Thursday, May 1, 2014

All its Perfect Imperfections- Why I love Israel

I recently read two books about Israel. Although the books were written from different vantage points, to my mind they highlighted the maddening, confounding, paradoxical and holy perfect imperfection of the state of Israel.

The Making of Modern Zionism: Intellectual Origins of the Jewish State by Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri, discusses exactly what the title implies. By focusing on the biographies of 18 thinkers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, Avineri shows the various ideas that led to the formation of the state. Ranging from the secular to the religious, from theory to practicality, from ignoring the local Arabs to recognizing them and their aspirations, the ideas considered do not easily mesh into a synthesized whole.

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who United Israel and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi comes at the contradictions inherent in the modern State of Israel from a different direction. In telling the story of the paratroopers who conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, Halevi masterfully shows the different viewpoints of what the reunification of Jerusalem meant to various parts of the Israeli population. In a book that reads as almost biblical, fascinating characters from Rosh Yeshiva and repentant redmptionist Rav Yoel Bin-Nun to Israeli protest-singer Meir Ariel, we are introduced to individuals and communities and how they viewed the Six Day War, and all that followed. Particularly for those of us who have been educated almost exclusively from the perspective of seeing Israel as a religiously significant, the book is eye-opening and thought provoking.

Over the span of almost 20 centuries, Israel, Jerusalem and redemption became almost ahistorical for the Jewish people. Rishonim wrote of Israel's contours without having seen it, Jerusalem seemed almost to be a metaphor and so often the redemption seemed either so far away, or superfluous. Although many Jews yearned to see the Moshiach, his arrival and all that would come through it, was viewed primarily as something that would happen to the Jewish people, as opposed to something that would be actively brought about by the Jewish people.

The Enlightenment, European Nationalism and the anti-semitism that followed, changed almost everything. Suddenly, the question became “Why not us?”. Jews began to wonder why they should remain forever the stranger, at best on the sidelines, and at worst, the victim of horrible oppression and attacks. Although some, like Rabbis Kalischer and Kook, asked these questions from the religious perspective, most looked at it from the perspective of socialism, communism, nationalism or some other worldview which did not involve God. While these views and the debates that followed were at first theoretical, before long, they became practical, leading to the plethora of conflicting views of Israel is and what it should be.

Let me now change course from the perspective of the aloof writer, to the passionate Zionist that I have again become.

We have been given a gift, one that comes, I believe, from God. It didn't happen in the way that our ancestors envisioned it, but suddenly that which was until very recently seen as ahistorical, has become very real. Jews of all types are living close to and sometimes amongst those with different languages, modes of dress, religious and political views, and perspectives. If this isn't enough, we find ourselves (oh to again be able to use these terms truthfully about myself and my family) in a pretty rough regional “neighborhood, with Arabs living among us and around us. All these years when we prayed, is this what we had in mind? Can this be the Jerusalem that we mentioned many times a day? And what of the redemption?

While some might answer these questions by suggesting that this can not be what God truly wants for us, and that thus, we must view Israel as just another part of galus, I can not answer the questions this way. While this is not the finished product, in many ways it moves in that direction. On the other hand, I can not accept the approach that says that we have all we need, either because this is the “Atchalta D'Geula” or because there is no redemption to follow. I am caught somewhere in the maddening, confusing and most wonderful middle. How else can I view Yom Ha'atzmaut, a secular day on the calendar, where Israelis, religious and secular alike celebrate with tiyulim and barbecues, which this year, as with most years, will be observed a day late, to avoid chillul Shabbat? Can I not be amazed at the founding of a charedi hesder yeshiva, and not, at the same time wonder why it took so long to get to this point? How can I not see the holiness in the bareheaded soldier protecting our land, including its yeshivahs? As I observe my friends living in communities where there is very real strife between religious Jews over what it means to be a religious Jew, how can I not be a bit envious of watching them live out the messy process of figuring out what a Torah state should look like? Finally, when visiting my brother's yishuv, how can I not think about the patch of prime real estate that lays undeveloped in the middle of the yishuv, as the dispute over its ownership remains ongoing?

While this is not the State we might have asked for, it's the one we have been given. While there are blemishes and imperfections, there is such incredible beauty, holiness and goodness. As always, God pushes us to be his partner in creating a holy world, rather than passively sitting back and waiting for the redemption to come from heaven. Shehechiyanu V'kiyemanu v'higiyanu lazeman hazeh.


  1. Well written. I also got an emotional shot in the arm from my recent trip to Israel. But I have become fond of saying lately that I am a religious Jew, but a Secular Zionist. I'm not sure if I believe in the classic idea of Mashiach and the Geulah, an idea which, frankly, has undergone many iterations and has evolved considerably.

    But I can still espouse a Zionism that is proud of what our people have accomplished. That just in time for the bloody 20th century (but unfortunately not even earlier) we made a place for ourselves in a legendary ancestral land, a place where our people could regroup from genocide and persecution. That we revived a language that was used only for ritual purposes and made it come alive again as a spoken language. That the pattern of the Jewish calendar is the pattern of the entire country.

    What is the geulah anyway? Is it really rebuilding an Ancient Near East style temple and bringing sacrifices again? Is it fracturing our unity into tribes again?

    Or is it this? Building a homeland where to which we gradually return. Hopefully eventually maturing enough that we are really Or LaGoyim. Becoming a home for Jews of all sorts who understand and learn and keep Torah in myriad different ways.

    When I was a kid growing up Orthodox in Brooklyn, I assumed that the geulah meant going back to what we once were. That the prior 19 centuries would have been just an interlude.

    But those 19 centuries created Judaism. And Zionism. It was a maturing process. If we hadn't been exiled, and if the chachamim had not made Torah central to our lives, Judaism would have disappeared, just another ancient civilization with quaint practices for a museum. Instead, we are vibrant and with a state of our own.

    1. Sorry about that, I started out actually replying, then went off into a post of my own.