Israel at 60: Making ‘the cut’ for Jewish unity

Israel at 60: Making ‘the cut’ for Jewish unity

Next week, Jews all over the world will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the rebirth of the Jewish state.

Not all Jews, however, will join the celebration. On the far right and the far left of the Jewish spectrum, from the very religious to the very secular, some will mourn and others will simply ignore the day.

Others will pay lip service to the event, but their hearts will not be in it. If they are religious — including some who live in Israel and who put the greatest pressure on the state to enable and sustain their unique lifestyles — they will offer no special prayers. If they are secular, they will display no public symbols of pride and celebration.

Israel is the great miracle that should unite us all. It is the very real unfolding of "the beginning of redemption," the "atchalta d’geula," and we are its privileged witnesses. Yet it is shunned by some and cursed by others.

A few of us even cling to the unbelievably vile falsehood that the Shoah — the death of the Six Million — was the direct result of the effort to bring about this miracle. And, yes, miracles do come from God, but they often require human participation. That, at least, is one way to understand what God said to Moses in a verse in the Torah reading last Shabbat (the seventh day of Pesach), as an attacking force of Egyptian charioteers bore down on the Israelites: "Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward." (See Exodus 14:15.)

The Torah has two words for those who see Israel as something to ignore or, worse, to curse: "Lo titgodidu."

This requires some explanation. Actually, the verse in question, Deuteronomy 14:1, states, "You are the children of the Lord your God; do not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead," with "lo titgodidu" meaning "do not cut yourselves." On the surface, then, it would appear that "lo titgodidu" has nothing whatever to do with the subject of this column. Appearances, however, can be deceiving.

First, the verse is redundant, in a sense. Leviticus ‘1:5 contains a similar prohibition regarding the priests. A general principle relating to the holiness of priests automatically applies to the holiness of God’s "kingdom of priests," meaning Israel, for "all the congregation are holy, every one of them." (Numbers 16:3)

It is also redundant in fact, not just inference, because Leviticus 19, the centerpiece both of "the holiness code" and this week’s Torah portion, applies it directly to all Israel (see verse ‘8).

Whenever the Torah is redundant in a law, the rabbis always looked for another explanation.

That leads us to the second reason that appearances here are deceiving. In Hebrew, the phrase used in Deuteronomy is totally different from the ones in Leviticus ("lo titgodidu" in Deuteronomy vs. "lo yisritu saratet" and "v’seret … lo titnu" respectively in Leviticus). Obviously, it is "titgodidu" that is odd-verb-out here. To find the reason for the redundancy, then, means determining why this verb was used in place of a form of the root word "sarat."

That was not too difficult for the rabbis, for whom word games often had halachic consequences. The phrase "lo titgodidu," they said, was an anagram for "teled agudot," which means "give birth to factions." This would not seem to be a good thing to discover. However, since the plain text is a negative ("do not cut"), so is the anagram considered a negative ("do not give birth to factions"). And that is how the extra-rabbinic commentary on Deuteronomy, the Sifre, bluntly interprets verse 14:1. "Do not divide yourself into factions," it says, "but be one faction."

Clearly, then, from Judaism’s earliest days, it was considered a sin to separate from the general community. Thus, the great sage Hillel warns (in Mishneh Avot ‘:4): "Do not separate yourself from the community." Put another way, do not act contrary to communal norms.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 14:1, put it this way: "[It is a commandment] not to allow differences in the teachings and decisions of the laws to lead to dividing into different communities, not to allow them to lead to ‘splits’ in the nation…; but rather that all such kinds of differences of opinion should be brought to an agreed decision made on the basis of the rules for decisions in such cases by the Torah itself, and uniformity of [community-wide] practice kept up as far as it is regulated by law."

From the standpoint of the medieval commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, violating this commandment is also a defiance of God Himself. "Once you realize that you are children to God and that He loves you more than a father [loves] a child, do not cut yourselves [off] from anything that He may do, for everything that He does [for you] is for [your] good," even though you may not understand how that can be.

None of this is meant to suggest that there cannot be differences of opinion within the community. Since there are few (if any) black-and-whites in Judaism, differing interpretations are built into the system. What is meant here is that, whatever one’s individual belief, it cannot be used as an excuse to divide the community as a whole.

The State of Israel is a "communal norm" and is accepted as such by the overwhelming majority of the community, including all the religious streams and the overwhelming majority of secular agencies, fraternal associations, and the myriad other institutions of Jewish life. Indeed, as my use of the term "atchalta d’geula" suggests, some of us, at least, see the very existence of the state as being the fulfillment of prophecy and the harbinger of the messianic age.

For those of us who believe that, the existence of the State of Israel clearly is something that "God did." For those who believe that the return to Zion is the product of the confluence of hard labor and fortuitous circumstance, it proves the wisdom of Herzl’s "if you will it, it is no dream."

No matter how you look at it, though, to turn one’s back on the State of Israel, let alone the observance of Yom Ha’atzmaut, is to violate the commandment of "lo titgodidu."