Purim - A Religious Zionism Renaissance by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Nationalism and patriotism are not particularly fashionable today, certainly not to the extent that there were in the late nineteenth century.  At that time, the modern Zionist movement emerged in harmony with the prevailing spirit of the times.  However, the current apathy towards nationalism has diminished Zionistic fervor among many Jews that has only partially been re-ignited by the Palestinian assault of the past three years.  The apathy and cynicism that are currently prevalent in the Western world has even penetrated and impacted the lives of people who are intensely committed to Torah and who received a Religious Zionist education.

Identifying a Serious Problem

Two anecdotes illustrate this lamentable malaise.  First, my student Yehuda Shmidman (a TABC graduate who is politically active in both NORPAC and AIPAC) related to me that a very large percentage of the B’nei Torah he knows regard taking time to vote on Election Day as “Bittul Z’man” (unjustified neglect of Torah study).  Yehuda reports that even after explaining the vital needs of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael that require our participation in elections, the students are not moved to vote. 

Second, representatives from a certain Yeshiva in Israel were asked what role Zionism and nationalism play in the Yeshiva’s goals and curriculum.  The response essentially was that the Yeshiva’s goal is to ignite the students’ passion for Torah and Mitzvot and that there was simply not enough time to devote to cultivating a passion for supporting Medinat Yisrael.    

Sources for “Jewish Nationalism”

This problem might stem from an attitude that Rav Yaakov Meidan once noted (in a Sicha he delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 1982) that many religious Jews feel that “why do we need Jewish nationalism, we have Torah.”  Accordingly, we must present some specific and broad sources that demonstrate the deficiency of a Torah orientation that does not stress Jewish nationalism.  First, Rut declares in her acceptance of Torah (Rut 1:16) that “your nation is my nation and your God is my God”.  Second, is that a Beit Din must ask a potential convert whether he/she is willing to deal not only with the burdens of observing the Torah, but also if he/she is willing to accept the burden of joining the Jewish people (see Yevamot 47, Rambam Hilchot Issurei Biah 14:1-2, and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 268:2). 

Thus, a commitment to observe the Torah without a simultaneous commitment to Am Yisrael is woefully inadequate.  For example, a proper Beit Din would never accept a candidate for Geirut if the candidate wishes to observe a Jewish life but not live in a Jewish community.  In fact, whenever I serve as a Dayan on a Beit Din for Geirut, I ask the Ger before he/she immerses in the Mikvah whether he/she is committed to seriously contributing to Am Yisrael in some meaningful and sustained fashion.  Indeed, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s passionate speech of Taanit Esther 5743 delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion (preserved in part in Rav Lichtenstein’s “By His Light”pp.168-181) still rings in my ears when we exhorted his Talmidim “Chayavim Litrom L’am Yisrael!!” (you must contribute to Am Yisrael!!).

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik presents these sources in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofeik,” where the Rav presents the core of his positive attitude towards Medinat Yisrael.  Incidentally, we educators and parents do a serious disservice to our high school age students/children if we do not teach this critically important essay.  This essay has been an integral part of the curriculum of Israeli Religious Zionist high schools for decades.  This should be the case in American Yeshiva High Schools as well. 

We must, however, look beyond the specific sources that we have quoted to grasp the vital role that Jewish nationalism plays in Torah life.  The importance of Jewish nationalism is stressed by our most basic texts, the Tanach and the Siddur.  Most of the Tanach is not preoccupied with specific Halachot.  Rather, Tanach is mostly preoccupied with presenting perspectives on the direction of Am Yisrael throughout the ages (Rashi, in his introductory remarks to Sefer Bereshit, does not contradict this observation; rather a careful understanding of his remarks supports this contention, see Rav Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Bereshit 1:20-47).

 Moreover, a careful student of Rashi’s commentary to the Chumash will discern that Rashi never misses an opportunity to praise Am Yisrael (see, for example, his introductions to each of the five books of the Chumash) and/or Eretz Yisrael.  In addition, the focus in much of our Tefillot is on the concerns and needs of the Jewish People.  Obviously, Jewish nationalism is central to Torah living.

Purim – A Time to Remedy the Problem

A significant theme of Megillat Esther is the reorientation of Am Yisrael towards Jewish nationalism.  Rav Yaakov Meidan stresses this point in an essay (that we partially summarized in Kol Torah last year) that appears in Haddassa Hee Esther (pp.167-171) and in a Shiur that he presented in Teaneck on Shabbat Zachor 5763 to TABC students at the Novetsky residence. 

In his essay, Rav Meidan outlines a variety of reasons for Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman despite the enormous risks entailed by this behavior.  One approach is that Mordechai refused to bow in order to correct the lack of nationalistic spirit among the Jews of Persia.  Indeed, the Gemara (Megilla 12a) notes that Am Yisrael deserved the decree of Haman because we enjoyed in the festivities of Achashveirosh that are described in chapter one of the Megilla.  This assertion, though, appears difficult as the Gemara (ibid) implies that we were able to observe Kashrut rules during these festivities.  Why then, does the Gemara condemn our enjoyment of these festivities?

One may suggest an answer based on the fact that these festivities celebrated the solidification of the empire of Achashveirosh (see the commentary of Da’at Mikra to Esther 1:3).  The consensus opinion is that Achashveirosh is the Persian King that the Western world refers to as Xerxes (see Da’at Mikra introduction to Megillat Esther pp. 4-5).  Xerxes rule began in 485 B.C.E. and, accordingly, the huge party described in the first chapter of the Megillah occurred in 483 B.C.E., a time when Eretz Yisrael was controlled by the Persian Empire.  Thus, by participating in the festivities the Jews celebrated Achaveirosh’s sovereign control of Eretz Yisrael.

Moreover, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (in a Sicha he delivered in New York in 1990) emphasized that the aforementioned Gemara records that the Jews enjoyed the festivities of Achashveirosh.  It would have been tolerable had the Jews merely participated in these events to express their respect to the king.  The fact that we enjoyed the party was intolerable, especially in light of what the party represented.  Furthermore, Rav Meidan notes, the proclamation of Koresh (Cyrus) permitting Jews to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Beit HaMikdash had already been issued years before the party (Achashveirosh succeeded Darius who succeeded Koresh; see the first four chapters of the book of Ezra).  Thus, the Jews of Shushan rejected the option of Aliyah and regaled in their residence in Shushan by enjoying the great party of Achashveirosh (Rabbi Joshua Berman develops this theme in “The Temple” pp. 165-170). 

Thus we see that although the Jews in the time of the beginning of the Megillah obeyed the ritual aspects of Torah, their sense of Jewish nationalism was severely impaired.  It is not surprising, therefore, to find Haman describing us as a scattered nation suffering from disunity. 

Mordechai’s Four Achievements Advancing Jewish Nationalism

Mordechai observed this appalling lack of Jewish nationalism and set Am Yisrael on a course to correct the situation.  The first was refusing to bow to Haman, despite the protests of other Jewish leaders (see the Midrash cited in the Torah Sh’leimah 17:21).  Apparently, Mordechai was the only Jew who refused to bow to Haman.  Other Jews acted as loyal and happy citizens of Shushan and obeyed the King’s edict to bow to Achashveirosh.

Subsequently, when Mordechai rose to power he secured four major nationalistic achievements for the Jews in the Persian Empire.  First, was that Hebrew became a recognized language of the Persian Empire.  Note that when Haman issued his decrees (Esther 3:12) he did not issue his decree in Hebrew even though he had the decree translated into all of the languages of the many lands controlled by the Persian Empire.  On the other hand, when Mordechai issued his decree the Megillah emphasizes (8:9) that the Jews were sent their version of the decree in Hebrew. 

Mordechai’s second achievement was the creation of a Jewish army whose legitimacy was recognized by the Persian Empire.  Moreover, the Persian Empire granted the Jewish army the right to launch preemptive actions against its enemies (see Esther 8:11 and the Da’at Mikra commentary).  Individuals enjoy the right to defend themselves but do not enjoy the right to attack preemptively.  Only nations have the right to attack preemptively.  Thus, the Persian Empire authorized us to act as a nation in their battle against their enemies, with the imprimatur of the Persian Empire. 

Rav Yaakov Meidan drew an analogy between this phenomenon and the establishment of the Jewish Brigade that fought the Nazis during World War Two as part of the British army.  Rav Meidan argued that just as the Jewish Brigade laid the foundation for the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces so too the Jewish defense brigades of Mordechai constituted the foundation for the Jews who resided in Eretz Yisrael to begin to take responsibility for their own defense in the time of Nechemia who lived in the generation subsequent to Mordechai.  Before Nechemia, the Jews who resided in Eretz Yisrael relied solely upon the Persian Empire for their defense. 

Mordechai’s third achievement to advance Jewish nationalism was obtaining the right to punish war criminals, namely the ten sons of Haman.  Rav Meidan suggested that the ten sons of Haman were hung because they were commanders of the bands of Jew haters who sought to kill defenseless women and children (see Da’at Mikra to Esther 9:9 for a similar approach).  Thus, it was of singular importance to hang these ten sons to serve as a warning to potential leaders of Jewish persecution.

Mordechai’s fourth achievement was the establishment of a new holiday in part to celebrate the renaissance of Jewish nationalism that arose in the wake of Haman’s decrees.  Interestingly, we find in the ninth chapter of Megillat Esther some resistance among Jews to the establishment of Purim as a permanent holiday.  Indeed, Mordechai and Esther had to send a second set of letters to the Jews to secure universal acceptance of Purim among Jews.  It is possible that the resistance stemmed from concern that the establishment of a new holiday violates the prohibition of Bal Tosif, adding to the Torah’s commandments (see Megillah 14a for support for this suggestion).  Nevertheless, in the end the proponents of establishing Purim as a permanent holiday “won the day”.

Modern Day Applications

Similarly, the creation of the State of Israel has spurred a rebirth of many aspects of Jewish nationalism, such as the revitalization of the Hebrew language, the establishment of a Jewish army, the punishment of war criminals such as Eichmann, and establishing Yom Haatzmaut as a day of celebration.  Unfortunately, though, we have yet to witness a large scale spiritual revival such as occurred in the time of the Megillah when Jews gathered to fast a grueling three days in prayer to Hashem and (according to Chazal, Shabbat 88a) to voluntarily renew our Sinaitic commitment to observe the Torah.  The proverbial glass in Medinat Yisrael is “half full” and we strive and aspire to the time that the glass will be full, from a spiritual perspective.  

In the meantime, our challenge is to work towards a time when all Jews will live in harmony with Rut’s celebrated commitment statement “your nation is my nation and your God is my God”.  In the meantime, if we neglect to develop our commitment to Am Yisrael, we are not living a proper Torah lifestyle.  We must resist the influence of the prevailing spirit of the time to be cynical about one’s country and people.  The Torah way is to balance our commitment to Hashem and His holy nation.  Purim is an excellent opportunity to follow Mordechai’s example and reignite our passions for religious Zionism and Jewish nationalism. 

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