As we celebrate this Yom Ha’atzma’ut, the sixty-seventh birthday of the State of Israel, I share a treasured Israel memory.
It was October of 1971. I was sitting in the first session of the late Professor Moshe Greenberg’s iconic Introduction to Biblical Religion class at the Hebrew University, considered an absolute “must take” by those who knew. Because my Hebrew was fluent, I was allowed to take it in Hebrew, with the regular Israeli students in the Bible Department of the university, even though I was a one-year-program student.
When I arrived in Israel that year, on leave from Yeshiva University, I had never before been exposed to critical Biblical scholarship. Belief in the divinity of the text was an indisputable given, and any challenge to that assumption was considered beyond the pale, certainly at Yeshiva.
But Moshe Greenberg, a scrupulously observant rabbi and Ph.D. who was ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, based his study of Biblical religion on what he had learned via critical scholarship. I personally didn’t quite know what to expect, being the uninitiated one in the class. Because of that, the words that he used to describe critical scholarship of sacred text remain enshrined in my memory to this day. With the most serious of expressions, he said:
Hak’li hazeh hu dai m’supak v’dai m’sukan, aval ein lanu kli elah hu. This tool (referring to critical methodology) is, indeed, both clouded with doubt, and even dangerous … but it is the only tool that we have for the task at hand.
Look, he said. Utilizing critical methodology on our sacred texts challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions that we have about Torah itself, its origins and the history of our people. There is no avoiding that. But it is the only methodology that is adequate to the challenge of showing how Biblical religion developed, so we will utilize it despite the inherent risks.
It occurs to me now that what Professor Greenberg said so carefully forty-four years ago about his scholarly methodology might also be applied to how it is that we understand and celebrate Israel’s independence all these years later.
In 2015, few and far between are the Jewish Zionists (forget about everyone else for the moment) who look at Israel and see perfection, and that is for one reason. Simply put, Israel is not perfect, not by a long shot.
Many of us, myself certainly included, have complaints, and legitimate complaints, about different aspects of Israeli politics, law, attitudes and strategies. You name it; there are those among us who have an issue with it. And these complaints are not about minor concerns. They go to the very heart of what it means to be a Jew, and even how we define Jewishness itself.
Some of us are concerned with issues of pluralism, and others are convinced that too much pluralism threatens the Jewish state. Some see Israel’s continued presence in the territories as immoral and an obstacle to peace, and others would argue that we have every right to be there, and no one can tell us to leave.
All of this is true, and then some. So I found myself this week, in anticipation of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, going back in my mind to the words of Professor Greenberg all those years ago on the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University. If I might paraphrase, this State of Israel of ours is filled with doubt, ambiguity and ambivalence, and there is more than a little danger involved in its day-to-day being. But it is the only State of Israel that we have.
And that, my friends, is the most important thing for all of us to understand on this Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Israel is, without a doubt, one seriously challenged country, imperfect in many ways. But as Israelis might say, zeh mah yesh; it is what it is. And well beyond the ever-encroaching reality of Israel’s imperfections is the larger, mega-reality of Jewish sovereignty in the twenty-first century. Reflect for a moment on it means to have a sovereign Jewish state seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz. Had we been privileged to welcome Israel into the community of nations a mere one hundred years earlier, a speck of time in comparison to two thousand years of diaspora and defenselessness, well, we all know how that sentence would end.
But we were not privileged, and catastrophe befell us. It is, to my mind, an absolute imperative for us to be mindful of what we have, and what we dare not lose, despite its imperfections. Israel must succeed and survive, and we are all called to be its guarantors.
This State of Israel of ours is filled with doubt, ambiguity and ambivalence, and there is more than a little danger involved in its day-to-day being. But it is the only State of Israel that we have.
Chag Sameach, Israel. Long may you prosper!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.