In the course of Jewish history, 65 years is not a long time. And yet, for so many of us, the State of Israel is often taken for granted – firstly, in terms of its very existence, and secondly, in terms of the purpose of that existence.
On May 14 of 1948, the British Mandate for Palestine was coming to an end, and the British were packing up and leaving the area – that was for sure. The Jewish yishuv that numbered 650,000 would then confront an assault by five regular Arab armies actively aided by the 1,000,000 Arabs living in the Palestine mandate – that too was for certain.
What was still uncertain, just days before, was the question of how the Jews of Palestine would respond.
The decision was between accepting the American proposal for a truce, or declaring independence. On May 12th it was decided that rather than simply defending themselves against the inevitable onslaught, the leadership of the nation would publicly declare independence. That proclamation would be accompanied by a written document, a written proclamation of independence.
In her book, My Life, Golda Meir recalls the last minute wrangling over the reference to God in the document. “On the morning of May 14, I participated in a meeting of the People’s Council at which we were to decide on the name of the state and the final formulation of the declaration. The name was less of a problem than the declaration because there was a last-minute argument about the inclusion of a reference to God.”
Ben Gurion, interested in addressing the sensitivities of everyone involved from the left to the right of the religious spectrum, advocated concluding the document with the words “With trust in Tzur Yisrael – the Rock of Israel, we set our hands in witness to this Proclamation….” Rabbi Fishman-Maimon, the spokesman for the religious parties insisted that the words “and its Redeemer,” be added, following Tzur Yisrael, indicative of their strong belief that the establishment of the State would mark the dawn of Jewish redemption. The Labor party spokesman, Aaron Zisling, however was also adamant – “I cannot sign a document referring in any way to a God in whom I do not believe.”
Writes Golda Meir, “It took Ben Gurion most of the morning to persuade Maimon and Zisling that the meaning of the “Rock of Israel” was actually twofold: While it signified “God” for a great many Jews, perhaps for most, it could also be considered a symbolic and secular reference to the “strength of the Jewish People….”
“The argument itself, however, although it was perhaps not exactly what one would have expected a prime minister-designate to be spending his time on only a few hours before proclaiming the independence of a new state – was far from being just an argument over terminology. We were all deeply aware of the fact that the proclamation not only spelled the formal end to 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness, but also gave expression to the most fundamental principles of the State of Israel. For this reason, each and every word mattered greatly. Incidentally, my good friend Zeev Sharef, the first secretary of the government-to-be…even found time to see to it that the scroll we were about to sign that afternoon should be rushed to the vaults of the Anglo-Palestine Bank after the ceremony, so that it could at least be preserved for posterity – even if the state and we ourselves did not survive for very long.”1
It seems to me that the wrangling on that Friday morning in May was even more – it was a very Jewish moment! It was the continuation of a long-standing Jewish tradition of paying attention to the significance of each and every written word, and acknowledging the significance of multiple understandings and interpretations.
Jewish text-study by definition makes room for and even celebrates a variety of interpretations. In the spirit of Ben-Gurion, Maimon and Zisling, learning to accept multiple interpretations and possible nuances of understanding is an important stepping stone to building a culture of inclusiveness and unity.
Just at the State of Israel was founded on a belief in these ideals, so too is study in the Florence Melton School of Jewish Learning committed ever so strongly to the study of Jewish texts within a spirit of pluralism; seeking, respecting and celebrating multiple interpretations. One of my favorite quotes (that hangs on the wall behind my desk):
Multiplicity is a condition of unity, which is only endangered by the attempt to coerce conformity. (Yaakov Malkin, 1998)
May this Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration give us all pause to take great pride in what this great State of Israel stands for: much more than a Jewish homeland for the Jewish homeless, this country, as established in writing by its founding visionaries just 65 years ago, has the potential to become a beacon of light unto the entire world.
— By Rabbi Morey Schwartz,
Director of Education of the Florence Melton School of Jewish Adult Learning
1 Meir, G. (1975). My Life. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, pp. 223-24.