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Israel Spiritual Symposium: What Are We Dying For For?

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Israel's moment of truth forces Jews worldwide to identify themselves.

Nineteen-year-old Jason Aguilar was sitting in an Israeli tank on the Syrian border with nothing to do but think. Born in the United States, Jason had come to Israel the year before and joined the Israeli army because he considered it an "exciting, macho thing to do." Now, enclosed in the tomb-like confines of the tank, it suddenly hit him that he could get killed.

"I started to think," recounts Jason, "that if I died, what would I be dying for? I couldn't really articulate an answer."

Jason, who was raised with a minimal Jewish education, vaguely intuited that his putting his life on the line as an Israeli soldier had something to do with Judaism. His search to define an answer led him, after he was discharged, to the Jerusalem yeshiva of Aish HaTorah.

There, in a lecture by the Yeshiva's head, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Jason heard his own question used as a springboard to confront an even greater issue. Rabbi Weinberg told the room full of young people: "If you want a meaningful life, you have to ask yourself, 'What am I willing to die for?' Then, live for it."


With 135 Israeli civilians killed by terrorists since March 1, Jews here are increasingly asking this question, in the most practical terms. "Am I willing to die to go to work in downtown Jerusalem?" "Am I willing to risk my life to go sit in a cafe?" "Should I put my life on the line by taking a bus?"

This week we celebrate Israeli Independence Day. Even before the establishment of the State of Israel 54 years ago, arguments raged about the purpose of the Jewish people's return to its ancient homeland.

Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), the founder of political Zionism, was quite clear about his goal: to provide Jews a safe haven from anti-Semitism, which (four decades before the Holocaust) he predicted would sweep Europe yet again. Herzl himself was a university-educated, totally assimilated Viennese Jew married to a non-Jew, an aficionado of European culture.

As to the nature of the Jewish State which Herzl proposed, it would be a state like any other, a nation among the nations, distinguished only by its particular Jewish population. Its form of government would be "an aristocratic republic." Its language, in lieu of a common language ("We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew," wrote Herzl. "Such a thing cannot be done.") would be "a federation of tongues" on the Swiss model. In The Jewish State Herzl proclaimed: "We shall remain in the new country what we now are here, and we shall never cease to cherish with sadness the memory of the native land out of which we have been driven."

Not all secular Zionists shared Herzl's thinking. In Russia, the poet Ahad Ha'am (Asher Zvi Ginzberg, 1856-1927) claimed that the primary problem facing the Jewish people was not anti-Semitism but assimilation. Thus, the goal of Zionism, proclaimed Ahad Ha'am, was not to save the Jews, but rather to save Judaism: "The Land of Israel must become a Hebrew-speaking spiritual center in which the process of assimilation will come to a halt." The Judaism envisioned by Ahad Ha'am, who was also intermarried, was not the traditional religion of Torah and mitzvot, but a new Jewish culture, an amalgam of Jewish ethics and values with the intellectual concepts of the European Enlightenment.

Two significant pre-Herzl movements of Jews returning to Palestine were the Lovers of Zion movement and the B.I.L.U. movement, a combination of religious and secular idealists who championed working the land. By 1896, the year Herzl launched his Zionist movement, these immigrants of what later became known as "The First Aliyah" had established 16 agricultural settlements, including the wine producing village of Rishon Le'Zion and Hadera. As B.I.L.U. member Ze'ev Dubnow wrote in 1882: "The ultimate aim . . . is to take possession of the Land of Israel and to give back to the Jews the political independence of which they have been deprived for 2,000 years."

Thus, the self-proclaimed purpose of the Jews who returned to Zion can be classified as: 1) A refuge from anti-Semitism; 2)A locus for Jewish cultural revival; 3)Political independence and nationalism. Something happened in 1903, however, which hints at a goal and a vision deeper than what most "Zionists" themselves could define.


On Easter, 1903, the first and most notorious pogrom of the 20th century took place in Kishinev, in Czarist Russia. For two whole days, while the police did nothing, rampaging gentiles attacked the city's Jews. They threw children out of upper-story windows, gouged out their victims' eyes, and drove nails into their heads. By the time the order came from St. Petersburg to stop the pogrom, sixty Jews had been murdered and many more were maimed for life.

"I have a great surprise for you: His Majesty, Sovereign of the British Empire, is sending you a gift -- a gift called Uganda!"

Four months later, Theodore Herzl convened the Sixth Zionist Congress with the words, "I have a great surprise for you: His Majesty, Sovereign of the British Empire, is sending you a gift -- a gift called Uganda!"

Indeed, the British government had offered Dr. Herzl an entire country in Africa, what the British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain described as a land with a comfortable climate and the possibility of raising cotton and sugar. "When I first saw Uganda," Chamberlain declared, "I said to myself: 'This is a land for Dr. Herzl.'"

In the wake of the Kishinev pogrom, Herzl felt gratified that he had procured for the Jews of Europe an immediate, safe haven. Raised with virtually no Jewish background, Herzl was totally unprepared for the reaction of the delegates at the Zionist Congress. "We don't want it!" they shouted. "We don't want it!"

As Salome Levite, a Swiss delegate to the Congress, described Herzl's reaction: "He didn't understand what had happened. He didn't understand at all. He just couldn't digest what had happened here, how it was that such an unfortunate nation, suffering pogroms and denied all rights and privileges, could be offered an entire country and say, 'No.' The Russian Zionists began to explain: 'We don't want just any country! We are Zionists. We want to return to our ancient, ancestral homeland.'"

Herzl was particularly amazed that even the delegates from Kishinev rejected Uganda, claiming that they would go nowhere else but the Land of Israel.

What had happened? If the purpose of Zionism was to provide a refuge from anti-Semitism or political independence, why wouldn't Uganda do? Max Nurock, a secular British Jew who served as Lieutenant-Governor of Uganda during the 1940s, years later explained: "Uganda wouldn't do. You know, it hadn't got the spark of divinity in it."


A recent Newsweek cover story on the future of Israel quotes a prominent Israeli journalist suggesting that it is time to find new narratives.


The idea came to him when he happened on the scene of a bloody suicide attack at the Moment cafe a few weeks ago. The coffee house had been, for Shavit, a kind of sanctuary of civilization and normality. Now he saw a horrific scene. Bodies were torn apart. . . . "Twenty minutes after I saw the bodies, I understood what this narrative is about," he said. "It's about the freedom to have my croissant and coffee in the morning. And the right to drink a beer at night. It's about a quiet heroism in trying to live a Jewish life, flirting, taking your kids to school in an almost unbearable situation . . ."


Doesn't a Jew have the freedom to have a croissant and coffee in Los Angeles or a beer in Miami?

Doesn't a Jew have the freedom to have a croissant and coffee in Los Angeles or a beer in Miami? The banality of Shavit's "new narrative" against the backdrop of blown-apart bodies is almost pathetic. Jews can live a normal, even a Jewish, life in New York or Houston . . . or Uganda of 1903. Why fight-and die-for the right to live in Israel?

Almost a century before the birth of either Herzl or Ahad Ha'am, the two leading religious figures of European Jewry had issued clarion calls to their disciples to return to the land of Israel. Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna had, in the latter half of the 18th century, sent their disciples to live in Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias. By 1896, the year Herzl launched political Zionism, there was already a Jewish majority of 28,112 Jews living in Jerusalem (compared to 8,560 Moslems).

The goal of this religious influx was simple: As the Torah makes eminently clear, it is the will of God for Jews to live in the Land of Israel. The very first time God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He defined the upcoming redemption: "I have come down to save them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey." (Ex. 3:8)

Living in the Land of Israel is integral to being a Jew.

Living in the Land of Israel is integral to being a Jew. The 13th century Spanish-born sage Nachmanides asserted that living in Israel is not counted as one of the 613 commandments of the Torah because it is the mitzvah that underlies the whole Torah. In fact, he wrote, the mitzvot can only be truly fulfilled in the Land of Israel. Observing mitzvot in the Diaspora is merely keeping in practice.

The Jewish People has a mission: To fulfill God's will in the world, and thus to be a light unto the nations. According to Judaism, exile from the Land of Israel is considered the worst punishment because outside of the Land of Israel the Jewish nation is incapable of fulfilling its potential.

The mission or function of the Jewish People can be compared to the function of a bodily organ, say the heart. The heart performs a unique function in the body. This is not to claim that its function is more important than the function of the lungs or of the brain. Just as every organ has its unique function, so does every nation.

The Jewish People transplanted to New York would be like a heart transplanted to the head.

And if an organ is not in its proper place, it cannot perform its function properly. The Jewish People transplanted to Uganda or New York would be like a heart transplanted to the head or the lower abdomen. It simply would not work.

When Rabbi Nachman Kahane of Jerusalem's Old City was recently asked, "What are we dying for?" he replied by quoting Psalm 118: "I will live and not die, and proclaim the glory of God." He explained: "The purpose of the Jewish People is to proclaim to the world the greatness of God. That's what we live for and that's what we die for."

Anyone who witnessed the miracle of the Six Day War, the unexpected liberation of all the Jewish holy places, understands the power of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel to reveal the greatness of God.


Israeli Air Force Major S. Ghelber, 37, a secular Jew born in the Tel Aviv area, calls the Israeli journalist's narrative of being free to have his croissant and coffee "very superficial."


To live as Jews, with our heritage and tradition, in our homeland--this we cannot have in any other country. America could never be our homeland, because a homeland is a place where you have your roots. In every mile of Israel you see a historical place where Jews lived 2,000 years ago.


A couple years ago the Air Force sent me to do a course in California. My wife and I were traveling in Colorado and Arizona, and we saw many Indian historical places. They were very interesting, but I never felt a connection to those sites. Here in Israel, wherever you go, you come upon the connection to our Jewish roots, our history, our heritage.

We secular Israelis may not be able to articulate what we feel, but the most powerful sign of how strong our identification with this land is is the unbelievable response to the [recent] call-up of reservists. Not only did 95% of those called show up, but even men who were not called up due to their age or their state of health showed up, begging to be allowed to fight. People feel that they are fighting for their homes. They feel there is a threat, a real threat, all over Israel. We want to make it safe for our children.


What is significant about Major Ghelber's statement, "We want to make it safe for our children," is that Major Ghelber has no children (yet). When he says, "our children," he means my children, and the children of his next door neighbor. In his identification with the Jewish people as a whole, both in the present and the past, he has hit upon the crux of Zionism.

It is significant that this latest war began on the holiday of Pesach. After all the terrorist slaughters at discotheques, pizza parlors, and cafes, the people of Israel could not stand the specter of Jews sitting down to their Pesach seders, commemorating the birth of the nation, being blown apart by their enemies.

The Talmud says that the Jews in ancient Egypt had sunk to the lowest level of impurity. They were engaged in Egyptian idolatry and depravity. In what merit, then, were they saved? The Talmud answers: "They did not change their names, their dress, and their language."

By continuing to identify as Jews -- even while committing grievous sins -- our ancestors made themselves worthy of redemption. In fact, the singular act required of them on the awesome night of the Exodus was to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts -- the inside of the doorposts. It was a sign not for God or for the Angel of Death, but for themselves.

We are now in that period of the Jewish calendar called "The Counting of the Omer," the 49-day process where Jews build themselves up from the lightening event of the Redemption to the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot. A seven-week period of purgation is necessary to be worthy to receive the Torah, but for the Redemption from Egypt, all we needed was to make a single statement of identification as Jews.

Our blood-splattered bus stops are no less holy than the doorposts of Egypt.

That is what the current war -- the seventh war in the short history of the Zionist State -- is about. This is what Zionism is about. Do I identify as a Jew, with the Jews of history, with my fellow Jews of today? At a time when assimilation in the Diaspora has topped 60%, do I define myself as Jew? If so, then this is my land, the land that God gave us to perform our particular sacred mission.

According to Maimonides, any Jew who is killed because he or she is a Jew is kadosh, holy. Their place in the Next World is among the holy of our nation, even if they died drinking an espresso and chatting about the latest movie in a cafe. And as for the soldiers who die defending the lives of other Jews, the Talmud says that their place in the Next World is on the very highest level, with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Make no mistake: It is the will of God for Jews to keep all the mitzvot in the Land of Israel. But a Jew who makes that essential act of identification -- smearing the blood on the doorposts -- is worthy to be redeemed. In the last eight years of terrorist atrocities, we have seen much blood, smeared on doorposts, floors, walls, and buses. And although no one chooses such a gruesome death, every Jew who stays here in these traumatic times is making a de facto decision to be part of the Jewish people, even at the risk of his or her life. Our blood-splattered bus stops are no less holy than the doorposts of Egypt.

In the merit of our blood-smeared restaurants, Bat Mitzvah halls, discos, supermarkets, streets, and hotels, may we witness the Final Redemption.

Dedicated by Dmitry Mogilyansky
In memory of his life-long friend, Raisa Rachel Rechtman

The Israel Spiritual Symposium is a series of essays exploring the deeper underpinnings of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

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