Posts Tagged 'Judaism'



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

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Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore – Academic Article

An academic article of mine has been published in the latest issue of Modern Judaism, under the title Neo-Hasidic Revival: Expressivist Uses of Traditional Lore. As I write in my introductory  words, I aim in the article to analyze Neo-Hasidism, expounding its ideational and sociological birth, briefly reviewing its development and history, and elaborating on its current place and importance in the efforts made to "renew" Jewish religiosity and to "modernize" (i.e. de-mythologize, individualize and psychologize) the Jewish tradition by its contemporary well-wishers and popularizers in Israel. The lion’s share of the article is devoted to the examination of three examples taken from the Neo-Hasidic field in Israel: Rabbis Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Israel Isaac Besancon and Yitzchak Ginsburg. These serve as test-cases which differ in a structural way one from the other, and as such will allow us to decipher their common underlying principals.

The article is on the Modern Judaism site here. I am not allowed to hand out the article itself, but its full text is here in pdf, here in scribd and here in my academia.edu account.

Impressions From Limmud

This year I was invited to speak at the Limmud Festival in Warwick, England, which took place December 22nd-26th. I wrote down my impressions in two articles published on the Avi Chai site (A, B), and are here translated and combined into one.

One of the most inspiring moments I experienced at the Limmud Festival this year was when I met two representatives from “Limmud Bulgaria”, that is, the Bulgarian version of the event. Limmud Bulgaria draws a far smaller crowd than Limmud England in Warwik (the central of these conventions), which is the one I took part in last month, and which served as home for a week to no less than twenty-six hundred people. In Bulgaria Limmud is attended by some seven hundred people, mostly Bulgarian Jews. If we recall the size of the Jewish population in Bulgaria, which stands at some six thousand people, we shall instantly see the magnitude of the occasion, and the centrality of Limmud to Bulgarian Jewry. More than ten percent of the congregation meets there, and one can easily deduce it’s the main event for the Jewish community in that country, one that shapes its life and agenda to a large degree.

‘Limmud Bulgaria’ is an extreme, but not unique example of the immense influence held by this project over Judaism outside Israel. Today there are no less than eighty Limmud events in thirty-eight countries, on six different continents, from New Zealand through India to South Africa; the model developed by British Jewry 33 years ago is probably its best and most successful export.

A-Hierarchical Pluralism

So what is the model? Broadly, meeting and studying together. The lectures can be about anything in the world: The bible, cooking, politics or sports. They of course touch upon the Jewish aspects of these topics, though the audience does include a few non-Jews who show an interest (my talk on neo-Hassidic trends among Breslov communities was attended by an Anglican priest). The largest denomination among the audience is Modern Orthodox, accounting for nearly 40% of the participants. The rest belong to non-Orthodox denominations or no denomination at all.

One of the main principals Limmud adheres to is its absolute pluralism. Anyone can have a voice at the gathering: Any person, any stream of thought, any idea. To further this, Limmud tries to fashion its common space as a-hierarchically as possible. The name tags distributed carry no titles, and the first name is much more noticeable than the last. Therefore, you meet Michael, Talia and Ephraim, not Prof. Michael Fishbein, Attorney Talia Sasson and the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis. Everyone’s on the university campus, in the same dining halls and cafes. The object is to meet, get acquainted and mutually inspire.

Natan Sharansky speaking at a reception in Limmud this year. To his right Israeli MP Dov Lipman

The Chief Rabbi Arrives At Last

Speaking of the Chief Rabbi of the UK (actually the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, an Orthodox Jewish body created in 1870 by British Parliament and considered to be the representative group of UK Jews), this year he took part in Limmud for the first time, his predecessor Lord Jonathan Sacks having consistently avoided doing so. Sachs is actually rather liberal in his own views, but due to an old agreement he had with the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the UK, he refrained from the gathering, earning the ire of the more pluralist ends of British Jewry.

Matters reached the point where Ephraim Mirvis, the current Chief Rabbi, really had no choice in the matter. The body that elects the Chief Rabbi in the UK, which consists of rabbis and prominent congregation members (and not just rabbis never elected by the community, like the equivalent body in Israel) specifically made the election of any new Chief Rabbi contingent on his agreeing to attend Limmud. One can learn from that not only how UK Jews manage their rabbis (and not vice-versa), but also how significant this event has become. This significance extends beyond the variety and lack of hierarchy. Limmud is the global face of the same rise of interest in Jewish culture and religion we can witness in Israel. A 2011 study showed that for thousands of participants, Limmud was an inspiration to deepen and nurture their Jewish identity.

Me speaking about Neo-Hasidism - Photo: Ittay Flescher

Global Gathering

In front of every dining hall, and even every coffee and tea stand, Limmud places a hand-washing stand replete with alcoholic disinfectant solution. Sometimes there is a volunteer standing next to it to make sure that all those entering to eat did indeed wash their hands. The organizers are concerned not to let so many people from so many countries spread so many germs around.

And rightly so. It is actually in other (much happier) regards that mass infection takes place here. After my lectures I had a special feeling: Here are interested people from France, Argentina, New Orleans, Bulgaria. One lecture given here can have a great impact, when each listener carries its ideas back to his or her country.

Each participant also comes from a different world: Academics, rabbis, public officials, business people, youths, artists, each with their own frame of reference, each with their own set of peers to whom they can relay what they have heard and learned. I have never spoken before such an eclectic crowd, and have never felt how significant a single lecture can be.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow lecturing

Deep Currents

And yet, that is hardly the main purpose or greatest significance of the gathering. So what is the meaning of the Limmud phenomenon? Undoubtedly, several deep currents moving at this time underneath the cultural tectonic plates of Judaism converge to create this impressive event. First, I believe it is a deep need for community rising within Judaism outside of Israel. Small congregations in Eastern European countries or Australian cities or in the American hinterlands need the gathering in order to record hours of interaction. A social gathering allows them to once again feel part of a great people, to exchange ideas and re-examine viewpoints.

For the younger participants this is of course an opportunity to find a mate, and for the older ones a vital gateway to an objective I have heard mentioned time again throughout the festival: Networking. Jews are world-class experts in creating, managing and fund-raising for non-profit organizations, and the importance of connections for this purpose cannot be overstated. All these constitute an important bedrock for the production.

Another trend that helps create Limmud is an ecumenical outlook, which in the Jewish case can be termed ‘post-denominational’. In other words, the division into various schools loses some of its force. It exists, but not as an important element of identity, and therefore not as a factor that can cloud the atmosphere of cooperation and mutual inspiration. Apart from the well-publicized arrival of Britain’s new Chief Rabbi, I actually remember no talk of ‘denominations’ throughout the entire event.

Finally, and as an underlying cause of the previous item, we can point out the decline of Halakha as a significant factor in the lives of Jews nowadays. This is of course not new, but it is a growing trend, and one should note that it exists not much less among observant Jews than among those who do not observe the commandments anyway. In other words, even for Orthodox and (some) Conservative Jews, for whom Halakha is a significant part of their lives in terms of the time they spend each day on its nuances, it is not a significant part of their lives as an element of identity. Observing the commandments is not sustenance enough for them in order to fashion a meaningful Jewish life. They need a cultural-contemplative layer to complete their “Jewish life”, to charge it with sufficient vitality to flourish.

The diminishing of Halakha as an element of identity is what enables the mixture of denominations on the one hand, and on the other also what draws many observant Jews to enrich their lives with a ‘Judaism’ that is not connected to Halakha, but serves more as a source of cultural affluence. Unlike what one may find in Kabbalah and Hasidism (taking two previous attempts to soar above Halakha), the cultural offerings here do not bind themselves to the divine law, but play out in other cultural fields (intellectual, artistic, folklore-related, culinary).

Main loby, hours before the end of Warwik Limmud for this year

Judaism As Culture, The Holy Tongue Translated

Can such a “Judaism as culture” fashion a lasting space of private and community identity? I don’t know. Furthermore, aside from the detachment from Halakha, there is another detachment in Limmud: from Hebrew. Only when you hear a few lectures that touch upon textual dimensions of the tradition do you realize how difficult it is, i.e. this whole business of a Judaism that does not speak Hebrew. It is then that you understand the magnitude of the miracle that happened to the Jewish people and religion and culture in the revival of the Hebrew language in Israel. Only when you hear a lecture about the Talmud in English, where every word in every verse has to be translated, meaning displaced from its context and sterilized of its juiciness and multiple facets; only when you take part in a workshop on the kabbalah of Abulafia and instead of name combinations you combine ABC’s, only then do you truly realize how distant this Judaism is, how much it lives its life by proxy.

Of course, we can (and should) say that this is simply a different kind of Judaism, no less legitimate and significant. It has its advantages as well. And yet, the detachment from the language along with the detachment from Halakha does not leave much of a firm foundation on which to build a cultural-identity backbone.

I definitely don’t want to join in the pessimistic voices regarding Judaism outside of Israel (which always seem to me woven into a clumsy attempt to placate ourselves that although life in Israel is very hard there is no choice etc’). Culture is a complex, multi-dimensional organism that knows how to survive in difficult situations, and Jewish culture has already proved itself in this regard. There is also no doubt that Limmud is highly valuable to communities outside of Israel, and the sense of community it fosters is real. At the end of the day, this is its objective, and as of today it achieves it.

The question to be asked is whether all this pluralistic, many-faced richness will coalesce into a lasting Jewish existence. At present I think it’s too early to tell, but a we shall be able to note a positive sign when out of Limmud will come not only community, but idea’s fashioned into creation.

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

Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse – About the book

Guf U’miniut Ba’Siach Ha’Tzioni-Ha’Dati He’Hadash ("Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse") by Yakir Englander and Avi Sagi, Hartman Institute and Keter Publishing, 2013, 267 pp.

 

In the waning years of the 19th century, Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebbing wrote in his Textbook of Insanity that

[Sexual] anomalies are very important elementary disturbances, since upon the nature of sexual sensibility the mental individuality in greater part depends; especially does it affect ethic, aesthetic, and social feeling and action.

Krafft-Ebbing thus expressed a new understanding: our sexual desires were no longer solely natural expressions of the body, certainly not wicked agents of the devil. Instead, they became basic pillars of our personality ¬ that is, of modern human individuality.

In discussing "The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse" it must be remembered, therefore, that sexuality itself is a modern category, which became popular in 19th-century Europe, when it became a definition not only for practices but also of personality. Accordingly, the term "sexuality" was now given various prefixes like "hetero-," "homo-," "auto-". Nowadays it is important to look at the broad scope of the literature intended to help bring about improvement in our sexual lives, a literature that started to become widely available in the 1960s. If our sexual pleasure is such a central part of ourselves, improving it, as a central part of our self-improvement project, seems also to be obvious.

The new book by Prof. Avi Sagi and Dr. Yakir Englander is very aware of this historical background, and it tries to focus upon and characterize the current historical moment experienced by the religious Zionist public. It is successful in doing so on a number of levels and it provides important reference points for any future discussion on the subject.

As a field of research, Sagi and Englander have focused on the discourse in terms of Halakhah (traditional religious law), especially as it appears on responsa sites on the Internet. This is a public discourse by its very nature, as its rulings are presumed to reach every observer of rabbinical law and to shape their conduct. Thus they are also intended to create a homogenous "public" of a God-fearing community.

The authors have chosen to examine various models in which it is possible to find direct conflicts between the modern and the halakhic perceptions of sexuality. They have specifically examined the issues of male and female masturbation and homosexuality. The analysis they propose vis-a-vis the discourse in Halakha concerning the prohibition of male masturbation is fascinating.

the book coverThe authors bring evidence that the responsa are no longer truly halakhic in nature and have instead taken on the character of "pastoral counseling" – i.e., of spiritual guidance intended to shepherd individuals from the flock of the devout toward inner repair and spiritual perfection. This is an entirely different genre of dialogue, as the rabbi here comes across not as an arbiter of Halakha, but rather as a guide to the inner psyche, who offers an ethical path, the purpose of which is redemption of the soul.

While in premodern times it was possible to find within Halakha a formal discourse that ruled in accordance with an interpretation of tradition, the authors find that today the invocation of Halakha is marginal, and that most discussion of the question of male masturbation is in the realm of values and ethics. Thus, for example, rabbis endeavor to console the questioner who has failed and sinned, to strengthen his spirit,

imbue him with motivation to overcome his urges and present him with the choice between courageous resistance to Western trends and loyalty to what they perceive as "the tradition of ancestral Israel" which commands abstinence from self-pleasure.

The rabbi presents himself as a meta-figure with respect to Halakha, speaking in the name of a Jewish metaphysic that is not formulated with traditional tools, but rather is assumed to be in "the spirit of Halakha." He is no longer an arbiter of the legal canon, but rather a spiritual guide who knows the true path to redemption of the soul. The sinner’s confession, which is central to this discourse, is answered by rabbinical counsel, and the point to which the discourse relates shifts from the forbidden deed (masturbation), to forbidden passion and forbidden emotion (sexual craving, despair).

In so doing, the rabbis of religious Zionism, Sagi and Englander stress, are accepting the assumptions behind modern individuality. They espouse spiritual guidance that is aimed first and foremost not at maintaining divine law, but rather at redemption of the self, rectification and achievement of personal perfection and satisfaction. Accordingly, modern "sexuality" discourse also has become for the rabbis a theological starting point, and sexuality is understood as a constitutive element of an individual’s identity. Thus, prohibitions rooted in halakhic tradition exceed their formal status and become tremendous obstacles along the individual’s path to creating an ideal ("Torah-observant" or "believing") self-identity.

The modern perception of sexuality is also reflected in the stance toward homosexuality. Since the sexual act has essentially become a sexual identity, the arbiters of Halakha face three possibilities: a) to grapple with established legal tradition and permit whatever is possible in that framework (in the case of lesbianism, this is much easier); b) to change the Jewish attitude toward sexual abstinence and enjoin persons with these tendencies to abstain from sex all their lives; and c) to argue that homosexual tendencies are not natural and can be rectified and changed.

In accordance with the pastoral discourse that has replaced halakhic discourse, the authors of the book in question offer a wealth of rulings instructing men and women with same-sex tendencies, who are seeking advice, to change or abstain from sexual relations. Here too the discussion moves from Halakha to meta-Halakha, in the direction of fomenting an ethical discourse that shapes a new, pure Jew.

The perception of sexuality as raw material used in creating the religious self is also manifested in rabbinical discussion surrounding the issue of female masturbation.

In contrast to strictures relating to men in this regard, there is no express Halakhic prohibition on female masturbation Halakha. As one might have expected, Sagi and Englander find pastoral discourse on this subject too. The discourse here directs women toward a certain type of sexuality that from the rabbis’ perspective, even if not according to Halakha(!), is kosher and positive.

Following this, they go on to examine the aggregate of the perceptions of female sexuality in the new religious Zionist discourse. Their main insight is that there is no real connection between the image of the women about whom the rabbinical arbiters speak and women as living beings walking upon the face of the earth. The book presents various rulings indicating that, in the eyes of the arbiters, a woman has a fixed and simple essence: She is an introverted, passive, delicate and sensitive creature, whose sexual passion is dependent on emotion and love.

Thus, for example, there is a perception that women are not sexually aroused upon seeing an exposed male body, and therefore men are not required to cover themselves for the sake of "modesty." Even when the women who send in questions to the Internet sites inform the rabbis that they too have urges and desires, the rabbis silence them and insist that they do not, that there is in actual fact no such thing.

As Sagi and Englander write, the arbiters talk about women, not with them. This whole issue leads the authors to emphasize the male hegemony in the realm of rabbinical rulings. Ostensibly, this is obvious and self-evident, but this book stresses the alienation deriving from the fact that only men deliberate about Halakha. This creates a contradiction between the real woman and the ideal woman; the real woman is negated or else required to undergo a transformative journey to become that imaginary ideal.

Once again, pastoral discourse constitutes an arena in which the woman who observes Halakha must grapple with her image and aspirations. (In this context mention should be made of the religious Zionist organization Beit Hillel, which is promoting women – though at present tentatively and in a minor way – as rabbinical arbiters. Reading this book could contribute to an understanding of the challenges involved in this move, as well as of the huge promise inherent in it.)

The new sexuality discourse reveals the way religious Zionism is dealing with modernity at the present time. The authors take care to emphasize and exemplify the fact that there is nothing deterministic in the way this discussion has crystallized: A very different discourse could quite easily have developed, one that uses formal halakhic strictures to make it easier for the religiously observant to deal with modern sexuality.

"The Body and Sexuality in the New Religious Zionist Discourse" is full of insight, but the editing is inadequate and it is possible that readers will get lost in a maze of quotations and footnotes. It is evident that the work benefits greatly from the voice of Avi Sagi, one of the most profound thinkers in contemporary Judaism. The reader will findmany diagnoses that are fully developed in Sagi’s other books, while here they illuminate the research details and emphasize their importance.

The authors conclude with an expression of concern about the future. While Religious Zionism developed primarily with an inclusive view toward modernity, it has not succeeded in developing a halakhic discourse that has responded to its challenges. Instead, part of religious Zionish has been retreating and shutting itself up behind ideals that are divorced from reality:

In this way a historic movement, which had perceived itself as a mediating agent within Israeli society […] has developed antibodies to this mediation. The sting of this process is manifested first and foremost against itself; against the real body and sexuality, and against real women and men.

We can only hope that the other parts of religious Zionism will have the sense to embrace reality, and never let go.

:

Published in Hebrew in Haaretz, 7.8.13

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.

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.


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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