My teacher Rabbi David Hartman once wrote: “Israel represents the birth of a healthy society that seeks to create a nation like all other nations. The demythologization of the Jewish people is one of the great gifts of Israeli society to the Jewish people.”
And yet at times this demythologization is almost too painful to behold.
Yesterday Jews protested the murder of three Israeli teenagers, shouting “Death to the Arabs.” It is also suspected that as revenge for the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach an East Jerusalem Arab teen, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, was murdered. Naftali Frenkel’s uncle responded: “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”
Being in Jerusalem during these days I have the keen sense that our nation’s character is being tested. There are moments of great pride and solidarity.
At the funeral for these three teens, President Shimon Peres said, “We prayed, each of us alone and all of us together, for a miracle. We prayed that that we will see them return in peace to their families, to their homes and to us all. Sadly we were hit by the tragedy of their murder and a deep grief enveloped our people. We are an ancient people, united and deeply rooted. Our story is full of tears but the soul maintains the Torah. These three boys exposed the depth of our people and the heights it can reach.”
And yet there are other moments of embarrassment and shame. Rabbi Noam Perel, the leader of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, said, “The government of Israel is gathering for a revenge meeting that isn't a grief meeting. The landlord has gone mad at the sight of his sons' bodies. A government that turns the army of searchers to an army of avengers, an army that will not stop at 300 Philistine foreskins…” The myth and even fantasy of an ideal people is shattered. Who continues to idealize our people and cling to the notion that all Jews are animated by the Torah’s decree that every human being is created in the image of God?
Part of the Zionist project is the desire to be a nation like all other nations. And yet with the achievement of sovereignty comes the painful reminder that each and every day our Jewish character is tested. In the diaspora we wish Israel only to live up to our fantasies, to our images that it unique among the family of nations and always lives up to its founding principles. Israel may very well be unique but it is not always perfect. I wonder, is Judaism up to the challenge of sovereignty?
My teacher’s words ring in my ears during these painful days. A nation of our own means that our values will always be tested and that we will sometimes fall short. That is why David Hartman founded the center here in Jerusalem. In his mind the State of Israel was the greatest of experiments. Can our values be held up to the exposure of sovereignty? Singing Shalom Rav and clinging to the Jewish value of shalom when it was only a messianic dream, when we lacked political power and our lives were entirely in the hands of others was not a great challenge by comparison.
Holding on to life and preserving Jewish lives without negating the lives of others and without even denouncing the humanity of our enemies, is the supreme test that is the State of Israel’s lot. Each and every day this is challenged.
We wish to be a great nation, an example for Jews throughout the world, and even a light to other nations of the world. This is part of the dream of continuing to build up the State of Israel. This place is not only for us, but an example for all. Such is the dream of the nation we call our home as well. Great nations wish not only to serve their citizens but the world.
This is the vision of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate on July 4th. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
We will continue to be tested. I continue to hope and pray that one day all the world will say along with the prophet Balaam,
“How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord
Like cedars beside the water…” (Numbers 24:5)
Sitting here in Jerusalem one has the feeling that we may very well hold that judgment in our hands—during these days.