Posts Tagged 'Halakha'

The Jewish Duty to Take In Refugees

It was hard not to feel a pang upon learning that Germany and Austria would take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in addition to the thousands they have already welcomed. While our prime minister says there’s no “demographic depth” that would allow even a symbolic humanitarian step, it seems others have learned the lesson from World War II – especially those who were so concerned about demographics at the time.

Netanyahu can always be expected to choose inaction over action, and his refusal to take in refugees is not surprising. What’s strange is the silence of the rabbis and leaders of the religious world. Strange, because Jewish tradition clearly speaks of sheltering and aiding refugees. It does so not only in the repeated reminders that “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” and, therefore, the Israeli people are forever duty-bound to take care of foreigners, but also in explicit commandments.

The Torah says,

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best. (Deuteronomy, 23:16-17)

It is easy to see the Torah’s emphasis on the slave’s freedom to settle wherever he chooses – "with thee", "in the midst of thee", "he shall choose", "where it liketh him". Biblical commentators link these verses to the preceding ones dealing with war, and conclude that it’s a commandment, a virtue, to take in refugees as well.

Maimonides says the commandment

contains a great utility – namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled (Guide to the Perplexed, 3, 39).

He understands the commandment regarding the slaves as the minimal duty, and it is certainly our duty to help those who aren’t slaves but are fleeing danger.

And that’s not all. The prophet Isaiah implores the Moabites to adopt this virtue of taking in refugees: “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee; as for Moab, be thou a covert to him from the face of the spoiler” (Isaiah 16:4).

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, explained,

When the time of Moab’s destruction came, Isaiah describes the reason for the holocaust. All the nations dwelling on Moab’s border used to cry out over the Moabites’ iniquities … there’s only one way to overcome the hardship – Moab must return to ways of mercy and when he still stands at the peak of his power and his light shines like noon, he will treat wretched refugees with compassion.

It seems that according to Isaiah the kingdom of Moab crumbled because it refused to house refugees.

So where are all those concerned for Israel’s Jewish character? Why don’t they cry out when Israel undermines Jewish tradition like this? Where are they hiding, these deeply religious people who speak so loftily of “Jewish morals” and seeking to strengthen “Jewish identity?” How come their voice isn’t heard loud and clear, crying over our mother Rachel’s sons who are denying their ancestors’ legacy?

I am not naive. It’s clear to me that, like all of us, those who see themselves as loyal to tradition choose which parts of it to observe. That’s fine; we all do that. But it’s important to raise two points.

First, they should understand that their commitment to tradition has clear boundaries – in other words, they choose how to express their Jewishness.

This recognition is important not only because it add some integrity to the world, but also because makes clear that anyone who cites halakha (Jewish religious law) to justify his objection to equal rights for Arabs, gays or women is simply using halakha, not obeying it. It’s not "halakha"; it’s him. He is a racist or a sexist, and because of that he chooses halakhic decrees that fit his views. Anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein attributes to Maimonides his view that churches in Israel must be burned down, but of course we won’t hear a word from him about Maimonides’ command to take in refugees.

The second point is also associated with commitment – not to halakha, but to moral decisions. Because the interesting thing with such decisions is that they require us to make an effort.

Morality is linked to our relations with the other, and the other usually challenges us, doesn’t give us a free aromatic massage.

We should note well which halakhic choices challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone and require us to make an effort, and which choices flatter us, gratify our worldview and give us that indulging massage.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re a chosen people, and therefore we’re allowed to discriminate against others. We need voices calling on Jews to take responsibility, to give of themselves, to do the difficult, inconvenient thing.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, 1929 Riots. Image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID matpc.15716.

Printed in Haaretz

Myth and Modernity: The End Point of Zionism

On June 10, 1967, just three days after Col. Mordechai “Motta” Gur had famously declared, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman said that Halakha (traditional religious law) forbade Jews to visit the site. Two weeks later, a leading Sephardi authority, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, stated that even flying over the site was forbidden. Following a similar note, the religious affairs minister at the time, Zerah Warhaftig, noted that, according to Halakha, the Third Temple has to be built by God. “This makes me happy,” he said, “because we can avoid a conflict with the Muslim religion.” The days Israel’s religious affairs minister was made happy by avoiding conflict are over.

My previous article (The Love-Hate Relationship Between Zionism and The Temple Mount) examined the transformation in the thinking of significant segments of the religious-Zionist movement about the Temple Mount. The change, which overturns the tradition with regard to visiting the site, stems from the strengthening of the national over the halakhic element, and by the infusion of a messianic eros, which did not realize itself under the old Gush Emunim paradigm. In short, the struggle for the land shifted to the Mount.

Still, we should consider all aspects of the national aspect of the modern yearning for the Temple Mount, as this longing is interwoven with the Zionist movement and modern nationalism on a number of levels.

First, in the simplest sense, the yearning for the Temple Mount and the Great Temple is a result of the concrete possibility of reaching it. Technically, that is, it is contingent on Israel’s establishment in the Land of Israel and on the conquest of Jerusalem. Thus, the practical possibility exists to change the physical reality to enable a new temple to be built.

Second, and more important, the desire to build the Temple is related to the desire – which also became a realistic possibility upon the modern ingathering of the exiles and Israel’s creation – to unite the whole Jewish people under one national-religious leadership. While during the ancient temple’s time the Jewish people were never united, never committed to the same place or form of worship, it is the imagined community of the modern nation state that ironically makes this presumably possible.

Ultimately, however, yearning for the Temple Mount and the Temple is intertwined with Jewish nationalism because it is the end point of Zionism – the point at which Zionism self-destructs. For Zionism, which proposed the secularization of Judaism and its conversion from religion to nationality, built itself on the ancient messianic scaffolding of the hope for the ingathering of the exiles. The ultimate goal of the Jewish messianic tradition was always to establish a kingdom, and the independent Jewish state definitely meets the initial conditions to that end.

However, the messianic myth also has as-yet unrealized conditions: Temple and king. The question, then, is whether secular Zionism could decide to halt its headlong dash on the messianic track at a particular point only because it would be less convenient to continue further.

This is not a question of government decisions or military capabilities, but about the internal logic of a particular ideology: whether the ideology can develop critical reflexivity and demarcate an internal boundary that entails a halt or change. Aditionaly, it is a question about the encounter between modern consciousness and the religious and mythical elements that are churning in its depths, between the modern, secular subject and the primeval religiosity that is embedded in its psyche and interwoven into its culture.

Dormant mythic seeds

This last issue, reflecting the explosive encounter between rationalism and mysticism, between secularity and religion, is almost taboo in the world of modern research. Nevertheless, it needs to be asked. In fact, if we believe that we do not possess a pure and immortal soul, and that our inner life reflects only a complex, integrated crystallization of genetic and cultural conditions, the question of their design is doubly important. For if we are in our essence not separate from this world and its material conditions, it follows that those conditions are what our psyche consists of, and, as such, determine its mode of existence and guide its path.

If we add the supposition that not only present-day culture, but also the entire course of history and development exert influence in shaping us, we can conclude that ancient cultural forces continue to reside within us, and that even if they have undergone various transformations and sublimations, they continue to guide our behavior in covert ways.

ScholemWas this not what the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, was referring to in his famous letter, in 1926, to the theologian Franz Rosenzweig? That was the gist of this “declaration of allegiance to our language,” as the letter became known, and that was its warning: that in the long term, it would not be possible to evade ancient residues latent within our culture.

According to Scholem, the renewed encounter with Hebrew and its innate sanctities was a “threat [that] confronts us [as] a necessary consequence of the Zionist undertaking … Will its submerged religious power not erupt one day?” He went on:

Each word that is not newly created but taken from the ‘good old’ treasure is full to bursting with explosiveness. A generation that inherited the most fruitful of all our sacred traditions – our language – cannot, however mightily it could wish, live without tradition … God will not stay silent in a language in which he is invoked a thousandfold back into our life … The revivers of the [Hebrew] language did not believe in the Day of Judgment, to which they destined us by their acts. May the recklessness which has set us on this apocalyptic path not bring about our perdition. [Based on published translations of the text by Gil Anidjar, Jonathon Chipman and Alexander Gelley.]

Scholem is talking about secularized Hebrew, but secular Zionism itself, with its project of ingathering the exiles and establishing a sovereign state, is no more than the secularization of the Jewish messianic tradition. Can it be the case that not only language but a national framework, too, can revivify dormant mythic seeds and allow them to flower?

‘Water of life’

In March 1936, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung published an essay about events in neighboring Germany. Jung viewed the rise to power of the Nazi Party as a process of mass psychological enthrallment. Indeed, as a surrender to ancient mythic forces that were repressed for thousands of years and now, as he watched, terrified, were returning to seize the consciousness of the Germans.

JungThe essay’s title, “Wotan,” indicates the primal source of the resurgent myth: Wotan was the god of storm, rage and war of the ancient Germanic tribes. For Jung, Wotan is not an autonomous heavenly entity, but a collective archetype implanted within the heart of a human community, a nation.

According to this viewpoint, German culture has never freed itself of Wotan, and the god’s patterns of existence are waiting to be realized in the culture’s forms of expression. According to Jung,

An archetype is like an old watercourse, along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel, the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.

Odin, Wotan's nordic parallel, 18th centuryAn archetype is a track, a pattern of thought and action. Like a neurological path in the brain, which steers the individual toward habitual actions, an archetype steers cultures toward actions which, even if forgotten later on, in the present, are faithful to their collective psyche, more available and inviting than other paths. Observing the rise of the National Socialists to power in Germany, their political posturing and the fascist aesthetic of their symbols and parades, Jung concluded that the old pagan god had recaptured the hearts of the Germans, casually brushing aside the Christian framework they had ostensibly assumed. "We are always convinced," wrote Jung,

that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political and psychological factors … I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all three reasonable factors put together … a god has taken possession of the Germans and their house is filled with a ‘mighty rushing wind.’

Without any desire to draw a demagogic comparison between present-day Israel and 1936 Germany (a baseless and deplorable comparison, of course), and even if one doesn’t subscribe to Jung’s overall approach (I certainly don’t) – his remarks invite us to reflect on the power of the cultural archetype in our contemporary context. According to Jung, an archetype acquires access to modern consciousness when the individual becomes part of the mass, or when he encounters a situation which resists standard treatment. Have Zionism and Israel reached that point?

Israel’s most intractable internal rivals

Like Scholem, Baruch Kurzweil – the Israeli literary and cultural critic – also discerned the danger of implosion created by the Zionist state’s sovereign rule over the Temple Mount. Back in 1970 he wrote,

The year 1967 confronted pragmatic Zionism, which can be only political and state-oriented, with its most critical decision … Zionism and its offspring, the State of Israel, which reached the Western Wall by the route of military conquest, as the fulfillment of earthly messianism, will never be able to abandon the Wall and forsake the occupied sections of the Land of Israel, without denying their historiosophic [philosophy of history, a term coined by Scholem] conception of Judaism. Pragmatic Zionism is caught in the web of its achievements. Abandoning them would mean admitting its failure as the voice and executor of Judaism’s historical continuity … It is inconceivable to halt the headlong rush of a messianic apocalypse in order to allow the passengers to get out and look at the spectacular views of the Day of the Lord.

KurzweilThese words remain startlingly relevant. Is it indeed the case that, apart from obvious practical obstacles, there is another reason, internal and inherent, that explains the enormous difficulty Israel encounters whenever it tries to retract its military achievements in that fateful war? Kurzweil is talking about the conquest of Judea and Samaria as a whole, but certainly the jewel in the imperial crown is Jerusalem, and its apex is the Temple Mount. We have reached the time when the State of Israel is faces a confrontation with them, its most intractable internal rivals. Its kryptonite.

In this regard, Kurzweil would say, Zionism is laid bare, stripped of the secular covering it assumed, its naked theological core revealed. Zionism grasps that it was always only an outer shell for traditional Judaism – more precisely, for the messianic tradition. Under the force of this revelation, its self-image crumbles and is voided of content.

Oedipus discovered that he was of royal lineage at the very moment of realizing that he had killed his father and slept with his mother. Zionism discovers that it is of religious lineage at the very moment when it conquers Judea, Samaria and the Temple Mount. Its underlying driving force of messianism is revealed, even as the Western liberalism it had imagined was its foundation is shaken.

At the same time, the Temple Mount also represents deadly internal logic for halakhic Judaism. Building a temple, completing the messianic tradition, will render halakhic Judaism obsolete. Those who yearn for a new temple dream of a pre-halakhic Judaism: the period of the priesthood, when blood was splattered on the horns of the altar. In the priestly paradigm, control is in the hands of a priestly caste that is centered not around schools of Torah study but around one temple; one that does not pray but sacrifices animals, does not seek God in holy actions and at holy times, but at one special holy site.

Chief Rabbinate sign forbidding entrance  to the Temple MountIndeed, the entire Halakha can be said to be a delayed-action mechanism of the messianic myth, or a vast jigsaw puzzle that is never completely assembled. The Temple is the last piece of the puzzle, and once in place it creates a whole picture that obscures the import of each separate part, each religious injunction. The fact that once there is a temple there will no longer be a Halakha is grasped, consciously or not, by the leading rabbis who oppose visiting the Temple Mount.

It was not by chance that Zionism sanctified the Western Wall nationally, and not by chance that the rabbinate did so halakhically: Both sides found it convenient to see the Mount but not to approach it. Until now, the halakhic consensus has spared Israel the need to address the possible realization of the myth that is churning in its depths, by curbing religious passions with religious force. But as Orthodoxy grows weaker and ethnic nationalism and Temple-driven messianism gain strength, the Israeli state must resort to the use of secular-bureaucratic tools to restrain the religious-mythic thrust. This is a formidable task for the state, as the messianic forces are dislodging it from its traditional course.

House of prayer for all

For all the reasons noted above, the myth cannot be simply repressed, still less annulled. (I am indebted to Prof. Haviva Pedaya for her assistance with this insight.) Zionism’s underlying political theology must be coped with directly and creatively. Secular Zionism’s practice of ignoring this, and its exclusionary attempts in regard to the Temple Mount – and in regard to the content of traditional Judaism as such – must end. In addition to the self-denial involved, this posture is allowing fundamentalist, antidemocratic forces to appropriate Judaism and, in the absence of an alternative, to attract those seeking an answer.

If, as I believe, Zionism is a true and authentic continuation of the Jewish tradition, it must posit a valid alternative to the narrow interpretation of the Temple as an altar around which a family dynasty of priests revolved. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, spoke of a modern temple as a kind of philanthropic international institution. However, we also need to consider a religious – and interreligious – center that will be responsive to the religious elements of the messianic vision. In fact, the myth itself allows us to propose this: “for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” as Isaiah [56:7] prophesies.

Understandably, this approach obliges respectful and close cooperation with the Muslim institutions that are traditionally responsible for the Al-Aqsa compound. To begin with, Israel’s leaders must make it unequivocally clear that Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine are an integral, eternal part of every skyline and every future vision for Jerusalem, and that the Muslims’ rights of worship will be upheld fully.

In addition, all talk supposedly hinting at the building of a temple in place of the Islamic holy places must be roundly condemned – that can be done only alongside them, preferably with them. Even though a joint arrangement seems far-fetched now, there is reason to hope that when the national component of the conflict is resolved, or on the way to resolution, the way will be opened to cooperation at the religious level.

Zionism is one of the most dazzling success stories of the 20th century, both pragmatically and conceptually. However, it has not properly addressed its religious core. And within it, at its center, the Temple Mount, which can no longer be a black hole of insignificance. This is the time to talk about it, to reinterpret it. And, as explained earlier, this is also in the interest of the halakhic clergy.

Beyond this, even if it were possible to build a temple without being plunged into a religious war with the whole Muslim world, a temple in its premodern sense would simply be a disappointment. It would be the end of the myth’s existence as a fruitful conceptual framework and the onset of its existence as a limited reality; the end of its existence as an erotic, creative force, and the start of its collapse into a caricature of men in white robes – a grotesquerie of blood, sweat and guts.

“An archetype is like an old watercourse, along which the water of life has flowed for centuries,” Jung says. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like watercourses in the Negev,” the famous Psalm prophesies. Both Jung and the psalmist draw a connection between the realization of the myth and the water that flows into the dry riverbeds of the desert.

At this time, many waters are again filling the dry riverbeds of our consciousness. The question is not how to block the waters; the question is how and where to channel them.

Published in Haaretz. This is the second of two articles on the subject of the Temple Mount. the first is The Love-Hate Relationship Between Zionism and The Temple Mount.

The Love-Hate Relationship Between Zionism and The Temple Mount

The Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount

There is one overriding question that accompanies the Zionist project, wrote Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism – “Whether or not Jewish history will be able to endure this entry into the concrete realm without perishing in the crisis of the messianic claim, which has virtually been conjured up.” The entry into history to which Scholem refers is the establishment of the state and the ingathering of the exiles, borne, as they were – notwithstanding their secular fomenters and activists – on the wings of the ancient Jewish messianic myth of the return to Zion. However, when Scholem published the essay “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” in 1971, the adjunct to the question was the dramatic freight of Israel’s great victory in the Six-Day War, four years earlier.

It was a period of euphoria, as sweeping as it was blinding. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the religiously observant public intellectual, immediately warned the country’s leaders against the dangers of ruling by force a population of more than a million Palestinians. Scholem, though, was more concerned about the danger of a physical return to the Temple site. While Leibowitz lamented the mass Sabbath desecration caused by buses filled with Israelis coming to view the wonders of the Old City (and buy cheap from its Arab vendors) – Scholem was far more concerned by the sudden intrusion of Mount Moriah into the Israeli political arena. Possibly, as a scholar of Kabbalah, he had a better grasp than Leibowitz of messianic eros and of Zionism’s susceptibility to its allure.

From its inception, the Zionist movement spoke in two voices – one pragmatic, seeking a haven for millions of persecuted Jews; the other prophetic, attributing redemptive significance to the establishment of a sovereign state. Whereas the shapers of Western culture, from Kant to Marx, perceived individual liberation in an egalitarian regime as the proper secularization of religious salvation, for the Jewish collectivity, this turned out to be a false hope.

Against the background of surging anti-Semitism, at the end of the 19th century, many Jews discarded the message of emancipation in favor of an effort to create a national home for the Jewish people. This solution, however, bore messianic implications, for it is precisely the founding of an independent Jewish kingdom that is the salient sign of Jewish redemption. The Christians received their deliverance, and the Jews – including those who would rather leave their religion in the museum of history – will receive theirs.

Well aware of the messianic implications of their efforts, the shapers of the Zionist movement tried to neutralize them from the outset. In his Hebrew-language book “Zion in Zionism,” the historian Motti Golani reveals the ambivalent attitude toward Jerusalem harbored by Zionist leaders. Theodor Herzl himself, the founder of modern political Zionism, was not convinced that the establishment of a Jewish political entity in Palestine would best be served by Jerusalem’s designation as its capital; and even if it did, he wanted the Holy Basin to function as an international center of religion and science.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, went even further. He maintained that if the holy places were under Israeli sovereignty, Zionism would not be able to design its capital according to its progressive worldview. He espoused the partition of Jerusalem in order to preclude Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount. When such Zionist leaders such as Menachem Ussishkin and Berl Katznelson assertively took the opposite stance, Ben-Gurion retorted, “To our misfortune, patriotic rhetoric surged in Jerusalem – barren, hollow, foolish rhetoric instead of a productive national project.” Years later, in the Six-Day War, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan hesitated at length before ordering the capture of the Temple Mount. “What do I need all this Vatican for?” he said, expressing the classic Zionist approach to the subject.

From the start, though, there were voices that demanded not only sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, but also the completion of the redemptive process by force of arms. Before Israel’s establishment, such calls emanated from the fascistwing of the Zionist movement (fascism wasn’t yet a curse word but a legitimate ideology). In the 1930s, figures like the journalist Abba Ahimeir and the poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, the founders of Brit Habiryonim (Union of Zionist Rebels), toiled not only to bring Jews into the country and to acquire arms for an armed struggle against the British. They also staged demonstrations in which the shofar was blown at the Western Wall at the end of every Yom Kippur (just as it is in the synagogue), a custom that was later continued by the Irgun underground militia led by Menachem Begin.

Grinberg, a poet who was considered a prophet, wrote mythic works that sought to fashion an organic conception of a nation that had been resurrected around its beating-bleeding heart, namely, the Temple Mount void of the Temple. Grinberg tried “to renew our people’s ancient myth,” the literary scholar Baruch Kurzweil would write years later. Kurzweil understood well that despite the superficial secularization to which the Zionist movement had subjected the Jewish tradition, the imprint of the ancient beliefs continued to reside within it, like a dormant seed awaiting water. Grinberg’s poetry was like dew that brought those seeds to life in those who were ready for the transformation. The revival of the myth in Grinberg’s poetry, Kurzweil observed, “does not bear only an aesthetic or religious-moral role. The actualization of the myth bears salient political significance.”

That political import was given explicit expression in “The Principles of Rebirth,” which Avraham “Yair” Stern wrote as a constitution for the Lehi, the pre-state underground organization he headed. The full document, published in 1941, set forth 18 points that in Stern’s view would be essential for the Jewish people’s national revival – from unity, through mission, to conquest. The 18th and final principle calls for “building the Third Temple as a symbol of the era of full redemption.” The Temple here constitutes a conclusion and finalization of the process of building the nation on its soil, in pointed contrast to the path of Herzl and Ben-Gurion.

Mythical Zionism

A point very much worth noting is that these modern proponents of a rebuilt Temple were not themselves religiously observant, at least not in Orthodox terms. They aspired not to a religious revival but to a national one, and the mythic sources fueled their passion for political independence. For them, the Temple was an axis and a focal point around which “the people” must unite.

In a certain sense, they simply took secular Zionism to its logical conclusion – and in so doing, turned it topsy-turvy. As noted above, Jewish redemption, including its traditional form, is based largely on a national home and on sovereignty. According to the tradition, one measure of this sovereignty is the establishment of a Temple and a monarchical government descended from the House of David. Zionism wanted to make do with political independence, but the stopping point on the route that leads ultimately to a monarch and a temple is largely arbitrary, based as it is on pragmatic logic and liberal-humanist values. For those who don’t believe in realpolitik and are not humanists, the push toward end times is perfectly logical.

Mainstream Zionism, in other words, wished to make use of the myth as far as the boundary line of its decision: yes, to ascend to the Holy Land, and yes, to declare political independence, but no to searching for Messiah Ben David and no to renewing animal sacrifices. Ahimeir, Grinberg, Stern – and Israel Eldad after them – were not content with this. They believed that the whole vision must be realized. Less religious than mythic Jews, they wanted to push reality to its far end, to reach the horizon and with their own hands bring into being the master plan for complete redemption. And redemption is the point at which hyper-Zionism becomes post-Zionism.

As Baruch Falach shows in his doctoral thesis (written in 2010 at Bar-Ilan University), one ideological-messianic line connects Ahimeir, Grinberg, Stern and Eldad to Shabtai Ben-Dov and the Jewish underground organization of the early 1980s, which among other things wanted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount.

In the figure of Ben-Dov – a formerly secular Lehi man who became an original radical, religious-Zionist thinker – the torch passes from messianic seculars to the religiously observant. It was Ben-Dov, who became religious himself, who ordered Yehuda Etzion, a member of the Jewish underground, to attack the third-holiest site in Islam, in order to force God to bring redemption. “If you want to do something that will solve all the problems of the People of Israel,” he told him, “do this!” And Etzion duly set about planning the deed.

This apocalyptic underground messianism differs from the messianism of Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful,” the progenitors of the settler movement), as conceived by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine and the founder of Mercaz Harav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Gush Emunim, loyal to the teaching of Rabbi Kook and of his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, developed a mamlakhti (“state-conscious”) approach, according to which, even though its activists alone understand the political reality and its reflection in the upper worlds, it is not for them to impose on the nation of Israel measures that the nation does not want. As settler-activist Ze’ev Hever put it, after the underground was exposed, “We are allowed to pull the nation of Israel after us as long as we are only two steps ahead of it… no more than that.”

Accordingly, the settlement project in Judea and Samaria is considered pioneering but not revolutionary. And, indeed, we should remember that the settlement enterprise had the support of large sections of the Labor movement, as well as of such iconic cultural figures as the poet Natan Alterman and the composer-songwriter Naomi Shemer. This was not the case with Temple matters, which are far more remote from the heart of the people that dwells in Zion. In addition, Kook-style messianism shunned the Temple Mount for halakhic (Jewish-legal) reasons. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, like his father, ruled that it is forbidden to visit the mount. Here, too, Ben-Dov and Etzion followed a radically different path.

Furthermore, before 1967 – and afterward – all the leading poskim (rabbis who issue halakhic rulings), both ultra-Orthodox and from the religious-Zionist movement, decreed as one voice that it is forbidden to visit the Temple Mount, for the same halakhic reasons. This was reiterated by all the great rabbinic figures of recent generations – Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Ovadia Yosef, Mordechai Eliahu, Eliahu Bakshi Doron, Moshe Amar, Avraham Shapira, Zvi Tau and others.

The halakhic grounds have to do with matters of defilement and purification, but even without going into details, it should be clear that in the most fundamental sense sanctity obliges distance rather than proximity. The holy object is what’s prohibited for use, fenced-off, excluded. Reverential awe requires halting prior to, bowing from afar, not touching and not entering. “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it,’” Moses asserts in Exodus before he – and he alone – ascends the holy mountain to receive the Torah.

Rabbi Kook's admonition against ascending the Temple Mount

Exalted totem

It is not surprising, then, that the first group advocating a change in the Temple Mount status quo did not spring from the ranks of the religious-Zionist movement. The Temple Mount Faithful, a group that has been active since the end of the 1960s, was led by Gershon Salomon, a secular individual, who was supported – how could it be otherwise? – by former members of the Irgun and Lehi. It was not until the mid-1980s that a similar organization was formed under the leadership of a religious-Zionist rabbi (the Temple Institute, founded by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel) – and it too remained solitary within the religious-Zionist movement until the 1990s.

Indeed, in January 1991, Rabbi Menachem Froman could still allay the fears of the Palestinians by informing them (in the form of an article he published in Haaretz, “To Wait in Silence for Grace”) that, “In the perception of the national-religious public [… there is] opposition to any ascent to the walls of the Temple Mount… The attitude of sanctity toward the Temple Mount is expressed not by bursting into it but by abstinence from it.”

No longer. If in the past, yearning for the Temple Mount was the preserve of a marginal, ostracized minority within the religious-Zionist public, today it has become one of the most significant voices within that movement. In a survey conducted this past May among the religious-Zionist public, 75.4 percent said they favor “the ascent of Jews to the Temple Mount,” compared to only 24.6 percent against. In addition, 19.6 percent said they had already visited the site and 35.7 percent that they had not yet gone there, but intended to visit.

The growing number of visits to the mount by the religious-Zionist public signifies not only a turning away from the state-oriented approach of Rabbi Kook, but also active rebellion against the tradition of the Halakha. We are witnessing a tremendous transformation among sections of this public: Before our eyes they are becoming post-Kook-ist and post-Orthodox. Ethnic nationalism is supplanting not only mamlakhtiyut (state consciousness) but faithfulness to the Halakha. Their identity is now based more on mythic ethnocentrism than on Torah study, and the Temple Mount serves them, just as it served Yair Stern and Uri Zvi Grinberg before them, as an exalted totem embodying the essence of sovereignty over the Land of Israel.

Thus, in the survey, the group identifying with “classic religious Zionism” was asked, “What are the reasons on which to base oneself when it comes to Jews going up to the Temple Mount?” Fully 96.8 percent replied that visiting the site would constitute “a contribution to strengthening Israeli sovereignty in the holy place.” Only 54.4 percent averred that a visit should be made in order to carry out “a positive commandment [mitzvat aseh] and prayer at the site.” Patently, for the religious Zionists who took part in the survey, the national rationale was far more important than the halakhic grounds – and who better than Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi party, serves as a salient model for the shift of the center of gravity of the religious-Zionist movement from Halakha to nationalism?

A substitution of the focal point of messianic hope

How did the religious-Zionist public undergo such a radical transformation in its character? A hint is discernible at the point when the first significant halakhic ruling was issued allowing visits to the Temple Mount. This occurred at the beginning of 1996, when the Yesha (Judea, Samaria, Gaza) Rabbinical Council published an official letter containing a ruling that visiting the Temple Mount was permissible, accompanied by a call to every rabbi “to go up [to the site] himself and guide his congregation on how to make the ascent according to all the restrictions of the Halakha.”

Motti Inbari, in his book “Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount”, draws a connection between the weakening of the Gush Emunim messianic paradigm, which was profoundly challenged by the Oslo process between Israel and the Palestinians, and the surge of interest in the mount. According to a widely accepted research model, disappointment stemming from difficulties on the road toward the realization of the messianic vision leads not to disillusionment but to radicalization of belief, within the framework of which an attempt is made to foist the redemptive thrust on recalcitrant reality.

However, the final, crushing blow to the Kook-based messianic approach was probably delivered by the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, in 2005, and the destruction of the Gush Katif settlements there. The Gush Emunin narrative, which talks about unbroken redemption and the impossibility of retreat, encountered an existential crisis, as did the perception of the secular state as “the Messiah’s donkey,” a reference to the parable about the manner in which the Messiah will make his appearance, meaning that full progress toward redemption can be made on the state’s secular, material back.

In a symposium held about a year ago by Ir Amim, an NGO that focuses on Jerusalem within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Haviva Pedaya, from the Jewish history department of Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, referred to the increasing occupation with the Temple Mount by the religious-Zionist movement after the Gaza pull-out.

“For those who endured it, the disengagement was a type of sundering from the substantial, from some sort of point of connection,” she said. “For the expelled, it was a breaking point that created a rift between the illusion that the substantial – the land – would be compatible with the symbolic – the state, redemption.” With that connection shattered, Pedaya explains, messianic hope is shifted to an alternative symbolic focal point. The Temple Mount replaces settlement on the soil of the Land of Israel as the key to redemption.

Many religious Zionists are thus turning toward the mount in place of the belief in step-by-step progress and in place of the conception of the sanctity of the state. The Temple Mount advocates are already now positing the final goal, and by visiting the site and praying there they are deviating from both the halakhic tradition and from Israeli law. State consciousness is abandoned, along with the patience needed for graduated progress toward redemption. In their place come partisan messianism and irreverent efforts to hasten the messianic era – for apocalypse now.

And they are not alone. Just as was the case in the pre-state period, secular Jews are again joining, and in some cases leading, the movement toward the Temple Mount. Almost half of Likud’s MKs, some of them secular, are active in promoting Jewish visits there. MK Miri Regev, who chairs the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee, has already convened 15 meetings of the committee to deliberate on the subject. According to MK Gila Gamliel, “The Temple is the ID card of the people of Israel,” while MK Yariv Levin likens the site to the “heart” of the nation. Manifestly, the division is not between “secular” and “religious,” and the question was never about observing or not observing commandments. The question is an attempt to realize the myth in reality.

Assuaging Ben-Gurion’s concerns, Israel remained without the Temple Mount at the end of the War of Independence in 1948. Not until the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 did it become feasible to implement the call of Avraham Stern, and the ancient myth began to sprout within the collective unconscious. After almost 50 years of gestation, Israel is today closer than it has ever been to attempting to renew in practice its mythic past, to bring about by force what many see as redemption. Even if we ignore the fact that the top of the Temple Mount is, simply, currently not available – it must be clear that moving toward a new Temple means the end of both Judaism and Zionism as we know them.

The question, then, to paraphrase Gershom Scholem’s remark, with which we began, is whether Zionism will be able to withstand the impulse to realize itself conclusively and become history.

The Third Temple superimposed on the Temple Mount, instead of The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque

Published today on Haaretz

The Temple Totem and the Mythification of the Likud

The attempted assassination of Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick, to whom I wish a speedy recovery, comes as a culmination of a growing trend in the Israeli public sphere. It is a trend that finds clear expression amongst the ruling political party, the Likud, and one which Glick was a leading advocate of. In recent years the Temple Mount movements have acted intensively to increase the number of Jews going up the mountain and concurrently to raise awareness to the situation there. This situation includes a de-facto ban on public Jewish prayer and an increase in violence, mostly verbal, by Muslim Palestinians towards Jews going up on the mountain. Among the most prominent achievements of the Temple Mount proponents was obtaining the explicit support of about half of the Likud Knesset Members.

The Likud movement always had a fondness for national myths, but even among its members Zionism was first and foremost about settlements and security, not religious salvation. The growing interest in the Temple Mount among Likud members embodies the change that has taken place in the political discourse in Israel, one that if not understood, will render our understanding of the current tensions and violence in Jerusalem incomplete. At that same convention at the Begin Center following which Glick (who himself ran for Knesset on the Likud ticket two years ago) was shot, under the title “Israel Returns to the Temple Mount”, the Chair of the Interior Committee of the Knesset, MK Miri Regev, and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, both of Likud, called for a return of Jews en masse to the Mount. Regev tied “Our right to pray on the Mountain” together with “Our right to the Land” and demonstrated in clear fashion the mythical coating covering the new Likudnik nationalism.

This is but the peak of a multi-year process, in the course of which the ruling party has turned from a traditional-secular party professing a security-based rejection of territorial compromise, into an ethnic-nationalist party which places at the center of its agenda a mythological concept. This mythic narrative is based on the belief that the Temple Mount constitutes a metaphysical focal point for the People of Israel, a sort of divine power socket, the connection to which charges the nation with force and vitality. Back in 2012 Yuli Edelstein, now the Speaker of the Knesset, stated that “My job is to deal with the daily process, connecting and building the People of Israel, which leads to the Temple.” Influential MK Ze’ev Elkin, meanwhile, explained that “It is important to remove it [the Temple Mount] from the purview of the wild-eyed religious. We must explain to broad swaths of the people that without this place, our national liberty is incomplete.”

Make no mistake – this is not about untrammeled longing for the burning of sacrifices. It is neither the observation of the biblical commandment nor the upholding of the Halakhic stricture that matter to these Knesset Members, even the religious ones among them. The Temple Mount serves Regev, Feiglin, Edelstein and Elkin as a national flag around which to rally. The location of the temple to them is nothing more than a capstone in the national struggle against the Palestinians, and the sovereignty over the mountain becomes a totem embodying the sovereignty over the entire country in its commanding figure. This is why Elkin speaks of “Our national liberty”; this is why Tzipi Hotovely said on another occasion that “The construction of the temple in its place on Temple Mount should symbolize the renewal of the sovereignty of the People of Israel in its Land.”

It was only this past February that Coalition Chair Yariv Levin waxed poetic regarding the importance of the mountain at the center of Jerusalem: “No living organism can function without a heart. It seems to me that when Jews for so many years sat in exile and prayed for a return to Zion, they did not mean Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem. They did not dream of returning to the Knesset building and the Prime Minister’s office, but to someplace else – to the Temple Mount.”

But when Jews sat in exile and prayed for Zion and Jerusalem, they continued to sit in exile and pray; only when they dreamed of Tel Aviv and of the Knesset building did they rise up and build a state. Secular Zionism invested its blood and sweat in building the country, not in religious rites and sacred sites. It is no coincidence that Moshe Dayan handed control of the Temple Mount to the Muslim Waqf immediately following the Six-Day War – he believed the place to be diametrically opposed to the Zionist spirit upon which he was raised and in which he believed.

But what is note-worthy in Levin’s words is not the historical inaccuracy, and not even the organistic view of the nation (as though what a state in which one third of the children are below the poverty line needs is a “heart” in the form of a temple on a mountain). What should cause unease, if not outright concern, is the mythical-messianic promoted by Levin et al through political means. The Temple Mount becomes a pawn to be used in the struggle with the Palestinians, and the discussion of prayer rights for Jews, while justified in and of its own, becomes a political hatchet. Perhaps this is what Leibowitz meant when he cried out against the “prostitution of religion for national interests”.

Gershom Scholem once said that “The salvation of the People of Israel to which I aspire as a Zionist is not at all identical to the religious salvation for which I hope in the future. I am unwilling, as a Zionist, to satisfy the ‘political’ demands or yearnings which take place in an utterly religious a-political field, in the domain of the end-times apocalyptic.” Shalom understood full well the danger in basing a political discourse upon a religious one. Danger to religion, for this way it may be prostituted into a political tool, and danger to the state, for it is very difficult to act in a judicious manner out of messianic fervor.

Religion and politics have been entwined since the dawn of time, but in the last few centuries the Western world has chosen to separate the estates in order to promote a democratic and tolerant public sphere. Before our very eyes we are witnessing an attempt to re-couple the religious myth with the political-diplomatic sphere. The political discourse is undergoing a transformation: It is gathering mythological charges onto itself, reestablishing itself not on the foundation of security but on that of salvation tales, and is served up coated in religious folklore and messianic shmaltz. Whether due to naïve faith and whether to preclude any possibility of political compromise, the Jewish prayer and the Diaspora are invoked, and fiery talk is heard of heart and longing and age-old yearning. Before you can say “A national home for the Jewish people”, the government of Israel has been turned into an agent of the messiah and a contractor of the almighty. Presto – we have entered the domain of the end-times apocalyptic.

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Published in Hebrew in Haaretz.

Assembly-line Jewish conversion

The situation resulting from the immigration of hundreds of thousand of people who are not Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law) during the 1990s poses a tough challenge to Orthodoxy, a challenge it doesn’t seem able to meet. The reason is simple: In contrast to the conservative and technical nature of halakha, public opinion is characterized by flexibility and joie de vivre. While those hundreds of thousands of people are considered non-Jews by halakha, as far as most Israeli citizens are concerned they are Jews in every respect.

In a poll published by Haaretz a month ago, 75 percent of the secular people questioned said they would not try to prevent a marriage between a relative and “a new immigrant who isn’t Jewish according to halakha,” while among the religious-Zionist respondents only 29 percent wouldn’t object to such a marriage and among the Haredim only 5 percent. All told, 56 percent of Israelis wouldn’t make a big deal about a relative marrying one of these hundreds of thousands.

And lest we think that we dealing with broad cosmopolitan pluralism, the same survey revealed that with regard to a relative marrying an Arab or a European Christian, the objection among the total Israeli population would be 72 percent and 53 percent, respectively. In other words, Israelis aren’t open to everything; these veteran immigrants are simply considered by most Israelis to be Jews, whatever the halakha might say.

The recent debate over the “conversion law” proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) blatantly revealed the degree to which this is almost completely an intra-Orthodox struggle. Stern and the Habayit Hayehudi party want to expand the conversion apparatus, while the Haredi parties object. What emerges from this is that if there is no reform in the conversion process, weddings between those who are Jews according to halakha and those who are not will continue, and those who want to avoid marrying their descendents will be forced to keep genealogical records.

The problem is that even if such a reform is enacted, there will still be those among the strictly religious who will not recognize it and will not accept the descendents of such converts as Jews. So either way there will remain a group of Orthodox Jews that will insist, contrary to most of the nation, on relating to part of the people as non-Jews. The struggle over conversion conditions is nothing but an internal Orthodox scuffle aimed at determining the limits of that group.

So here we have another example, one of many, of self-centered patronizing by the State of Israel’s Orthodox establishment. Its members are fighting among themselves for the right to convert people who aren’t interested in converting, to make them eligible to marry people who even now see nothing wrong with them, and all this just so that they themselves will find it easier in the future to see large parts of the Israeli people as Jews – even though Israelis themselves have long ignored the halakhic categories that this group considers so important.

But what makes this ridiculous festival so sad is a deeper issue. This whole story illustrates not just the Orthodox establishment’s narcissism, but also demonstrates in the most extreme fashion how a major proportion of Israeli rabbis take a totally technical and utilitarian view of halakha, and perhaps of the entire Jewish religion.

After all, what’s going on here? We’re talking about conversion, which is probably the deepest, most personal, and most difficult thing a person can do; it’s changing one’s identity, entering a new framework of meaning, and in this case making a covenant with God and the Jewish people. Conversion is being turned into a pathetic bureaucratic matter, a mechanical procedure entirely designed to calm those rabbis so that their children or their neighbors’ children won’t marry non-Jews, so there won’t be “assimilation.” For this they will expand the conversion system, ease the conditions for conversion, and conduct a marketing campaign for joining the Jewish people as if it were soft drinks.

These rabbis don’t seem to care what motivates the converts or what spiritual journey they have been through. The main thing is to accept them and convert them on an assembly line so that there will be as many Jews as possible – that is, more people who agreed to take some classes and say “Amen” to everything they’re told. All this is to get their status changed on their identity card so the only democracy in the Middle East will allow them to get married and in general treat them like human beings.

And if that’s what the rabbinical establishment looks like, is it any wonder that so few people want to convert?

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published today in Haaaretz.

A Point About the Fundamental Difference Between Haredi and Traditional and National-Religious Judaism

In 1792, three years into the French revolution, a letter was received by Edmond Louis Dubois-Crance, a leading figure of the new regime’s legislature, warning him him of the path chosen by the forces surrounding him. Jean Baptiste Salle, a physician and playwright (ah, those were the days) warned that:

The principles, in their metaphysical abstractness and in the form in which they are being constantly analyzed in this society-no government can be founded on them; a principle cannot be rigorously applied to political association, for the simple reason that a principle admits of no imperfection; and, whatever you may do, men are imperfect. […] Under the pretext of full and complete sovereignty of the people, the state will suffer no legal restriction; They present man always in the image of an angel, and desirous of discovering what befits him, ignore what he really is; In an endeavor to persuade the people that they are wise enough, they give them dispensation from the effort to be that! […] I would gladly, if you like, applaud the chimera of perfection that they are after. But tell me, in divesting in this way man of what is human in him, are they not most likely to turn him into a ferocious beast? "

Salle opposed the attempt by the revolutionaries to force a “perfect”, “rational” and “scientific” model upon the French people – a model that utterly ignores the true condition of humans and instead insists on explaining to them what their condition is, and therefore what they “really” need. He accurately predicted the consequence: A year after the date of his letter the “reign of terror” began, and the blade of guillotine required frequent honing. For doubting the righteousness of the revolution Salle’s neck was also placed under it, and he was beheaded in 1894.

The French Revolution was not the first attempt to force upon a multitude of people an ideology they did not want – the Catholic Church preceded it, of course – but it was the first to do so with no regard for reality, or as Salle put it on the basis of “principles in their metaphysical abstract”. The religious traditions that forced themselves on the masses grew from customs built throughout the ages, and therefore from a dialogue with human nature and that of the world. The leaders of the revolution thought that the opposite should be done – sever ties with the past, cleanse the memory of all that was stored in it, and start from scratch. The results proceeded accordingly.

This foreword seems detached from present times and from ourselves, but I believe it is deeply connected to the state of Judaism in our times. I would like to characterize the state of “Ultra-Orthodox” (“Haredi”) Judaism in Israel today, distinguishing it from religious Judaism which is not haredi. Contrary to the widespread impression, Haredis are not those who are “very strict” in their observance of Halakha. Indeed, there are different levels of observance between different orthodox communities, but these do not mark the essential or deepest difference between those who are Haredi and those who are not. In order to understand this difference, I will quote a statement made a few weeks ago by Rabbi Amiel Sternberg, head of the Religious-National “Har Ha’Mor” Yeshiva. Regarding the manner in which Halakha should be ruled, the Rabbi said:

The gaze of the leaders should be turned to the beit midrash and from there they shall learn how life should be. When they go to lead Israel in the ways of the Torah (it’s not just Torah but the fundamental paths of the nation), their viewpoint should turn to the Torah and the beit midrash and according to these they will lead the people. But if they take judgment and discernment according to the disordered life in the marketplace, they will corrupt the leadership and will not be able to correctly direct the nation’s way of life.

Proper Torah leadership, therefore, not only does not take life itself into account, but deliberately ignores it. Real life can only distract the Halakhic ruler from the Torah, whereas Torah in its metaphysical perfection is the pure light according to which one must advance. It is from the Torah that we learn “how life should be.”

Rabbi Sternberg is not a “Haredi” in the sociological sense. He is neither Litvak nor Hassid, does not dress like a Haredi, and as mentioned above he heads the National-Religious Har Ha’Mor yeshiva. What makes his worldview Haredi is the deliberate disconnection between it and the changing conditions of reality, and the view of Torah and Halakha as frozen, pure metaphysical entities, according to which the world must align itself. Rabbi Sternberg, therefore, is a National-Haredi (what is known in Hebrew acronym as “Harda”L), not because he is “strict in his observance of Halakha”, but because his approach is different than that of classical Religious Zionism.

The approach of original Religious Zionism can be characterized by an openness and willingness to engage in a continual dialogue with reality. The slogans “Torah and Labor (Avoda)” and “Torah and Science” emphasize the connection to modern conditions, which guided Religious Zionism – that of modern orthodoxy, “Ha’Mizrachi” and especially “Ha’Poel Ha’Mizrachi” and the Religious Kibbutz movement. All this was presented in explicit, conscious opposition to the Haredi way, which even before the establishment of Israel favored seclusion, passivity, radical conservatism and an ever-increasing number of constrictions and “customs” of all sorts.

When we observe such symptoms in Religious Zionism, we are in fact witnessing a return of parts of it to the Haredi ethos, while relinquishing the ideological and pragmatic step of opening to the world. The Harda”L stream of thought declares, in effect, a crisis: It has despaired of the classic path of Religious Zionism, whether due to fear of modernity which presents ever greater challenges, whether due to disillusion with secular society which for some reason refuses to repent and return to the fold of religion, or whether due to loss of hope of imminent salvation. It joins the Haredi world not by being more strict about Halakha, but by changing its approach to reality.

But as we can see from the first quote brought above, this very attitude, of a theory or doctrine that must be forced upon reality, is itself modern, and there is nothing traditional about it. It was born at a time when religions lost their power and people (in Europe) developed delusions regarding the possibility of discovering a single rational formula that would put all of life, private and political, in order. There has never been such an idea in traditional Judaism, and definitely not regarding Halakha, which has always included a multitude of opinions, schools of thought, congregations and levels of observance. Most of all, Halakha has always been engaged in a fruitful dialogue with actual life. The Haredis and Harda”Ls have in this case adopted a European (mostly French) modern mindset and turned it into their distinguishing feature. And yet they claim to be the ones defending tradition.

Death of a Neo-Kabbalist: Philip Berg passes away

The note on Berg's death (his wife Karen to the left) from The Kabbalah Center's site - click picture to get there

I haven’t written for a while, all due to an academic paper I am toiling at and absolutely must finish soon, which deals with a certain aspect of current spirituality in Israel. Just as I was writing, and just as I reached the part dealing with Neo-Kabbalah (Bnei Baruch, The Kabbalah Centre), came word of the passing of Phillip Berg, founder of The Kabbalah Centre. If I were into Kabbalah I would of course have deduced that this is no coincidence, but rather a sign and an omen and message and a signal, but I’m not really into that, and so I won’t deduce. What I will do is write, because ignoring this occasion isn’t an option.

It is not an option, because Phillip Berg is probably the greatest popularizer of Kabbalah ever. No man in human history showed such tenacity and creativity in spreading “the wisdom of Kabbalah” in every direction possible, including the addition of women and non-Jews to the circle of Kabbalah. Berg built an empire of Kabbalah that numbers tens of thousands of members, who are active in over forty centers worldwide, from Hong Kong, through Tel Aviv and Berlin to Buenos Aires.

The fiscal value of ‘The Kabbalah Centre’ is currently estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars (some two and a half years ago an investigation against the center was launched by the IRS), at it serves as a magnet for Hollywood celebrities such as Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the echoes of The Kabbalah Centre reach far beyond its registered (and paying) members, and Berg’s phenomenal success in getting multitudes of people interested in the Jewish teachings of the occult brings Jewish content into the spiritual field of our times, which is mostly dominated by variations of Christianity and imports from Oriental religions.

Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah

Rabbi Yehuda Leib AshlagLike other branches of the neo-Kabbalist explosion since the 1990’s, Berg is the spiritual offspring – spiritual bastard, some would no doubt say – of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag. Rabbi Ashlag (1885-1955), one of the greatest Kabbalists of the twentieth century, was born in Warsaw to an upper-class Hassidic family and was exposed fairly early in life both to Kabbalah and the scientific and ideological developments of the fin de siècle. In 1921 he arrived in mandatory Palestine and spent the rest of his life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv developing his interpretation of Kabbalah and in attempts to disseminate it.

Ashlag presented a modern interpretation to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah, combining a Hegelian historical perception, a Marxist vision and psychological insights. One can say that he “stood Marx on his head,” for although he borrowed from him the vision of an egalitarian, collectivist society, he added to Marxism the Kabbalist exegesis regarding the inner structure and logic according to which the world works, including the necessity of divine influence on human transformation that must occur in the course of achieving a model society. For Ashlag, general salvation meant a collective transcending of man over his egotistical needs.

To elaborate, the shift from egocentric life to an altruistic existence can occur, according to Ashlag, only by the spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah and its mass study. When the denizens of the world realize that Kabbalah gives them the only key to understanding the universe, they will clearly see the need to erect an egalitarian society that cares for the needs of its individuals. Then they will be free to observe the commandments and concentrate on “bestowing” – bestowing plenty on others – which will bring about their metamorphosis from egotistical beings to altruistic ones – that is, for Ashlag, divine ones. This will launch a new era of peace and brotherly love. (For further reading, see “Altruistic Communism – Rabbi Ashlag’s Modernist Kabbalah” by Boaz Huss, here [Heb, PDF].)

The Extended Ashlag Family

click to enlarge

Although he tried, Rabbi Ashlag failed during his lifetime in breaking through the walls of the ultra-orthodox society and spreading his teachings further. But he had students whose followers do so today with great success, even if they are hostile to one another. In the above diagram (and also here) you can see the distribution of the tree of sons and students of Rabbi Ashlag to this day. Legend: Vertical – generational sequence; Straight lines connect fathers and sons; broken lines connect teacher and student; the dotted line connects husband and wife; To the left of the broken vertical line are the followers of Ashlag whose view of Halakha is unorthodox. It must be stressed that these are only Ashlag’s central followers. If anyone spots an error, I shall be glad to be corrected.

And so, on the right are various Ashlag brothers and ultra-orthodox Ashlag students (The Ashlag brothers fought amongst themselves over the copyrights to their father’s writings). A little to the left, Adam Sinai and Yuval HaCohen Asherov represent two different organizations for the dissemination of Ashlagian Kabbalah: Sinai with HaSulam and Asherov as the student of Rabbi Mordechai Sheinberger, who himself heads the ultra-orthodox/Ashlagian village Or HaGanuz. Other students of Sheinberger not mentioned here are Moshe Sharon and Rabbi Arik Naveh.

Among the “Left Ashlagians,” if I may call them such, there are currently two very large neo-Kabbalistic movements, and several others of lesser scope. Rabbi Michael Laitman, who studied with Berg early in his career, went to study later from Ashlag’s son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag, apparently due to criticism he had regarding what he saw as Berg’s overly liberal interpretation of his master’s teachings. After Baruch Ashlag passed away, Laitman founded Bnei Baruch, where he offers the same liberal interpretation, more or less. I have written about Bnei Baruch previously on this blog.

On the left we also find Shaul Youdkevitch, a student of Berg’s who recently left The Kabbalah Centre and started a Kabblah center of his own. The sole woman in this diagram is Karen Berg, who currently runs The Kabbalah Centre, and her sons from Phillip, Yehudah and Michael, who also run the Kabbalah empire at present, and look certain to keep running it in the future.

Neo-Kabbalah and pseudo-science in the land of endless opportunities

Neo-Kabbalistic red stringBerg was born Shraga Feivel Gruberger in 1927 (or 1929) in Brooklyn. He was ordained as an orthodox rabbi at age 22, worked as an insurance broker and made quite a fortune in real-estate. In the 1960’s he began to study Kabbalah, first from Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Krakovski, a direct student of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag (who also received his permission to leave Israel and spread Kabbalah among US Jewry, placing his children in orphanages for the purpose). Then he lived for a while in Israel, and studied under Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Brandwein. He became Brandwein’s right-hand man, and went to the US to raise funds to spread Ashlagian Kabbalah. In 1965 he established the National Institute for Research in Kabbalah in New York, which would later become his Center for Kabbalah.

Brandwein passed away in 1969. Berg, after getting divorced and remarrying the current Karen Berg, embarked on an independent path and began attempting to spread Kabbalah in his own. At first he distributed books by Krakovski and Brandwein, but as of the 1980’s began writing Kabbalah books on his own. In her excellent book (although somewhat too favorable to my taste) about The Kabbalah Centre, Jody Myers follows the evolution of Berg’s teachings (for instance, by tracking changes in different editions of his books): At first we find popular Kabbalah intended for Jews, which emphasizes its connection to the Halakha. From the 1990’s onwards it becomes a universal wisdom intended for all mankind whose connection to Halakha is tenuous at best. Unsurprisingly, from the nineties onwards The Kabbalah Centre experienced phenomenal growth.

It was not only the targeting of non-Jews which produced the impressive business growth. As of the nineties the Kabbalah offered by Berg underwent a general re-branding. It was then that Berg began to emphasize the utilitarian nature of Kabbalah for the individual: Kabbalah, he taught, enables each of us to achieve spiritual development, peace and serenity, finding true love, economic prosperity and physical well-being. All this goodness will certainly come to us, for Kabbalah according to Berg is after all a science. The Kabbalistic science also enables the production of “Technology for the Soul” (a Kabbalah Centre trademark) in the form of red laces ($26), holy water ($2) or a set of The Zohar books ($415). Thus, quite ironically, Berg used Rabbi Ashlag’s altruistic Kabbalah in order to sell utilitarian, egocentric self-help spirituality to the masses.

This was the background for Rabbi Professor Arthur Green attacked Berg fiercely two years ago, arguing that he took the dregs from Kabbalah, rather than the cream. Instead of spreading the wisdom of Kabbalah, he exploited the fears and dreams of his students to sell them a package containing pop-psychology, superstition and magic, all wrapped in a greedily-priced string of red wool. The tradition of Kabbalah deserves better, Green concluded. One may say that Berg turned Kabbalah into a Jewish version of Yoga, or the various forms of Oriental meditation – that is, a universal “method” expropriated from its traditional context and repackaged for the Western capitalist market.

But let us return to Berg himself. In the year 2000 the Kabbalist Rabbi announced that Kabbalah, in essence, guarantees eternal life. In his book Immortality: The Inevitability of Eternal Life published in that year, he ties the unison of awareness of Kabbalistic Messianism with the unison of body cells and their transformation into embryonic stem cells, which guarantees not only the blissful union of our awareness with the divine spirit but also the prolonging of our physical lives for ever and ever. This neo-Kabbalistic, pseudo-scientific, hyper-capitalistic spiritual babble took a frying pan to the face when Berg himself suffered a brain stroke in 2004. The disillusion caused several members of the Centre to withdraw, but most accepted the explanation that Berg was needed for holy endeavors in heaven, and was therefore neglecting his corporeal body on earth. His death no doubt completes his summons to heaven. As befitting a Kabbalist, he was buried in Safed.

Modern Kabbalah, Post-Modern Neo-Kabbalah

Hebrew Kabbalistic name of God tattooed on Britney Spears' neckWhat is the difference, then, between Kabbalah and Neo-Kabbalah? As mentioned briefly above, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ashlag’s Kabbalah was already a modernist Kabbalah (I have written about this (Heb) regarding Rabbi Sheinberger’s “Ummah” movement). So, for instance, is Rabbi Kook’s Kabbalah, as he was also greatly influenced by modern philosophy and even more so, by the zeitgeist of his time. Thus it would be incorrect to compare Rabbi Berg’s Kabbalah (or Rabbi Laitman’s) to Rabbi Luria’s Kabbalah and find great differences, since the Kabbalah of Ashlag and Kook is also very different from Luria’s. And yet, we can easily point out several important differences between Berg’s Kabbalah and that of his teacher, Rabbi Ashlag.

First and foremost, of course, would be the connection to the commandments and the commitment to halacha. With Berg there is no necessary connection and no commitment. Second, and no less significant, the focus on the individual and his or her spiritual development rather than on the higher worlds and their correction. The openness towards non-Jews and women is also an important difference, as is the turning of Kabbalah into the centerpiece of a religious movement that is deliberately and consciously not part of Judaism as a religious tradition or a nation.

All this does not mean, despite all the reservations that many of us apparently feel toward it, that this is a Kabbalah that is not a legitimate offspring of Jewish tradition. It should also be said that alongside reports of financial exploitation, many report that the movement has helped them bring order into their lives and has done them good. And yet, it is likely that The Kabbalah Centre will continue its current trend of being more of a business than a spiritual movement, and as Arthur Green has written, Kabbalah deserves better.

Sources


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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