Two-Way Street for Yom Kippur | Yom Kippur and Israel 5782

Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel
on August 26, 2021

Yom Kippur is simultaneously many things. One that we cannot easily overlook is a celebration of Sinai. Yom Kippur, according to rabbinic tradition, marks Moses’ second trip up the mountain. We capture this liturgically in my Reform minhag with the Deuteronomy Torah reading of Nitzavim. The inclusion of Exodus 34:6-7 in the Torah liturgy for taking the Torah from the ark also points to this second Sinai moment. Yom Kippur enfolds us in this covenantal textual moment even as many gathered may not be fully aware.

This Yom Kippur we might especially consider two additional defining Jewish texts of the twentieth century and ask how we see them through the prism of our Sinai master story. These two texts are Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the official Prayer for the State of Israel.

Israel’s founding Declaration contains these words:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions, and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

WE APPEAL – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.

WE EXTEND our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”

The first line of the official prayer for the State begins: “Our Father in Heaven, Rock and Redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption.”

The question before us is this – how do we regard the phrase “first flowering of our redemption?” Is this a metaphor or does this signify something cosmic and real—if you will? Are we in an era of “redemption?”

What does being in an era of “redemption” mean? Does being in an era of “redemption” change the rules of life?

To answer these questions, we turn to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Tzvi-Yehuda Kook.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was one of a kind — a deeply spiritual Jew with a universalist ethic. He saw great promise in the movement of secular Zionism and the idealistic pioneers who were rebuilding the land. We might even say that redeeming the land for him was redemptive. He saw, wrote, and taught that the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel had cosmic significance. He wrote “the Judaism of the Land of Israel is salvation itself.” (Eretz Yisrael in Orot, 1920) Rabbi A. I. Kook believed that the building of even a secular Jewish presence in the Land of Israel marked the engagement of the people with a messianic quest. In other words, earthly sovereignty (Ben Gurions’s “mamlachtiyut”) had divine, cosmic, and messianic impact. Early secular Zionism recreated the Jewish soul. One can see Ha-Rav Kook as giving a religious “imprint to the Zionist notion of Livnot u’lhivanot to build and to be rebuilt.”

Rabbi Kook’s son expanded his father’s theory and belief into an aggressive political ideology and a motivating theology for the settler movement. He wrote: “The state is the highest earthly revelation of ‘Him Who returns His Presence to the World.’ All else is detail…” (Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, Within the Public Campaign. In the Press, ed. Yosef Bermason, Jerusalem: HaRav Kook Institute, 1986). The followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook see in the State of Israel a messianic event beyond history. The world is in a new era of the “Revealed End that prohibits the ceding of any occupied territory because possession of the Land is a divinely ordained inheritance.”(Rabbi Shlomo Goren in Quarterly of the Israel Chief Rabbinate, 1980). Israel’s conquests in the Six-Day War affirmed the belief that the secular state itself represented the unfolding of a divine plan that suspends all other concerns, values, and interests. To partition the land is therefore to commit blasphemy.

How does this understanding square with the promise and commitments made to “the Arab inhabitants” and “all neighboring states” in Israel’s Declaration of May 14, 1948? A literal understanding of “the dawning of redemption” and the promises of the Declaration cannot live side by side.

Yom Kippur invites us to go deeply into our souls. We each seek to measure our lives through the prism of our Sinai inheritance. As lovers of Israel, we are each called to consider Israel’s Declaration of Independence and the Prayer for the State. We are each called to decide which text is a metaphor and which text is literal. Our personal decisions determine the nature of our Zionism.

Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel is the senior rabbi at Temple Micah, in Washington, DC, where he has served since 1983. He feels his primary role as rabbi is grappling with the challenge of “translating” the inherited Jewish past into theology and practice that speaks to today.

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