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Israel – A Major Part of Judaism

on Friday, March 7 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg


Once again, this year’s AIPAC policy conference proved to be nothing short of extraordinary.  Being together with 14,000 like-minded pro-Israel advocates, people of all religions, ethnicities and backgrounds, united by our shared passion and commitment towards a strong U.S.–Israel relationship, was exhilarating and electrifying.

This year’s goose bump moments for me included observing a showcase of some of Israel’s latest innovations, hearing about Israel’s humanitarian efforts around the world, listening to an African American Pastor who recently accompanied a plane bringing the last Ethiopian Jews to Israel, welcoming Israel’s first female Ethiopian member of Knesset who walked from Ethiopia barefoot at three years old, hearing from a Latina Union Leader who, on an AIPAC-sponsored trip, learned about Israel’s incredible immigration accomplishments and fell in love with Israel, among many other moments.

A wide range of opinions and diverse perspectives on what is best for Israel was represented inside the Washington Convention Center.  We heard from leading Republicans and Democrats, from hardline Minister Naftali Bennett and from the head of the Labor party and opposition leader Yitzchak “Buzi” Herzog.  We were addressed by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and, though unfortunately she was ill and couldn’t attend, Minister Tzipi Livni was scheduled to speak.  I am extremely proud that our local delegation to Policy Conference included almost every Rabbi from Boca Raton, including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, all of whom have significantly differing views, but share friendship, mutual respect and a common love of Israel.

Transcending the diverse opinions of the attendees was a unified commitment and devotion to Israel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people.  Tragically, like every year, across from the convention center there were also diverse groups including Neturei Karta, anti-Israel activists, and even people waving Hezbollah flags, united, not in their love for Israel, but by their hatred of her.  Thank God the snow and bitter cold drove them away after the first day.

On the two sides of the street the line was clear between Israel’s friends and her enemies.  Sadly, in the world at large that line is getting blurrier and blurrier.

In an article entitled “With Sadness, I’m Getting Off the Hillel Bandwagon,” a South Florida retired Rabbi, wrote:

Hillel is no longer the Hillel of yesteryears. In 2010 the national Hillel issued guidelines as to what is permissible dialogue at Hillel — speakers who “delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel,” support boycotts, divestments or sanctions against Israel or “foster an atmosphere of incivility” are banned from Hillel. This has essentially banned all liberal Jews who love Israel but disagree with the current Netanyahu government from Hillel involvement…

I’m a Zionist. I love Israel — that’s the reason I’m critical of the current Israeli government and support a reasonable peace agreement with Palestinians. But I refuse to let my Zionism dominate my Judaism. The love of Israel is only a part of Judaism. The Zionist movement is only 150 years old; Israel is only 65 years old. Judaism has existed for thousands of years without both. Unfortunately, for too many years American Jewry has made Israel the major part of its Judaism. It’s a part, but not the major part...I’m not calling for a boycott of Hillel. The only thing I’m boycotting are settlements in the West Bank. (Emphasis mine)

First of all, it is tragically sad that an actress, Scarlett Johansson, displayed greater understanding of the issues and love of all Israel than a Rabbi who should know better. Boycotting the West Bank means boycotting products like SodaStream, which employs a thousand Palestinians who are deeply appreciative for their jobs.  Is the Rabbi calling for a boycott of any other country?  Is he boycotting countries that regularly violate human rights and slaughter their citizens, including children?  Calling only for a boycott of parts of Israel while ignoring corrupt, tyrannical regimes elsewhere, is hypocritical at best and outright anti-Semitic at worst.

But even more significantly, the Rabbi displays incredible ignorance in designating Israel a minor part of Judaism (even if it is minor in reality for too many Jews).  Countless Torah sources indicate Israel’s centrality to our history and destiny, our identity and our practices, our dreams and our longings.  Our prophets describe God’s vision for a united Am Yisroel (Jewish people), living in Eretz Yisroel (Israel), while observing Toras Yisroel (Jewish law).

The Talmud (Taanis 10a) tells us: The Land of Israel was created first and the rest of the world was created afterwards, as the passage states (Proverbs 8:26): “Before He made Eretz (land) and Chutzos (outlying areas).”  This is the source of our practice of referring to the land of Israel as Eretz Yisroel and the rest of the world as “Chutz La’aretz,” outside “The” (singular) land.

Almost all of our Prophets lived in Israel or prophesized about it.  Almost the entire Tanach was written in Israel.  The Ramban (Vayikra 18:25) goes so far as to suggest mitzvos are authentically fulfilled only when observed in Israel.  Outside of Israel, our religious lives are essentially practice for when we eventually return home.  Israel is the only place in the world in which mitzvos (commandments) depend on the land, the earth itself.  Of the 613 commandments, 343 (56%) depend directly on the Land of Israel, such as tithing and the sabbatical year.

Wherever a Jew is in the world, he or she faces Israel during prayer.  Synagogues across the globe are built facing Israel.  Our prayers are replete with references to Israel and Jerusalem.  Both the holiday of Yom Kippur and our Pesach seder conclude with the declaration “Next Year in Yerushalayim.”  Jewish weddings end with the breaking of a glass in fulfillment of the verse (Tehillim 137:5) – “If I forget Jeruslaem, let my right hand be forgotten.”  At Jewish burials anywhere in the world, we sprinkle earth from the Mount of Olives, binding the deceased with the eternal resting place of the Jewish people – Jerusalem and Israel.

From these few sources alone it is clear that the Rabbi could not be more wrong.  It is not American Jewry who has made Israel a major part of Judaism; it is Judaism itself that places Israel at the center of our national identity, religious practices, prayers, lifecycle events and more.

Even if he or others deny the authority of the sources I reference or reject the practices I cite, shouldn’t Israel be central to Jewish life simply because it is the one and only Jewish homeland, a place of refuge, immigration and a source of protection for Jews all over the world?  The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, coupled with the devastating results of the recent Pew study on the American Jewish community, make it clear that the future of vibrant, strong Judaism is in Israel.  Israel now has more Jews than the rest of the world combined.  That alone makes it worthy of being a “major part” of Judaism.

And if you believe the few sources I quote acknowledge our affection for the land of Israel but not necessarily the State of Israel, I would ask you to consider the following.  What would have happened to the tens of thousand of Ethiopian Jews had the State of Israel not courageously rescued them and transported them to Israel?  What would have happened to the more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union had they not been welcomed and absorbed into Israel?  Would Torah, Yeshivos and Kollelim have proliferated and thrived in the land of Israel in an unprecedented way without the support and protection of the State of Israel?

It is not just that retired Rabbi challenging the centrality of Israel to Judaism.  An active Rabbi, quoting Prime Minister Netanyahu from AIPAC, posted the following this week:

‘It’s about time the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state – we have only been there for 4,000 years.’ – Benjamin Netanyahu

The second half of this line is one of the worst arguments for Israel. Please stop making it.

Please don’t stop making it Mr. Prime Minister, because it cuts to the heart of the matter.  We don’t need to remind people we have been there for 4,000 years in an effort to restore the world to the way it looked thousands of years ago.  We need to pronounce our lengthy ties to the land because it challenges a narrative that Israel is a modern invention, a prize to the Jew for surviving genocide and introduced only recently as a major part of Judaism.  In fact, just this week, in comments published by his official WAFA news agency Mahmoud Abbas said there’s “no way” he’ll recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Thank God, while these two Rabbis don’t “get it,” Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does and stated it articulately at AIPAC, broadcast over C-Span for the world to hear:

I have said many times before and will repeat again today, the Holocaust was the most sinister possible reminder that the Jewish population in exile was in constant jeopardy. It was a definitive argument that anti-Semitism could appear anywhere, and its horrors galvanized international support for the State of Israel. But, while the Shoah may have a central role in Israel’s identity, it is not the reason behind its founding, and it is not the main reason for its existence.

The modern reestablishment of the state of Israel has long and deep roots going back to the time of Abraham and Sarah. There is no denying the Jewish people’s legitimate right to live in peace and security on a homeland to which they have had a connection for thousands of years and that has not changed through the centuries.

Too often the past is, truly, prologue, and next week — March 15th — is the start of Purim, a holiday that marks the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient empire of Persia – now Iran. As the story goes, a plot had been hatched to destroy all Jews in the Persian empire, but Mordecai and his adopted daughter, Esther, foiled the plot and the day of deliverance became a day of celebration and feasting – Purim.

The parallel is all too obvious when it comes to the situation today in the Middle East, and the protection of the Israeli people from the threat posed by a nuclear Iran. Let us pray that – if the time should come – together we will be like Mordecai and Esther, we shall foil Iran’s nuclear plot, and deliver the Jewish people again as well as protect the world from a nuclear threat.

Minister Naftali Bennett said it well in a recent interview with the BBC: “We’ve been in this land way longer than America has been in American land, and for that matter longer than the British have in the British land. I do recognize that in our land there are two million Palestinians. They’ve got aspirations—they’re not going anywhere, but we’re not going anywhere. So we’ve got to figure out how to live together, how to work it out.”

If the Rabbi I reference is “getting off the Hillel bandwagon,” let’s fill his seat tenfold with knowledgeable, well-informed, pro-Israel, proud Zionists who will unapologetically play the role of Mordechai and Esther and confront our enemies by standing up for a major part of Judaism, the one and only Jewish homeland – our beloved State of Israel.

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