Galilee Diary: Redemption and Independence

May 24, 2011Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

Blessed are You O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who differentiates between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between sadness and joy, between war and peace, between Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut; blessed are You O Lord, who differentiates between the holy and the holy.
-impromptu havdalah blessing for Yom HaAtzmaut

It is a tradition at Shorashim to observe Yom HaZikaron (memorial day for fallen soldiers) with an afternoon tour of a site of historical significance from Israel's wars, which segues at sunset into a picnic in celebration of the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut. This year's event was very successful and hugely well-attended.  We toured Safed, learning the geography and chronology of the seemingly miraculous victory there in 1948, and hearing personal stories from veteran residents.  We were so many that we split in to three groups, with the kids involved in a treasure hunt all over the city, planned by the youth group.  Then we all drove to Ein Zeitim, a lovely JNF picnic area just a few miles out of town.  People unpacked their coolers and folding tables etc., and as it got dark, we all gathered at a central location for the transition ceremony - as the juxtaposition of the two days can be awkward without some kind of formal separation.  Usually this is a brief selection of readings and a few songs and little cups of wine for "lechayim."  As it was about to start, the organizer called over to me to confirm that I was going to lead "a blessing," which was the first I had heard of such a commitment (I am not the rabbi of Shorashim, and there is no expectation, on either side, of my assuming liturgical leadership; I am merely a member of the synagogue committee).  I quickly consulted with a neighbor who grew up in the Zionist Orthodox world, who assured me that there was no liturgy for this occasion as far as she knew, so I had to punt.  The result appears above.

The interesting question raised by this little exercise is: what is the religious meaning of Yom HaAtzmaut - and of the state in general? Within Orthodoxy, there is a fairly bitter debate as to how to recognize the day liturgically.  The "ultra-Orthodox," for the most part, believe that the Israel of our messianic expectations is still a long way off, and that the present state is merely a secular state like any other (the more extreme ones consider its very existence as blasphemous, a sin against God's sentence of exile).  Therefore, for them, the day is just an ordinary weekday, and requires no special recognition in prayer. The mainstream Zionist Orthodox community believes that the state is "the dawning of our redemption," and hence the liturgy is that of a holiday, including Hallel, the set of Psalms recited on the three pilgrimage festivals, Rosh Chodesh, and Hannukah.  In Israel, the liberal movements follow the Zionist Orthodox custom, except of course that most Reform synagogues don't have services on Yom HaAtzmaut; most non-Orthodox Israelis don't see Yom HaAtzmaut as a day for attending synagogue, but as a day for outings to army bases and national parks, and for barbecues with family and friends.  Most see it as a secular, national holiday, Independence Day, and don't associate it with the Jewish religious calendar, with theological questions, or with religious obligation.

The question of how to observe Yom HaAtzmaut is actually the symbolic manifestation of a serious dilemma: what is the Jewish state?  Is it indeed a turning point in history of messianic significance?  Or is it just another in an ongoing series of historical ups and downs?  Does it represent Divine intervention in history? Or is it just the product of the interaction of sociological, economic, and political factors that can be rationally understood?  Is Israel a holy state, or just a state like any other?  Does its existence lay upon us religious obligations? Should the state itself bound by religion or by religion-based values?

Why can't we just have a barbecue and fireworks and drown our theological questions in beer?

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary.

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