The Religious Status of Yom Ha'atzmaut

Within Israel and in the greater Jewish world there are differing views as to whether there is a religious nature to Israel's Independence Day.

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In the morning, the services are festive, with the addition of the Hallel and a special Torah service.   

In addition to the Orthodox Religious Kibbutz Movement, the Masorti (Conservative) movement has made great strides in integrating Yom Ha'atzmaut into the mainstream of Jewish practice. For example, the movement published a Haggadah for Yom Ha'atzmaut that is designed to bring the celebration into the home. Originally published in Hebrew, it has been translated into English and widely distributed.

Among the secular population in Israel, there have also been strides in recent years to bring a deeper sense of meaning to the celebrations of the day, such as organized tiyulim (hiking and connecting to the land), lectures, family education programs, and forums for community dialogue.

The discussion concerning the significance of Yom Ha'atzmaut is not confined to Israel. Recently, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform rabbinic body) was asked about the singing of Hatikvah, Israel's national anthem, at the conclusion of a Yom Ha'atzmaut service. The answer included an impassioned Zionist statement: "Israel…is, in the most deeply Jewish sense, our own, in our devotion to its well being and in our identification with the history and experience that its national symbols represent. We may therefore sing Hatikvah at our religious services, whether or not we choose to accompany it with our own national anthems." 

This teshuva (rabbinic response) brings a number of precedents concerning the observance of Yom Ha'atzmaut in Reform congregations:

"Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, has been established as 'a permanent annual festival in the religious calendar of Reform Judaism' (CCAR Yearbook 1970), and our prayerbook contains liturgy for Yom Ha'atzmaut (Gates of Prayer 590-611). We consider it 'a mitzvah [commandment] for every Jew to mark Yom Ha'atzmaut by participation in public worship services and/or celebrations which affirm the bond between the Jews living in the Land of Israel and those living outside.' (Gates of the Seasons CCAR 1983 p.102) Those services and celebrations have become the norm, the accepted minhag [custom] in our congregations and communities."  (CCAR Responsa 5758.10)

Not Everyone Celebrates

From a religious and secular Zionist perspective, the creation of Israel is nothing less than the culmination of Jewish history, an event of epic proportions to be celebrated as a holiday by all generations on the level of Passover, Hanukkah, or Rosh Hashanah.

From a non-Zionist Jewish perspective, Israel is, at the very best, a haven and home to a large Jewish community, at worst, a secular state that endangers traditional Judaism. These (usually ultra-Orthodox) Jews do not see the creation of Israel as a central moment in Jewish history and do not celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. Some even see the creation of Israel as a sin that expresses to God an attitude that the Jewish people do not trust God to bring them back to Israel on His own.  In the words of one of the leaders of the Neturei Karta, an ultra-Orthodox anti-Israel group based in Jerusalem, "The Zionist State represents total heresy uprooting the soul of our faith from its root and violating the covenant which God made with us on Mount Sinai."

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

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