How can one best participate in building the State of Israel? In the long history of the Jewish people, this is a very new question. The question of what is the best way to build or protect Israel has been, and continues to be, at the center of many debates.
These debates were present in Israel before the declaration of the state. There were two groups in the land; those who worked to return the Jewish people to the land as farmers, workers, and builders, and those who wished to bring about a state based on Torah study.
The chalutzim worked building kibbutzim, moshavim, and the cities and villages of the nascent Israel. There were also those who studied in the yeshivot who also considered themselves as working to build Israel.
The chalutzim and the yeshivah students did not have much use of each other. One person tried to bridge this gap. He was Rav Kook, the Rabbi appointed as Chief Rabbi before the State of Israel was actually declared. After his return to Jerusalem after World War I, and prior to his death in 1935, he was the head of a Yeshivah in Jerusalem. He also traveled frequently to visit with the kibbutznikim and to speak with the secular chalutzim working to form the State.
The story goes that the kibbutznikim appreciated his visits and suggested that he stay with them to physically build the land and not return to the old world of the Yeshivah. The yeshivah students learning with him would often question why he did not devote full time to learning, instead of speaking with the secular Zionists. He replied that each was building the future of the Jewish people, some physically and some spiritually, but that both were necessary for the growth of the State of Israel. In my terms, he was a liberal Rabbi when he offered to each group his famous expression: “What is old you will make new, and what is new you will make holy.”
He was right then, and his message is right now. Israel needs its spiritual, Jewish strength no less than its physical prowess. The Israel Defense Forces are excellent. The IDF, with great support from our own country, maintains a qualitative edge over its neighbors in the region. Yet this is not enough.
Many, many Jews in Israel have little knowledge of our people, are distant from Judaism, and could well be thought of as merely creating a Hebrew speaking Western democracy on the Mediterranean. The other side of the coin is the increasingly closed world of the ultra orthodox Charedi community that sees only in black and white. No nuance is a good nuance as they perceive Jewish life.
Kook’s liberal view is needed in Israel and within our people in general today. The land of Israel has been made new these past 64 years. It is now time to make it holy, not in the sense of ossified religious ritual, but with a spiritual renaissance which includes both ancient and modern Jewish wisdom. Now is the time to invigorate Israeli society with the variety of both western and Jewish experiences we have learned from those with whom we have lived around the world, but especially America.
Our goal should be that both Israeli and American Jews can articulate the need to support Israel as a Jewish democratic state, at peace with its neighbors and living side by side in security with a Palestinian state. Our articulations must be that ever-present blend of our Jewish and our western traditions.
We, as American Jews, have a great deal to offer. We believe, like Rav Kook, in constantly making our old traditions new in order to meet the needs and the times in which we live. We believe that as we create new understandings of being Jewish, of what Zionism means, of what it means to have a sovereign Jewish state with Jewish power, we will be doing holy work.
Shabbat Bereshit teaches us each year to begin again, to renew our encounter with the Divine, with our People, and with the society in which we live. May this year be a year when we all learn or relearn how to articulate why the Jewish state of Israel matters to us. This year let us ensure that for Israel, and for us, what is new is holy.