There is one childhood memory from when I was about ten that remains alive in my mind as if it occurred yesterday — the vote of the United Nations General Assembly in favor of a Jewish State in Palestine on November 29, 1947. As I was falling asleep, I heard the counting of votes from our neighbors’ radio: “…Greece — no …Uruguay — yes …” The following morning, I got up to go to school as usual, and to my surprise I saw that the streets were packed with people rejoicing, dancing.
No one organized it, yet all of Jerusalem was beside itself with joy — joy over something that was not even proper independence, but the dream of independence.
This was a very powerful experience, and I do not recall having seen such rejoicing ever since. This joy was shared by all, despite the fact that even the children knew clearly that a war was sure to ensue. The feeling that from now on, I can somehow decide for myself — that was an extraordinary, unforgettable feeling.
Indeed, with states as with individuals, the knowledge of having become independent, of now being on one’s own, can be an awesome, even frightening experience. To be responsible for oneself entails an entirely new life, a change that is difficult to absorb. Yet it is not entirely terrifying; it also has its element of joy.
Formally, the State of Israel was established in 1948, but the process of its creation began a few years earlier. In the distress and struggle that characterized the years that preceded Israel’s declaration of independence, the Yishuv (“settlement”) that emerged here was both the source of glory and the root of the problem. Not only a new settlement but also a new kind of a Jew was created here, a new species that undoubtedly wanted to be — and in many ways, indeed was — very different from the Diaspora Jew.
This new Jew clearly parted with the past and created new things, many of which were extremely beautiful. These creations also contained quite a number of questionable elements — but at any rate, there was something new. This “New Jew” was no longer the wretch who is beaten up and remains silent, humbly accepting his suffering. He learned to fight, to stand on his own, to strike back. He also ceased to be a luftmentsch, or the lumpenproletarian of the entire world. Rather, the New Jew became productive, producing basic products and making a tremendous effort to return to the soil, to strike roots and grow from working the land.
Indeed, one of the characteristics of Jews living in this land — which may seem immaterial, but in fact is deeply significant — is that they are Jews who plant trees. Diaspora Jews — even landowners — do not ordinarily plant trees, not even if they tend the roses in their garden. This phenomenon reflects the inner feeling that life anywhere in the Diaspora is temporary. The soil is, at most, a place of wandering, and there is always the imminent possibility of having to move — either of one’s own will, or by force — to another land, to a different exile. Even when people do not think about it consciously, they feel it; they do not feel that they have a permanent soil under their feet. Here in Israel, however, people plant trees not only because they know that they will grow, but also because they feel that they belong to this place and that their children and grandchildren will sit under the shade of these trees.
A new language was created here as well. The revival of the Hebrew language is a unique phenomenon. In Ireland, for instance, the government is devoting its resources to reviving the Gaelic language — which is not extinct, but is used by an ever-decreasing number of people — with no apparent success. Yet Hebrew, which for so many years was not a spoken language at all, has reawakened. To be sure, this new Hebrew is not exactly Biblical, Mishnaic, or Talmudic. It is a new type of Hebrew, slightly impudent and slangy, but also full of vitality. Consciously and unconsciously, intentionally and unintentionally, what was severed for two thousand years is now being reconnected.
Such changes were probably inevitable. My parents’ generation not only lived in this country, they also built it; they laid its foundations, fought for it, contracted malaria for its sake. And that generation accepted — sometimes with regret and sometimes without it — that the new generation would forget some, and perhaps more than some, of its past. They assumed that in the course of time, we would have to part with many things, some of them lofty and glorious. But they also hoped that whatever would be created here would make this loss worthwhile.
What actually is happening, however, is that there is an ever-increasing blurring of our selfhood for the sake of imitation. Culturally speaking, we are not even a small USA; we are just a very provincial province of it. We imitate its movies, its manner of speech, its slang, its sins — without, unfortunately, acquiring its virtues as well. There were similar previous situations in our history, and it is happening again in our time.
What is selfhood? How do we become ourselves? Can it be done by returning to the past? I think not. Returning to the past is a dream, an impossibility. One can turn back the hands of the clock, but no one can turn back time. One cannot be the way one’s father, grandfather, or great-grandfather were; at most, one can become a reactionary, which is not quite the same thing.
In order to become ourselves, we must “draw from the wells of salvation” and penetrate our own depths. We must identify shells of imitation, the desire to make it in this or that society, and seek out what is real. This means digging for our own soul, finding out where it is. And wherever our soul is, it can still hear the echoes of the Giving of the Torah; it still says Shema Yisrael, even when it is no longer familiar with the verse.
A few decades ago, I taught a class on the issue of “Who is a Jew.” I said then that a real Jew is one who would choose to sanctify God’s name, even die for the choice, rather than worship idols. Indeed, Jewish history is replete with thousands of examples not only of righteous people, but also of simple Jews who died for the sanctification of God’s name.
A man in the audience then asked me: This was surely true in the past, but do you think it is still valid? At that point, I did not know what to reply, and the question was left hanging.
The next day, I flew to a kibbutz near Eilat and spoke there. I do not remember exactly what I said, but I do remember that I managed to make my listeners furious. At some point, one man, who could no longer contain himself, got up and screamed: “I am a secular Jew, and so were my father and grandfather. But I am telling you: if someone were to try to force me to worship idols, I would die rather than do it.” It was almost like a voice from Heaven; I received the answer some twenty-four hours after having been asked the question from someone who had not even heard it.
The essential core does, then, exist in the wellspring, but we have to get to it and dig it out. It seems that this is what God wants. He wants us — with our problems and complications, with our crooked, stubborn, tortuous souls. And He has given us the possibility of attaining independence — that is, of, reconnecting with ourselves for the sake of our Jewish independence, so that our existence will be based not on “safe borders” or a “safe peace,” but on a genuine foundation.
So what is independence? The Hebrew word for “independence,” atzma’ut, stems from the same root as etzem, “self.” Being independent means being more myself. Just as the external, political manifestation of independence is not being dominated by others, the inner meaning of the term is not imitating others. Waving a flag and declaring a government are the easy part; being myself is surely a more difficult, more complicated path.
Thus far, the independence of the State of Israel has been largely expressed in external forms — a flag, an army, a national anthem, ambassadors, a government, elections. In essence, however, we have lost parts of our selfhood along the way. What I would really like to wish the State of Israel is that it will attain independence — not necessarily with different borders or a different population, but true independence.
This essay appears in Change and Renewal, by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.