Archive for July, 2013

A TRULY Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

Moshe FeiglinThe last elections in Israel introduced many new faces to the Knesset, among them Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin heads a group called ‘Jewish Leadership’ and has for the past dozen years attempted, unsuccessfully up untill now, to be elected in the Likud Party’s primary elections in a high enough spot in order to become an MK (Jewish Leadership, however, was able to assist the candidacies of some of the Likud’s most hawkish members of Knesset, among them Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely). Now he has succeeded.

Feiglin is by any judgment one of the most methodical and principled thinkers in Israel’s right wing camp, and an effort to comprehend his thought is in order. Below I will attempt an examination of Moshe Feiglin’s concept of the democratic regime. I stress this is an attempt, as Feiglin did not write about it at length, and on the other hand  there are writings of Feiglin’s I haven’t read yet. What makes it easier for me to position Feiglin’s political-civic stance is the fact that he has referred to the issue specifically.

For instance, in the chapter (containing several articles) titled “The Jewish State – Democracy and regime” in his 2005 book, “The War of Dreams” (Milkhemet Ha’Khalomot) Feiglin writes about democracy that:

As I see it, democracy is but a method for changing government without violence. Several other values are attached: The freedom of expression, for instance, the equality before the law, and the separation of powers. But all is fluid, all is flexible, all is under whim of those who shape the term “democracy” to fill their needs. (“Democracy or Greater Israel,” 26.1.1998, p.464)

Feiglin is of course correct about the flexibility of the term “democracy.” Different states have used it in very different ways, and I hope it’s needless to point out that the Poplar Democracy of [North] Korea bears little resemblance to the liberal-constitutional democracy of the U.S. On the other hand, obviously, a democracy based on basic rights of its citizens, such as the freedom of expression and the separation of powers, is not truly subject to the whims of its rulers. That, after all, alongside other principled differences between versions of democracy which I’ll point out, is the crux of the issue.

Feiglin continues to explain his position:

If the land of Israel was truly a supreme national value for you, you’d understand that democracy has to fit the country, not the country democracy […] The State of Israel was created for the Jewish people, and its democracy is supposed to serve the Jewish people. If this state acts against the interests of the Jewish people, there is no longer any point in its existence, be it democratic or not. […] They [the Arabs] will never, never be fully equal citizens, in the national sense of the word. (Ibid., p. 465)

The picture becomes clearer: according to Feiglin, democracy has to fit the country, or rather the people living in it. When it comes to the State of Israel, this is the Jewish people, and hence democracy has to serve “the interests of the Jewish people.” That is why, for instance, the Arabs residing in the country have no chance at equal status, since they are not a part of the people that the democracy is supposed to serve.

No possibility of choice

What sort of a democracy serves a specific people, not universal principles? Of course, this is a popular democracy, known in its more mild versions as communal democracy. This version of democracy is principally different from liberal democracy. Feiglin, who is certainly well-read and learned, knows this well, and expressly differentiates between liberal democracy and communal democracy, only the latter of which he supports:

There are several views on democracy, out of which I’ll examine two: one liberal and the other communal. The liberal tradition supports a position based on one measure. It considers it to be a universal position, which is not biased towards other cultures, other values, other traditions. It believes in the values of equality and freedom of the individual, while the state is intended to serve the individual alone. The state in itself has no purpose, and it does not exemplify the values of its society.

The other view is communal. According to it, the person requires social-consciousness in order to reach self-knowledge, and only through this process does he come to know his views on morals and values. The community, therefore, is of the highest importance, and through it the person identifies with his country. The community and the state have an important role in the development of the values and the identities of the citizens. By this view, democracy is a form of government which allows the basic values of society to be expressed. Every society whose core values are freedom values can and should be democratic, but it must “fit the lid to the pot”– fit its democracy to its unique character and values.

A communal democracy sees the individual as an organic part of the community, to the point that, on its own, she or he cannot fully express themselves, regarding both their full potential and their freedom. Only by recognizing the reciprocal ties between themselves and the society around them, and – of no lesser importance – by becoming a living part of the surrounding society with its unique values and cultural characteristics, can the individual reach self-knowledge and thereby live a life worth living. Contrary to the liberal basic assumption, which discerns a tension between the demands of the community and individual rights, this concept sees in accepting communal values the only way to realize true individual autonomy.

The goal of communal democracy is the betterment of man. This is a goal liberal democracy doesn’t dare to actively promote, as it is obviously an act toward a specific ethical direction, and as such one in the course of which it will have to determine decree between conflicting values (such as freedom and equality) and cancel others (such as the freedom of religion). Communal democracy directs the individual towards a certain direction, reached allegedly through the common values of the community or even the whole nation; thereby it perfectly expresses the “will of the people.” According to this concept, every political system which will express the will of a community or a people is, by definition, democratic towards that community or people, no matter how totalitarian, illiberal or draconian its laws may be.

“The rule of the people” reaches its summit here, not because the regime allows each individual to make its own choices, but because the regime expresses the essential will of the people, with no possibility of choice. To a large degree, this democracy lacks representation, because the rulers do not represent the will of the people, but express it, or even become it and actualize it (in the same way the Fuhrer was the will of the German people, and each of his actions was the action of the Aryan nation). We are not dealing with the total sum of the wishes of the individuals of a nation, but with the essential will of the people as an organic entity, with the inner and deep expression of the people as a personality. On the other hand, liberal democracy is a representative democracy, which does not try to pave a certain ethical road, but only to maintain basic moral principles. Liberal democracy tries to create the conditions in which the citizens would be free to try and better themselves, to the best of their own knowledge, every little community in its own way.

A truly Jewish identity

According to its principles, a communal democracy has no place for different communities in the same state, since the state is wholly formed according to the values of one community. For this reason, “the Arabs” have no voting rights in Feiglin’s Jewish state (“Israeli citizenship to Jews only […] the immediate expulsion of any person of another people who claims any sort of sovereignty in the Land of Israel” – Ibid., p. 436).  This state acts on the collective values of Judaism which I imagine Feliglin derives from his own interpretation of Judaism. These values express in the most perfect way the will of the nation, and of course direct each of its sons and daughters towards their own fulfillment. It is possible Feiglin thinks only such a realization will promise true freedom to the individual, and hence to the community as well. As the title of the article quotes above notes, the Israeli democracy can be democratic only because it is Jewish.

Which is why the Jewish democracy may not retreat from the occupied territories:

The debate over the Land of Israel is not a territorial or a security one. The question of national identity is expressed today through the Land of Israel. Those who wish to get rid of territories are actually asking to disengage from Jewish identity. ‘The Jews have defeated the Israelis’, said Shimon Peres to Haaretz in an interview after losing [the 1996 elections] to Netanyahu. The debate between those who hold and those who wish to let go is the debate between those who hold to their Jewish identity and those who wish to disengage from it and replace it with a new Israeli identity. The process of the Disengagement [from the Gaza Strip – T.P.] is a process of forcing the new identity on the majority of the people. Hence, essentially, it must lead to a dictatorial reality, as indeed happens. Only an Israeli state living in harmony with its Jewish identity, a state intended to serve this identity instead of fighting it, only such an Israel can also be truly democratic. (Ibid., emphasis in the original).

According Feiglin’s model, maintaining hold of territories is not a question of security but a question of identity. A truly Jewish identity can be realized only through the holding of any occupied territories in the Land of Israel. Those, on the other hand, who wish to return such territories are trying to sabotage Jewish identity and replace it with “a new Israeli identity.” These are people like Shimon Peres and apparently also Arik Sharon, who carried out the “disengagement” from Gaza. We are speaking, of course, of leftists. That explains why in Feiglin’s view “the deep aspect of [the] Oslo [process] is a trend of assimilation, of ‘becoming integrated in the [middle east] region’” (Ibid., p. 454). And, indeed, according to Feiglin, the strategic goal of the left is to obfuscate and make us forget our Jewish identity (Ibid., p. 504).” Oh, well, perhaps this is related to the fact Feiglin thinksthe left is not a movement of life and emancipation. It is an ideology based on the aspiration of death” (Ibid., p. 29).

Note the principled basis behind those harsh statements: A communal democracy represents the essential will of the people. Hence, any person objecting to the actions of the state is ipso facto not truly of the people. Actually, it is almost impossible to criticize government in a communal democracy, because such criticism automatically excludes the critic from the community of citizens the government represents, and therefore also from the community of citizens entitled to its protection and to civil rights. For, how can a loyal citizen criticize the actions of a government representing his will? If his will is different from that of the government, he is certainly not a loyal citizen.

Such disloyal citizens are either foreigners, i.e. not members of the people; or they are members of the people, but ones needing re-education. One may recall the fate of such citizens from “popular” regimes in the past. In the Israeli case, even today left-winged people are sometimes reffered to as Erev Rav or Amalek, derogatory religious terms signifying traitors within or simply entities who are pure evil. This kind of people undermine the expression of the will of the people, the same will which can be assumed is known to Feiglin.  This is why, in Feligin’s “One Hundred Days Plan” (Hebrew) the Ministry of External and Internal Security will “be in charge of all the issues of security, acting against the enemies of Israel, foreign and domestic. An enemy of Israel is one who wishes to destroy it, either physically or essentially, as a Jewish State.” Anyone who supports a return of the occupied territories endeavors, as we’ve seen, to essentially destroy the Jewish State, first and foremost “essentially”. In Moshe Feiglin’s regime such dissidents will be dealt with by the Ministry of External and Internal Security.

Roots of the  popular democracy

It is not my intention to defame the communitarian idea; I am, in many ways, a communitarian myself, and as such I am a student of such great scholars as Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, Alasdair MacIntyre and others. It is clear, however, that these thinkers do not dream of erecting a regime remotely similar to what Feiglin plans. There are several forms of communal democracies, some more totalitarian, some less. I don’t know where precisely Feiglin stands on this scale, even though the quotes above cloak his vision of a communal democracy with a very distinct odor. As previously mentioned, on the extreme scale of the communal democracy we speak of the same model under which all those “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc acted.

The French National Assembly. Click for source and enlarged view.As is well known, the origins of the concept that the regime acts under the “will of the people” derives from Rousseau, and from him it reached the Jacobins during the French Revolution and many of dictatorships of the 20th century. The idea is that the regime, though tyrannical, is not immoral, since it is perfectly expresses the will of the people. We can see this clearly from the decisions of the National Assembly under the revolutionary regime in France. Article Six of the constitution written by the Assembly in 1791 says that “the law is an expression of the common will,” and Article Five says that the natural rights of man by be abrogated by law. To wit, if the common will of the people is to limit the rights of the individual, there’s no principle problem here.

When the Assembly wrote the constitution, its members were thinking of the American Declaration of Independence, which stated that the rights of people are “unalienable” (which today means “inalienable.”). The United States created, by a long and painful process, a liberal democracy, where human rights cannot be ignored even if the majority desperately wants to, and even if someone thinks this is the “common will” of the people. France saw the creation of a Jacobin democracy, under which the rights of the individual can be cast aside in the name of the popular will, and its murderousness is notorious to this day. As soon as the popular will can abolish human rights, we have nothing more than a tyranny of the majority, or, in most cases, the tyranny of an individual who claims to understand the will of the majority.

Mao representing the will of the people. Click for source and enlarged view.As noted, that same idea served as inspiration to the “popular democracies” of the former Communist Bloc. In a famous speech in 1949, Mao Zedong contrasted “bourgeois democracy,” Western democracy, with China’s popular democracy (which he calls The People’s democratic dictatorship, since he recognizes the tyranny of the people towards the reactionary elements standing in its way). Mao thanks Marx and Lenin for formulating the theory which allowed China to move from a bourgeois democracy to a popular democracy, which brought “socialism and communism” and “a world of Great Harmony.” According to Mao, the true will of the masses is equal to the will of the proletariat, and it expresses the perfect society. He states that:

All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people’s democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right. […] The right to vote belongs only to the people, not to the reactionaries. […]The foreign reactionaries who accuse us of practicing “dictatorship” or “totalitarianism” are the very persons who practice it. They practice the dictatorship or totalitarianism of one class, the bourgeoisie, over the proletariat and the rest of the people. […]The people’s democratic dictatorship needs the leadership of the working class. For it is only the working class that is most farsighted, most selfless and most thoroughly revolutionary.

Replace “reactionaries” by Arabs or Leftists, replace “the working class” by Jews, and suddenly, there isn’t much of a difference between the leftist Marxist-Leninist tyranny and the right-wing nationalistic-Judaistic tyranny. It’s clear, anyway, that a popular democracy is not a traditional Jewish idea, but rather a modern Western one.

When safeguards become obstacles

As Feiglin himself noted, the failure of liberal democracy comes from insisting on the protection of principles it considers universal – precisely those human and civil rights, those difference freedoms and equality before the law. In a liberal democracy they must be guarded above all. In a popular democracy they are considered to be foreign principles of Western bourgeoisie, “Christian morality” or liberal soft-heartedness, and ignoring them is not only possible, but is necessary. This point cannot be overstated: In every democratic regime, there will be a conflict between the will of the majority and the rights of the individual or minority. In such cases, popular democracy will always prefer the will of the majority, and a liberal one – the rights of the individual.

For instance, if we think the right of a person over his body is absolute, then even if the majority decrees otherwise, he may not be raped. If we think a person’s right over her property is total, even if the majority says it should be taken from her, there is no permission to do so. These are the human rights embedded by the UN in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, following the lessons learned from the horrors of fascism. These are the same rights invoked by the opponents of the Gaza Disengagement, when they argued even a government decision cannot, in a democratic country, evict people from their homes.

Lord Acton, the same one who taught to us that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote that in a popular democracy:

The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people.

A final word. I have no doubt that Feiglin is sure that the communal-to-popular democracy he wishes to found not only will not be tyrannical, but would create a model society. I believe he is certain the Jewish people will express its will in a much more decent and better way than the failed experiments of the French or Chinese people; that he believes with all his heart that, unlike these (and other) disastrous experiments, a perfect and wondrous popular democracy is possible in Israel, since while the others had only a half-baked revolutionary thrust or a Marxist ideology woefully bereft of inspiration, the Israeli nation has the Book of Books to guide it and the Hand of God to support it.

And who knows, maybe this time the Lord will redeem us from our troubles, and make our path right where others have stumbled so terribly. As someone who would probably be taken care of by the Ministry of External and Internal Security in the early days of the new regime, I am not likely to live to see this miracle.

Some more leaders representing the true and only will of the people

First published in my Hebrew blog on 13.12.12, then tyranslated by Yossi Gurvitz and published on 972 on 17.12.13. Here adapted a bit.

Moshe Feiglin’s response:

As a rule, I stand by what I write and say. Of course every period has its own special emphasis. Words written while facing a demolished house and burned bus are not as words written on mundane days. The sentence you chose to quote [about the left’s ideology being based on the aspiration of death – T.P.] is an excellent example of the fine distinction between serious research and demagoguery. This is a sentence I fully support, but quoting it requires long explanations, otherwise it sounds as nothing more than a swearword. In order to seriously complete the mission you undertook, you should organize a proper meeting, in the view of your readers, which I’ll be happy to attend and answer all questions.

The Absolute Necessity of Building the Temple, The Simple Requirement of it Being Defiled

A call for donations from the Israeli Temple Institute to Christian Evangelicals. Click the picture for the detailed request

When the ax fell on the neck of Charles I, king of England, the lion’s share of the booty went to Oliver Cromwell. He became the first ruler in the history of England who was not of royal blood and ruled the kingdom for some years, until his (nonviolent) death, in 1658. Cromwell, who experienced a religious revelation, was a pious Puritan, and it was during his rule that Jews were permitted to resettle in England, for the first time since their expulsion from the country, in 1290.

That decision was not due to a sudden outburst of love of Zion on Cromwell’s  part. In fact, he and his fellow Puritans planned to convert the Jews who returned to Christianity. In addition, among the reasons in favor of allowing them to come back was none other than Deuteronomy 28:64: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all peoples, from the one end of the earth even unto the other.” Since it was clear to the English that they were indeed at the end of the earth, and since they were convinced that Jesus would not return and redeem the world until all that Moses spoke in his prophecy had come to pass, it followed that there was no choice but to allow “Carnal Israel” to return and inhabit their land.

An example like this, of the interdependence between Christian redemption and the acts of the Jews, was once rare, but no more. Nowadays its signs are
easily discernible, even if we do not identify them at first glance. “Replacement Theology,” which posits Christianity as “the true Israel” that replaced Judaism in its exclusive proximity to the Creator, is not in fashion today: Indeed, Protestant Evangelicals reject it explicitly. They insist on the cast-iron nature of the covenant between the Jews and God.

These are the same Zionist Evangelicals who oppose any peace agreement in which Israel will cede parts of the homeland, and who customarily make donations to various right-wing associations in Israel. For them, Israeli sovereignty over the Holy Land is fraught with redemptive meaning. Only the continuing and eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God in heaven can lend messianic significance to its deeds on earth. It was such a frame of mind that prompted the well-known Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell to assert, back in 1988, that “the most important date we should remember [since the Ascension] is May 14, 1948.” The reason is because, in his view, the creation of the State of Israel “is the greatest single sign indicating the imminent return of Jesus Christ.”

But there’s a snag: Two months ago we celebrated the 65th anniversary of Israel’s creation,  and for some reason Jesus has not yet appeared. What could be the explanation for his tarrying? Here our remarks move closer to Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. As we know, since the destruction of the Temple the Shekhinah, the divine presence, has been in exile. However, what many do not know is the scale to which this state of affairs is also playing havoc with the efforts of the son of God to return and redeem the world.

John Nelson DarbyThe Temple, certain Christians will maintain, is essential for Christian redemption. To understand why, we have to probe the intricacies of the messianic belief held by the Zionist Evangelicals hoping to see the sacrificial rites resume. Most subscribe to the doctrine of an Irish Evangelical named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Darby viewed the Scriptures as a uniform prophetic continuum, all of whose parts are connected and interwoven. He developed an interpretation which finds in the textual concatenation recurring hints and hidden predictions of a redemptive historical occurrence that is divided into stages, an occurrence on the brink of which we stand today. According to Darby, Jesus’ second coming will begin when he appears in the heavens and draws his believers to him. This sudden “rapture” will cause millions of decent Christians to disappear instantaneously from the face of the earth.

Then begins the second stage. While those Christians dwell in heaven for seven good years, the earth is to be wracked by ordeals and tribulations. From natural disasters to war, life becomes hell for everyone who did not rise to the upper worlds. The Jews specifically will have a harsh passage. True they will be living in their land in full sovereignty, but they will be unable to accept Jesus into their hearts. Instead, they will prefer to consider one of their own as the messiah. To our great regret, that figure will be, in effect, an Antichrist.

This false messiah will sweep the Jews in his wake, build the Temple and reinstate the practice of sacrifice. The rest of the world will not remain idle: Hostile armies will invade the Land of Israel (more or less all of Asia, Africa and Europe); two-thirds of the Jewish people will be slaughtered in the vast wars that will ensue. The remaining one-third will decide,at long last, to convert to Christianity. At the end of seven years, Jesus will descend from heaven together with his believers, expel the false messiah and rule for 1,000 years from his capital, Jerusalem.

This apocalyptic scenario obliges his adherents to believe that for redemption to occur the Jewish people must establish a state (which was done in 1948), rule Jerusalem and the Temple Mount (1967), and rebuild the Temple (pending).Building the Temple is critical, because according to Darby’s vision the Jewish false messiah will be bound to desecrate it. Based on an interpretation of verses from the Book of Daniel and the Gospel According to Matthew, Darby stated that the ruler will place an “abomination that maketh desolate” in the Holy of Holies. It is not clear what this is, but it is clear that it will defile the Temple. This, according to Darby, will be a definite sign that the
second coming of Jesus is nigh and with it the start of his millennial dominion.

Thus, realization of full redemption requires the desecration of the Temple. However, before a temple can be desecrated, there first must be a temple. In his 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, which became a mythical best seller and sold more than 15 million copies, Evangelical writer Hal Lindsey sums up the conditions for redemption:

The main points are these: first there will be a reinstitution of the Jewish worship according to the Law of Moses with sacrifices and oblations in the general time of Christ’s return; secondly, there is to be a desecration of the Jewish Temple in the time immediately preceding Christ’s return … If this is the time that this writer believes it is, there will soon begin the construction of this Temple. (p. 57)

Lindsey further exhorts his believers: “Look for movements within Israel to make Jerusalem the center of the world and to rebuild their ancient Temple on its old site” (page 184). Indeed, he and his followers have been looking ever since, and, of late, finding.

Cooperation between Jewish temple activists and Christian groups began back in the 1980s, but only as the millennium approached did it become closer and more routine. Apart from political and financial support for the positions espoused by the Israeli right, Evangelical groups donate funds for the activity of the Temple groups. In recent years, a gathering has been held every Sukkot in the Jerusalem Convention Center, attended by thousands of Evangelicals, as well as by MKs from right-wing parties. Just a year ago, during a visit to Israel, the Evangelical preacher John Hagee (who in the past has made donations to the  nationalist Im Tirtzu organization) declared that after the pre-redemption wars, the Temple Mount “is where the temple of the lord Jesus Christ will be when he rules and reigns the earth from the city of Jerusalem for a thousand years.”

The relationship between Christian Evangelicals and Temple activists is warmer
today than ever. It is a strange alliance, in which each side is using the other to further its own redemptive goals, knowing full well that the other has a completely alternative, indeed opposite picture of the way redemption will look. As the Emperor Vespasian said concerning the tax he levied on public urinals in Rome, Pecunia non olet, that is, “money does not stink”. That’s why you can take it from whoever hands it to you. And yes, that is the same Vespasian who commanded the campaign to crush the Great Revolt of 67 C.E., and whose son, Titus, destroyed the Temple. Darby was right: Everything is connected.

People have a God-given right to believe what they want, of course, and freedom of religion should be among the foundations of every democratic society. The State of Israel goes further than that, however: It not only upholds the religious rights of those who yearn for the Temple, but also does not hesitate to finance these groups and even to send schoolchildren on guided tours to their facilities. It is at this juncture that religious belief becomes a tool to further a nationalist agenda.

Here the struggle for domination of the Temple Mount is used as part of the campaign for Israel’s domination of the land occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the Temple activists as soldiers furthering the state’s supposed interests.
I don’t believe that the State of Israel is interested in building a temple on Mount Moriah. However, by encouraging these activities it is taking the risk of being understood that way. Some Muslim groups might well view Israel as being in conspiracy with its Christian friends against them and against their sacred sites on the mount. The stakes here are high, some would say, the highest. By all informed opinion, the Temple Mount is a highly charged,hazard zone, and playing with ideological matches around it should be very much discouraged. Tisha B’Av, which was marked this week, reminds us of the unbearable price we might pay for such irresponsible acts.

Published in the English edition of Haaretz, today.

American Post-Judaism – on Shaul Magid’s New Book

Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society, Indiana University Press, 2013, 408 pp.

At the start of the 1960s, Leo Strauss held a series of lectures under the provocative title “Why We Remain Jews.” Strauss started out by discussing liberal democracy, which must not discriminate against a group of citizens, but cannot prevent private discrimination. The same rules that separate religion and state prevent the state from telling its citizens what to believe in – even if their beliefs are racist or anti-Semitic. Therefore, Strauss asserted that Jews have no choice but to remain Jews. Full assimilation is impossible, as general society is not ready to accept them.

A close examination of American society today isn’t needed in order to notice the extent of the changes that have occurred since Strauss held his lectures. Today, complete assimilation isn’t only possible – it is taking place full throttle. The state may not be imposing pluralism upon its citizen’s religious beliefs, but they are promoting an increasingly open and tolerant religiousness themselves. This is a Christianity and Judaism for which liberalism is a commandment, and harmony among religions is a sign of the coming redemption. It is also a more personal religious belief that draws meaning from the soul of the believer.

From the perspective of Christianity, the transition to liberal, private and inner devoutness is natural, and to a certain degree unavoidable (Immanuel Kant predicted it and saw it as the realization of God’s Kingdom). But for Judaism – as the religion of a “people” – an ethnic and nation-based religion that establishes its community through shared commandments, this transition is nothing short of a crisis. Separation from Halakha and the Jewish nation fundamentally changes Judaism. Add to that the ease of integration into American society, and you’ll get that “we told you so” look from Orthodox Jews who lament the decline of American Jewry. The Jews of America, who Strauss said would be forced to remain Jews due to discrimination, are now completely accepted. Therefore, many of them do not remain Jewish.

There is no doubt that American Jewry is at a crossroads. It is already an established fact that it has distanced itself from identifying with Zionism, the State of Israel and the memory of the Holocaust. For the younger generation of American Jews, Judaism is less an ethnic and tribal identity and more a cultural one that is less community orientated and more individualistic. Above all, it is open to change, and can be reinterpreted, adapted and updated. No less than 50 percent of married American Jews are married to non-Jews, and for years the non-Orthodox streams have been developing various programs and initiatives designed to embrace mixed partnerships.

Choice, not Blood

Shaul Magid’s new book sets out to address this situation and examine the ways in which Judaism will survive in the future. The book’s title includes the term “Post-Judaism,” but Magid (a professor of Modern Judaism and Religious Studies at Indiana University) doesn’t present this term in order to announce the end of Judaism, but as a means of illustrating the extent of the changes it is experiencing. Magid identifies the creation of postethnic Judaism – a type of Judaism that does not take its identity from a tribal dynasty or a shared history, but from cultural values: things that are universal and suitable for everyone. In contrast to the Orthodox school of thought on the subject, he does not see this trend as the end of Judaism as a religion, or the end of Judaism as a culture. As the above mentioned non-Orthodox streams do, Magid embraces and does not push away this trend of integration, and predicts it will have a productive future.

Not only is postethnic Judaism not rooted in tradition – it also removes itself from identifying with the historical Jewish nation. This is one step further than multiculturalism – which celebrated the different and the unique. Now, Magid says, young American Jews have no desire to proclaim how unique they are, and avoid discussing superiority like the plague. Hybridity has become a value, and the blurring of ethnic, gender and religious boundaries is a normative aspiration.

On the other hand, while many Jews simply forget Judaism, others are choosing to adhere to it – though not as a tribal origin but as cultural capital and an ethical framework. These Jews adopt traditional elements such as Torah study and observance of the Sabbath (not necessarily according to Orthodox Halakha) and set out to perform social acts of Tikkun Olam. They are proud of their religion and disseminate it as an idea, not as a bloodline.

An important characteristic of this type of Judaism is that it is entirely dependent upon individual choice. In other periods of history, this situation would have resulted in its rapid decline, as Judaism was not especially popular, occasionally not even among its adherents; it’s hard to believe that someone would have chosen to be a Jew. In the U.S. today, Judaism is a brand associated with style and chic – and is flourishing as a result. A recent survey found that in New York, five percent of those who identify themselves as being Jewish do not have a Jewish parent.

Another characteristic of this Judaism is its post-monotheism. According to Magid, postethnic Judaism has departed from monotheism in several areas. It does not believe in exclusivism; it does not believe in a covenant between one God and his chosen people; it does not see divinity as transcendental, but as immanent; and it does not feel obliged to carry out the laws of a monotheistic God out of fear of divine judgment. The theosophy of this Judaism is not monotheistic, but it is also not atheistic or humanistic. It is pantheistic.

Terra Incognita

We are witnessing, therefore, a creative, voluntary and spiritual stream of Judaism that does not have tribal affiliations, heed to rabbinical authority or commit to halakhic traditions. It has become more prominent due to the living conditions in the U.S. – and these are not about to change any time soon. This rapid development presents us with a type of Judaism that we are unable to define using the current tools at our disposal – as you can gather from the frequent use of the prefix “post.” However, Magid wants to delve deeper, and to outline the path it may take in the future. He finds the tools to do so using “Jewish Renewal” – the new-age, mystical movement of American Jewry. Although it is a small minority, it has made substantial contributions to the larger Jewish streams, and since the ’60s has been used as a kind of theological avant-garde that has an impact on the other streams (think of the contemporary impact of the works of Shlomo Carlebach have within the communities that once shunned him).

While for Orthodox Jews authentic Judaism is synonymous with tradition, Jewish Renewal offers authenticity as a personalized project that is dependent upon the spiritual journey of the individual. Since the ’60s, it has established communities that promote feminism and tolerance towards homosexuality, and also accept non-Jews into the fold. It offers a type of Judaism that is not halakhic, contentious or dogmatic. Magid argues that although it does not provide a complete answer to the postethnic situation, it has formulated a global, universal and especially pragmatic and flexible theology that can begin to tackle the situation. In Jewish Renewal (and especially in one of its main spiritual leaders, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi), Magid finds a new theological paradigm that can provide the necessary tools for the establishment of sustainable Judaism.

Magid comes to the realization that this Judaism is essentially post-rabbinical Judaism, that is, considerably different from the movement that developed after the destruction of the Second Temple, one which relies upon the commandments and the ethnic identity of Israel. In post-rabbinical and postethnic Judaism, the traditional strategies used to preserve internal Jewish cohesion are proved useless. They all rely on Halakha, and the tribal identification with the “nation of Israel.” In the current situation, Judaism is disconnected from its guiding principle – ethnic identification – and enters new territory. Thus America, which offers unlimited possibilities for its Jews, also presents them their biggest challenge.

Magid’s important book is a clear and realistic – albeit incomplete – preliminary analysis of Judaism in America; its achievements; and its crises. It provides a variety of perspectives on the creation of contemporary Jewish society in the U.S. (its attitude towards the Holocaust, Kabbalah, Christianity, the Baal Teshuva movement) that provide an accurate portrait of postethnic Judaism. Magid’s analysis is accompanied by a tentative prediction of the future – which he is optimistic about. He does not see the changes Judaism is undergoing as the beginning of the end – but the heralding of a new age; where it will become a cultural framework detached from blood ties.

Magid himself went through a process of Teshuva and became ultra-orthodox in his past. He later left the Orthodox stream and became one of the key activists and prominent scholars of the Jewish Renewal (it is a tradition amongst Jewish Renewal leaders to be at once spiritual seekers and academic researchers). There is no doubt that he has a great deal of knowledge about his field. He has a bold, innovative perspective, and his educated analysis is timely. However, the book is not edited as well as it could have been, and at times it reads like a collection of essays. And though his writing is clear and cogent, the work would have benefitted greatly from a concluding chapter and a summary of all his arguments.

In the summary of his chapter on the post-monotheistic changes, Magid emphasizes Judaism’s need to react to major changes that he surveyed: “For Judaism to grow and not simply reproduce itself in preparation for some final redemptive act to sweep it beyond history […] it must respond, and respond honestly, to a new era.” Magid makes quite a few attempts to do so in his book. It will not be the Divine Monotheistic Father who will decide of his attempts are successful.

Shaul Magid (photo: Barbara Krawcowicz)

Published in Haaretz, 5th of July 2013.

Michael Leitman Rewrites the History of Kabbalah

In the introduction to his book “The Gates of Righteousness” Rabbi Yoseph Gikatilla, one of the first and greatest Kabbalists of 13th century Spain, begins with a warning worth heeding: “For the Sages have said: The Lord is most strict with the righteous ones.” Gikatilla tells us a simple thing: God demands the most meticulous adherence from his most righteous followers. Why do I open with this observation? Because I believe we should apply the same principle when we attempt to ascertain whether a certain spiritual teacher is a true guide, or not. And with this admonition I refer to Rabbi Dr. Michael Leitman.

In recent years the Israeli media has been airing, in printed and videotaped form, quite a few dialogues of some celebrity or other with said kabbalist rabbi. In these encounters Leitman assumes the figure of the omniscient sage, leaving his interlocutors to play the part of “He who knows not to ask” – the clueless son from the Haggadah whose father in tasked with “opening for him”, and showing the poor soul the way to the light.

And why celebrities? It appears that the Bnei Baruch movement has become most envious of its elder sibling, The Center for Kabbalah, which sports international superstars such as Madonna and Demi Moore, and also wanted to show that celebrities seeking meaning for their lives are willing to buy its wares. For ten measures of celebrities have descended upon New Age, and if The Kabbalah Center and Scientology hath taken nine among them, Bnei Baruch also coveted a measure of false fame, also desired a measure of the golden calf.

Twenty-two celebrities made pilgrimage to Letiman, speaking with him in meetings that were also filmed and broadcast on the “Karma” channel, from rock star Arkadi Duchin and poets Agi Mishol and Ronnny Somek to MTV veteran Eden Harel, from investigative reporter Gideon Reicher to former IAF Commander Eitan Ben Eliyahu. Recently this series of talks was collated in a book (available for download free of charge here [Heb]), and this is a good opportunity to summarize the reading experience.

Well, bottom line first: The book is full of hogwash as a pomegranate seeds and as usual, the problems begin with presumption. Leitman writes two bad checks: One is the presentation of his method as “science” and the second is his claim to speak for all of Kabbalah. Let us dismantle these claims one by one.

Michael Leitman. Screen picture from the article as it is published on the nrg portal

“A science in every way”

So first, Leitman claims it’s all scientific with him. It’s “Not a philosophy nor a faith,” but “a science in every way” (p. 40). “Kabbalah is a science” (p. 219, and many places besides) he repeats, and proudly tells us that when he explains kabbalah across the great wide world, “scientists understand and accept it” (175). Well, I don’t know what universe the kabbalist rabbi is living in, but even by Leitman’s own testimony, in this very book, one can clearly see that any relation between him and the empirical world as science understands it is purely coincidental.

For instance, Leitman has an alternative history of the Jewish people: According to him, “Abraham was the first kabbalist” (100) and until the destruction of the temple the People of Israel lived as one big kabbalistic community. Upon the destruction “they all fell to worldliness” (132) and began observing the commandments out of compulsion.

The problem is that any history book about the first and second temple periods disproves this fantasy: Jews were never cut of a single cloth, and were always divided and conflicted internally, and most of the time actually worshiped idols. Truth is, you don’t need a history book for that – it’s enough to read the bible.

But the kabbalist doctor deals not only in rewriting history, but also in denying modern research. It is of course his right to refuse to be impressed by findings that place the time of the Zohar’s writing in the 13th century; but not to say a single word about how his traditional approach, which he repeats several times and which holds that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai wrote the book in the second century, lies in stark contrast to research consensus, is not a behavior consistent with scientific standards. Leitman relies on the ignorance of his readers on these matters and feeds them falsehoods.

By the way, this rhetorical trick where you call your fabrications “science” was known back in the days of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, in the early twentieth century, and it is still with us today with movements such as Transcendental Meditation and Scientology. Everyone wants some of the wonderful translucence of science to rub off on them, and Leitman is simply towing the line of other movements and sects. On the other hand, since Leitman apparently was a scientist before becoming a kabbalist (He claims to have been in bio-cybernetics,) one could have expected a little more scientific integrity from him.

The Kabbalah?

It’s not only the scientific pretension that knocks holes in the rabbi’s credibility, but also his presenting his method as the Kabbalah. Leitman is erudite enough to know that besides the school of thought he represents there are many different others, each rooted in the immensely rich fountain of kabbalistic wisdom. Taking sole credit for this popular brand is a little much.

I mean, is it “Kabbalah” that claims that has always claimed that “the basic laws are the result of human thought” (106) – or in other words, a Jewish version of “The Secret”? Of course not. Did “Kabbalah” always claim that reward and punishment “mean nothing” and that common man has no free choice (117)? Of course not. Did “Kabbalah” always talk about how “observing commandments is beside the point” (27), meaning its adherents don’t need to observe Halakhic laws? Guess.

Just to make clear, I am in no way claiming that what Leitman teaches isn’t Kabbalah. Kabbalah isn’t static and like anything else, including Judaism itself, it changes with time (although it is true that the scope of this change is rather surprising.) It’s just that Leitman’s presumption to be the sole representative of Kabbalah is simply inappropriate, and borders on fraud.

At the same time Leitman repeats the well-known claptrap about how “science is now discovering facts that Kabbalah has been relying upon for thousands of years. Well, rabbi, here’s a newsflash: Kabbalah hasn’t existed for thousands of years. It originated in the 13th century. That’s what science has discovered. And if indeed Kabbalah knows facts that science has yet to discover, please don’t hold back: Tell us one provable or disprovable new fact, and I promise that we’ll all be very proud to escort you to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm.

So Leitman takes the name of both Kabbalah and science in vain. He feeds his listeners with fables as he baselessly pretends to global wisdom and complete certainty. He presents himself as a font of Kabbalic knowledge, and his listeners as babes in the woods who crawl to him to suck their fill. In the end they receive nothing more than a thin potion brewed by a witch-doctor.

Oh, by the way, anyone buying the book to understand anything about Kabbalah will be disappointed, since it says almost nothing about the teachings themselves, only about how good and wise and ancient and scientific those teachings are. Indeed, it appears that the book is not meant to introduce us to Leitman’s Kabbalah, but rather to famous people who are themselves trying to understand Leitman’s Kabbalah.

One last word, also having to do with false pretension: According to Leitman “all methods, save for Kabbalah, are based on the oppression of man” (29). I’m sorry, but the way to freedom from oppression begins and ends in knowledge of the truth. A road spun from fables and false pretensions cannot possibly lead there.

This article was first published on the 12/6/2008 on the Maariv-nrg site. Wow, that was some time ago. But all is still relevant, I assure you. Translated by Rechavia Berman.


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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