The Triple Thread: On Hebrew Culture as a Connecting Identity

Establishing the state’s identity as a cultural identity in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence would prevent divisiveness and hostility, and enable all Jewish communities in Israel and abroad to join forces for the building of a nation-state for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel.

The state’s cultural identity has three dimensions: place, time, and language. 


When distinguished guests arrive in Israel, they are taken straight from the airport to one of two sites – the Kotel (the Western Wall) or Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center – and their official visit starts from there. These two important and meaningful sites represent two approaches, or two proposals, for defining the State of Israel’s identity: a religious identity at the Kotel, or a national/defense-oriented identity at Yad Vashem. I would like to suggest another alternative: a cultural identity. To promote this idea, I would invite the distinguished guests to begin their visit to Israel with the National Library.

The National Library is the repository of the Jewish people’s creative effort, representing a culture that spans two millennia: manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud, and the exegetical writings that arose from the study of the former, as well as works of philosophy and literature – from manuscripts written by Maimonides to the Hebrew notebook of Franz Kafka and the poems of Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg and Naomi Shemer. An ancient culture that is renewing itself each day, spiritually and materially.


The memory of time is at the heart of Jewish culture. Jews remember the great moments of the past every day and every hour, in every ritual and at every festive meal. The founding of the State of Israel as a total realization of Jewish time – state and national time – was a seminal decision in terms of shaping the state’s identity. Israel’s calendar is the Hebrew calendar; its state education system and public realm celebrate and observe the Jewish holidays and festivals. Hebrew time – the holidays and festivals, the hours of the day and night, the day of rest on Shabbat – all of these things are the basic coordinates that delineate Israeli life as life embedded in Jewish culture. There is a wonderful correlation between the natural landscape of Eretz Israel and the holidays: the months of Elul and Tishrei – times of self-accounting and prayer for rain – occur in the fall, when the soul is weary of the Israeli summer and longs for the first rain of the winter season; Hanukkah, the festival of light, is perfectly attuned to the months of rain and dark clouds; Passover is observed when the wheat is ready for harvest and spring begins to blossom; and Shavuot heralds the first fruits and the coming of summer. Life in Israel enables the synchronization of the songs, the piyyutim (liturgical poems), the prayers, and the literary writings – produced over thousands of years of Jewish creativity – with actual everyday life.


Hebrew is not only a spoken language. The miracle of an ancient tongue’s revival and reintroduction into all areas of life, after having served for generations as a language of prayer, a holy tongue, is another unique source of Israeli strength. Almost every Hebrew word echoes with associations in the ancient octaves of the language: the Bible, the Mishna, piyut, the Talmud, midrash, Jewish philosophy, poetry and fiction. Our names (David, Meirav, Amitai, Yael), the names of our institutions (memshala, beit din, Knesset, nesi’ut – government, court, legislature, presidency), our military ranks (segen, aluf –Lieutenant, Major General), our public services and utilities (chashmal, do’ar – electricity, postal service), the language of our popular music (Ani cholem al Naomi, Beresheet, HaNavi Yechezkel – Dreaming of Naomi, Genesis, The Prophet Ezekiel), and even the names of our taxes (blo – excise) restore the spirit of two thousand years ago to everyday life, “making the lips of the sleeping speak.” Our attachment to ancient Hebrew is not a matter of religious affiliation; it is a unifying force for the entire Jewish people. The renewal of the language, along with the study of its ancient writings, have created, over the past seven decades, an old-new culture that fosters a sense of partnership and gives meaning to our new Jewish existence. Hebrew connects us to the place where the language arose: the names of parts of the country (Galil, Negev), of localities (Yavne, Lod, Tiberias), and the archeology testifying to long-ago settlement at the foundations of new localities – all of these things connect one to one’s people and to one’s homeland.

The triple thread: Israel’s Declaration of Independence

Israel’s identity is made up of these three joined elements: place, time, and language. The Declaration of Independence masterfully incorporates this triple thread.

The Declaration of Independence established the state’s identity as Jewish through its alignment with the cultural meaning of the term “Jewish,” as elaborated by the great proponents of spiritual Zionism – Ahad Ha’am and Hayim Nahman Bialik. This meaning enables Hebrew Judaism to have a powerful presence in the public realm. The state is Jewish in terms of place, time, and language, but it also grants religious freedom to all its citizens. Time in Israel is Jewish time for both religious and non-religious Jews; the place is the land of our forefathers, for both longtime citizens and recent arrivals; and the chief official language, the language that is present everywhere, is Hebrew.

The fact that the state’s Jewishness serves to unify, rather than to divide, Jewish communities in Israel and abroad, is culturally significant: it enables both Israeli and Diaspora communities to have a true relationship with the place, and it promotes a sense of commitment and involvement in the life of the state among all Jewish communities. An identity definition of this kind also gives minorities latitude to fulfill their identity and to live as citizens with equal rights.

The Declaration of Independence is a literary work of depth and grace. It is not a legal document, but like a sign mounted on the door of a house, it indicates the character of the home.

During my tenure in the Knesset, in cooperation with legal scholar Moshe Halbertal, I tabled a proposal that had previously been made by many others: that the Declaration of Independence be accorded the status of introduction to Israel’s future constitution. As with the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud, it is precisely when we return to an ancient document that we can arrive at a meaning updated for our times, while also expressing loyalty to the past. Reliance on the time-honored, classic text provides a strong basis for renewal.

Establishing the state’s identity as a cultural identity in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence would prevent divisiveness and hostility, and enable all Jewish communities in Israel and abroad to join forces for the building of a nation-state for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel.

Dr. Ruth Calderon is the founder of Beit Midrash Elul and of Alma – Home for Hebrew Culture; an educator and Talmud Scholar; and a former member of the Knesset.