How can we best act to defend the Jewish state? In the midst of the carnage and tragedy of recent months, the current government of
: Israel Chosen for What?
Yet our tradition, our history, our religious heritage, our Torah, are all premised on the idea that Israel is unique, and that we are indeed held to a different standard—not by the nations, but by God.
Missing from the current controversy, in my opinion, has been much serious discussion of God’s purposes regarding a Jewish state (beyond what one might call the “Theme from Exodus argument”: “This land is mine, God gave this land to me”). Perhaps it is time to examine the Jewish state from a standpoint of Jewishness rather than simply “reasons of state.”
Why were we originally given the land?
Why did we lose the land?
Why did we get the land back?
On what terms do we hold it?Now, it is in theory perfectly reasonable to say that we hold the land in precisely the same terms as any other country—in theory reasonable, but in practice, utterly crazy. The sheer multiplication of improbable happenstances—even secular Jews rarely blink at calling them miracles—that marked the war of
Still more miraculous is the transformation of what Mark Twain called “a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land,” a land that for two thousand years eloquently confirmed the curses of Deuteronomy 28-29, into an agricultural and industrial powerhouse that equally eloquently embodies the promises of Deuteronomy 30.
What do I take from these Biblical and historical referents? Chiefly, that God employs the Jews to make a basic point: that God exists. If that point can best be made by restoring the precious remnant of the Jews to their homeland after the defeat of the Assyrians, or the Nazis, well and good. If it can be made as eloquently by our exile, so be it.
The return of the Jewish people to
Many years ago I complained to Rabbi Morris Goldfarb of Cornell Hillel that the problem with Israelis is that they take miracles for granted. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You can’t always rely on miracles.” He smiled wryly and added: “Sometimes you have to try prayer.”
To that I would say “Amen,” but would add the other two pillars, in addition to prayer, on which the Pirke Avot tells us the world depends: Torah, and acts of lovingkindness. For a crash refresher course in Torah, it’s hard to beat Rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.”
Do these principles mean that we cannot use force to defend ourselves? Of course not. Self-defense, the preservation of life, is a primary Jewish obligation. They do, however, bar needless humiliation. The law may inflict forty lashes on a wicked man, but not more; “lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should be dishonoured before thine eyes” (Deut. 25:3). In case, God forbid, one should be tempted to construe the word “brother” as meaning that upright behavior is required only to other Jews, Moses leaves no room for misinterpretation: “Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger” (Deut. 27:19).
To return to my first question: why were we given the land? Our entire tradition tells us that we are part of a cosmic drama whose fundamental purpose is to reveal to the nations the power of God. Need another crash refresher course? Read the Aleinu prayer that ends every service: “Our job is to praise the Master of all things….And on that day the Lord shall be One and His Name shall be One.”
As our elders used to say, “Es ist shver zu zayn a yid”—it’s hard to be a Jew. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. If we want a Jewish state, we—and by “we” I chiefly mean us here in America, who are perhaps just as crucial in this matter as our Israeli brethren—are going to have to act Jewishly. If we give up on the things that make us Jews, no number of tanks or helicopter gunships is going to save us. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, during the last episode of nation-rebuilding after an exile: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”