The Theological Compromise in Israel’s Founding Document
David Ben Gurion had a problem.
It was May 13, 1948 and the Zionist leadership had announced the new Jewish State would be declared the following afternoon, Friday, just before Shabbat arrived.
The problem was he didn’t have a Declaration of Independence. A first draft had been rejected earlier in the day and needed to be rewritten. There were fundamental issues the committee had to resolve (including the pivotal question: What would be the name of this new state?). But most contentious of all was the dilemma of what recognition, if any, it would give to God.
Of its four final authors, two – Rabbi Yehuda Leib Fishman and Chaim-Moshe Shapira – were leaders of Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist movement. They argued that it was inconceivable that the third Jewish commonwealth could be established without acknowledging the divine role in bringing it about. Shapira said he preferred the phrase “the God of Israel” or at least “the Almighty and Redeemer of Israel,” otherwise he and his constituency could not endorse the document.
The opposing view was brought by labor Zionist leader Aharon Zisling, a founding member of the Palmach (the early, elite Jewish fighting force in the pre-state days). Zisling was among the secular, socialist Jews who made up the majority of the pioneers who came to Palestine in the first decades of the 20th century. As detailed in Three Days: An Account of the Last Days of the British Mandate and the Birth of Israel, the memoir of Ze’ev Sharef, the official secretary of the proceedings, Zisling argued that they would not be coerced into proclaiming a belief in God against their will. Traditional religion was part of what he wanted independence from!
This conundrum could derail the whole effort. It called for a grand compromise. Then Ben Gurion struck upon a phrase that would satisfy both the religious and secular camps: tzur Yisrael, “Rock of Israel.”
Why was tzur Yisrael such a compelling solution?
The phrase “tzur Yisrael” is recognizable from Jewish liturgy (See Mishkan T’filah page 322). In the morning prayers, after the Sh’ma and immediately before the T’filah, a prayer for redemption culminates with the words “Rock of Israel, rise in support of Israel…” Also familiar is the prayer book’s refrain from Psalm 19:15, “May the words of my mouth and the mediations of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock [tzuri] and my Redeemer.” And of course, there is the well-known medieval Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tzur” (also known as “Rock of Ages”).
The Bible frequently uses the metaphor tzur to refer to God. In 2 Samuel 23:3, we read: “The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel [tzur Yisrael] said concerning me.…” Similarly, Psalm 62:7-8 tells us:
God is my rock [tzuri] and deliverance,
My haven, I shall not be shaken.
I rely on God, my deliverer and glory,
My rock of strength [tzur-uzi]…
The word tzur is not the generic word for “rock” in the Bible. It refers specifically to the dry, craggy stone that is found throughout the Negev and elsewhere. This is the kind of rock from which Moses draws forth water in the Torah; the contrast emphasizes its impenetrable dryness (see Exodus 17:6, Deut. 8:15, Psalm 78:15). Consider, too, Psalm 114:8, familiar from the Hallel liturgy on holidays: “…who turned the rock [tzur] into a pool of water, the flinty rock [halamish] into a fountain.” The word halamish usually appears in the Tanach paired with tzur, thus the translation “flinty rock.” (See Isaiah 50:7 for a rare “halamish” without “tzur.”)
Throughout the Bible, tzur evokes strength, solidity, and a reliable foundation, images that resonate in Jewish prayer. Faith in God offers something solid to hold onto when everything else in life is shaky or fleeting. In the early Zionists’ world of pogroms, refugees, and desperate new beginnings, the Rock of Israel offered something meaningful to which to cling.
In its ambiguity, tzur Yisrael was a compromise for the harried drafters of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. To the religious element, it evoked trust in God via Jewish liturgy and the Bible. To the secularists – including Ben Gurion himself – it evoked an effort greater than any one individual; the “rock” could be the Jewish people, the nascent Israeli army, or the Land of Israel. Thus, tzur Yisrael might – or might not – be the name of God.
Just hours after its wording was decided, signatories lined up to authorize the Declaration of Independence. As they affixed their names, the story took one final twist. When Rabbi Fishman signed, he unilaterally added a pious flourish after his name: “b’ezrat hashem – with the help of God.” God ended up on the document after all.
All of this history conjures up some of the great questions of what Zionism should mean today. They are worth meditating upon and wrestling with: What is the proper role of religion in the Jewish State? How can Israel respectfully accommodate the many expressions of Judaism found within it? And upon what “rock” do you rely today?