A message for Yom Ha’azmaut

May 6, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple discusses Power and Morality and Practical Zionism.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


We are proud to have given so much to civilisation.

Great Jews have done great things for countless nations and societies. The world would be immensely poorer without them.

But far more than the contributions of key Jewish individuals has been the spiritual, intellectual, ethical and cultural enrichment which has come from the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish moral tradition and the Jewish idea.

It has been suggested that the success of Judaism has been because it generally had moral influence but not political power. Franz Rosenzweig, in fact, insisted that this is the way it ought to be, that Christianity had to work through political institutions and power history whilst Judaism was a-historical. The Christian sought to come to the Father through history; the Jew was at the destination already.

This may not be a correct reading of either religion, but insofar as it emphasises that for most of its history Judaism has not wielded political power it may have a point.

Today’s world is radically different. For the first time in nearly 2000 years there is a Jewish State. Judaism is back on the scene of power history.

The Greeks believed that kings should be philosophers and philosophers should be kings. But as Will Herberg has said, experience should have taught them that “the disinterested devotion to truth and goodness implied by philosophy does not go well with the relativities of interest and expediency”, and that grand ideals become tainted once they are enmeshed with the politics of power.

Rav Kook, the great mystical lover of Zion, was fearful of what would happen to Jewish ideals of holiness once there was a Jewish State, though this does not mean that he would have opposed the creation of the State. Far from it, even though he knew that a State would bring politics, power, expediency and compromise.

But the contemporary generation, though rejoicing wholeheartedly in the existence of Israel, cannot pretend that the Jewish return into history has been without its problems.

The new experience of running a State and operating a defence force has not been easy. There is idealism there, but the decisions have not always been wise, high-minded and visionary.

Israeli society must somewhere have a potential moral ombudsman capable of assessing the way power is used and credible enough to be heeded and heard.


This week we celebrate Yom Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day.

As always, the occasion will bring out its philosophers, analysing the meaning of Israel and assessing how far the Jewish State has fulfilled the Zionist ideal.

There is something else they often forget to remember. The Torah pinpoints it for us. “When you have come into the land,” it tells us, “and shall have planted all kinds of trees…” (Lev. 19:23).

Coming into the land means more than ideological debate and philosophical analysis. It means acts, facts on the ground, practical expressions of great ideas and ideals.

Not just for Israelis themselves; that’s obvious. But for Jews everywhere, for whom a program of practical Zionism was formulated as long ago as the second century by Rabbi Meir.

Said Rabbi Meir, “He who is firmly implanted in the land of Israel, who speaks the holy tongue, who eats his food in purity and reads the Shema morning and evening – he is assured of life in the World to Come” (Jer. Shabbat 1:3).

To be firmly implanted in the land of Israel means Aliyah for oneself or one’s children. At the very least it means visiting as often as possible, not just to fulfil the Biblical command to “see the land, what it is” (Num. 13:18), but to breathe the air and sense why the sages said that every Jew who sets foot there, if only for two paces, will inherit eternal life.

To speak the holy tongue means being at home with Hebrew. We have our own language: should we not all make the effort to make it our own?

I once spent all night at Lod Airport, greeting planeloads of Russian immigrants. They did not quite know who I was, and one youngish man, presuming that I was an Israeli government representative, solemnly addressed me in a flowery speech in Biblical Hebrew which he must have composed for his arrival. Not that the rest of us need to compose speeches in Hebrew, but nor should it be a totally foreign tongue for so many Jews.

Eating food in purity had a ritual connotation for Rabbi Meir. In a metaphorical modern sense, it means bringing Israeli products into one’s home and one’s life. It means backing Israel and buying Israeli. It means bringing the feeling of Israel into the furthest corners of the world.

Reading the Shema morning and evening has always been part of Judaism. But in this context it has an extra dimension. We who live in these miraculous times, having seen the phoenix of Israel rise after the ashes of the Holocaust, must perceive a religious dimension in the events we have witnessed so dramatically.

We must tell the world that this is something which the Lord hath done (Psalm 118:24). We must proclaim with the Shema, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is a unique God!”

This is practical Zionism.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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