Q. Why is their any religious importance to having a Jewish state? How does this contribute to the Jewish ideal of "ethical monotheism"?
A. This is one of the most common questions asked of the Jewish Ethicist. In answering this question, there is no need to dwell on any "justification" for the modern state of Israel to exist as a legitimate nation state among the community of nations. No nation in the world, functioning as a viable well-defined political entity for generations, is ever called upon to "justify" its existence by reference to its origins or its behavior.
If such a remarkable demand was ever made according to any equitable criteria, there is no doubt that the State of Israel would be found at least as justified as most countries. But practically speaking everyone recognizes that digging into ancient history to conclude whether the existence of a United Kingdom or an independent Bolivia (and so on) has a legitimate justification is a futile, absurd and destabilizing project.
The question that we do need to address is why the people of Israel need a state in order to fulfill their unique Divine mission, which has been described as "ethical monotheism." Why can't this mission be carried out in a state of "Diaspora" or dispersion, where the Torah's ethical message will be lived transmitted among other nations?
We will see that a Jewish state in the land of Israel is not only ethically justifiable, but it is an essential condition for the realization of the ethical vision of the prophets.
We humans are very clever, and furthermore we have a deeply ingrained ethical instinct and a desire to do the right thing. However, our wisdom and our instincts are an incomplete guide to creating an ideal society. In order for the human race to truly perfect our collective existence, we require the guidance of revelation. This guidance helps us on several levels:
Much of the Torah is directed toward helping us to attain personal perfection, to sanctify ourselves through the performance of the many ritual commandments.
Other aspects of the Torah are directed towards helping us attain interpersonal perfection, to rationalize our relationships within the community. These aspects, including the laws of interpersonal relationships and the many prophetic revelations exhorting us to act with integrity and compassion, are the main topic of most Jewish Ethicist columns.
However, our lives are lived not only on the level of the individual and on that of the community, but also on the level of nationality. The revelation of our prophets can guide us towards complete human perfection only if it finds expression also in the form of a political state with national borders. Those loyal to God's covenant can serve as an example to mankind in this area of human endeavor only if they have the chance to exemplify sanctity and ethical behavior in their own land and country.
Of course this does not mean that every single act of the modern Jewish state is flawless, or that we have nothing to learn from others. At the level of the individual and the community also there are many lapses and many lessons to be learned. But it does mean that there is unique and irreplaceable meaning for mankind from the experience of the Jewish people working to realize the ideals of God's Torah at all levels, including the national/political level.
We see in Scripture that the idea of a people chosen to be specially dedicated to God's service is constantly and repeatedly associated with the idea of living as a nation in the unique geographical location of the Land of Israel. The foundation of the Jewish people is found in the command to Abram, "Go out from your land and your family and your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you" (Genesis 12:1-2). We see that Abram's blessing begins with the command to go to the Land of Canaan, now known as the Land of Israel, and continues with the promise that the seed of Abram will be a great nation.
Furthermore, this is intimately connected with this nation's ethical mission. After Abram has already formed a covenant with God and received the new name Abraham, God concludes that He must inform Abraham of the plan to overturn Sodom, "for Abraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. For I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of HaShem, to do righteousness and justice" (Gen. 18:18-19).
The Jewish prophets are widely credited with creating a worldwide consciousness of universal ethical responsibility. Even our enemies acknowledge this, as we find in the words of Hitler who complained that the Jews are the "conscience of the world" and in the words of a prominent head of state who recently "accused" the Jews of inventing the idea of human rights.
If we examine the prophetic books we find that their exhortations to their contemporaries are intimately bound up with the idea of an encompassing ethical vision for a future perfect world. A recurring theme is that we will be led to this future Messianic ideal by the Messiah -- from the word "Mashiach" meaning "anointed king," The prophetic vision of a society of righteousness and compassion is inseparably bound up with the idea of a state, or kingdom, that will constitute the framework of such a society.
An individual adherent of God's covenant can sanctify his or her own life by private fulfillment of the individual commandments. And a particular community can sanctify its collective life by fulfilling the interpersonal commandments and by realizing the ethical value that they express. But the most encompassing fulfillment and exemplification of God's will to mankind can be achieved only when His revelation is allowed to guide us also at the level of the nation as a whole. Thus the idea of a Jewish state in the land of Israel is a necessary condition for the fulfillment of the grand ethical vision of the ancient Hebrew prophets.
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.