Monday, May 5, 2014

Israeli Holidays - the new "God"

I know the title portends an anti-Zionist tirade, as if the Israeli holidays constitute some kind of "idolatry", but actually I meant it as a compliment. Let me explain.

Here's how I understand the role of God in the Torah:

In antiquity, part of what gave a people "standing" (in their own eyes and in others' eyes) is that they had a good origin myth. It had to convey a sense of growth and development, overcoming human foibles and trials - making mistakes, falling into traps, and climbing out a better person for it. The story had to teach something valuable for generations to come, give over lessons and rules deemed essential to the aspirations and character of the people.

But just to have a "story" - even a good one - about the comings and goings of mortal human beings was not enough. The myth also had to have a god, or multiple gods. When you have gods involved in the formation of your people, that means you are a people of significance. You - your culture, your values, your practices - mean something.

Or put it the opposite way - not to have a god or gods in your people's story would be completely unseemly! In a world chock full of gods, where "everyone who was anyone" had theirs, if the gods had no intervention in the lives of your forbears, if there was no divine hand in your people's origin, to put it simply - you'd be a nobody. To tell a god-free narrative just wasn't done. It wouldn't be fitting, wouldn't be dignified. It would cheapen your worth - and sense of self-worth - as a people.

Which brings us to the title - that Israeli holidays are the new "God".

Here's the State of Israel, a new nation on the international scene. Aside from setting up a governing structure, utilities, trade relations, etc., what kinds of things does a "proper" nation do? Well for one, a proper nation celebrates its independence day. A proper nation has a memorial day to mourn over and pay respect to its fallen soldiers. A proper nation commemorates events of major magnitude - both joyous and tragic.

Can you imagine a country not doing these things - not celebrating its independence, not having a memorial day, not commemorating events of massive significance? What kind of self-respecting people would you be? That's no nation!

The Israeli holidays thus function something like putting "God" into the narrative. They, as well as other trappings of a modern state, help to give the nation "standing". It's part of the national psyche/self-esteem, and it's part of living in a world of nations.

So then where does that leave the "old God", as in God?

Well, as far as the State of Israel is concerned, God is a part of "Jewish culture", and there's a place for Jewish culture to weave its way into the national culture. I'd say there's even a place for a country to express a certain "deistic" self-identity, if that's where people are at. Sentiments such as "one nation under God" can help lend an atmosphere of purpose, humility, morality and underlying spirituality. And that can be a good thing, providing it remains innocuous and non-invasive. But once a nation starts to justify itself, its policy decisions, the wars it fights, based on what it alleges to be the "will of God", not only is that undignified - it's certifiably nuts, and it has the capacity to become pretty darn scary, both for its own citizens and for the rest of the world.

To me, the ideal is a secular State with Jewish overtones - which has national holidays, and Jewish holidays, and which keeps God out of law and policy. And what we have now may be far from perfect on these counts, but it's pretty good - and I'm grateful for that!

With that, I wish everyone a meaningful Yom Hazikaron, and a happy Yom Ha'atzma'ut.


  1. No, I don't think the holidays are the new deity. Holidays are holidays. It's what the holidays are based on that matters. In this case the idea of secular Zionism might be the godhead in question.

  2. I think it's more accurate to say that group formation is based on group identity, and that group identity is based on shared social memory. The holidays you mention are all commemorations of particularly important moments in Jewish and Israeli social memory.

    To say that holidays are the "new God" is, I think, a bit off-target. We Jews had holidays even before God became "new"! I think you're on to something when you think about how we "use" God in terms of identity formation. It's fine, I think, to consider God in terms of identity formation, and to think about other things we use to form group identity (i.e., memory of significant historical events), and even to posit which identity markers are "better" than others. But I don't think that identity markers are "new Gods" simply because God can serve as something of an identity marker.

    Where I think you're spot on is that identity markers must remain meaningful in the here and now in order to continue to function ... and they must serve to provide the group with a shared sense of identity, as opposed to serving to fracture group identity. One might argue that God continues to serve this first purpose in Israel, but may not be serving the second one.

  3. Thank you for this comment....I feel G-d the most when I am celebrating with am haaretz types, doing am haaretz type holidays. It is the paradox: the more we focus on G-d (as in living a Torah life and being incredibly self-referential and recognizing hashgacha pratis in everything) the weirder it all gets. The less "G-d" I personally see.

    I think you should read that old, secular, Jewish, blue-collar philospher: Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.

    It's just a cigar chomping long shoreman's thoughts (mainly whatever he was thinking in his walk to and from work, I believe.)

    You are starting to sound a bit like him...


    1. You mentioned Hoffer once before - I'll have to check him out.

      Funny - you're probably the one person who's actually *grateful* that the charedi world downplays any hashgacha in the forming of the State!

  4. Garnel and Larry,

    You're being too literal about the title! Of course they're not really "new Gods". All I meant is that the way national holidays function today (re: status and self-perception) shares some overlap with the way God/gods functioned for ancient peoples.

    1. AJ, it wasn't my intent to be literal about the title. The point I was trying to make is that God and holidays (I prefer "commemoration") both function to establish and enforce group identity. We could similarly compare God to flags, national anthems, cuisines, in-jokes, modes of dress, drinking songs, you name it. You could just as readily say that God functions like singing in minor keys!

      When you're done reading Hoffer, try Yael Zerubavel's "Recovered Roots." I think you might like it.