I am often bemused when people describe their Judaism to me in conditional terms, hesitant to embrace Judaism in its magnificent fullness. One of the most strained constraints some people impose on their Jewishness is the Israel “component.” Hardly a mere “component,” however, Israel (Zion) and Jerusalem are actually completely integral to every aspect of Judaism, to its very essence. Judaism without Israel just isn’t Judaism.
As we celebrate Israel Independence Day this month, confronted still by pervasive and vicious anti-Semitic hatred of Israel, it is imperative to proudly recall the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem to Judaism.
The historical connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is unique, unbroken, and unshakable. Beginning with “the beginning” in the foundational Hebrew Bible, God allots this land as the eternal inheritance of the Jewish people, through Abraham to Isaac to Jacob (Israel). Seamlessly continuing through post-biblical texts, the very nature of Judaism and Jewish life is inexorably connected to the Land of Israel. And while diaspora Judaism was always deemed eminently authentic and indispensable, Judaism nonetheless finds its essential expression and fulfillment in Israel.
Just recently having observed the festival of Passover, it is important to recall that the purpose of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt was not merely to leave Egypt. The purpose of leaving was to go somewhere – not anywhere, but specifically to the Land of Israel. Without the “where to go” there was no purpose in the “where to leave.” The freedom and liberty God gave to the Jews at Passover was not to be amorphous, anarchic, purposeless, but rather was a holy endeavor to be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel – under God’s laws. And, of course, we conclude the Passoverseder with the words: “L’shana haba’a biY’rushalahyim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” (by the way, the last words also ofYom Kippur services).
Indeed, so many of our daily and holiday prayers are about Israel, Zion, Jerusalem, and their centrality to Jewish life. When we take out the Torah from the ark, the liturgy includes a Biblical verse we all sing: “Ki miTziyon teitzei Torah u-dvar Adonai miY’rushalayim” – “Out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem.” And when we pray, we face Jerusalem, Israel. When we are in our synagogue’s sanctuary facing the ark, we are facing Jerusalem, Israel, paying her our faithful devotion as the centerpiece of Jewish life.
For all the years we were in exile we never stopped dreaming of, praying for, working towards, and writing heartfelt songs, poetry, and literature about our return to our homeland. And since we’ve returned, gorgeous songs and poems of love for the land have continued to abound and please the soul.
It is simply inaccurate to pretend that Judaism can be integral and whole without Israel at its center. While Israel has never been any other people’s religious, political or national homeland, nor has Jerusalem ever been any other people’s capital city or primary religious center, in fact Israel is interwoven into the very fabric of the entire Jewish chronicle and experience, the Jewish presence on the world stage, and Judaism’s unparalleled positive impact on civilization. Israel has always been the Jewish homeland – and with God’s help and Jewish steadfastness, always will be.
We celebrate all this throughout our Jewish lives and living. We observe Israel Independence Day each year with gratitude, pride, conviction, and celebration – Chag Sameiach!