The New Rosh Hashanah

By Elli Fischer
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

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. 

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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