This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Israel Rocks*

Even with the best of intentions, it is very difficult to define the appropriate relationships between politics and religion.

Whether it is a question of teaching about the world's religions in the public school curriculum, or of reciting the phrase "one nation under God" in the American Pledge of Allegiance, there is no avoiding the knotty and emotionally charged controversies that are ignited whenever we attempt to demarcate precise boundaries between church and state in a society that claims to be religiously neutral or secular.

As is to be expected, these kinds of questions have been especially ubiquitous and intense in the arena of Israeli politics. In fact, an intriguing religion-state confrontation had to be dealt with by founders of the Jewish state on the very first Israeli Independence Day.

In the historic United Nations session of November 29, 1947, the organization voted to partition Mandatory Palestine into two states, thereby creating a Jewish homeland. This was to take effect upon the termination of the British Mandate, which was scheduled to take place on May 14, 1948.

After exploring the various options, the Zionist executive under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion resolved that they should issue a formal Declaration of Independence immediately following the British withdrawal. Towards that end, Ben-Gurion convened a committee of five senior figures to draft the historic document.

Predictably, there were many different opinions about what should or should not be included in the Declaration, not to mention the disagreements that arose over matters of Hebrew style and word choice. Potentially divisive issues, such as the name of the new state, or whether the proclamation should designate specific borders, were debated and resolved with relative ease.

As would occur repeatedly in subsequent Israeli political history, the most stubborn divisions arose in connection with the Declaration's religious implications.

The opposing positions were marked out clearly in the negotiations. Representatives of the religious Zionist movement considered it unthinkable that a proclamation issued on behalf of the Jewish people should not invoke God's name. Some, like Mizrahi delegate David Pinkus, insisted on a clear affirmation that the Jews' right to their land was based on Biblical promises.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, confirmed atheists like socialist Aharon Zisling could not tolerate the slightest intrusion of supernatural allusions into a political text.

In the version that was ultimately adopted, the dramatic concluding paragraph began "With trust in the Rock of Israel, we set our hand to this Declaration..." Ben-Gurion presented this usage as a compromise that could be acceptable even to non-believers: "Each of us, in his own way, believes in the 'Rock of Israel' as he conceives it." He explained that the atheists could identify the Rock with the Jews' source of nationalistic strength. Presumably, Marxists could interpret it as a reference to the dynamics of dialectical materialism.

A similar tactic had been adopted by the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, who had tried to sidestep conventional religious terminology by employing vague terms like Nature's God and "divine providence."

In fact, the Israeli advocates of the non-religious position scored some significant points for their view in the introductory clause of the Declaration, where it states that it was the Jewish nation who "wrote and gave the Bible to the world"--an implied rejection of the more traditional religious belief in the Bible's divine authorship.

At any rate, Ben-Gurion pushed his compromise through without allowing it be put to an official vote.

Despite Ben-Gurion's conviction that "Rock of Israel" was not necessarily a religious term, the official English translation composed by Moshe Sharet (Shertok), and cited in official documents, rendered it as "Almighty God." It was not until 1962 that the Israeli government changed it to the more literal "Rock of Israel."

I personally find it hard to imagine that an enthusiastic Bible scholar like Ben-Gurion would have been taken in by his own non-theological interpretation of "Rock of Israel." Its scriptural source is from King David's last words in 2 Samuel 23:3, whose meaning could hardly be more explicit: "The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God."

By the same token, I doubt that it was a coincidence that, when the Chief Rabbinate composed its official "Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel," it chose to begin the blessing by invoking "Our Father in heaven, the Rock of Israel and its redeemer." This phrase was virtually identical with the one that Mizrahi leader Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon (Fishman) had originally proposed for inclusion in the Declaration of Independence.

If, as seems probable, the author of the Prayer for the Welfare of State was S. J. Agnon, it is inconceivable that an author with his sensitivity to subtle literary wordplays would have passed up the opportunity to insert an allusion to the contentious phrase in the Declaration of Independence.

However, we might choose to interpret the theological character of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the religious Zionists would not be stopped entirely from adding overtly spiritual touches to the historic occasion.

After Ben-Gurion concluded the emotionally charged and ceremonious reading of the document at the Tel-Aviv Museum on 5 Iyyar 5708, his longtime friend Rabbi Maimon--who would go on to serve a distinguished career as a scholar, parliamentarian and government minister--intoned the appropriate blessing for such an important milestone, the Sheheheyanu, praising God for granting them the privilege of living to experience this great moment.

As a signatory to the Declaration, Rabbi Maimon realized that, even if he could not succeed in having God's name mentioned in the body of the Declaration, he still had control over how he chose to sign his own name.

If you look very carefully at the bottom of the document, you will discern that the rabbi was careful to insert before his signature the Hebrew initials that serve as an abbreviation for the phrase "with the help of God."


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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