Thursday, May 11, 2006
It's interesting how the import of a phrase can change based on context, even as its meaning hasn't changed at all.
I may have mentioned at some point that, when we say the prayer for the State of Israel (which at my shul we sing before returning the sifrei Torah to the ark at the end of the Torah service on Saturday mornings), my custom is to add "sheh t'hi" which means "that she may be" in the first line of the prayer, as follows:
"Our Father in heaven, Rock of Israel and his redeemer, bless the State of Israel that she may be the first flowering of our redemption."
I insert the phrase as a dissent from the eschatological confidence of the unaltered line. Without the addition, the prayer avers that the State of Israel is the first flowering of our redemption - that is to say: that the Messianic Age is at hand, and the foundation of the State of Israel is the first sign thereof. I do not see how we can know anything of the kind, hence my dissenting emendation: I pray that God will bless the State of Israel that she may be the herald of the Messianic Age, rather than expressing any confidence at all that the redemption is already at hand.
This is a habit I picked up from a black hat (i.e. ultra-Orthodox) friend, who used the phrase as a way of splitting the difference between his fellow black hats who reject any theological significance of the State of Israel, and hence refuse to say the prayer, and Religious Zionists who believe, following Rav Kook, that the foundation of the State of Israel was indeed a sign that the inexorable End had begun. This friend considered himself a Zionist - indeed, a fiercely right-wing Zionist - and he thought that the foundation of Israel had great theological significance in that it made possible such future events as the rebuilding of the Temple, the reconstitution of the Sanhedrin, etc.; he just didn't think these future developments would inevitably follow the foundation of the State, and thought it appropriate to leave the future in God's hands.
So a few weeks ago, I was at lunch at a friend's house Saturday afternoon, and among the other guest was a left-wing Conservative rabbi who had lived a while in Israel. The rabbi commented to me that he noticed my inclusion of that phrase in the prayer for the State of Israel, and that I'm the only American besides himself whom he'd ever heard do that. I asked him where he picked up the phrase, and he commented that it was common currency among Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel who are on the left, who want to pointedly distinguish themselves from the Religious Zionist camp that has been so profoundly involved in the settlement enterprise in the territories. These rabbis intended to indicate by adding the phrase that Israel will only herald the Messianic Age if it deserves to, that ethical behavior is a precondition, and that therefore the pro-settler right is wrong to use the language of the prayer and say: see: if we withdraw from territory then we are violating God's will, because only by settling all of the Land can the Messianic Age be brought to fruition.
Then, last week, the same rabbi came up to me after services on Saturday and relayed the following. Apparently, the same phrase has begun to turn up in extreme Religious Zionist circles. But for them it means almost exactly the opposite of what it means for the Masorti rabbis. Where previously these Religious Zionists had believed that the redemption could not be thwarted by human action, now they are worried that, by withdrawing from Gaza and preparing to withdraw from much of Judea and Samaria, the State of Israel has indeed forfeited its place as the herald of the Messianic Age. Therefore, some of these people are withdrawing from the State, preparing the ideological ground for a movement that would ultimately produce the true State of Israel on the ruins of the current, illegitimate State. Others, who are adding this phrase to their prayers, are staking out a middle ground, and by that phrase are expressing their hope that the State of Israel may yet change its ways, if not immediately than one day, and return to its proper mission, and so they are effectively praying for God to bless Israel with the will and the opportunity to return to the territories lately abandoned.
That the same phrase can mean three such different things, while in all cases retaining the larger connection between the State of Israel and Jewish eschatological hopes (albeit always deferred), strikes me as a testiment to its strength and rightness - and, indeed, a much better basis for religious "consensus" than the original, unaltered prayer. It seems to me that this is exactly what religious language should do, and that it would be a very good idea if the dissenting phraseology became the official phraseology on this point.