Archive for April, 2013

Spirituality, Athletics, Yoga, Pizza

At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.

In a certain sense she is absolutely right – what does yoga have to do with Purim? Why must she serve as a captive audience for the creative homilies of the yoga teacher? In another sense, the history of yoga allows us to appreciate the deep irony of this situation. Yoga, which originated as a spiritual, even religious discipline, has undergone a radical process of secularization and has turned in the West into a series of exercise techniques. The gulf between what yoga once was and what it is today is as deep as it takes for Westerners wishing to purchase a yoga class as just another product in their shopping cart to be totally devoid of any awareness whatsoever as to its roots, and so are shocked when someone tries to add God into the mix.

The Living Point of Conception

So how did we get from this...Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to be the father of modern, non-traditional yoga. Vivekananda grew up in Bengal, in Northeastern India in the late 19th century, in a family belonging to the region’s rising middle-class. The Bengalis were the most Westernized of all Indians under British occupation, and were deeply influenced by Western culture. Accordingly, Vivekananda planned to become a lawyer. But in 1881, upon meeting Ramakrishna, one of the greatest Indian saints of all time, his life changed forever and he assumed the habit of a monk. As a Hindu monk Vivekananda sought to revive religion in his homeland, but his karma had a different fate in store for him. He was among those chosen to represent Hinduism in the “Parliament of the World’s Religions” held in Chicago in 1893.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was one of the first attempts at ecumenical symposium, and attracted many representatives of religions. Vivekananda was not the sole representative of Hinduism, yet he quickly became its most famous. But then again, how can Hinduism even be represented? After all, more than a religion, it is a colorful amalgam of beliefs, schools, customs, laws, competing philosophical approaches and several thousand gods and idols. Vivekananda’s solution to this problem was simple: He presumed to present the American audience with “the very centre, the very vital conception” of Hinduism, as he put it. And what is this center, this point of conception? This is nothing less than the living experience in which the individual soul comes face to face with the divine. This, said Vivekananda, is Hinduism itself. For those seeking to reach this living point, he added, Hinduism had developed yoga.

A Universal Technique

Vivekananda claimed that yoga is a universal technique beneficial to all – men and women, Occidentals and Indians – and that there is even no need to convert to Hinduism in order to reap its benefits. He stated, in so many words, that it is the heart and essence of all religions, and that Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) can become better Christians (or Muslims, or Jews) by practicing it. He explained that yoga is the gift of spiritual India to the materialistic West.

And he reaped thunderous applause. Americans couldn’t get enough of him. Vivekananda promptly embarked on a series of lectures throughout the US, which in turn led to the writing of books that became international best-sellers, and these led to the establishment of instructional and spiritual centers. Due to his popularity in America Vivekananda became a national hero in his native India. The Indians, who were accustomed to being the target of scorn from Westerners due to their supposedly primitive and idolatrous Hindu religion, could thanks to him proudly raise their heads and feel that they, of all people, have the deepest religion and philosophy. Here, even the Americans admit that yoga is the universal spiritual path!

Modern yoga centers, inspired by Vivekananda, were opened both in the US and in India. Yoga became the flagship of Indian spirituality seeking renewed legitimacy, and Vivekananda was the captain at the helm. The problem was that in order to enter the fast lane the skipper was forced to jettison most of the cargo. Therefore, it is perhaps worthwhile to return for a moment to the roots of yoga in order to understand how Vivekananda’s version of the practice and of Indian philosophy differs from traditional yoga.

Who’s in for Kaivalya?

The canonical text of yoga is called ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’. This short text was composed sometime around the 3rd century CE, and it presents yoga as an intricate spiritual path which starts with the assumption that our pure true self, our ‘Purusha’, must disengage from the world and all that is in it, which are known as the ‘Prakriti’. This Purusha, mind, is different from everything we usually define as a ‘self’. It has no thoughts, memories, aspirations or any characteristics whatsoever. In short, it is not a ‘self’ in any accepted sense. Everything we are accustomed to seeing as a ‘self’ is considered a Prakriti which we must leave behind on our spiritual journey.

The over-arching goal, the supreme ideal of yoga according to Patanjali, is therefore not seeing the divine or even communing with it, but what is called Kaivalya, which means “alone-ness”. The yogi is supposed to reach a state in which their Purusha is completely detached from the Prakriti, and “they” exist in shining eternal solitude as pure, content-free awareness. It is hard to find anyone who is much tempted by such an existential state nowadays, and perhaps that is why Vivekananda did not mention it much to his American admirers.

It should be said that since the 3rd century yoga has undergone many changes and broad alterations, and a goal such as meeting or communing with the divine has become accepted within its circles. On the other hand, until the 19th century it has never been conceived as a neutral and universal technique applicable to believers of all religions. It most certainly was never conceived as a series of exercise drills meant to bring helath and proper posture to its secular practitioners.

The Pizza Effect

...to thisHinduism scholar Agehananda Bharati coined the phrase “The pizza effect” back in 1970 to describe what has happened here. Pizza, in its Italian origin simply a sort of bread, arrived in the US along with Italian immigrants. In the land of opportunities the pizza became a doughy tray of cheese, vegetables and meat, and became immensely popular. When Rome saw how much people love the American version of their traditional dish, they also began to bake pizza as we know it today, and Italian pizza integrated the American innovations. Today, not only are we blind to the process undergone by this popular treat, but we also know for certain that pizza as pizza should be – original pizza – can only be had in Italy.

The pizza effect, therefore, describes a process of acculturation – that is, change, integration and cultural customization – in which a traditional item undergoes Americanization, and then returns to its homeland and wins popular acclaim in its new form. This form then becomes the authentic form of the item not only for Americans (or Westerners in general) but also for the local culture, due to a naivete eager to buy anything the global market offers for sale. Agehananda Bharati shows that many Indians practice modern yoga, which is not traditional at all, a yoga that returned to them following “adjustments” in America (and at this point we may note that Bharati himself was an Austrian Catholic named Leopold Fischer who became a Hindu monk).

In the case before us the pizza effect works both ways. Vivekananda brought yoga to America, where it met with phenomenal success and has become an export item that fills the hearts of Indians with pride (‘Look at us, teaching the decadent West what true spirituality is all about!’). On the other hand, Vivekananda’s yoga wasn’t the ancient yoga, but a modern, white-bread version of Indian tradition, which gives up the traditional context of its beliefs and customs, and adds to the original dough base various goodies such as humanism, feminism, materialism and empiricism. Vivekananda learned all of these from the British colonialists. The Americans who fell in love with Vivekananda’s gospel fell in love with a westernized version of yoga, even before changing it further themselves, each according to their own lights. They bought Indian goods which even on Indian soil had taken on more than a bit of the West’s image and likeness.

Jewish yoga, Yogi Judaism

The yoga we find before us today, therefore, is a modern product presuming to distill a universal technique from the Indian tradition. Sometimes it still preserves spiritual pretensions, and its practitioners treat it as part of their spiritual journey. At other times it has turned into nothing more than a light athletic endeavor, in which case it is seen as the ancient Indian method of keeping tight skin, a firm butt, and finding a mate with similar attributes. All this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good that different people find use in a foreign cultural heritage, and that they have the freedom to choose and adjust themselves to whatever advances them by their own lights. We call it democracy.

On the other hand, the wonder at God being mentioned in a yoga class is misplaced. Yoga was a religious matter from the start, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t continue to be so. True, it was never associated with Purim, but that is only one of the changes yoga is undergoing these days. And at this point we meet one of the changes Judaism is undergoing these days. Here we have a new-age Judaism seeking to utilize a foreign spiritual technique in order to enrich its world. Jewish yoga produces yogi Judaism. Like yoga in the modern age, Judaism is changing, and often turns from a covenant between a certain god and a certain people, or from a tribal nationalism, into a ‘spiritual path’ for the seeking individual. And that is also not a bad thing at all.

:

Published in Maariv newspaper, 19.4.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman.

Calderon’s Speech and the Meaning of Secularization

The two weeks that have passed since Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) gave her maiden speech from the Knesset dais may just be sufficient time to assess its cultural impact – which is indeed significant. The speech, which was viewed on Youtube alone by nearly two hundred thousand people, famously included a Talmudic story which Calderon used to interpret current events, and also praise for the discipline of studying the Talmud, which Calderon claims has changed her life. Reactions to the Talmudic speech tended to two extremes: Some were most receptive to the inclusion of religious and traditional elements, and some were repulsed. Those repulsed also came in two flavors – ultra-orthodox speakers from the right, who viewed Calderon’s actions as an expropriation and a secularization of that which should remain sanctified, and secular-atheists from the left, who saw the speech as an expropriation of the secular legislature for the sake of a religious sermon.

In this sense, Calderon’s speech is an excellent case study in the boundaries of religious discourse in the Israeli public sphere. Having been delivered from the Knesset dais it is perforce representative. Like a Shiatsu artist applying precise touch to the pressure points of the body politic, the result of this touch are groans and growls, and each limb has its own distress. Thus while Ofri Ilani of the well known blog “Land of the Emorite” finds (Heb) proof in the speech that “Yesh Atid” is a party of evangelists, and Uri Misgav sees it as yet another manifestation of the secular public’s “routine bowing of the knee” before Religious Zionism, the editorial board of ultra-orthodox website “Kikar Hashabat” fears that it represents “a new enlightenment” and “an existential threat” to the Haredi public, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zeyni is most accurate in seeing Calderon’s speech as a secularization of the Talmud, and as a move intended to put an end to the hegemony of the “strident” orthodoxy.

Ruth Calderon on the Knesset dies

In order to explain why the religious sensitivity of the observant speakers correctly identified that which the short secular fuse on the free side failed to recognize, we must discuss the essence of secularization. It is well known that one of the central characteristics of the modern age is the secularization process, part of which is the separation of Church and State. Secularization means the transfer of power and authority from religious sources to secular ones. We all live in a world in which the monopoly on knowledge, political authority and even moral authority are no longer in the hands of religious entities. Authority over these important fields of the human condition have been shifted to science, to the nation-state, and to the individual conscience, among others.

This process was conceived during the Protestant Reformation, and it reached its Bar Mitzvah, so to speak, with the enlightenment, at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, while the process was in its cock-sure adolescence, some European intellectuals erred in thinking that what they were experiencing was part of a linear, deterministic process, at the end of which all of humanity will divest itself – privately as well as publicly – of the burden of religious faith. This was to bring about the certain end of religion, and the death and burial of God without so much as a Kadish. Thus was born the confusing conflation of secularization and atheism, that is to say the belief that stripping religion of public power necessarily means obliterating it as a private human element.

Today, as secularization stands before us as a ripe adult, we can easily see that this formulation is not correct. In the 1970’s it was already obvious that the rumors of the death of religion were somewhat premature. The secularization process is indeed underway at a brisk pace, but secularization does not in fact mean atheization, and religion is not obliterated. Instead, as a flexible and sophisticated organism, it adjusts to the new conditions. Proper understanding of the process of secularization was reinforced in the early 21st century, when terror acts by fundamentalist Muslim groups on the one hand emphasized that modern society is not at liberty to dismiss religion, and concurrently important and disparate western thinkers (Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas) began to question the wisdom of ignoring traditional culture troves while attempting to create a healthy society.

To return to Calderon’s speech, it seems that some of the secular watchers on the wall are still interpreting traditional-religious words as “religion” in its all-encompassing and authoritarian sense. On the other hand, it is obvious to the religious-traditional side that “religion” (in its old sense) is a matter of authority, obedience and commitment. Therefore they understood full-well that Calderon’s free use of those words is not intended to force them on the Knesset and make it “religious” but, quite to the contrary, to remove those words from their religious context and render them into a tool in the hands of the secular Knesset.

Who’s authority?

The error of Calderon’s detractor is therefore ironic: Her speech serves, first and foremost, those who wish to separate Church and State. That is to say, in the Israeli case, between Jewish Orthodoxy and the State of Israel. It stems from a failure to distinguish religious words from religious discourse. The words Calderon used were indeed religious, but the discourse in which she spoke was secular. Calderon translated the Talmud into a civic-political language. She did not come in the name of Halakha, but in her own name and that of her own values, while maintaining the authority over the text’s meaning. Thus she not only secularized the Talmud, but also retook a cultural treasure that for too long has lain in the rhetorical arsenal of one side only. This did also not go unnoticed by her religious detractors. This also worries them quite a bit.

Once again, it is important to note: Secularization of the Talmud does not mean that there is no religious link between Calderon and the text. There may very well be (Calderon described her own family in that speech as “religious”, using the non-Hebrew word to imply a spiritual intensity). Secularization, as I have mentioned above, means withdrawing authority over the religious text (as well as the religious sentiment, religious history, religious aspirations and so on) from a hierarchical religious establishment to the life and free choice of the individual. One can, once again, wonder why such a shift is not warmly welcomed by members of the secular left.

Civilization Without Culture

And perhaps it is not that perplexing. Is it possible that what bothers the detractors of Calderon’s speech is that they do actually deeply understand the thrust of her act, meaning that they understand that Calderon signifies a renewed interest among a rather large part of the public in what is known as “The Jewish Book-Case”? Is it possible that they believe that Israeli culture must be built solely from humanist-liberal building blocks devoid of all long-time cultural heritage (a heritage which has contributed greatly to the emergence of humanism and liberalism)?

It is odd, for in the circles of those condemning Calderon’s use of religion we can find men and women who are (justly) horrified by the actions of China in Tibet, to wit, the destruction of Tibetan culture and its supplanting with the unique communo-capitalist amalgam of the current Chinese regime. That seems to them to be a disaster, yet they view erasing all Jewish culture and exchanging it for a liberal (and economically neo-liberal) public sphere devoid of any cultural or religious characteristics as a wise move. These are the same people who will (rightly) click their tongues upon visiting India and witnessing the hyper-globalization underway across the sub-continent, trampling its uniqueness along the way and turning t into another “free market”, whose pantheon is inhabited solely by shopping and profits. This they view as cultural devastation, but turning Israel into another McDonald’s franchise seems to them like a goal worth fighting for. These are the people who will (rightly) mourn the loss of the primitive Australian Aboriginal culture, the disintegration of the Native American nations, the wiping out of hunter-gatherer cultures in the Amazon. They will stridently insist on the right of each of these to maintain a distinct cultural identity and the preservation of their spiritual and intellectual treasures. But at the creation of a Jewish identity and preservation of this culture – which is, after all, quite ancient – they will evince distaste.

This is not only a strange case of discrimination, but also a blindness to the human and so simple need for a “home-grown” identity and culture (yes, the same need felt by the Aborigines – have not others the right to feel that way?). And this need is not only psychological, but also, mostly, social and communal. For without a traditional source of values we shall soon be left only with the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market. Without an ethical array that gives the things around us value, soon they will be left only with the price-tag. Yes, we have humanism and liberalism, and we are lucky to have them; truly; But unfortunately I don’t think that these alone provide a juicy enough ideological framework and a sufficiently coalesced identity to enable the existence of a thriving society in our times. Have you checked recently what happened to the dream of a secular-rational-liberal-universal society? Well, let me put it this way: There’s an app for that.

I have no patience for religious one-upmanship, and the notion that Judaism is some unique religion, higher or more true than other religions is despicable in my view. On the other hand, the notion that we should (or can) cast aside cultural treasures built over millennia is in my eyes no less despicable. Jewish tradition holds much wisdom, as well as much idiocy. Both its wisdom and its idiocy are voices I would like to hear, examine and make a decision regarding them. As long as there is no coercion, the enrichment of public discourse can only be a blessing.

The separation of Church and State must be fought for resolutely, and the struggle is beginning to bear fruit, but this struggle does not end with the erasure of any and all religious expressions from the public sphere. Should it end thus, the public sphere would remain poor and vapid, useful only as a portal to another branch of a global coffee chain, its kitchen staffed by labor migrants and its door guarded by a temp worker making minimum wage. Tradition’s voice must be another voice heard, another voice we can choose to follow. This is precisely why it would be disastrous for this voice to remain heard only from the mouths of rabbis, and doubly so from rabbis such as Ovadiah Yosef, Dov Lior or Shmuel Eliyahu. In her speech, Calderon has contributed to the creation of a new traditional-modern voice, a secular-feminine counterweight to those who until recently held the monopoly on the Talmud. Calderon has made a fine contribution to the breaking of the old molds, and surely did not imagine that she of all people would be pressured so quickly back into them.

First published on Avi Chai site, 27.2.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman

Kookism – Settler politics as God’s playing field

"Kookism: Shorshei Gush Emunim, Tarbut Hamitnahlim, Teologia Tzionit, Meshihiyut Be’zmanenu,” (Kookism: The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Subculture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism) by Gideon Aran. Carmel Publishing House, 464 pages, NIS 119

“We have to take a good look at reality, with open eyes and the professional skill of responsible politicians − then we will discover the interior regularity that hides behind things.” There you have it, Kookism in a nutshell: politics as God’s playing field, political reality as the bearer of messianic tidings, the nonchalant presumption to understand the Almighty’s will, and the undoubting faith that our own ilk possesses the secret to deciphering the course of history.

The speaker, one of the leaders of Gush Emunim, goes on to clarify: “This regularity always and necessarily moves toward full redemption. You cannot make do with studying Gemara; you have to go out into the field. There, mainly there, religion will be revealed, the sanctity will be uncovered… Every footstep of ours, every swing of a hand, open and close electrical circuits that switch on lightbulbs in the upper worlds.”

Even these few words enfold the essence of Kookism: the absolute confidence in the approaching salvation, the sanctifying of the profane, and especially the hills of Judea and Samaria, the relocation of the center of religious life from studies to messianic activism, and the arrogance that turns every settler into a kabbalist mystic who mates sephirot (the kabbalistic emanations) and sets processes in motion in the upper worlds.

Gideon Aran brings these quotes straight from the field. Albeit this field no longer exists, since Aran galloped over the hills of Judea and Samaria together with the folks of Gush Emunim in the mid-1970s, and they have long ceased to be bald rocky hills in between docile Arab villages. The Gush Emunim settlement movement no longer exists either, although it had a much longer and more significant life than Aran anticipated. When he joined it as a young doctoral student in sociology, Aran saw before him a movement that was “exotic and charismatic” and a bit “moonstruck.” As someone wanting to specialize in the study of extremist cults, he expected to write about a small group, document the rise and fall of an anecdote. He did not know he was about to become a witness to the religious-social movement that would alter the face of Israel.

Aran shadowed the Gush Emunim people between 1975 and 1978. He joined them in their trips through the occupied territories, in their internal debates, observed their reactions to political and international developments, their formulations of Kookist theology, their joyous occasions, their tragedies, their demonstrations and their clandestine activity. The book before us is the fruit of Aran’s riveting research, which formed the basis for his doctoral dissertation. The readers are therefore exposed to Aran’s documentation and analysis from more than 30 years ago.

The decision to leave the material unchanged has advantages and disadvantages. Ostensibly, the book depicts a picture that has since faded away, a childish innocence, that, when we sobered up from it, we were no longer able to take seriously. On the other hand, that is precisely what makes this sort of primary documentation so important. Rarely is a scholar privy to the formative stages of a religious movement, certainly such a meaningful religious movement. Here stand before us the young and charismatic Hanan Porat, the fervent Moshe Levinger, Yoel Ben Nun when he was still a prominent leader of that public, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in the very days he was formulating his political-religious thought.

The new scriptures

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookThe story of Gush Emunim, according to Aran, begins long before the Six-Day War, in the religious pioneer group Gahelet ‏(Hebrew acronym for Garin Halutzim Lomdei Torah − “cadre of Torah-learning pioneers”‏), in the early 1950s. There began to grow a religious awareness that seeks to subsume everyday reality, that wants to be in the most literal sense religious Zionism.

Two catalysts brought about the formation of this group, the first of which was the establishment of the State of Israel. We are dealing, then, with a messianic movement that arose not out of destruction, but rather out of redemption. The second catalyst was the disdainful and dismissive treatment religiously observant Jews were subject to in the early days of the state. It is hard today to grasp just how contemptible observant Jews seemed then in the eyes of the secular Jews, who huffed Zionism and puffed socialism. Contempt for the “Exilic” religion and derogatory epithets such as adukfistuk ‏(devout pistachio nut‏) created a sense of inferiority, without even the Haredi consolation born of closing themselves off from the rest of society.

Out of this experience arose the members of Gahelet, who tried to redefine the relationship between religion and state. Youngsters like Zephaniah Drori, Yaakov Filber, Zalman Melamed and Haim Druckman − some of the most important rabbis of religious Zionism in our day − enrolled as a group in the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, at that time a marginal and lesser yeshiva. There they found the philosophical-religious foundation that would feed their nationalist ambitions.

That foundation was built, as we know, on the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook. These became the new scriptures, and their interpretation − the weaving of a messianic-Zionistic theological political tapestry. The sides of Rav Kook’s thinking that dealt with private religiosity and general philosophy were usually silenced. The preoccupation with the nation’s uniqueness and the world’s redemption was highlighted ‏(Kookism, therefore, is not really the doctrine of Rav Kook‏). The role of official explicator of Rav Kook went to his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who was then also head of the yeshiva. It was he who put Kookism into words and deeds, and gathered the new students around him like disciples around their admor ‏(a Hebrew acronym for “our master, our teacher, our rabbi”‏).

Aran devotes space to the “admorization” process of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In the eyes of Gush Emunim the latter became a restorer of faith, a Light unto the Nations ‏(Gush members recount that he instilled Torah in “gigantic negros and beautiful models”‏), a healer of the sick, a Torah prodigy, proficient in the world’s languages, knowledgeable in philosophy − and finally a prophet. The late Hanan Porat is quoted as having described Zvi Yehuda Kook’s house as “the center of the world. There is the source of the electric current that sets in motion the machine called Gush Emunim, through which Israel and all of humanity will be illuminated.” Kook’s best-known prophecy was pronounced three weeks before the Six-Day War. In a conversation with his students, he cried out that the people of Israel had forgotten the Land of the Patriarchs, namely the West Bank. A month later, that same land was already in Israel’s hands, and the people of Gush Emunim could set out to enlighten Israel and all of humanity.

Settling in Judea and Samaria became the national expression of Kookism. Before the 1967 war, the Gahalet people were busy ‏(aside from with their Torah studies‏) with a war against “missionaries” in Jerusalem: disrupting a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Binyanei Ha’uma, vandalizing church property, and disparaging clergymen who happened to cross their path.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda and Ariel Sharom placing the corner stome for the Elon Moreh settlmentLiberating the Land of the Patriarchs was perceived as a command by the minister of history to go out and make history − or, more precisely, to bring about the end of history by way of full redemption. The land was transformed into a holy vessel, and settlement into a ritual. In Kookism, Aran writes, there occurs “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, which makes it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time also to disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” If Zionism turned Judaism from a theology into an ideology, then Kookism seeks to go one better and turn Zionism itself into a theology. The sanctity was to be found in the settlement operations.

From here on, pitching tents was a mitzvah. Kookism is set apart by its contention that salvation can arrive before the people of Israel has repented, and even without the Messiah. “Redemption of the land” takes on a new meaning, of redeeming reality in its entirety. Kookism also knows in advance and with certainty the course of events. Another dunam and another dunam mean getting ever closer to the End of Days, when the law will go out from Zion and all the nations will look to it.

Israel’s uniqueness ensures the success of Kookism, but the salvation ushered in by the Gush Emunim people does not pertain solely to Jews. Rabbi Levinger explains to Aran that “by making concessions to the Arabs and the Gentiles of the world, by stopping settlement and withdrawing from the territories, we cause our neighbors harm. Not only would their material situation not be improved, but there would occur a spiritual deterioration that would prevent them from understanding the supremacy of our people and acknowledging its sanctity. Thus, with our bare hands, we would block their redemption.” The Kookists know better than you what’s good for you, and they will impose that good on you whether you like it or not. They don’t do this for their own sake, but rather as loyal envoys of the Almighty; who serve as his vessels and obey his orders in silence and certainty.

From this we can also grasp the depth of the crisis that could occur if the people of Israel were to turn its back on them, if the State of Israel were to bid farewell to occupied territories, if the redemption process were to do the incredible and reverse direction.

Back to Hebrew salvation

Hanan Porat celebrating establishing the camp at Sebastia, 1975We find crisis not only at the end of Kookism. Aran’s innovation lies in analyzing the rise of Kookism precisely as a response to crisis. This is the crisis that stems from the dissonance inherent to the very existence of a successful secular State of Israel. Unlike Rabbi Z.Y. Kook, his successors could not see the divine sparks hidden, supposedly, in the hearts of the secular Jews and in the “inner” layer of their actions. A Jewish state that operates in a secular manner is a contradiction in their eyes, and so they set out to reform reality. “We stand before a national disaster of enormous proportions,” Aran quotes a Gush Emunim supporter as saying. “[The state is] a paradise of messianic realization − ‘Apocalypse Now’ − that makes Judaism redundant.”

The realization of the religious dream, the establishment of a Jewish state, endangers religion. The Kookists sought to restore Judaism to the center of Israeli life, and if necessary − by force. The faith-based tension reached its climax in the Six-Day War: Secular Israel won a glorious victory. The Temple Mount was in our hands, and the cafes in Tel Aviv were full of IDF generals basking in the sunlight. The Kookists interpreted the events as they saw fit and sought to explain their meaning to secular Israelis. The tension between the success of secularity ‏(with the Lord’s help, of course‏) and its unwillingness to draw the obvious conclusion ‏(and become religious‏) was too great. Tension creates movement. Crisis creates birth.

It is an accepted and clear principle in the field of religious studies: Faith-based dissonance generates a desire for harmonization, and that desire creates action. Belief and reality are like two bicycle wheels standing one beyond the other, without touching and without support on the side. Anyone who maintains such a structure in his psyche understands intuitively that if he wants it not to fall, he has to push and move forward. Gush Emunim took to the field as a movement that sought to wed faith to reality ‏(the problem being that the back wheel will of course never reach the front one‏). The terrible blow Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War gave an additional push, and the Kookists channeled the messianic energy into settlement. Hanan Porat summed up the matter: “Gush Emunim is the yearning for the revelation of God in the world.”

In setting out to realize Judaism as a national religion, Kookism revived the ancient Hebrew notion of redemption: political salvation that finds expression in a sovereign kingdom. Kookism did not invent this ideal, but merely translated the biblical aspiration into a modern tongue and action, and added to it Hegelian dialectic and kabbalistic interpretation. It thereby set itself against the processes of Protestantization that world religions are undergoing in our era, in the course of which religion becomes the personal ‏(and psychological‏) business of the individual. The mystical spirituality of Rav Kook was forgotten, and Kookism was left with only a theocratic Jewish messianism, inflexible and destined to break.

Aran presents the reader with historical facts, a plot, and brilliant interpretation. His writing is creative and graceful, and reading the book is a pleasurable experience. It also has a few problems: The lack of an index is a serious oversight, and the lengthy explanations at the beginning about the formation of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century are superfluous. The passage of time is evident in the explanations pertaining to matters of kabbalah and mysticism. But as a whole the text is fascinating, and the book’s editor, Amit Shoham, did an admirable job in reducing the dense abundance typical of a doctoral dissertation into the earthly reality dictated by the constraints of publishing a book.

Aran’s research reveals to us how vivid and innovative Kookism was at its inception: sanctifying the profane, sanctifying the IDF, sanctifying nationalism, the blinding faith in the righteousness of its path, its contempt for passive religiosity, the theological interpretation − in real time − of every political occurrence. His study also reveals to us how great was its failure, how pale its decline. Today the most devout Kookists − Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau and the yeshivas under his leadership − have withdrawn from the public arena and severed themselves from Israeli society. Who better than Naftali Bennett, the high-tech ace from Ra’anana who became the new shepherd of religious Zionism, to herald the end of Kookism as a vibrant social movement. Thirty years after it was written as an introduction to a young movement’s worldview, Aran’s juicy text is now being published as its summation.

nil

Published in Haaretz, 5.4.13


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

Interested in booking Tomer for a talk or program? Be in touch with the Jewish Speakers Bureau

Join 2,843 other followers