Ask The Rabbis | Has Israel Changed Judaism?
“When Jews gathered as religious communities, we didn’t have to tolerate significant differences: When we disagreed, we just founded a new synagogue with the like-minded. The political arena demands something different. ”
Judaism is an alter kocker. It doesn’t change. It only gets more wrinkles. Rather than changing Judaism, Israel has actually validated it. It has testified to the truth of our story and to the tenacity of our hope. We never forgot Israel, never stopped singing about her, never stopped longing for her. And then, one day, some 70 years ago, when we needed her most, she showed up and took us home. In the more eloquent words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “She occupied our hearts, filled our prayers, pervaded our dreams. Continually mourning her loss, our grief was not subdued when celebrating festivities, when arranging a dinner table, when painting our homes…The two most solemn occasions of the year, the Seder on Passover, and the Day of Atonement, found their climax in the proclamation: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’…When a Jew arrived in the land, he bent and kissed the dust. When he saw the ruins he tore his garment. When placed in his grave, a handful of earth taken from the soil of the Holy Land was placed under his head.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity, pp. 26-27).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
Except for adding a new holiday to the calendar, the effect of Israel on Judaism as a set of religious practices for most Jews is negligible. But the effect on Jewish identity and the Jewish people has been enormous.
In the early years of Israel’s founding, Israel’s survival, twinned with Holocaust remembrance, became our collective raison d’être and the watchword of our philanthropic campaigns. When attacked, we circled the wagons, raised even more money and felt even more gushing pride at Israel’s swift military victories: “Am Yisrael Chai!” I still have an unredeemed Israel bond in a drawer.
But these simple slogans have not met the test of time. In fact, they have tarnished greatly. Seventy years after Israel’s beginning, most of us in America are not Israel-centric. We do not think of ourselves as living in the diaspora or infuse our identity with “all things Israel.”
Furthermore, we are no longer euphoric about Israel’s military posture and politics. To the contrary, many of us stand highly critical of many Israeli policies. We grieve for these changes and for the direction we see the country moving. Sadly, these changes alienate us and weaken our ties.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
A Palestinian man from the organization Combatants for Peace recently told me a story. Jailed at age 14 during the first intifada for hanging a flag, he was put in a solitary cell. He couldn’t fall asleep, not even by crying—until he overheard a soldier whose singing finally lulled him to sleep. He told me how he still loves that song, how he still cries when he hears “Shalom Aleichem.”
Israel can be seen as one of the great triumphs of history. Israel gave us an army, a country, an end to a certain kind of fear. For the first time in millennia, we could practice the Torah’s wisdom to love the land and to love the stranger. These imperatives are in tension: The more you love the land, the more likely you may be to resent strangers. So the Torah reminds us (six times): “You were strangers in Egypt.” Even in the promised land, it says, we remain strangers: “Gerim v’toshavim atem imadi.” (Lev. 25:23)
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal, taught that every religion is an organ in the body of humanity, with its own wisdom to bless this planet. And yet, if Israel should embody the wisdom of loving the land together with the stranger, its current government promotes its antithesis, calling asylum seekers “infiltrators,” the Bedouin “invaders,” Gaza protesters “terrorists” and Jews who care “traitors.” When our “Shalom Aleichem” welcomes not only the angels but also that Palestinian man’s family, when we can weave a whole human tapestry out of our desire for the land, then we will know that we too are home.
Rabbi David Seidenberg
Having once shaped Judaism, of course Israel has lately changed it. But Jewish philosophy separates a thing’s potential (koach) from its actuals-to-date (po’al). Israel might unite the Jewish people; today it often divides us instead. The renascent State of Israel could be a historical or even theological watershed, but so far it isn’t: Most American Jews give Israel lip service only.
For Zion reborn to realize its potential, both right and left must soul-search. The religious and political right must be less exclusivist and cease claiming all of Israel for their narrowly defined “us”—since without democracy, justice and equality for Palestinians and liberal Jews alike, neither the world nor k’lal Yisrael (all of Jewry) can be on board. At the same time, liberal Jews must step up, embracing the near-miraculous Hebrew-Jewish renaissance as their own: Israeli literature and culture, Israel’s people and their struggles and the land itself.
The Zionist ideal aims higher than mere statehood or middling “normalcy.” We’ve gained independence, ingathered exiles, created high-tech hubs—wonderful. Now, can Israel truly become a moral and spiritual “light unto the nations”? Then we’ll have a good answer to the still bigger question, “How has Israel/Judaism changed the world?”
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
For centuries, the land of Israel has been at the heart of Jewish rituals and prayers. We end our Passover seders by saying, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Daily prayers include petitions for fruitfulness of the land, peace in the land, return to the land. One of the seven traditional wedding blessings acclaims that joy and gladness are heard in the streets of Jerusalem and in the land of Zion.
We have also always understood that we are one people, the people of Israel. In the Talmud we are taught that all of Israel are responsible for one another. This is the impetus for unceasing efforts to save fellow Jews from persecution and help them in times of need.
Now we are witnesses to the modern State of Israel, as Jews of diverse backgrounds and ideologies worked together to create it. Some experience this as the fulfillment of those long-uttered prayers. Others find in it a safe haven from tyranny and oppression. Still others find the modern State of Israel a source of internal conflict over social, economic and political challenges the country faces.
Nevertheless, the language of our rituals and prayers has not changed. Israel–the land, the people and the modern state—are all here to stay. As Jews, we must each know which Israel we connect to and how we actualize its meaning in our own lives.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
In a word: Yes. Nearly half of all the Jews in the world live in Israel, a situation not seen since ancient times. The ingathering of the exiles has been partially achieved. For the first time in 2,000 years, public space is shaped by Jewish culture and tradition. The Sabbath as an official day of rest is observed on Saturday, and life is punctuated by Jewish holidays, as well as days to commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem. In Israel, “secular” Jews may nonetheless light Shabbat candles, dress up for Purim, build a Sukkah and study Talmud.
Israel has given diaspora Jews many causes for pride: the Six-Day War, technological advances, unbridled creativity applied to the arts and sciences. It has also given diaspora Jews causes for division—politics, poverty rates and government decisions on matters such as the administered territories, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and African refugees. In some ways, this development is the ultimate challenge. My teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, once suggested that when Jews gathered as religious communities, we didn’t have to tolerate significant differences: When we disagreed, we just founded a new synagogue with the like-minded. The political arena demands something different. We must learn to live with competing ideas and strategies for solving major societal issues.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
“A culture in which the Prague Haggadah could portray the Wicked Son as a soldier now inspires Israeli young men to believe that the highest calling is the IDF.”
Yes. But not enough yet.
The major shift is that a religion that taught the Jews to trust in God patiently and to wait for a divine/messianic redeemer now teaches (except in the views of some haredim) that Zionism is a mitzvah and humans have a responsibility to act. A culture in which the Prague Haggadah could for centuries portray the Wicked Son as a contemporary soldier now inspires Israeli young men to believe that the highest calling is to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces—preferably in the most challenging and risky units—to defend the Jewish people.
However, the dominance of haredi and yeshivish elements in Orthodoxy has held back needed further development. Traditional Jews celebrate the Exodus from Egypt as the core event of the Jewish religion, and on Tisha B’Av they mourn the destruction of the second Temple as the greatest national tragedy. Sadly, some haredi and yeshivish rabbis have resisted religiously observing Yom HaShoah for the Holocaust and celebrating the creation of Israel as the greater Exodus of our time. Similarly, women’s equality, minority rights, religious pluralism, respect for moral gay sexuality—achieved and even taken for granted in most of Israeli life—have not yet been integrated into traditional Judaism. The time is coming…
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Any change would be in the way we live our Judaism, not in the core principles of Judaism, which are immutable and unchangeable. There’s a classic essay by Rav Joseph Soloveitchik from 1956 that talks about the six “knocks on the door,” actual unveilings of the divine, that the establishment of the state represented for Jews: the political miracle, the military miracle, the refutation of other religions’ theology concerning the Jews, the reversal of assimilation, the end of the idea that Jewish blood was cheap for the taking, and the creation of a secure refuge. But even before the state was established, Rav Abraham Kook wrote that it would mean a return to a sense of nationhood, of peoplehood. For 2,000 years, we were used to the idea of surviving as individuals, families, villages. We lost the sense we were one people, with all our disparity and diversity. When criticized for working with those who were far from religious practice, Rav Kook cautioned that the return to a sense of peoplehood would take longer than other changes, and that people should be patient and take reversals and disappointments in stride. What I’ve witnessed in Israel is an enormous passion and pride in being part of the Jewish nation. Polls show that a plurality of Israeli Jews identify as Jewish first rather than Israeli first. The country is secondary to the notion that we are a nation and a people. It’s something that many non-Jews are slow to recognize. And it’s something that Israel has done for Jews and Judaism.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
Israel was designated by G-d as the Jews’ land before the first-born Jew, Isaac, was conceived. Deuteronomy warns us that we are but wayfarers in the land: The land owns us; we do not own the land. It is only when we struggle, as implied in the etymology of the name “Yisrael,” or “Israel,” that we own up to our obligation to the land and the presence of the Shechina (divine presence) that dwells therein. Even if Jews renounce their connection to the land by selling it, it comes back to own them in the Jubilee year.
Thank G-d, the secular democracy in Israel has the tools to protect the residents of the land and fight off the killers of Jews, but we still pray for a time when from Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem. Then the world’s true moral compass will point to Eretz Yisrael as north.
A Hasidic story that resonates with me and informs my work in Denver is of a Hasid who, in his quest for spiritual advancement, asked the third Chabad Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, for a blessing to join the Chabad community in Israel. The Rebbe answered, “Make Israel here!”
Our expulsion from the land and the birth of a diaspora did not end the work of cultivating Eretz Yisrael and revealing the Shechina in all we encounter.
Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski
Chabad of Denver