Regarding the Torah – the Divine Teaching – it is written: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Our people experienced intense religious persecution during our long exile; yet, despite the violent attempts to “convert” us, we maintained an intense involvement with our sacred inheritance. The Torah was passed down from generation to generation, and each generation would strive to reveal the deeper wisdom within this Divine Teaching. For example, regarding the persecuted Jews of the Middle Ages, historian Berel Wein writes:
“They built an edifice of scholarship and research, unmatched in human history, on the foundation of the knowledge and faith of previous generations. Their firm belief in the revealed Divinity of Torah was coupled with reasoned analytic exposition, monumental research, a flood of research books and commentaries, and a holy and individualistic life-style.” (Herald of Destiny)
In addition, the prophetic messages of our spiritual inheritance would remind us that we were chosen for a universal mission among the peoples of the earth through serving as an example of the Divine Teaching. It is therefore not surprising that we defied our oppressors by chanting each morning the following introductory prayer with pride and joy:
“We are fortunate; how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance! How fortunate are we, who, early and late, evening and morning, twice each day, proclaim: ‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!’ ” (Introductory Morning Prayer)
About a hundred years ago, there arose secular activists within the “World Zionist Organization” that rejected the spiritual message of this prayer, for they rejected the inheritance itself; moreover, in place of the Torah, they wanted to substitute secular nationalism. One of these activists was Joseph Hayim Brenner, a prominent literary figure within the new Zionist movement. In response to the spiritual message, “how beautiful is our inheritance,” he wrote:
“But what is our life worth? We have no inheritance!” (Cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Arthur Hertzberg).
There were some other secular Zionist activists that had a more positive attitude towards the spiritual inheritance of our people, but as we shall discuss in this letter, those who rejected our spiritual inheritance began to dominate the new Zionist movement. We shall also discuss how some of the descendants of those who rejected this legacy are now proclaiming, “How beautiful is our inheritance!”
The prominent Zionist philosopher, editor, and writer, Jacob Klatzkin, wrote:
“In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (Cited in “The Zionist Idea”)
This negative attitude towards the Jewish spiritual heritage began to have a major influence on the Zionist movement. For example, education in most secular Zionist schools began to stress the military victories of our ancestors in the Land of Israel, but it gave little attention to those writings of our Sacred Scriptures which emphasize the spiritual purpose of our being in the land. In addition, the students were taught about the political and military factors which led to the exile from Zion, but they were not taught about the underlying spiritual causes; thus, they were not familiar with the following prophetic message:
“For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert, without a passerby? Hashem said: ‘Because of their forsaking My Torah’ ” (Jeremiah 9:12).
When our people went into exile, we were told to remember the Torah that we had forsaken when we were in our land:
“Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant, which I commanded him at Horeb for all of Israel – its statutes and social laws” (Malachi 3:22).
As long as we remembered that the ethical and spiritual path of the Torah is our raison d’etre, we were able to find meaning and purpose even in exile, for although we lost our land, we did not lose the Torah. For those Zionists, however, who felt that living in the land is our only raison d'etre, the centuries of exile had no purpose or meaning; in fact, there were Zionist leaders who despised the entire period of Jewish history from the beginning of the exile until the rise of the modern Zionist movement. One of these leaders was David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, who said, “The distant past is closer to us than the recent past of the last two thousand years” (The Zionist Idea - Introduction). As the historian, Lucy Dawidowicz, states:
“The philosophical concept of the negation of the galut (exile) became, among many Zionists, a negation of Jewish creativity in the Diaspora.” (Cited in “The World of our Fathers” by Irving Howe)
As a result, most Zionist schools did not teach about the great spiritual accomplishments of the Jewish people in the lands of their dispersion. For example, their students did not study the teachings of Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Abarbanel, and other great Sephardic sages who led the Jewish people. They also did not study the teachings of Rashi, the Vilna Gaon, the Baal Shem Tov, and other great Ashkenazic sages who led the Jewish people; moreover, they did not learn about the ideas of the Chassidic movement and the Mussar movement – Torah movements which sought to renew the spirit of the Jewish people.
A number of years ago, I was reminded of this negative attitude towards our spiritual heritage when Shulamit Aloni, the Education Minister of the State of Israel, publicly criticized Prime Minister Rabin for his behavior when he visited the site of a concentration camp during his visit to Poland. What act did Rabin do that angered the Education Minister? In memory of the Jewish martyrs, he put on a yarmulka, and said the words of the Shema – Israel’s ancient proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity: “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!”
Around that same period, a friend of mine told me the following story: He was serving as a rabbinic counselor in a religious-Zionist high school for girls, and the principal decided to organize a dialogue between a spokesperson for the secular view and a spokesperson for the religious view. The program was held on Chanukah, and the theme of the dialogue was, “Greek Culture Versus Jewish Culture.” The secular spokesperson told the students that western culture is so much better than Judaism and that in her view, “Judaism is worthless.” The students, who were mostly Sephardic, became enraged. Her attack reminded them of stories they heard from their parents and grandparents about how the Israeli government tried to destroy their religious Sephardic culture when they arrived as new immigrants during the 1950’s, and how their religious traditions were ridiculed by Zionist social workers and youth leaders who were attempting to westernize and secularize the new immigrants. The students began to argue with the speaker, and they passionately defended the beauty and honor of their heritage.
Secular Israeli society tends to be very proud of those aspects of Israeli life and culture which are similar to the life and culture of western nations; yet, many members of this society are not proud of those aspects of Israeli life and culture which are “Jewish” – which spiritually connect us to our ancestors. This criticism has even been voiced by a number of secular leaders. For example, in 1988, a publication of the Gesher Foundation included the following statement by Asher Shiloni, a leftist leader and kibbutz member:
"We too, the members of Mapam and of the Labor movement, do not embrace that which is beautiful in Judaism. With our own hands, we are lopping off the roots of our national being, and where there are no roots, one can awake the next morning to see that we are not a nation; it is possible to move out tomorrow, from this difficult and troubled land, to migrate and gradually assimilate – that is what will happen and what is already happening. If it is true that there is no future without a past, then we must draw the past of this nation closer to ourselves; we must understand it and respect it.”
Unfortunately, those who do not understand and respect the Jewish past control most of the Israeli media and most of the other establishment institutions; nevertheless, there are signs of Jewish spiritual renewal. For example, there are informal groups of young Israeli Jews with a secular background who have begun to explore their spiritual roots through Torah study. In addition, there are creative Torah outreach programs which continue to draw people. One unique program that has met with much success is the “Shuvu” (Return) school system sponsored by the Haredi (fervently Orthodox) community in Israel. It was originally started to serve Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Among these immigrants are many parents who are troubled by the violence in Israeli public schools and by the lack of respect for teachers. They are therefore attracted to the stable atmosphere of the Shuvu schools, especially since these Torah-committed schools also provide high quality secular courses. In recent years, these schools have also begun to attract children from Israeli Jewish families that view themselves as secular. As the children in the Shuvu schools become more involved with Judaism, so do many of the parents.
As a result of this renewal and outreach, a growing number of Jews in Israel are once again proclaiming the following words:
“We are fortunate; how good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance!”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. There were a few Zionist writers who occasionally expressed some nostalgia for the spiritual heritage that many Zionists were rejecting. One of them was the writer and poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. In one of his poems, Ha-Masmid, he described the rich spiritual life of the yeshiva student who devotes himself to the study of Torah, and how this study is the strength of our nation. And writer, Micah Joseph Berdichevsky, stated:
“That Israelite who laid down his life for a single one of the minor commandments, his blood cries out to me from the earth; and whenever I transgress that commandment, the image of that martyr, broken, shattered, blurred, and crushed though it may be, confronts me as a reproof” (The Zionist Idea).
2. The passage in the prayer which begins with, “We are fortunate; how good is our portion,” and which concludes with the Shema, is part of a longer introductory prayer. Regarding the history of this prayer, Rabbi Elie Munk writes in his classical work, “The World of Prayer”:
“This prayer was most probably first introduced in the time of the neo-Persian King Yezdigird II. He forbade the Jews of his realm to observe the Shabbos and the daily recitation of the Shema.” [This took place about 1500 years ago.]
As Rabbi Munk explains, this king tried to enforce the beliefs of the dualistic Persian religion, Zoroastrianism; thus, he outlawed the chanting of the Shema, the proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity. He even had guards posted daily in the synagogues to supervise the services, and to ensure that the Shema was not said. This is why the sages of that era instituted the introductory morning prayer that we discussed in the above letter – a prayer which includes the ancient proclamation of the Shema. Rabbi Munk adds: “The purpose of this prayer was to enable all to read the Shema for themselves in private, before the beginning of the public morning service and so elude the king’s detectives.”
“The World of Prayer” by Rabbi Elie Munk, discusses the prayers found within the Siddur – the classical Prayer Book of our people. It is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com
3. There are Divine promises which state that the spiritual inheritance of our people will not be lost, and the following quotes can serve as examples:
A. The Divine promise conveyed by Moses:
“It will be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 30:1,2)
B. The Divine promise conveyed by Isaiah:
“A redeemer will come to Zion and to those of Jacob who repent from willful sin – the word of Hashem. And as for Me, this is My covenant with them, said Hashem: My spirit which is upon you and My words that I have placed in your mouth will not be withdrawn from your mouth nor from the mouth of your offspring nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring, from this moment and forever, said Hashem.” (Isaiah 59:20,21)
4. A universal goal of our return to our spiritual heritage is expressed in the following Divine promise which is chanted on fast days, including the Fast of the Tenth of Teves: “My House shall be called a house a prayer for all the peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).