Israel independence day | New book offers prayers, essays for Israeli national holidays

“Most Jews today never saw all of this,” wrote Rabbi Yehuda Amital shortly before his death in 2010. “They were born to a life of freedom. They never experienced living in bunkers, praying for the day when they could walk in the streets and look around without fear. Only someone who looks at the entire 2,000 years and sees Jews being led into exile by Titus, sees the Crusades and pogroms —only someone who sees all of this understands the meaning of Jewish independence.”

Koren Publishers Jerusalem is hoping to change that through its new Yom HaAtzmaut Mahzor, the first-ever translation into English of the Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) liturgies that were established by the chief rabbinate of Israel. The new book includes optional prayers such as Hallel and Al-HaNissim, which are mandatory on many biblical Jewish holidays, as well as a collection of essays by a diverse mix of leading scholars in the Modern Orthodox and religious Zionist worlds.

Rabbi Moshe Taragin, author of the commentary in the Koren Yom HaAtzmaut Mahzor, said the new prayerbook serves to help observant Jews grapple with what it means to have a contemporary view of Israel.

“Our generation witnessed such a dramatic revolution — the ability to defend ourselves, the ingathering of the exiles. … As Orthodox Jews, we look to the past to try to process this information, but it can be very challenging because these events, while they exist in our texts, are embedded in obscure prophesies and other unknown or hidden sources.” The new prayerbook, he said, is meant to “decode” these sources.

The book deals head-on with the debate about what prayers should or should not be added to services on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, and offers commentary reflecting divergent opinions about why or why not to change the liturgies on those days at all.

“One of the major controversies between Orthodox and other sects is the flexibility of the liturgy,” said Taragin. “You can be legally and halachically (within the parameters of Jewish law) committed to Israel but not comfortable changing the tefillah (Jewish prayer) — that’s OK.”

In Israel, the spiritual or religious component of these national holidays is often lost to barbecues, fireworks and plastic hammers. In the diaspora, the spirit of the holidays can be lost to mediocre celebrations — at best — at JCCs or other venues, according to Yehudit Singer, Koren’s book marketing manager.

Rabbi Doron Peretz, head of the World Mizrachi Movement in Jerusalem, which partnered with Koren on the mahzor, said he sees the work as “an opportunity to add to the depth of the spiritual experience” of these days.

“This book gives expression to seeing Yom HaAtzmaut not only as of historic significance to the Jewish people, but with a deep connection to Hashem,” Peretz said.

The religious and spiritual significance of the State of Israel, however, has been a controversial and divisive point among observant Jews, especially in the diaspora. Arguments about the issue center on the question of whether the founding of the State of Israel is the first step in the Jewish redemption, or something that should be celebrated with a non-messianic approach.

The Koren Yom HaAtzmaut Mahzor does not shy away from this question. Among the 25 essay commentaries in the book, more than a handful tackle the dilemma.

A piece by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, for example, describes Israel as a gift from God with redemptive potential, but without actually being redemptive in and of itself. An opposing piece by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, explains Israel within the messianic framework and the Jewish people as living today in the middle of the redemptive era.

“The vision of Israel’s redemption is revealed in the words of the Torah and the prophets,” begins Kook’s essay. “Redemption … is the rejuvenation of the life of the nation. … The Jewish people are once again connected to their rightful place.”

In addition to these leaders, several others tackle the theological, philosophical and halachic implications of the modern State of Israel. Popular scholar and author Dr. Erica Brown brings it home in her essay, “Yom HaAtzmaut: Personal Reflections on Diaspora Observance,” in which she equates celebrating the holiday in America to “making a birthday party where the guest of honor fails to show up.” She also criticizes those who fail to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut in the United States because of “ideological differences, laziness or lack of creativity.”

“It is a slap in the face to this transformational turning point in the development of our people,” writes Brown. “It is a diminishment of the spiritual and national center that Israel is for world Jewry, whether as relief and refuge, or as a place where Jews can express their Judaism fully and autonomously.”

Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, editor of the Koren prayerbook, said it should be read “before and after” Israel Independence Day, not just in synagogue during the holiday.

“The commentaries and essays are enlightening and inspiring,” Ziegler said, “maybe inspiring enough that people will join us in Israel on this great adventure.”