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The New Rosh Hashanah

Last week, in preparation for Israel’s Independence Day, Prof. Avinoam Rozenak spoke to the participants in an extracurricular Talmud study group at Hebrew University on the subject of Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman’s Ikveta De-Meshiha (“The Footsteps of the Messiah”).  Originally published in 1937, this anti-Zionist manifesto critiques the very premise of Zionism—namely, that Jews should actively seek self-determination—by idealizing the powerlessness of the exile.  Far from using Wasserman as a straw man, Rosenak questioned whether Zionism’s “normalization” of Jewish history had indeed exacted a heavy price. 

Relevant Links
Why Israel’s Gaze Has Turned Inward  Yiftach Ofek, Jewish Ideas Daily. “It takes two to tango,” goes the oft-quoted idiom.  Without a reliable Palestinian partner, the Israeli public seems to have chosen to dance with itself.
On Silence  Anita Shapira, Jewish Ideas Daily. Israel’s founding generations shaped a national ethos of silence and self-restraint, which found expression in the words of poet David Shimoni: “Don’t mourn, don’t cry/ at a time like this./ Don’t lower your head,/ Work! Work!”
Seven Thousand Ways to Say “Happy New Year”  Lydia Aisenberg, Givat Haviva. Telling the story of Zionism through Rosh Hashanah greeting cards. (With images.)

It may seem odd that a liberal religious Zionist professor would choose such a notorious pamphlet during the lead-up to Yom Ha’atzma’ut; but it has become increasingly common, during the days preceding this most Zionist of holidays, to interrogate the first principles of Zionism.  Given the current condition of the State of Israel, more and more people ask, should we still celebrate the anniversary of its independence?  They wonder aloud whether the Zionist project has deviated so far from its original mission that one should no longer rejoice over it. 

Apart from the columns that  tend to crop up around particular Jewish holidays, several news outlets—including Haaretz, Open Zion, and Huffington Post—have orchestrated virtually perpetual symposia in which diverse writers offer their opinions on why the Jewish state is or is not worth celebrating.  Elsewhere on the web, there is discussion of “what we celebrate on YomHa’atzma’ut,” implicitly acknowledging the validity of the question.  Yom Ha’atzma’ut has become a day not only for celebration but for introspection and stock-taking. 

And not only on the left.  Even as Avram Burg wonders whether the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence can still hold together a deeply fragmented society, his opponents on the right, who still dream of a “Greater Land of Israel,” have been re-examining, since the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the scope of their loyalty to the state

The number of people engaged in such questioning is, to be sure, not particularly large, at least not in comparison to those who are celebrating Yom Ha’atzma’ut without reservation.  But the trend seems unmistakable.  How can we account for it? 

The period leading up to Yom Ha’atzma’ut has been a solemn one since the holiday was first put on the calendar in 1949.  Although Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) was not fixed as the day before Yom Ha’atzma'ut until 1951, the honoring of fallen soldiers on the eve of the celebration of national renewal had already taken root before that date.  Rather than take independence for granted, people wanted to pay tribute to the “silver platter” upon which the state had been served.  This juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut certainly invites a constant reassessment of whether the state is worth its cost.  But this would not explain why the introspective impulse has grown stronger in recent years. 

Perhaps it is happening because the justification for the existence of the state is no longer as self-evident to Israelis as it used to be.  The restoration of Jewish sovereignty is no longer perceived as revolutionary.  Today’s world is relatively safe for Jews, and the problems that Zionism was designed to solve are in the process of being forgotten.  It is also possible that the self-criticism marks the birth of a new and more genuine observance of Yom Ha’atzma’ut. 

The way in which Yom Ha’atzma’ut is celebrated has largely been dictated from the top down. Its ceremonies and events—displays of military prowess (originally parades, now air shows), the release of “State of the State” statistics, the awarding of the Israel Prize, the International Bible Quiz, and a fixed but entirely invented Yom Ha’atzma’ut liturgy—are almost entirely institutional and official.  The only possible exceptions are the customs of visiting national parks and holding barbecues.  There is no telling what a more full-fledged grass-roots Yom Ha’atzma’ut may look like, though the current trend toward soul-searching may offer a clue. 

Only the young, or the old and accomplished, mark birthdays with unencumbered joy.  For everyone else, celebration of such a milestone is tempered by reflection upon the missed opportunities of the past and setting goals and priorities for the future.  The Jewish tradition has universalized this aspect of birthday celebrations through the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of Adam’s creation and, thus, humanity’s collective birthday.  As a result, the Jewish New Year is characterized by an uneasy combination of stock-taking and solemn celebration.  It tries to evaluate the present in terms of principles embedded in the distant past and progress toward future objectives.  Rosh Hashanah implies that humanity has been charged with a mission and is currently oscillating somewhere between success and failure in achieving it. 

Perhaps Yom Ha’atzma’ut, as the birthday of the Jewish state, is just beginning to acquire a similar character.  There is plenty of room for joy and celebration as Israel reflects on its varied accomplishments—but also takes a good, long look at its failures.  Deeply embedded within the Jewish tradition—within the Torah itself, and possibly even its first verse—is the idea that the Promised Land is promised conditionally, that it must be earned, that it vomits out those who do not live up to its high standards.  So it is entirely appropriate that on the modern state’s birthday—its Rosh Hashanah—it examines whether or not it is living up to its mission and debates what that mission might be. 

Elli Fischer is a rabbi, writer, and translator in Modi’in, Israel.

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Nachum on April 17, 2013 at 2:30 am (Reply)
I think that before we recognize that the land is granted to us conditionally, we should recognize that it is granted to us, period. Without that in place, as it seems not to be for the leftist intelligentsia, the rest is pointless.
Yoel Finkelman on April 17, 2013 at 6:52 am (Reply)
Great piece, Elli. You are right, but I feel so frustrated by the self-proclaimed folks who just can't bring themselves to actually celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. Mashal Lemah Hadavar Domeh - i'ts like a couple who go out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary and spend the evening talking about the other one's character flaws and perhaps even why marriage itself is philosophically and fatally flawed. Someone's gonna be sleeping on the couch when they get home. Can't you at least spend one day focusing on the positive.

It's just an example, and I know I have a history with the people at Open Zion, but they can't find a single celebratory article to publish on Yom Ha'atzmaut. Not one? I'm as critical as the next self-righteous armchair critic, but can't we just eat a kabab and sing hallel on one day and get back to our Jewish kvetching a bit later?!
moshe on April 17, 2013 at 10:15 am (Reply)
Who cares what Avrum Burg says, or his friends? They are losers who represent no one -- thank God!
Gerry on April 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm (Reply)
The unease (and perhaps, for some, the lack of it?) generated by the Yom Ha’Zikaron/Yom Ha’Atzmaut dichotomy gets worse by the year. Many feel that establishing such juxtaposition was a grave error of judgment – but that it has become so much part and parcel of the national psyche that nothing can now be done to alleviate this discomfort (and the guilty feelings of the majority who are not first-line members of the military-bereaved community).

In the past, Yom Ha’Zikaron eased out gradually towards the evening before the commencement of Yom Ha’Atzmaut at exactly 8pm, as defined by the timing of the Har Herzl ceremony. Although the media continue to broadcast Yom Ha’Zikaron material throughout the day, nowadays many Israelis dive into Yom Ha’Atzmaut preparations full blast once the second 11am morning siren is over. Visit any supermarket and join the queues at the till – the loudspeakers of the one downstairs began announcing holiday price deals even before 11am – in order to appreciate just how hectic such preparations have become.

To counter this trend, more and more, Yom Hazikaron is being extended backwards in time. Starting from the morning of erev Yom Ha’Zikaron, the media change to a somber tone. Interviews with bereaved families and appropriate music prepare us throughout the day for the first 8pm evening siren, technically the start of Yom Ha’Zikaron.

At the other end, Yom Ha’Atzmaut “drags” on well into the night after. The Israel Prize ceremony is held after sundown. De facto, then, we have a three-day continuum.

Perhaps, then, a better solution can be found with regard to the timing of the traditional ceremonies that are the national symbols of this dichotomy, such that the mental gap between the two days is widened and fuller respect is accorded to the fallen soldiers and civilians by the whole population.

Certainly, restaurants, coffee shops and all stores – with the exception of food stores - should remain closed throughout Yom Ha’Zikaron, not just during the evening. Perhaps, opening times of food stores should also be restricted (many open for business on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, so there should not be a problem for people to obtain supplies if they run short).
Irene Tunkel on April 17, 2013 at 12:40 pm (Reply)
Elli, How beautifully written. I am so proud of you.
chamim dovid rabinovitch on April 17, 2013 at 3:43 pm (Reply)
A bit presumptuous there, wouldn't you say?
Yom H'Atzmaut is a special day because folks need a day to be happy that doesn't carry with it a collection of dinim, minhagim, mandatory observances, memories, etc.

It's a day to enjoy. And to reflect on how we got here and where we're going.

But to put it at a level of Rosh Hashana borders on heresy. R"H was given to the Jews as part of our special gift from God. Y"H is a "work-in-progress" - the degree to which it is celebrated is based, in part, on what we do to further its goals.
Steve Brizel on April 17, 2013 at 9:05 pm (Reply)
Yom HaAtzmaut is a day of great Hakaras HaTov, and IMO, one has to stand on his or her head and perform all sorts of perverse intellectual gymnastics to assert that secular Zionism and its accomplishments as well as the leaders of the State of Israel are worse than the Melachim described in Melachim 2 and that their actions and deviations from the Torah. Another point which I heard from RHS-we are very happy on Purim-yet we seem to forget that Esther HaMalkah lived her life with Achashverush and raised her children as gentiles. Yet the actions of one of her descendants allowed the Jews of Babylonia to return to the Land of Israel and build Bayis Sheni.

That being said, we should be very happy on Yom HaAtzmaut, but never remember that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty trumps Shabbos, Kashrus and many other mitzvos. We should aways remember that our loyalty to Melech Elyon always trumps that to any Melech Evyon
Yossel on April 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm (Reply)

You might consider explaining who RHS is; not everyone in the world worships Rashei Yeshiva at YU.

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