of separate community is not a philosophy of chauvinistic denigration of the other, or xenophobia, but a positive wish for physical and social space in which to evolve an identity of our own. As Asher Ginsberg, a.k.a. Ahad Ha’Am, wrote in 1909, “A complete national life involves two things: first, full play for the creative faculties of the nation in a specific national culture of its own, and, second, a system of education whereby the individual members of the nation will be thoroughly imbued with that culture, and so molded by it that its imprint will be recognizable in all their way of life and thought, individual and social.” Certainly, Ginsberg’s vision of a “specific national culture” did not include religion – but the principle applies to any attempt to mold a nation’s identity, and so the opportunity to occupy our own space and reap the religious benefits is cause for worshipful gratitude.

Third, we celebrate the opportunity to develop the land of Israel itself. Long before the legal and medical professions captured the imaginations of Jewish parents, tilling the soil, planting seeds and reaping a harvest were considered virtuous trades and the province of “nice Jewish boys”. G-d placed Adam in Eden “to work it and to protect it,” and although the Sages have identified layers of meaning in the text, rabbis like eleventh-century writer Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda insisted that the text also retains its literal meaning, that Adam was meant to work the soil of the Garden. Many of our biblical role models worked the land, and we were biblically blessed (Deuteronomy 11), “If you will listen to My commandments… you will gather your grain, wine and oil.”

Certainly, farming the soil of our ancestral land involves explicit religious value as we fulfill the various commandments of tithing, gleaning and observing the Sabbatical cycle. More, though, working the earth is praised as honest labour which carries inherent virtues. King David said (Psalms 128), “When you eat the labour of your hands, you are fortunate, and it is good for you.”

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli authority in Jewish Law in the late twentieth century, included agronomy as a religious factor in a long responsum encouraging aliyah to Israel (Tzitz Eliezer 7:48:12). He wrote, “There is also the mitzvah of working the land in Israel. The value of establishing settlement by working the land, for those who benefit from the labour of their hands, should not be light in anyone’s eyes… If working the land, in general, is known as the choicest of labours and trades in that it is generally clean of elements of theft and harming others and similar improprieties, then in the Holy Land these actions of ‘to work it and to protect it’ are, themselves, mitzvah actions.”

Certainly, we have many more reasons to be grateful the return of Jews to Israel. Many thousands of Jews live Torah-observant lives, and even spend their days in Torah study (often funded by the Israeli government, the single-largest sponsor of Torah study in the world) in Israel. The land of Israel provides an on-going resource for renewed Jewish identity for thousands of Jewish teens each year. Many mitzvot can be fulfilled only in Israel. But regarding the specific question of whether a religious Jew can celebrate the founding of a secular state, these three reasons – safety, community and the opportunity to develop the Land of Israel – make Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, a day for every Torah-observant Jew to rejoice.


  1. This is beautiful. Thank you for writing it.

  2. We ought to consider that the value of Atzmaut depends on the uses it's put to. When used to spread Jewish belief and practice among Jews, it clearly has a religious dimension. When used to protect Jewish belief and practice among the existing religious segment, it also has some religious overtones. When used to ape the behavior of American and European non-Jews, it loses religious significance.

  3. All your points are imporant ones.
    However I do not think one needs to start with apologetics to explain why Israel today has religious and halachic significance
    despite not bing a halachic state yet.
    From our learning of navi we learn of all the kings who were "ovdei avoda zara"and yet it was still our malchus.
    The Rambam in Hilchos Melachim emphasizes the independence of Israel after the Chashmonaim ,despite many of the leaders not following Halacha.
    I recommend a beautiful sefer of R.Shaul Yisroeli "Ze HAYOM asa Hashem'of talks of his given on Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim
    which further add to our understanding.
    Moadim lesimcha.

  4. SJG -
    Thank you.

    I'm not sure I agree. I believe that an entity (physical or conceptual) has religious value irrespective of its 'personal' intent.

    Daat y-
    Thanks, but I'm not sure the analogy to kings who were ovdei avodah zarah is accurate.

  5. The upshot of my point is that the religious significance of Atzmaut depends a lot on what Jews in the aggregate do with it.