“Just a Word of Hebrew Pierces My Veins and My Soul” A Jewish State as Culture

How can one encompass an entire world – “What is a Jewish state?” – within a single short article? One cannot, nor is it necessary. If, nevertheless, we are obliged to compress all the abundance, richness and joy embodied in the existence of a Jewish state into one word, I think that word should be: “culture.”

A Jewish state is the sum total of the yearnings of two thousand years of exile, it is all the eyes that looked eastward, it is “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” it is the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” it is the Law of Return and the promise it embodies to all Jews in the world, wherever they are, that they have a homeland always open to them and that they have a home here.

A Jewish state is the Hebrew language, it’s the fact that the names given to children here have meaning in an old-new tongue; it’s the archaeological findings, every shard and every coin from the time of the First or Second Temple bearing a souvenir “from home, from the beach,” it’s the memory of the Holocaust and the miracle of Jewish-Zionist rebirth and the necessity of defense and the object of heroism, it’s the continuation of a glorious history and it’s a city of refuge, the birthplace of the nation’s soul and a safe harbor, it’s sabra-cactus hedges and ancient landscapes, it’s fig honey and watermelon juice, it’s “this blazing light” and the “sea of sheaves,” it’s “The fields spill out below, as far as earth meets sky, Beneath the olive trees and Mount Gilboa,” it’s the ingathering of exiles and “and thou shalt tell thy son,” it’s poetry and prophecy and culture and rousing vision, it’s Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, it’s “the hope that is two thousand years old,” it’s multiple possibilities.

A Jewish state is also the memory of being a stranger, “for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and the compassion we are supposed to feel for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow when we are sovereign, independent, free and strong; it’s the not-to-be-missed opportunity to create a just, civilized and enlightened society, a society whose weaker members are not invisible, where the person is at the center and the state is for him, not the other way around; a society whose citizens are equal to each other and whose different segments are responsible for each other; the land of Lu Yehi – “May it be.”

Abba Eban once noted the difficulty of trying to define Judaism in a single word – a difficulty that is equally apparent when we try to distill the essence of “the Jewish state”: Judaism is “a religion, a culture, a nationality, memories, dreams, a civilization. Any one word that might be used to describe it would necessarily result in an erroneous definition.”[1]

If, nevertheless, we are obliged to compress all the abundance, richness and joy embodied in the existence of a Jewish state into one word, I think that word should be: “culture.”

Or, in three words: “Jewish and democratic.”

Or, in seven words: “as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

When they built a bridge between Judaism and the Israeli legal system, the state’s founding fathers chose to consider the core values of Jewish tradition in a broad sense and made a clear and sharp distinction between religion and culture, between the Torah and prophetically-inspired action. Or, to use another formulation that found its way into Israeli legislation and that expresses the same idea: “in the light of the principles of freedom, justice, equity and peace of Jewish law and Israel’s heritage.”

If we want to expand our definition of a Jewish state to an entire paragraph, we can and should simply return to the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence that defines the character of the state to be, a paragraph that has everything in it and that not only has not lost its relevance but has actually become even more crucial:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

If there is a text that precisely expresses my feelings about what the hoped-for Jewish state should be, it appears in a long-forgotten ruling by Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin; one paragraph that sets forth his vision and worldview and that begins with the words: “For myself, I ask.” This was his appeal, intended not for himself but for his grandchildren and, in effect, for us all:

For myself, I ask that my grandchildren be brought up in the heritage of my forefathers and of myself, that they know what the Song of the Sea is, who Deborah the Prophetess was, and David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan; that they know who Hillel the Elder and Maimonides were; that they enthusiastically sing “To me each wave carries a souvenir” and “Siman tov u’mazal tov”; that they know who Dicky was, and Yehuda Amichai’s Yivke; that they live Alterman’s “silver platter”; that they know what the “Scroll of Fire” was about who Bialik was and who Haim Gouri is; that they learn about the Holocaust and know that Masada shall not fall again.[2]

That is what a Jewish state is.

A Jewish state is the national home of the Jewish people dispersed across the globe, a home that is always open to that people. But it is not only “The State of the Jews,” as Theodor Herzl, the seer of the state, entitled his well-known pamphlet Der Judenstaat. Israel is a state based on Jewish culture that also ensures the ability of minority groups to safeguard and express their own culture.

Jewish culture is not identical to a religious way of life, nor is it congruent with the imposition of religious norms in the public realm. It should not be a normative coercive system that is imposed, but rather a choice given to each person: everyone should be able to choose their own path amid the Jewish cultural riches available to them. Jewish culture is a constant and ever-renewing collective creation, not frozen in time.

The political shaping of a “Jewish state as culture,” and not as a set of religious-lifestyle practices imposed on the public realm, will make connection to this glorious culture possible for sectors and individuals interested in preserving a national identity but without religious coercion or political intervention in their core right to freedom of or from religion. Emphasizing the cultural aspect of the Jewish component of the state’s identity, as opposed to the religious component, would likely also ease the sense of alienation experienced by various population groups toward that component. Thus, for example, for citizens who seek social justice and peace, these values are not cherished merely as values of the enlightened nations and the family of man, but also as values intertwined with Jewish tradition itself. Likewise, being inspired by the vision of the “prophets of Israel” may promote social justice in Israel and lay the groundwork for the adoption of social rights by the Israeli legal system. And that is just one example.

Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn held a similar view. The state’s Jewishness, as he saw it, was determined by its being the Judaism of a nation-state, of a culture, of pluralism, a Judaism of historical and cultural continuity between those living in Israel and the Jewish people across the generations and dispersions. According to this outlook, a “Jewish state” should also have an obligation to “Jewish values,” those that Judaism imparted to all mankind. And those values can and must be embraced in Israel, not just in terms of their universal aspect but also on the basis of their Jewish source and our pride in it. The debate on a periodically recurring phenomenon, that of Judaism’s rhetorical appropriation and distortion, along with behavior highly inconsistent with the aforementioned values, is a topic for another article. And in Justice Cohn’s words: “The truth is that, were the state founded solely on the authentic values of Judaism, it would not be reconciled to inequality or racism, to violence or to fanaticism, to the suppression of freedom or to the silencing of voices” (Cohn, 2006, 389).

At these moments it is worth remembering that, even if the road to the vision’s realization is long, even if its current implementation is faulty and taints us, the values in their original form will light our way – so that we won’t go astray, so that we’ll be able to return.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin said of Judaism: “There is scaffolding, there are walls, there is a house, but every Jew has to “repurchase” it. Every Jew has to furnish and renovate it according to his means, according to his specific taste. And there is room in it for so many beautiful things” (Cohn, 2006, 116).

We may also call this the “ingathering of the Jewish people’s cultural assets across the generations, in those days, at this time;” we may include within the concept “Jewish heritage” all of the cultural assets created by the Jewish people over the generations. The culture can be a connecting force for people whose hearts sing when they hear an Israeli melody, because “songs are sometimes the last love for a faraway home” – people who are moved by the song of the grasses and desert landscapes and the fragrance of the orchards and the tops of the cypress trees and the lilac flower and tall wild sabra bushes on the sides of the road to the water wells and all the light and all the leisure and stars outside and little poetry books on shelves.

Israeli culture gushes like a stream of clear water that flushes out the muck, with pleasing turns of phrase, compelling local creative work that could be produced only here and that binds us to this place with threads of love and belonging. “Halleluyah because of things like that” and because of “those songs of the heart, there are none like them.” If we succeed in making life here look and sound a little more like those songs, it’ll be okay.

So to all who yearn, to all who hope, to all who see before their eyes “that land of sun, that one we have not found,” a shared dream which, even if it doesn’t always come true save as an accepted image in the public consciousness, but which for many holds the meaning of life – let us build green bridges above and beyond the distressing now to an eternal, timeless Israeliness, a longed-for Israeliness where everything is still open and possible and the imagined future is optimistic and rooted in the state’s founding vision.

Let us channel our yearning into action, into a return to emotional landscapes that speak to us, that thrill our soul. Let us not forgo the chance to rediscover these landscapes, even if their brilliance has dimmed and their contours have faded.

Let us believe that “[i]n the shade of the palm, in the land of the Kinneret, I had light and abundant sun, morning remained there, gold touched the road, and my soul dreamed what my eyes beheld.”

Let us believe in our chances for a well-run and more just society, enlightened and ecological, ethical and civilized, whose language is rich and whose different segments are intertwined, not unraveling and splitting apart. An Israeliness of normality, of secular life, of equality for all citizens of the state, of fresh air and Israeli hope.

When we remember what our love of country is made of – the land, the history, Jewish philosophy and thought, the sources, the Hebrew language, the art, the literature, our poetry, our music, our popular songs, the natural landscape and its colors, the crazy song of the land – even if our hopes sometimes seem to have been dashed, suddenly they appear possible once again. Reach out and touch it.

So when I feel these yearnings, the Hebrew language and the books and the Bible and the poems and the melodies and the Hebrew letters resonate with the idea that “Yes, it’s possible” and carry me to an Eretz Israel where all the hopes and dreams still live, and not just the current reality, which is sometimes cracked and whose windows are sometimes covered with thick smog that blocks out the light; the light that is so abundant outside, but that also shines within us.

This is not an invitation to engage in nostalgic musings over the ruins of a world that was, or to hold fast to the jeep that passed by. It is a call to action, an aspiration, an opportunity in the life of a nation to return to the point where our vision was laid out with clarity and precision, the vision to which we must return and which we must review and examine so that we can find in it and extract from it traces of old dreams, and make of them a new and rousing message and a tomorrow of blue skies. “All this is not a fable or a dream / It’s as true as the light of noon / All this will come tomorrow if not today / And if not tomorrow then the day after.”

As Israel’s fiftieth year of independence approached, Justice Haim Cohn was asked what his dreams were for the state. This was his answer: “For the Jewish state today I want a Judaism of justice, of law, of rationalism and wisdom. ‘And thou shalt do that which is right and good” should be the entire Torah. In the meantime, ‘and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ exists only on paper, but ‘and thou shalt do that which is right and good’ is, for me, the entire Torah” (Cohn, 2006, 134).

This is just as true as we approach Israel’s 75th year of independence.

Justice Cohn’s response embodies the essence of the Jewish state as culture.

Yes, it’s possible.

Land of the seven species, land of knives.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

Land of worship. Land of punishment.

Land of if only. Land of if and but.

Land of Mounts of Blessings and Maledictions.

Land of scant water. Land of searing summer.

“Land that eateth the inhabitants thereof,”

Says the well-known slander.

“Land of our longing where all hopes will come true,” says the song.

Land of the Messiah who’s just around the corner.

Land of yearning. Land of burning strife.

Land of Sarah’s sons and Hagar’s.

Land that sleeps clothed and shod.

Land bracing for impact.

(Haim Guri, “Land of the Seven Species.” In: Though I Wished for More of More. Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Daniella De-Nur Publishers, 2015; poem translated by Vivian Eden in Haaretz: www.haaretz.com/2014-07-02/ty-article/a-reasonable-chance-of-war/0000017f-db9f-d3a5-af7f-fbbf898a0000?lts=1672898158703 )


Works cited

Cohn, Haim (2006). Being Jewish: Culture, Law, Religion, State. Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir.

The Book of Mishael Cheshin (2006). Eds.: Aharon Barak, Yitzhak Zamir, Yigal Marzel. Teva Hadvarim.

Adv. Dina Zilber is a former Deputy Attorney General of Israel.

[1] Quoted in a speech by Judge Haim Cohn before the American Jewish Committee. See Cohn, 2006, 149.

[2] Quoted by Judge Rami Haimovich in an article written in honor of Justice Cheshin in The Book of Mishael Cheshin, 2006, 76.