Toward a Jewish State with Jewish Values: A Diaspora Vision

The bridge between Israel and the Diaspora needs to be continually strengthened and deepened. We must not underestimate the importance of Israel as a leader in the pursuit and implementation of the highest standards of Jewish values and as an inspiration to the entire Jewish world to follow suit.

When describing the debacle of the building of the Tower of Babel, the Torah states, “God descended to see the city and the tower.” (Bereishit 11:5) However, surely God is everywhere? Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma, which explains that here God wished to set an example for us: one should not pass judgement from afar without the benefit of having immersed oneself in the matter in question. In this spirit, our Sages declared “Do not judge your fellow until you come to their place” (Avot 2:4) and they continuously remind us that “Hearing about something is never the same as seeing it for oneself.”

With this in mind, I believe that it is incumbent upon any person living outside the State of Israel to approach issues relating to the security and functioning of the state with due humility and care. No Diaspora Jew should seek to dictate to the politicians, Rabbis, and other leaders of the State of Israel how to resolve the most polarizing issues of the day.

However, I am also mindful of the halachic principle that “One who is a witness cannot become a judge.” One cannot be impartial on a matter when one is personally involved. Indeed, there are times when a fresh perspective from afar, provided without fear or favor, can offer valuable insights. The views of Diaspora Jews on contemporary issues pertaining to Israel should therefore not be hastily discarded, especially as Jews in the Diaspora share some of the consequences of Israel’s reputation with their Israeli brethren.

The Torah recipe for good governance typically sees every aspect of civil society infused with close adherence to Halacha and connection with the Divine Presence. This ideal, Torah based model of a Jewish state will only be achievable in the Messianic era. Until the time of our complete spiritual and national redemption, we must consider how a necessarily imperfect, democratic state can nevertheless exemplify our Jewish values.

The Blessing of the State of Israel

I was deeply moved by a remark made by Natan Sharansky in an interview about Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion. “When I was growing up in Donetsk,” he said, “‘Jew’ was the worst thing you could have in your papers. … Today, when refugees move to the border, the best thing they can have in their ID is the word ‘Jew,’ because the only country that sends official representatives there to get people and give them citizenship is Israel.” What a wonderful illustration of what it means to be a Jewish state! Wherever Jews are in mortal danger, wherever they are oppressed, harassed or vulnerable, they have a home. Not only a place of safety and refuge, but a formidable and influential power on the world stage, which will use the resources at its disposal to actively seek out and rescue Jewish people, regardless of where they live. For a people whose history is replete with prejudice, pogroms and genocide, the knowledge that we will never again be left vulnerable and alone is utterly priceless.

Yet, the State of Israel is not just a blessing for the Jewish people; it is a blessing for the entire world, with a significant global impact in fields such as academia, agriculture, medicine, science, culture, commerce, and information technology. We can be rightfully filled with pride that Israel has the highest number of Unicorn companies (valued at more than $1 billion) per capita; a higher proportion of Nobel Laureates per capita than the United States, Germany or France; more museums per capita than any country in the world. Yet, these achievements alone, are not enough to enhance the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The Dual Imperative of the State of Israel

The term Lech lecha (go for your sake) appears only twice in the Book of Bereishit. With these words, God instructed Abraham and Sarah to make aliyah and establish a new life for themselves in the Holy Land. Once they had arrived there, God issued a second Lech lecha to Abraham. This time it was to go “to the land of Moriah,” where the binding of Isaac would take place and where the Temples would stand. God therefore called upon the founder of our faith to make a double pilgrimage. First, to the Jewish homeland and second, once he was within it, to the sacred center of the land. A physical aliyah was incomplete without a spiritual one.

In this spirit, we have a responsibility to utilize the countless material achievements of the State of Israel to realize the highest spiritual aspirations of the Torah, which provide us with the keys to the ultimate true character of the Jewish state. A veritable Jewish state embodies our timeless Jewish values, strives for kedusha (holiness) in every sphere of life, seeks peace and pursues it, cares for the security of its citizens, promotes tolerance and morality, respects every human being created in the image of God, engages in machloket leshem Shamayim – arguments for the sake of Heaven – a country that encourages ahavat chinam – natural love of others – and prioritizes Jewish unity.

A Foreign and Domestic Quest for Peace

In 2018, I was privileged to join President Rivlin on a groundbreaking state visit to Ethiopia. The delegation comprised the private, public, and civil sectors of Israeli society, leading businessmen and women, representatives of Diaspora Jewry, and outstanding individuals active in international development. The purpose of the visit was to consider how Israel could best share her expertise in agriculture and technology, and also her expertise in education and community-building, which has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. This was not simply about Israeli foreign policy, but a “Jewish foreign policy,” which brings together the practical knowhow of the modern state with our timeless Jewish values.

My experience in Ethiopia was one of many occasions on which I have been privileged to witness the potential we have for an enduring global impact of monumental proportions. However, we must continuously remember that the stronger we are internally, the stronger our external impact will be.

There is a profound idea from the world of ‘gematria’ which I particularly identify with. What is the origin of the Hebrew word for hand, which is yad? A hand has 14 joints – three in each finger and two in the thumb. Fourteen in Hebrew lettering is yud-dalet, spelling yad. When two people shake hands or hold hands, you have yad plus yad, spelling the Hebrew word yedid, which means friend. Yedid has the numerical equivalent of 28, which is spelled kaf-chet, which in turn is the word koach, meaning strength. The greatest potential strength of the Jewish people comes from our friendship, our togetherness, and our unity.

In 2002, I invited Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau to address a group of British rabbis. One rabbi asked for Rav Lau’s thoughts on the social and political divide between dati (religious) and hiloni (secular) Jews in Israel. Rav Lau responded emphatically: “I don’t know what you mean. We do not have any hiloni Jews here in Israel.” He went on to explain that the vast majority of Israeli society perform the mitzvot of eating matza on Pesach, fasting on Yom Kippur, and lighting the Chanukah candles, not to mention the fact that all Israelis perform the mitzva of settling the land.

Rav Lau’s message was a powerful one. Labels are reductive and unhelpful. Sadly, however, the reality is that too many people within Israel see labels rather than people. In some circles, people are judged according to their mode of dress, type of head-covering, hashkafa (world view and guiding philosophy), whether they are Sefardi or Ashkenazi, Haredi, Dati Leumi or Hiloni. Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook taught that, while sinat chinam – causeless hatred, brought about the destruction of our Temple and the dispersion of our nation, ahavat chinam – causeless love, will bring about the ultimate geulah, redemption. Ahavat Yisrael – the love of all Jews, must always be seen as crucial to the successful future of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

In the Torah’s list of non-kosher birds, one of those listed as treif is the stork (Vayikra 11:19), which has a most wonderful Hebrew name, chasida (pious). The Ramban teaches that all treif birds have a cruel streak in their character. How is it possible, therefore, that the pious stork is included on this list? The Chidushei Harim, the founder of the Chassidic sect of Gur in the 19th century, gave a beautiful explanation. He taught that the stork is indeed selfless and kind-hearted, but only to birds of its own feather. To other birds and other creatures, it acts with cruelty and distain. As a result, it is not kosher. The Torah’s timeless lesson is clear: When we are selflessly committed to acts of kindness and generosity only to those within our own self-defined group, but we have no time for, or even act with cruelty to those who are different, we are living a life that is treif.

Nowhere is this mindset more evident than in the political sphere in general and on the Knesset floor in particular. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Israel currently languishes in 29th position out of 37 OECD countries, dropping a further four places compared to the previous year’s report. A Jewish state should lead the world in setting an example of transparency, honesty, and respectful and dignified conduct.

A Jewish state is also a state that never rests until it lives in peace. In our daily prayers, we refer to God as the One who is “oseh shalom uvorei et hakol” – God makes peace and creates everything, which our Sages explain to mean that the making of peace equals everything. At the end of Kaddish and the Amidah prayers, when we recite the words, “Oseh shalom bimromav…” – May He who makes peace in high places make peace for us and all Israel, we take three steps back. Here we acknowledge that to achieve peace we will often need to uproot ourselves from our previously held position. Sometimes, the prize of genuine, long-lasting peace is worth making acceptable compromises for.

However, there is one crucial step that must precede our efforts to achieve peace with our enemies. One of my illustrious predecessors, Rabbi Lord Jakobovits, pointed to an extraordinary feature of our daily prayer for peace, “Sim shalom.” Within it, we exclaim, “Barchenu Avinu kulanu ke’echad” – bless us, our Father, all of us as one. Why, in a prayer for peace with our external foes, do we make a plea for internal unity? Rabbi Jakobovits explained that here we acknowledge that we cannot hope to achieve peace with our enemies if we are plagued with internal hatred and strife.

Relationship with the Diaspora

An important way in which Israel can actualize its role as a Jewish state is by strengthening its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

The Torah describes how, when our nation entered Canaan, the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe settled east of the Jordan River, outside the borders of the land. Many of our commentators ask: What prompted the tribe of Menashe to split in half?

The Netziv in his commentary Ha’emek Davar, explains: the tribe of Menashe boasted the best teachers within the nation. Moshe knew that outside of the borders of the Holy Land, Reuven and Gad were geographically separated from the holiness of that territory and therefore they desperately needed to be educated and inspired. Seeking to guarantee that they would always remain true to their spiritual roots, Moshe allocated the best of teachers for them. The tribe of Menashe therefore became a vital bridge linking Israel to the Diaspora through education.

When our great-grandparents chanted the famous words uttered by the prophet Isaiah, “…for out of Zion the Torah shall come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem,” they could scarcely have dreamed that their great-grandchildren would indeed be blessed to see the realization of that prophecy. Today, Israel is the global epicenter of Torah learning, providing enduring inspiration to Jews around the world, giving them something not just to live with, but to live for.

We are witnessing the development of an encouraging new era. Like children who have been raised by their parents to reach independence and then go on to provide much needed help to their parents, so, too, Israel is emerging as a powerful source of assistance and inspiration for Diaspora communities who contributed to her creation and development.

An increasing number of young Israelis are undertaking a year of national service in Diaspora communities, teaching in schools and communities. The Reverse Birthright program, championed by Gesher, encourages public figures from Israel to visit Diaspora communities across the world to better understand the history of our symbiotic relationship and how it continues to shape Jewish lives both in the Diaspora and in Israel. It is vital that opinion formers and decision makers in Israel recognize that so much of what they do, has real repercussions for Diaspora communities both directly and indirectly and due consideration of this fact is necessary on many sensitive issues.

The bridge between Israel and the Diaspora needs to be continually strengthened and deepened. It should encompass Torah study, Jewish education, a strengthening of the connection of Jews to Israel as well as between Jews from across the globe. It should also include support for communities confronting antisemitism, the sharing of Jewish culture, ties through sport and much else. We must not underestimate the importance of Israel as a leader in the pursuit and implementation of the highest standards of Jewish values and as an inspiration to the entire Jewish world to follow suit.

More than anything else, it will be the pursuit of Jewish values in the Jewish state that will enable us to wholeheartedly declare, as Joshua and Calev did, “This is an exceedingly good land!” (Bemidbar 14:7)

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis KBE is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  Now in his tenth year in office, he is well known as a principled spiritual leader, who has strengthened Jewish community life and broken new ground in the areas of education, tolerance, interfaith and social responsibility.