Author Archives: Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

About Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.

Gush Emunim

Gush Emunim was founded in 1974 under the slogan “The Land of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.” Its founders perceived the state of Israel as the instrument through which God was bringing redemption, making it imperative upon the people and the state to take practical steps to ensure Jewish sovereignty over all parts of the Land as it was defined in the Bible.

The Roots of Gush Emunim 

The roots of the Gush Emunim philosophy are found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the later interpretations of his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook.  

The elder Rabbi Kook believed that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel were mystically bonded by the spirit of God. The Zionist movement, even at its most secular, was a divine instrument in bringing the redemption, which is close at hand. He interpreted Zionism according to the kabbalistic notion of “practical  messianism,” which links divine redemption to the actions of human beings. According to Rabbi Kook, the return to Zion and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel will lead to redemption and the Messianic Era.  

gush emunimRabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook took over as head of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva upon his father’s death in 1935. He spent the next 50 years teaching, expanding, interpreting, and publishing his father’s practical-messianic ideas. Eventually, the elder Rabbi Kook’s belief that settling and building the Land of Israel would bring the Messiah would be interpreted by his son to apply especially to lands captured in the 1967 Six Day War. 

While both father and son were highly respected in the national religious community, many leaders of this camp distanced themselves from their messianic teachings. Some moderate religious Zionists felt that the younger Kook was misinterpreting the teachings of his father according to his own, more radical theological and political beliefs. 

Between 1948 and 1967, the national religious camp became an important part of the political landscape in Israel, bringing a moderate interpretation of Judaism that fully integrated itself into Israeli society. This political moderation was massively transformed by the Six Day War.

Secular Zionism

The hope for the redemption of the Jewish people–the end of exile and the return to the Land of Israel–is a central component of Jewish religious belief. The transformation of this religious belief into a political ideology at the end of the 19th century led to the creation of the Zionist movement.

For Jews, the dominant issue of the day was the so-called “Jewish Problem,” the anti-Semitism and outsider status Jews faced in Europe. The Zionists perceived this “problem” as one that could only be solved  by a Jewish national home. Early Zionism was divided into four major streams–religious, political, cultural, and labor-socialist. All except the first constitute the different types of secular Zionism.

Political Zionism

Most of us associate Theodor Herzl with the founding of the Zionist movement. This is true in that Herzl succeeded in bringing together under one organizational roof various Zionist groups; however, there was significant Zionist activity before Herzl came onto the scene.

early secular zionism--herzlMore than 20 new Jewish settlements were established in Palestine between 1870 and 1897 (the year of the first Zionist Congress). These were built by various groups, most notably Hovevei Zion (“lovers of Zion”), a network of local Zionist groups in Eastern Europe. Hovevei Zion joined together secular and religious Jews who shared the goal of colonizing the Land of Israel and did so in a proactive and organized way that set a precedent for the future.

Leo Pinsker, a doctor from Odessa, became one of the leaders of Hovevei Zion. In reaction to growing anti-Semitism in Russia and the pogroms of 1881, he wrote an important pamphlet, “Auto-Emancipation” (1882), in which he said the Jewish people were a “nation long since dead.” The Jew, “a ghost,” was hated by all, cursed to live out the millennia along with anti-Semitism, which would continue as long as the Jew walked among the nations.

To Pinsker, the answer was what he called Auto-Emancipation: The Jewish people had to organize, revive itself as a nation, and remove itself to a new land. “We need nothing but a large piece of land for our poor brothers; a piece of land which shall remain our property, from which no foreign master can expel us,” he wrote. Pinsker did not believe that this land had to be the Land of Israel (though this was preferable), but first and foremost a refuge–granted by the nations of the world–that would save and rehabilitate the Jews.

Israel in Rabbinic Literature

In many ways, the story of the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is the story of Judaism. The entire body of rabbinic literature (including Jewish liturgy) chronicles the attachment of the ancient rabbis to the Land of Israel. These texts are moving, engaging, and eventually set the stage for the modern return to the Land.

The rabbinic view of the Land is a continuation and outgrowth of the Biblical view. In the Bible, the relationship of God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel (which plays a role in almost every biblical book) is the foundation upon which the Rabbis built their world view.

It is not surprising then, that when the Rabbis look at the world, they describe it as “Ha’aretz“–The Land, with everywhere else serving as “Hutz La’aretz“–outside the Land. In rabbinic parlance, one “goes up” to Israel and “goes down” upon leaving.  The linguistic proof is all-telling; to the Rabbis, there exists only one “Land.” This Land is above all others, and is the center of Jewish life, aspirations, and belief.

The Earlier Texts: Tannaitic Literature

The writings of the rabbis known as Tannaim (1st century C.E. to 200 C.E.) are exclusively the product of the Land of Israel. The rabbis of this period weathered two major storms that impacted on the way they saw the Land: The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. and the dismal failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Roman rule in 135 C.E. The Tannaim set the foundation upon which rabbinic Judaism stands.

land of israelThe Tannaim, like the majority of Jews at the time, lived in the Land of Israel; this was their home, and they fought to maintain its Jewish character and population.  The Sanhedrin (high court) still functioned, but Jewish society was in turmoil because of the ongoing conflict with the Romans. At the same time, the Diaspora was growing stronger with each crisis in the Land.

Because of this, the Tannaim discouraged emigration from Israel and encouraged all Jews to settle in the Land by legislating and teaching about the unique beauty of the Land and its centrality in Jewish life. For instance, the Mishnah (the premiere work of Tannitic literature, declared: “The Land of Israel is Holier than all other lands” (Kelim 1).

Praying for the Welfare of the State of Israel

A prayer for the welfare of the national government and its leaders has been part of the Jewish liturgy from ancient days. This tradition can be traced in practice to the daily sacrifices made in honor of Caesar at the end of the Second Temple period over 2,000 years ago.

The importance of praying for the welfare of the ruling body was established by the prophet Jeremiah after the first exile from Jerusalem, in 586 B.C.E. He tells the exiled Jews, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).

By instructing the Jews to pray for Babylonia, Jeremiah is teaching them to recognize that in exile they were physically, economically, and politically dependent upon Babylonia and the good will of its rulers. The situation of powerlessness and dependence demanded that God be implored to direct the leaders of the country to rule the Jewish population in a just and merciful way.

The first siddur [prayerbook] including a prayer for the government is from the 14th century, and the practice is described there as an “established custom.” Hundreds of different prayers for various governments under which Jews have lived (and live) exist today, and are valuable windows to these Jewish communities.

This background is important to understand the thinking of the authors of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel.

Composing the Prayer

On the Fifth of Iyar–May 15–1948, the Jewish people became sovereign rulers in the Land of Israel. This new situation posed many challenges to the Jewish people, a people that had lived most of its history under the direct control of others. Confronting and understanding the meaning of sovereignty and independence created a high level of political, cultural, and religious creativity during the early years of the state.

The Religious Status of Yom Ha’atzmaut

Despite the fact that Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) is a national holiday in Israel, the exact character of the day has not yet been determined. Concerts, festivals, religious services, fireworks, picnics, and recreational activities all play a role in the day. In the Diaspora, very few treat it as a full holiday, although most communities offer special Israel focused programs on this day.  

For many Jews, Yom Ha’atzmaut is not only a national or political holiday, but a religious one as well. What this means is still evolving and open to debate. It is a special day, but is it a yom tov, a festival like the biblical holidays, in which special prayers are recited and Jewish law prohibits working?

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has been at the forefront of creating new liturgy that expresses the special meaning of the day from a religious Zionist perspective. Over the years the many chief rabbis have written or sanctioned a number of different Yom Ha’atzmaut services that can be found in various siddurim (prayerbooks), most notably the Siddur Rinat Yisrael, a popular prayerbook that integrates Yom Ha’atzmaut into the liturgy alongside all other holidays, including the recitation of Hallel–the psalms of praise said on most holidays–and special psalms and the blowing of the shofar.

religious zionistFor some, the innovations of the Chief Rabbinate did not go far enough. In the 1950’s, the Religious Kibbutz Movement began a process of creating a special machzor (holiday prayerbook) for Yom Ha’atzmaut. The last version was published in the 1970s with notes by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.  While Rabbi Goren blessed the kibbutzim for their efforts to sanctify the day, he wrote that many of the innovations went too far. While his recommendations were published in the machzor (out of respect), most of the kibbutzim did not change their practices.

As the character of the day develops from year to year, it is important to note that not all Jews are in agreement about the nature of Yom Ha’atzmaut. For many there is no question that Yom Ha’atzmaut is to be celebrated as a full holiday. On the other hand, there are those who actively refuse to celebrate this day. Between these two extremes are the Jews who celebrate the existence of Israel but hesitate to institute liturgical or ritual changes in honor of this day. Each point of view represents different attitudes toward the meaning and significance of the State of Israel for the Jewish people.

The Jewish Connection to Jerusalem

Building From Broken Shards

With the sound of shattering glass at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, generations of Jews were reminded that Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people were in exile. With this ritual the vow recorded in book of Psalms was actualized: “If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy” (Psalm 137).

While we are overjoyed for the couple, at the same time, we remember that this small shattering glass is filled with sad memories mixed with hopeful dreams.

Beginning to Remember

Yehuda Amichai, a well-known Israeli poet, wrote about remembering Jerusalem in a collection called “Songs of Zion the Beautiful”:

Jerusalem’s a place where everyone remembers

he’s forgotten something

But doesn’t remember what it is.

This spiritual process of longing to remember and thereby touch that which is eternal is the essence of Judaism! And this remembering always connects to Jerusalem in one way or another…

Remembering Jerusalem

While referred to a number of times in early Biblical accounts from Abraham to Joshua, Jerusalem has been the central city of Judaism since the year 1000 B.C.E., when King David conquered this small, remote Canaanite town and made it the capital of his kingdom. With the building of the Temple by King Solomon following the death of King David, the city becomes the focus of three pilgrimages each year for thousands of Jews celebrating the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. These pilgrimages are in keeping with the command in the Torah to visit and worship “…in the place that God will choose, for the Lord God blesses you with produce and blesses the work of your hands and you shall rejoice” (Deuteronomy 16:16).