Judaism, Israel, and the Power Story

Judaism, Israel, and the Power Story

By Rabbi Bill Berk

Perhaps the biggest story in Israel is the power story.  For two thousand years Jews lived in places where they were for the most part powerless.  Now, since 1948, we have been living with power.  We were out of practice and much of our contemporary history is about the struggle to learn to use power well.  But there’s another power story that is much harder to grasp.  It’s the power of Israel to re-shape our Judaism.

     As I see it here are the big ideas of Zionism:

  1. Jews need to stop relying on supernatural power—they can do this by re-entering history, which means re-entering the world of power.
  2. Jews are a people and as such need to all be able to go into the same tent.
  3. Zionism will put an end to anti-semitism.
  4. By returning home and building a Jewish state we can once again become a light to the nations.
  5. Zionism will enlarge our sense of what it means to be a Jew.  (Or: Zionism might bring a new and larger sense of mission and dignity that we will need to discover and enact—a mission that will include redrawing the boundaries between the secular and the religious and the national and the religious.)

 These last two “big ideas” suggest the promise of a new Judaism.  I believe in the power of Israel to help us renew our Judaism.  After all, we haven’t had a Jewish country in 2,000 years and it makes sense that once we do everything will be different—including our Judaism, including how we think about God, including the mitzvoth, including Halacha, including how we “do Jewish.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in his book Israel, An Echo of Eternity, that “we have not even begun to fathom the meaning of this great event (the return of the Jewish people to their homeland).”  (p.219)

Someone who did a lot of thinking about the meaning of this great event is Rabbi David Hartman.  He writes in A Living Covenant (p.283-4), “The land of Israel is holy from the covenantal perspective because it invites greater responsibility and initiative on the part of the community.  It is the framework in which ways must be found to make the Torah a viable way of life for a community…I live with the guarded hope that out of this complex and vibrant new Jewish reality will emerge new spiritual directions for the way Judaism will be lived in the modern world.  Israel expands the possible range of halachic involvement in human affairs beyond the circumscribed borders of home and synagogue to the public domain.  Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness.”

This expanding Judaism might just be the biggest story unfolding here in Israel.  You see it in the little green shoots of native Israeli spirituality coming forth in our rock music and our poetry.  You see it in the “post-secular” Israel that is emerging—as we build more and more “secular” yeshivas, secular synagogues, secular kabbalat Shabbat services on the beach or on kibbutzim.  You see it in our religious identity crisis which has touched us all—including, finally, our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) brothers and sisters.  All you have to do is check out the number of Haredim entering the army, the university, and high-tech jobs and you realize that something big is happening.  You see it in the army’s code of ethical conduct that leans on our tradition and on what Yitzchak Rabin called “the shards of Jewish memory” to formulate new Halacha about how modern armies need to operate.  You see it in the debates in Israel where the values of our Torah often shape the contour of the discussion—such as the issues around health care and housing and the safety net.  You hear it in the magic of the Hebrew language—a language that carries with it such power, grace, memory, cultural insights, and traditional values.

For me the impact of Israel on my Judaism centers on the power of experiencing Jewish public space and Jewish public time.  At the grocery store this morning, a week before Passover, I hear a clerk singing one of my favorite Passover songs “Ve-he She-amdah.”  It hits me—Passover penetrates the street, the market place, the culture.   I had no idea how beautiful Shabbat is until I experienced a “Jerusalem Shabbat.”  I didn’t fully get the transformational influence of Shabbat until I witnessed, week after week, this city of 804,000 people utterly transform itself every Friday afternoon.  What was a religious culture suddenly becomes something larger—beyond religion.  When Jews visit Israel they often get this—they see their Judaism on a larger screen, on a bigger stage and it inspires them.  Their spiritual/religious journey is then shaped by this experience.

As David Hartman argues, Jewish sovereignty gives us the opportunity to expand our Judaism.  There is no guarantee that we will succeed.  There are forces determined to change nothing.  As I see it—the change is already happening.  There are new traditions and new kinds of Jews. The stories and poetry and liturgies that the kibbutz movement produced have not vanished.  They pop up wherever you find Jews, rooted in our land, struggling to do what Bialik said we would do—revive our land, our language, our state.  New Torah is emerging from all the tumult of this third Jewish commonwealth.  That is the power of this place and it is the most exciting thing that’s happened to us in a very long time.



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