Why Israel's independence led to an argument over the name of God

A dispute over whether to refer to God almost derailed the state of Israel's founding document


In May 14 1948 before an audience of 300 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and with thousands more listening on the radio, David Ben-Gurion read the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The international community placed intense pressure on the Zionist leaders, discouraging them from declaring an independent state but Ben-Gurion and his allies decided the official end of the British Mandate for Palestine was the optimal time to take action. 

After two millennia the Jewish people re-established sovereignty in the Land of Israel but it was not without unreconciled tensions of Jewish belief within the document itself, particularly the role of the religious tradition and belief for the Jewish state. 

The dream of a Jewish state existed for two millennia, first among the Jewish refugees of Roman persecution and later among Jews who carried the hope of return to the Land of Israel throughout the lands of the Jewish diaspora.  By the early 20th century, Zionist thinkers such as Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, and many others, developed substantially different worldviews about the purpose and Jewish character of the modern state.  

The official translation of the Declaration concludes: “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel (Tzur Yisrael), we affix our signatures to this proclamation”.  In the Book of Samuel,  King David, delivering his deathbed oration, calls God Tzur Yisrael: “The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel said concerning me: ‘He who rules men justly, He who rules in awe of God is like the light of morning at sunrise.”

Psalm 22 uses the word Tzur to project an image of God as a protector, “the Rock wherein I take shelter”.  It may be most familiar to us from Psalm 19. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O Lord, my Rock, and my Redeemer”. 

In the weeks preceding the withdrawal from Palestine by British Mandatory authorities, the Declaration was prepared by politicians, lawyers and writers (including Shai Agnon who later was awarded the Nobel prize).  From the outset, the inclusion of God’s name in the document proved so contentious it nearly derailed the approval of a final version of the Declaration and the ceremony at the art museum. 

The final draft was overseen by a small committee including David Ben-Gurion (then the executive head of the World Zionist Organisation), Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon (leader of the religious Zionist party, Mizrachi), Aharon Zisling (leader of the socialist Zionist party, Ahdut Ha’avodah)  and Moshe Shertok (later Sharett, head of the Jewish Agency’s political department).  

Religious Zionists insisted God’s name was a necessary component of the document establishing the state of Israel. Zisling, leading the secularist Zionists, was committed to a separation of religion and state and would not sign a political document which rested on allusions to the supernatural. He maintained that the inclusion of God’s name imposed an expression of belief on non-believers. Although Rabbi Maimon’s position did not prevail, he did include God’s name next to his signature on the Declaration. Forging a compromise, Ben-Gurion used the phrase “the Rock of Israel” to satisfy both parties but left out the theological component, “and its Redeemer”, contained within the Bible. 

Following the establishment of Israel, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis reintroduced God as Redeemer in the Prayer for the State of Israel.  The prayer begins, Tzur Yisrael v’Goelo, “ the Rock of Israel and its Redeemer”, it goes on to ask for blessings for the state and its leaders and affirms the establishment of Israel as the “first flowering of our redemption”.  

People with knowledge of the Torah hear the phrase Tzur Yisrael in its biblical and sacred context. For atheists, the phrase Tzur Yisrael connotes a more literal reference to the Jewish people’s connection to the military, the Land of Israel or Jewish cultural and historical traditions. 

When Ben-Gurion was asked about the phrase later in his life, he explained that he understood the phrase to mean the Torah’s history and traditions or the institution of the Israel Defence Forces.  

With Arab armies about to attack Israel on the  May 14 1948, the Jewish people had to face their new circumstances with courage and creativity.  The signatories, believers and non-believers alike, declared Israel’s independence with trust in the Rock of Israel. 

We know from the British experience that it is possible for a country to have an official state religion and enjoy an active democracy which respects all religions, denominations as well as non-believers.  In the use of the phrase Tzur Yisrael, the Jewish people was strengthened by compromise, a compromise that rests on the diversity of thought and practice of the Jewish people.  The phrase, “Placing our trust in the Rock of Israel” continues to affirm the democratic right of all citizens of Israel to freedom of belief.  

Rabbi Kolodny is Masorti’s director of rabbinic development 

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