A book was published in 1977 which gave me a better understanding of the dominant Zionist ideology and why it failed to appeal to most of the Jewish spiritual seekers of that period. The book, “Letters to an American Jewish Friend,” was written by Hillel Halkin, a young Zionist intellectual living in Israel who grew up in America. Through the letters in this book, Halkin argues that a viable Jewish life is only possible in Israel. Halkin also attempts to defend the secular Zionist slogan, “Let us be like all the nations.” He explains that this can refer to the desire to create a secular Jewish culture which would emerge from living in our own land, just as the cultures of other peoples emerge from their living in their lands. Halkin expresses his hope that through speaking Hebrew and living in Israel, this goal will be achieved, and he writes:
“While an authentically, secular Jewish culture has yet to develop in Israel, the foundations for it – and this is Zionism’s great achievement to date – have been laid. Above all, this means that once again we are a people speaking our own language and living in our own land.” (Letter Five).
Halkin adds that a land and language is “everything” – an emphasis which can remind us of the following words of an earlier Zionist thinker, Jacob Klatzkin:
“In longing for our land we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism.”
Although Halkin is a fervent believer in secular Zionism, he expresses his disappointment over the failure of the State of Israel to emulate the other nations by developing its own national culture, and he writes:
“Perhaps in our children’s children’s time we really will come to be in this land a people like all the Gentiles, k’khol ha-goyim [like all the nations]. My dear friend, I am not a religious Jew, and I do not consider these words a reproach. Would we were like all the Gentiles already, would we have what they have! No, our whole misfortune today is that we are still not like them at all.” (Letter Five)
In a related critique, Halkin writes:
“We have developed a society whose one demand from everything, from a philosophical idea to the label of a product on a shelf, is that it bear the seal of that outside world that we have appointed the arbiter of our values and tastes, as paupers once indentured themselves to a master when they could no longer earn their own bread to eat.” (Ibid)
I recall reading an article in the Jerusalem Post around ten years ago about a “cultural exchange” program which brought a group of American teenagers to Israel, in order to have a cultural exchange with a group of Israeli Jewish teenagers. The reporter noted with delight that the American teenagers discovered that the Israeli teenagers sang the same songs and had the same cultural heroes as they did! This is an example of “cultural exchange”?
As we discussed in previous letters, the leaders of the World Zionist Organization wanted secular nationalism to replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of our nation. Through abandoning the unique spiritual culture of our nation, these Zionist leaders actually developed a secular Israeli society with no authentic culture of its own and which “imitates” all the nations. Their slogan, “Let us become like all the nations,” is therefore fulfilled in a literal sense.
Halkin admits that the Chareidim foresaw this problem when the secular Zionist movement began, and he writes that “they were the first body of opinion to raise the possibility that a Jewish state might paradoxically prove as effective an agent of cultural assimilation for its inhabitants as the Diaspora” (ibid). He explains that the Chareidim believed that the attempt to replace a Jewish identity based on the Torah with an identity based on secular nationalism would ultimately fail, “since Jewish existence deprived of its religious dimension was an absurd contradiction in terms.” Halkin adds that the Chareidim felt that secular Zionism was actually a movement of assimilation “concealed behind a deceptive veneer of Jewish symbols and historical associations.”
Despite his own disappointment at the lack of an authentic, secular Jewish culture in Israel, Halkin states that he sees some signs of hope for the future. As an example, he tells the following story:
His two secular friends, Uri and Ya’ara, are a couple that eats on Shabbos a pot of cholent. This is a traditional hot casserole dish for Shabbos lunch which is cooked before Shabbos and which simmers all night on a covered stove. Sephardic Jews call this hot dish by the Hebrew term chamin. After describing the ingredients in Ya’ara’s cholent, Halkin writes:
“But it is not Ya’ara’s cholent that this story is about. It’s the piece of colored string that was wound around the pot and knotted intricately to its handle when she took it out of the oven, so that she had to untie it in front of us before we could sit down and eat. When we asked what it was doing there, she answered with a laugh that she didn’t know herself.” (Ibid)
Halkin mentions that Ya’ara learned how to make cholent from her mother, but when she asked her mother for the reason for the knotted string, her mother didn’t know either. He mother said that she got the custom from her mother, and she speculated that perhaps it was some sort of charm to improve the cholent’s taste. Halkin then tells us the rest of the story:
“There the matter rested until Ya’ara met some time later an acquaintance from her mother’s native town who happened to know the real reason for the string on the cholent pot. In the old days, she told Ya’ara, the women had not cooked the cholent at home. They brought it to the town bakery, where it was put in the big bread oven on the eve of the Sabbath and picked up the next morning for the Sabbath meal.”
The acquaintance explained that the color of the string enabled Ya’ara’s grandmother to tell which pot was hers when she came to fetch the cholent, and the knot prevented anyone from opening the pot while it baked. Halkin is very moved that the custom of the string on the Shabbos cholent pot was preserved by Ya’ara, and he views this as a sign of hope that an authentic, secular Jewish culture will emerge in Israel.
I must confess that I was not very moved by Halkin’s example – one which reduces the biblical mandate, “Keep the Shabbos day to sanctify it” (Deuteronomy 5:12), to the eating of tasty cholent and the nostalgic remembrance of a custom to tie a colored string on the cholent pot. I feel sad that Halkin and his friends did not fully appreciate the awesome spiritual depth and beauty of the mitzvos of Shabbos which their ancestors lovingly fulfilled. As the teachings in upcoming letters will reveal, Ya’ara’s grandmother who lovingly cooked the cholent before Shabbos was actually a priestess. Each aspect of the ritual was part of her sacred service in the Sanctuary of Shabbos.
My vision differs from the vision of Halkin, for I see signs of hope that an authentic, spiritual Jewish culture will emerge in Israel. For example, I have met spiritually-searching Jews in this sacred land who are rediscovering the sacred Shabbos that our people have kept for thousands of years – the traditional Shabbos that enabled our people to experience weekly spiritual renewal. As the secular Zionist thinker, Ahad Ha’am, once said, “More than Israel has kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept Israel.”
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
An archive of the letters in our new series can be found on our website:
Hazon – Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/