These final weeks leading up to the High Holidays we are reading The Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy is part farewell address by Moses, part exhortation to the Children of Israel, part legislative program intended to be put into effect when the Israelites settle the Land of Canaan. Part of this legislation lays out the requirements for a King, should the people decide they need one. The King needs to be a Jewish king. No foreign King can rule the Jewish nation. The King must not have many wives. Acquiring a harem could distract him from the responsibilities of leadership. The King could not amass silver or gold to excess. Apparently the King might be tempted to misuse his wealth, or, massive wealth might lead him to lose touch with the common people. The King must keep a copy of the Torah by his side at all times, and study it constantly. The King, in other words, is not to be an absolute dictator but a Constitutional Monarch, with the Torah serving as a constitution. The King was to be subject to the same laws of the Torah as everyone else.
When the modern State of Israel was born in 1948, many of the founding fathers and mothers wanted to enact a modernconstitution to guide the political life of the nascent state. However, Israel was unable to adopt a constitution because of a conflict between religious and secular leaders over the role that Torah law would play in Israel. Many religious Jews believed that the Torah ought to serve as the Constitution of Israel, and that the only legitimate law for the nation was the Halacha – the rabbinic law — that flowed from it. They argued that there was no need for a modern, secular Constitution, which might ultimately undermine Torah law. After all, adherence to Divine Law had guided Jewish communities in their passage through the Diaspora for two thousand years.
Both religious and secular leaders were able to agree, however, that there ought to be a Declaration of Independence for the Jewish State. The task of drafting this document fell to Mordechai Beham, an undistinguished Ukrainian-born attorney. Mordechai Beham had no previous experience writing a Declaration of Independence, and didn’t know where to begin. Writers know that staring at a blank piece of paper before starting to write is often the most terrifying and difficult step in the creative process. After spending hours doing research in a private library of an American rabbi who was a neighbor, Mr. Beham began with the words, “When in the course of human events……” Now, if you are charged with writing a Declaration of Independence, you could find worse places to start than stealing the words of Thomas Jefferson! Mr. Beham also plagiarized from the Book of Deuteronomy as well as from the English Bill of Rights for his first draft of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Declaration went through a dozen drafts and many hands were involved until a final document was signed and proclaimed before thousands in Tel Aviv by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948, three weeks later. But scholars who have studied these earlier drafts concede that the American model significantly influenced the writing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
This is only one example of the influence of the United States on the founding of the State of Israel. We will learn about another important contribution of the United States in Israel’s very survival tomorrow night, when we screen the movie, “Above and Beyond” prior to our Selichot service.
This documentary was released in 2015 and is produced by Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s sister. As you are not doubt well aware, when, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted in to create a Jewish State and an Arab State in what was then the British Mandate in Palestine, the Jewish leadership of Palestine agreed to the division. The Arab leadership did not, and five Arab countries prepared to invade the newly declared State of Israel when the British withdrew. Israel, unlike Egypt, had no Air Force. The United States government had imposed an arms embargo on all weapons to the Middle East. This movie tells how a group of Jewish combat veterans from WW ll risked imprisonment and loss of American citizenship to smuggle airplanes out of the United States and create the Israeli Air Force. The film skillfully weaves historical footage with computer generated re-enactments of air battles to dramatize the story of the crucial contribution of that Air Force to Israel’s success in the war. But the driving force behind the movie is interviews with the pilots themselves, now in their late eighties and nineties, as they look back on their experiences as young men and the impact that their decision to join the fighting had on their Jewish identities.
As we look back on the birth of the State of Israel, I hope we will be inspired by the sacrifices that were made to secure her existence by those who did not have to fight, but who choseto fight on behalf of their people. May their example encourage us to reflect on the importance of Israel, of Judaism, and of the Jewish People in our own lives as this New Year dawns upon us.
[The documentary “Above and Beyond” will be shown at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville Saturday night (motzei Shabbat) September 24, 2016 at 8:00 pm following a brief Havdalah service. Refreshments will follow, then Selichot services. All are welcome]