Archive for June, 2013

Crippling God’s Plan – Gush Emunim and Its Aftermath

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon placing the cornerstone for the Elon Moreh settlment, late seventiesIn Christian theology the days of the messiah often involve great upheavals and calamities, giving birth to the Messiah through great pain and suffering. That’s the reason “apocalypse” has come to mean not vision, as it does in Greek, but catastrophe. Ironically, this grand messianic scheme has played out in actual 20th century Jewish history, as two major messianic movements erupted out of the post-holocaust Jewish world, movements that in many ways are coloring significant aspects of it to this very day.

These movements, Chabad and Gush Emunim, exemplify two different genres of messianism. While the former is of centered around the charismatic figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the latter is a headless creature, conceived from the richly optimistic teachings of Rav Kook, and moving forward on the high octane motivational energy of modern nationalism.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865–1935) was an extremely creative mystic and thinker. Based on a Hegelian view of history wed to a panentheistic vision of God, Kook interpreted the braking away of significant numbers of Jews from their religious tradition, followed by their adopting of Zionism and their efforts to found a Jewish state, as an indispensable and foreordained stage in the path to Jewish redemption. Since Geula must involve the rebuilding of the Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land, and since the orthodoxly observant are reluctant to leave the Diaspora, God has mandated the “uppity bound-breakers” (his words) to do the dirty – but momentously paramount – work.

Rav Kook the elder did not live to see the State of Israel being founded, but his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, was blessed to witness it. Yet Kook junior wept tears of sorrow when the United Nations proclaimed the Jewish people’s right to an independent state, because the same UN decision also stated that the land would be divided between the Jews and the Palestinians. In his eyes, the biblical Promised Land had to be forever undivided. What’s more, because in Zvi Yehuda’s eyes the state itself was holy (indeed, he considered it to be “the Seat of the Divine on Earth”), the actual military and political control of more and more of its promised territories were the very steps on which the messiah ascends (or is it descends?) toward final redemption.

With this in mind, we can understand why after the Six-Day war, Judea and Samaria’s coming under Israely control was construed by Zvi Yehuda and his followers to be a clear signal from the Heavenly Hand that the setback in the redemptive plan was over. With Israel finally broadening its borders it seemed that the messianic momentum was shifting gear, and that Salvation was ours for the taking. “There is not an End clearer then this!” proclaimed Kook Jr., and his followers announced that “The Third Redemption [after the exodus for Egypt and the return from Babilon in Ezra’s days] is without a stop!”.

In Kookist circles, then, it was a given that Geula has clearly begun, and that it was most surly irreversible. That did not mean, however, that we are to sit idly by and let God do all the work. In fact, it is after the Six-Day war, and in greater effort still after the Yom-Kippur war, that the first settlements were founded on the other side of what were the ’48 Israeli borders. That is the time when Gush-Emunim was born, then a young and spirited messianic-but-pragmatic movement, organized and peopled by Zvi Yehuda’s followers, but supported by many secular Israelis and quietly encouraged by elements from within the government.

Gush-Emunim started populating the hills and the occupied cities (such as Hebron) of the West Bank, sometimes by state permission and sometimes using trickery and lies.* Not less of import, The Gush’s messianic ideology occupied the hearts and souls of leading figures, and large numbers, of the Zionist-Religious public, imbuing it with renewed pride and the exhilarating feeling that its members were finally moving to the head of the Zionist enterprise. Not many years passed, however, before the first crisis of faith erupted.

A messianic vision’s weakness lies in the very thing that allows it to generate so much hope: its unabashed and uncompromising confidence. With the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 the vision of an ever advancing redemptive plan was shattered, as the Sinai desert was promised to be handed over to Egypt. Instead of gaining more and more of the Promised Land, the state of Israel was now breaking parts of it away. Note also the theological sprain the kooknics now found themselves in: it was the same Israel which they believed to be holy that is in fact crippling God’s plan.

The withdrawal from Sinai, followed later by the handing over of the Palestinian cities after the Oslo accords, the retreat from south Lebanon and, most devastatingly, the razing of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip have become almost an insurmountable challenge to the kookist messianic worldview. Its adherents today are experiencing a major crisis of faith, and their response to it divides them into a number of distinct groups.

Some, like Rabbi Shmuel Tal, have given up all hope for the state of Israel, no longer see it as divinely ordained, and have for all intents and purposes joined the Haredi world (allowing them to shift the center of their religious life from Zionism to Halakha). Some, led by the prominent Rav Tao, have delayed redemption indefinitely, and while still sure it’s on its way, have transferred progress toward it to the dimension hidden from the unlearned eye. At present they concentrate their efforts on strengthening Halakhic observance and education, while waiting for the masses to embrace their tradition.

Others, like the Jewish Underground of the early ‘80s or the Bat Ayin Underground from 2002, have turned to terrorism, in an attempt to force an apocalyptic event (or simply an all-out war) that will force the state to conquer its forsaken lands. And some, led by the post-Zionist and deeply Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, aim to overthrow the secular government in a revolution of consciousness that will reconnect every Jew to his innermost soul. Most Religious-Zionists, however, are simply living their bourgeois life, hoping for the best, somewhat less convinced of the state’s divine status, and ever more wary of sweet-talking prophets bringing tidings of The End.

* For one of many examples, see חגי סגל [Chaggai Segal], אחים יקרים [beloved Brothers], page 237. Rabbi ehoshua Zuckerman says that “while settling the Shomron we did some illegal things.” On the same page, Ze’ev Hever, one of the leading figures among the settlers, says: “The dry law in itself is not holy to us, is not holy to any of the people sitting here.”

A shorter version of the Article, including the statistics box, was published in the December 2012 of Sh’ma, pp. 11-12.

The Sixties, Now

Rumors concerning the demise of the sixties are premature, as the following story will show.

I met a good friend a few days after Lag BaOmer of last year, and he was evidently discomfited. When I asked what the matter was, he told me that his two teenage sons had gone to take part in the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai festival at Mt. Meiron. When asked how they fared there he answered that they didn’t give too many details. It was crowded, dirty, exhausting, and it didn’t seem that they had done much aside geting squeezed among the throngs up the mountain, and shortly thereafter back down. But one thing was clear to them, he told me: Whatever happened there was “real”. At least to them. Meaning that’s how they felt. In short, “there was something powerful there” – powerful in the existential sense.

This friend is a modern-orthodox Jew, and so are his sons. Worshiping deceased saints is not a usual part of their religious experience, but that wasn’t what bothered him. What bothered him was that they hadn’t found that “something powerful” at the synagogue of the community in which they live. Rather, it was at a mass festival around a holy tomb that they found some unmediated encounter with the divine, some Truth. Together we hypothesized that perhaps God was not in the noise, nor in the fire, nor in the smoke and dust and dirt, but in the very nature of an irregular act. As is well known, the escape from routine is exciting in and of itself. But perhaps there is something additional here. Perhaps the irregular is particularly exciting when it derives from a rebellion against the regular, and even rebellion against the religious regular. This really got my friend worried.

We all rebel against the regular, and in a sense every young generation rebels against the generation preceding it, both generally and in matters of religion. But there’s something more to the excursion of my friend’s sons to Meiron than that, something in common with the reason many youngsters in Israel and abroad join new spiritual movements, or the spiritual quest of the new age in general. In fact, there’s a sort of continuation here to a tradition that began in the 1960’s in the United States.

Teen Rebellion – The Archetype

That decade in the United States is described as the forefather – and archetype – of every modern teen rebellion, and thus contains the seeds of the processes taking place in contemporary spirituality. In his fascinating book The Easternization of the West Collin Campbell analyzes the groups that made up the great cultural change that took place then, a change born of the values crisis attendant to the end of the great ideologies after WW2, a change which in his opinion included a revolution of thought equivalent to the Reformation or the Renaissance, no less.

According to Campbell, three distinct groups made up the youth wave that rebelled against society and became what would later be known as “The Counterculture.” The first group was made up of teenage delinquents. These were youths who, for the first time since the establishment of the United States had enough leisure time and money to be free of parental direction. They felt more independent than ever, proud of themselves, and felt that the adults around them were not respecting them and their needs. From here it was but a short distance to dropping out of the educational and occupational frameworks to which they belonged, and turning to rage-fueled rebellion. Think of the images of James Dean and Marlon Brando, wearing black leather jackets and hunkered over a motorcycle.

The second group Campbell identifies as part of the ‘counterculture’ includes all sorts of world-reformers. These were mostly students protesting against what they saw as moral wrongs: The war in Vietnam, the existence of nuclear weapons, and discrimination against women and African-Americans. These are the people who went on civil rights marches, peace protests and combined a Marxist social critique with the demand that American democracy meet its obligations toward all its citizens, and to stop bombarding the citizens of other countries. Think of those who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.

The third group is the one most similar to the phenomenon described at the head of this essay. This group included all the people who sought not only a social alternative, but also a spiritual one. These began with the Beat poets and continued with the hippies, the flower children, the acid-trippers, the followers of Zen-Buddhism and other Oriental religious movements. These are the people who sang about “The age of Aquarius”, about “peace and love”, who preached the need to “drop out” of the “system” and gathered in mass love festivals, mostly in the San Francisco area. Think (you already are thinking) of the characters from the musical “Hair.”

Of course there were individuals who stood on the boundaries between these groups, but in general it should be clear that these are totally different people. What do students protesting the wrongs of government have in common with juvenile delinquents? What do they have with the spiritualists who think that everything’s groovy? What connection do these latter ones have with those who pour all their energies into political battles? What do rebellious youths have in common with anyone at all? And yet, in order for the Counterculture to materialize as an encompassing, revolutionary social tidal wave, these three groups – all members of America’s younger generation at the time – had to unite into a single force. The reason this force was born has to do with similar phenomena of the time, and that reason is one: The search for authenticity.


The Search For Authenticity

Authenticity means consistency between heart and mouth, between inside and out, and between thought, emotion and action. Campbell shows in his book that what united these three groups was their disappointment in the dishonesty of society around them: Adults who preached initiative and independence did not respect the independence of teenagers; a country presuming to be free and democratic discriminated against women and blacks; a society that claimed to believe in lofty ideals was interested in nothing but money and profits. From finding fault with specific issues the critique of the three groups became a wholesale disqualification of “the establishment”. Old society is hypocritical to the core, they deduced, and we must all shun it.

In turning their back on general society the members of these groups found what they were looking for in each other. Whether they were rebellious youths, discontented students or tripping hippies, they all had one thing in common: They were authentic. The ‘counter-culture’ in fact expressed a rebellion against Western society in the name of authenticity which it couldn’t actualize. It was the largest attempt to date to realize authenticity in practice.

It’s important to understand how innovative this attempt was, definitely in the mass scale on which it appeared. Young people discovered their inner worlds: ego, conscious, soul – and demanded that the outside world align itself with the truth they lived. Older generations, used to the ethic in which what matters is what you do and not whether you mean it, couldn’t understand what the youngsters wanted. The youngsters, for their part, declared a new ethos, with the demand to be true to yourself and the rejection of all forms of hypocrisy at its center. Such a nuclear motivation can fuel not only a cry against the wrongs of society, but conversely also an interest in self-inquiry which is expressed through Buddhist meditation, or in spurning the traditional forms of Western monotheism and finding a new spiritual home at ‘Hare Krishna’.

Teen Rebellion – The Next Generation

hill-top youth - from WikipediaLet us return to my friend and his two sons. Recently a new book came out collating essays by Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l, called Tablets and broken Tablets (Yedioth Ahronoth Press). Rabbi Rosenberg is among the greatest thinkers of Religious Zionism, and definitely the one who has delved most deeply into post-modern thought and crafted a response to it form within the world of Torah. In an essay titled “Experience, Mysticism and the Renewal of Prophecy” he addresses the growing variety within the Religious Zionist youth, including a renewed interest in Hassidism and the search for religious experience. According to Rosenberg, all these are not necessarily signs of great devotion. Sometimes they indicate the opposite, a sort of rebellion and alienation.

There’s that rebellion again, and again the interpretation which holds that the escape from the irregular isn’t much more than turning one’s back on the regular. Undoubtedly, there is much truth to this interpretation, but I think that in light of the above this rebellion it can be understood in another way. When religious youngsters “rebel” against tradition and challenge the preceding generation, it’s not just in search of thrills or a teenage attempt to annoy the folks. This is also a deep critique of what the youngsters see as the hypocrisy of the adults. It’s also about the search of religious authenticity.

Rabbi Rosenberg would have known exactly why these youngsters are disappointed in what they see as hypocrisy in the behavior of their elders. The latter tell them about fear of God and worship, and mumble their prayers unthinkingly. They preach Jewish values, and live bourgeoisie lives in upscale bourgeoisie communities. They swear allegiance to the tenants of the faith, but are in no hurry to renew the daily sacrifices or truly expect the coming of the Messiah.

Seeing the behavior of adults as hypocrisy and demanding authenticity of oneself is an inner fire that propels a life of seeking and action. This is the fire that pushes the “Hill Youths” to seek proximity to nature and the land. This is what moves those who travel to Uman seeking true prayer, powerful and heartfelt. In fact, this is in large part what fueled Gush Emmunim back in the day. The charge of youngsters upon the hills of Judea and Samaria aimed not just to realize God’s promise to the patriarchs, but no less to show their own private patriarchs that their meandering religiosity was lacking. The youngsters demonstrated what they saw as full, unapologetic religiosity, as opposed to the stammering observance of their parents.

Therefore we must understand that this rebellion is not against the Halakha per-se. It is true that it can appear against the background of a lack of authenticity that youngsters find in the repetitive observance of commandments and their desire to find a deeper, more ‘alive’ religious experience. Then it is another shade of the new-age experience. But many times it comes from a critique of what is seen as the older generation’s disrespect of Halakha, and therefore manifests as over-insistence and a tendency towards strictures. In such cases this rebellion carries within it an interesting paradox: It is extraneous to tradition, yet strictly observant of Halakha. From the sixties to the feast on Mt. Meiron, the single line of the search for religious authenticity connects the spiritual aspirations of the young rebels. Some of those dancing at Meiron, therefore, are the spiritual descendants of the hippies, in more ways than one. I’m not sure that’s the insight to put my friend’s concerns to rest.

First published in Maariv newspaper, 3.5.13

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.”

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