Posts Tagged 'Religious Zionism'

The Rise and Fall of Gush-Emunim, or The Last Jewish Attempt to Annul the Secularization Process.

There is one primary, general thing: the state. It is all holiness and without flaw. It is a supreme heavenly manifestation of ‘he who returns the divine presence to Zion.’ – Zvi Yehuda Kook

Holiness is to religion what blood is to the human body. It impels the religious organism. It is the soul’s desire and the heart’s reverence. It was not by chance that when religion officially became a field of academic research, at the end of the 19th century, the fathers of the field, distinguished scholars like Emil Durkheim and Rudolf Otto, sought to define “holiness.” Is it the restricted, the forbidden, or perhaps the moving and the awe-inspiring? Is it the inaccessible, the remote, or precisely the innermost and intimate? Or perhaps both the one and the other are emanations of the holy of holies? Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook honed it down to one: The holy is the political. The state is holiness. Being holy, it is perfect. Being holy and perfect, it is the divine chariot to which the horsemen of the redemption are harnessed.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookTo treat these ideas dismissively, or fearfully, is to miss their depth. The process undertaken by Zvi Yehuda Kook, who himself functioned as the interpreter of the thought propounded by his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, was not only daring but brilliant in its revolutionary character. The perception of the State of Israel – the political, bureaucratic, legal, secular corpus – as an entity that is “entirely holiness,” posed a tremendous challenge not only to the intentions and wishes of the state’s founders, and not only to the self-perception of its citizens. It was a direct assault on the very secularization of the Jewish people. Accordingly, Gush Emunim (or, Bloc of the Faithful), the operational arm of these ideas, functioned as a spearhead with which Zvi Yehuda assailed secularization itself. The failure and crumbling of Gush Emunim thus sounds the knell of defeat for the last Jewish attempt to overcome the secularization process.

This fundamental defeat did not come about without there being vast achievements along the way. In the course of its existence, Gush Emunim, which was one of the largest and most important messianic movements in Jewish history, succeeded in changing completely, perhaps for many years to come, the life of all the people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The movement revitalized the religious-Zionist community, which until then had been little more than a religiously observant annex of Labor-based Zionism. It put forward a riveting vision that integrated divine promise and human sovereignty, while the attempt to implement it engendered far-reaching political, geographical and demographic changes. Testimony to its importance can be found in the withering conceptual-social void that remained after its collapse.

Nothing better signifies the death of the Kookist vision – the driving ideological force behind Gush Emunim – than the tenure of Naftali Bennett as the head of the national-religious party. Kookism (to use the term coined by sociologist-anthropologist Gideon Aran, who has studied the movement) purported to provide an overall narrative framework that reinterprets reality and explains how it is precisely the elements that seem to directly contradict halakha, Jewish law, that actually carry the message of redemption and realize its most exalted vision.

Hanan Porat at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

In the view of Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), known universally as Rav Kook, and in complete contrast to other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis, secular Zionism bore in its national backpack the harbinger of the messiah. The Zionists might desecrate the Sabbath and irreverently ignore halakhic sexual codes, but according to the historical dialectic envisioned by Rav Kook, after returning from exile and establishing a Jewish state, the “sons of the insolent ones” will return to the tradition and cling anew to the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people. At that point, the aberrant subversion of the tradition’s tenets will metamorphose into a synthesis in which the vision of the redemption will be wholly realized in the form of a state that manifests perfectly the Jewish messianic ideal. Simply put, though the Zionists think they are establishing a secular nation-state, the cunning quality of divine wisdom guides them to actualize the prophecy of the end of days.

The Birth of Religion and State

It’s important to understand that Rav Kook reinterpreted not only secular Zionists, but also secularism itself. To fully grasp the revolutionary depth of his theology, we need to look at the development of the secularization process and the inner logic it embodies. In contrast to the popular assumption, the crux of the secularization process is not the loss of faith and the abandonment of religious ritual, though they are of course significant features. What underlies secularization is a redistribution of the public space, and a differentiation between diverse dimensions of human activity.

Until the modern age, religion cast its net over a wide range of human activity (for example, education, art, policy, knowledge and morality). However, during the past few centuries, initially in Europe, these realms were expropriated from religion and placed in the hands of distinct systems – the state, scientific research and the human conscience – that specialize in applying them, each in its own way.

Moreover, religion itself was narrowed, and became a defined and confined area of our life. We can be members of a particular nationality, part of a specific social class or group, engage in one or another profession, jog or play chess as a hobby – and also be religious. Or not religious. From its status as the cornerstone of our identity, the foundation of our worldview and of our self-perception, without which we are lost and for which we will be prepared to lay down our lives, religion became a category, one issue among many in our lives. We have the option to add it as another thread in the fabric of our identity – or not. That is the deep meaning of secularization.

The distinction between the “religious” realm and the realm devoid of religious significance is not self-evident. In fact, it is nonexistent in the world of many religious traditions. Judaism and Islam, for example, do not distinguish between a space that is saliently under the control of religion, with its institutions and its principles, and other realms that are unconnected to religion. These two traditions were historically all-encompassing social frameworks that sought to embrace every aspect of life: from the form of the regime to the social classes, from agriculture to an individual’s breakfast.

It’s in Christianity that we find a clear-cut differentiation between the different spheres. Beginning with Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), a clear distinction is put forward between the religious realm and the political realm, which is considered secular. That distinction accompanied the Western world in its development, with the tension between the religious authority (the pope) and the secular authority (the various emperors of Europe) often constituting fertile ground for struggle.

This differentiation laid the foundation for the secularization process. Beginning in the 17th century, together with the consolidation of Protestant Christianity, a confluence of developments increasingly diminish the religious sphere, with the aim of confining it to the individual’s psyche. The public sphere is defined as “secular,” that is, void of religion. Furthermore, the perception of religion as one’s personal affair develops in tandem with the perception of the social space as the public affair of the populace.

The more religion is compartmentalized into the depths of the individual’s psyche, the more the individual becomes part of a collectivity that is not religious but national. Hence the birth of the citizen – the autonomous individual who is above all a human being, who decides his religious beliefs for himself and chooses his form of government together with his fellow citizens. The nation-state, and subsequently the democratic state, spring up as part of the secularization process, and are defined parallel to and dependent on the modern definition of religion.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

For Judaism, therefore, secularization constituted a challenge not only because it brought about the Jews’ mass abandonment of the observance of the commandments, but because it utterly undermined the structure of Jewish identity. If until the 18th century, the Jews perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, as a separate ethno-religious community (like the Druze today, for example), the emancipation – the Jews’ transformation into citizens – obliged them to redefine their Judaism.

As Jewish studies professor Leora Batnitzky notes in her book “How Judaism Became a Religion” (2011), the Jews, the absolute majority of whom lived in Europe before World War II, responded to these developments in diverse and contradictory ways. Whereas modern Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism defined Judaism as a religion, Zionism perceived it as a nationality.

The religious movements held that Judaism is a ritual belief system that is limited to the individual realm, and endeavored to show that no contradiction is involved in a person’s being “a German of the Mosaic faith,” namely a German by nationality, and a Jew by religion. The Zionists, in contrast, rejected the religious-belief dimension of Judaism as an anachronistic excess to be discarded, and viewed Judaism primarily as a nationality. As such, it was up to the Jews to establish a state of their own, and it was only natural that the state the Zionist movement had in mind would be secular and democratic. In such a state, Jews, if they insisted, could be “religious,” though they would restrict their occupation with that archaic matter to their home and congregation. The public space would be based on the national disposition: It would be secular.

Undermining Secularism’s Essence

Back to religious Zionism. It began with the Mizrachi movement of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915), but without challenging the modern division of Judaism into religion and nationality. Reines allied himself with Herzlian Zionism, with the aim of providing the Jews a safe haven in the Land of Israel. In terms of his attitude toward secularization, there is no difference in principle between Hamizrachi and modern Orthodoxy in Germany, France or the United States. Reines, we can say, simply dreamed of Israelis of the Mosaic faith.

Rav Kook’s doctrine presents an essentially different approach: He intended explicitly to overcome the disparity between religion and nationality by uniting them in messianic matrimony. Kook envisioned a “state that is in its essence ideal”: meaning, a state that exists as a divine representation, implementing God’s will on earth. There is no place for secular individuals in such a state, because the connection between upper and lower is the basis of its existence, the source of its vitality and efflorescence and, no less, of its political platform. Amid attempts (that failed) to establish Degel Yerushalayim, a religious political movement, Rabbi Kook wrote, “with a supreme show of shining, free holiness, we shall illuminate all regime-based paths.” Politics will be nourished by holiness; holiness will become political.

Rav Kook’s intention was to annul every vestige of the secularization process. He was fiercely critical of the Orthodox Jewry of his time, which he perceived as occupied with a “religious idea,” by which he meant that it viewed Judaism as mere religion. For Kook, however, Judaism was a “divine idea” that encompasses the universe in its totality and views the Jewish people as a uniform organism that functions as an expression of the supreme will. It was Judaism’s division into a religion, on the one hand, and a nationality, on the other, that he rejected outright: “It is a great error on the part of those who do not feel the immanent unity of Israel … from this derives the desire to dichotomize the national matter and the religious matter into two parts.” Judaism is “one indivisible unit,” and the state that will be established is wholly sanctified unto God. The whole earth is filled with his glory.

Rav Kook did not live to see the sovereign State of Israel, and if he had, it’s difficult to know what he would have thought of it. In its first decades of existence, Israel was blatantly national and vigorously secular. Its leaders did not regard themselves as the receptacle of the divine inspiration and did not ground its regime in “shining holiness.” Rav Kook’s doctrine was updated and adapted to the Israeli situation by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, and his pupils. They would lead Gush Emunim after the conquest of Judea and Samaria and would implement with a mighty hand what they learned under the tutelage of their mentor.

Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger at Sebastia, after granted permision by the govronment of Israel to stay at the site, leading to the settlement of Elon Moreh, 1975

The Roots of Gush Emunim

The heart and core of Kookism is the desire to unite two holy entities: the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The holiness of the land derives from the Torah and tradition. The holiness of the state is gleaned from Rav Kook’s assertion that the present configuration of Jews in Israel augurs the advent of the redemption. The messianic, as usual, serves as an alchemical transformer that turns everyday brass into redemptive gold. In practice, the State of Israel rules in the Land of Israel and imprints the will of the Jews on it. The popular will – an important Kookist principle – is an expression of God’s will. Thus, for Kookism, sovereignty, as the political expression of the popular will over the land, is of special importance. “Redemption is but sovereignty: the people’s government across the whole span of its land,” stated Zvi Yehuda. The Land of Israel, under the people of Israel, according to the will of Israel, which advances (even unconsciously) the Torah of Israel.

And, as it happened, Israeli sovereignty over the “whole span” of the land came to pass after the Six-Day War. Only then were the holiness of the state and the holiness of the land fused together perfectly. As the poet Natan Alterman put it, “This victory … effectively erased the difference between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.” For the disciples of Zvi Yehuda, this territorial expansion was not only an expression of God’s will but the realization of his father’s political theology.

And the territorial expansion itself became a ritual for them. What occurred, in the words of Gideon Aran, was “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, making it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” The act of settlement becomes a ritual, and messianic belief allows settlement of the land and Israeli sovereignty over it to be seen as the force that turns the heavenly gears of the divine machine. In Aran’s incisive phrasing, it’s the metamorphosis of religious Zionism into the Zionist religion. No longer is there the religious element within Zionism; now there is the overriding religious framework, which is characterized in part by Zionism.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and Ariel Sharon laying the cornerstone of Elon Moreh, 1975 There is a controversy over the roots of Gush Emunim. Aran, who as a researcher skittered across the rocky slopes of Samaria with members of the movement, locates its gestation among the Gahelet (“ember”) group of young people (among whom were Haim Druckman, Zephaniah Drori and Zalman Melamed, all of whom became prominent rabbis). Seeking a response to Israeli secularization, they moved into the half-empty yeshiva of Rav Kook, which was then led by his son.

Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, arguably the most distinguished researchers of religious Zionism, believes that the Gahelet group simply rode the coattails of a grass-roots movement that had begun without them, to appropriate it. They find the birth of Gush Emunim as taking place among circles of well-off, middle-class, young Orthodox people who embarked on settling Judea and Samaria not for reasons of redemptive theology but as compensation for an inferiority complex they suffered vis-a-vis secular Zionism, and as the expression of a quite standard pioneer-Zionist ideology. They simply took advantage of their opportunity to become pioneers and “fulfillers.” It was only afterward that they referenced Rav Kook’s visions in order to explain to themselves and others how their actions could be reconciled with the general Jewish messianic program. Their action, however, enabled and encouraged the Gahelet rabbis and other Kookists to take over the movement and to turn it gradually into a messianic theological force.

Gush Emunim was established at the beginning of 1974, just a few months after the Yom Kippur War. Graduates of Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem – among them Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Yoel Bin Nun and Hanan Porat – met in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, in the West Bank’s Etzion Bloc, which was captured in 1967, and drew up a vision for a national and religious movement of awakening. The scale of the vision was as impressive as it was all-inclusive. Its goal was nothing less than full redemption for the Jewish people and the whole world. It accommodated the increasing closeness of secular Jews to the world of religious precepts – the synthesis envisioned by Abraham Isaac Kook.

As for Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, it was irreversible, according to an unequivocal pronouncement by Zvi Yehuda Kook. “The State of Israel is a divine matter … Not only are there no withdrawals from kilometers of the Land of Israel, heaven forbid, but on the contrary, we will add conquests and liberations … In our divine structure, which is comprehensive and world-embracing, withdrawal has no reality and no grip,” he stated. Gush Emunim would be the earthly manifestation for this redemptive momentum. Or, in the words of the late Hanan Porat, “Gush Emunim is the yearning for God’s manifestation in the world.”

Gush Emunim proceeded to establish the settlements of Ofra and Kedumim, and tried repeatedly to establish Elon Moreh. In 1977, Menachem Begin assumed power, promising “many more Elon Morehs,” and was as good as his word. Beit El, Elkana and Kfar Adumim were established. The success necessarily generated institutionalization. In 1979, the Amana movement was created in order to organize the settlement project bureaucratically and economically. The following year, the Yesha Council was formed – an administrative body that amalgamated the heads of the local authorities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (for which Yesha is an acronym). Thus, by the end of the 1980s, having consolidated formally and bureaucratically, Gush Emunim had taken on institutional trappings and effectively ceased to be a living ideological movement.

Secularizing the Messiah

Gush Emunim continued to fade, but it would be a mistake to view its decline as a simple matter of “bourgeoisification.” Of course, like every movement of spiritual awakening, it too passed through a youthful stage and entered life’s more formalized paths. However, its disintegration was above all the increasing unraveling of the Kookist paradigm. Though this occurred concurrent with the turn to the bourgeois of Gush Emunim, it was not because turning bourgeois signifies institutionalization, but because its deep meaning is secularization.

Elon Moreh, click for original

Kookism viewed Zionism as a national-religious totality that would fulfill the divine messianic plan. The act of land settlement became ritualized; redemptive significance was attributed to the application of Israeli sovereignty to more and more territory. But what happens when settlement is implemented not by a group of messianic activists but by a commercial company? And what results from the quest by the settlers themselves not for the act of settlement as such but for quality of life in spacious homes with red-tiled roofs?

During the 1980s, and with greater intensity in the 1990s (and precisely during the tenure of Prime Minister Rabin, who greatly improved the infrastructure in Judea and Samaria), the settlement enterprise became a lodestone for people in search of housing solutions and upgrades. The settler, even if he had an ideological past, ceased to be a pioneer and became, in practice and in substance, a consumer.

Settlers who solicit funding and infrastructure from the state view it as a service provider, not as a manifestation of the Shekhinah (the divine presence). Though not necessarily contradictory, these two approaches generate a different religious consciousness. The Kookist vision of a unity of religion and nationality is inherently idealistic and cannot readily accommodate an instrumental approach that is out to use the state and not to worship it. Activism gives way to routine, and routine institutionalizes a relationship underlain by an aspiration that aims at preservation, not breakthrough. The settler becomes accustomed to receive, not to create, and the settlement ritual is normalized. The unity between national land settlement and religious ethos is degraded; the two revert to being two separate facets of the quotidian.

Hence the return to the picture of the basic differentiation within the secularization process. The Zionist religion reverts to being religious Zionism – namely, an approach that identifies the state with national Judaism, and religion with halakhic Judaism. Routine vitiates Kookism. Without the messianic vector that demands movement deriving from constant tension, Kookism becomes one more form of exegetical theology that offers reassuring answers to queries about belief. Bourgeoisification secularizes Kookism and deconstructs it into standard religious Zionism.

Two elements accelerate this basic process of re-secularization. The first is the unwillingness of secular Jews to become religiously observant. The Movement for Greater Israel, established after the Six-Day War, showcased a highly impressive collection of secular Israelis (Haim Gouri, Natan Alterman, Aharon Amir, Moshe Shamir and others). Here, according to Gush Emunim, was proof of the advent of Rabbi Kook’s vision: Direct contact with the territories of the homeland had seemingly awakened the “Jewish element” within these secular figures, and they were on their way back to the Torah.

The collapse of this hope undermined Kookist optimism. It also shows the fundamental unfeasibility of Kookism (or of any totalitarian religious ideology). The modern world is too diverse and complex, and its inhabitants subscribe to a concept that is too individualistic and autonomous to be subsumed within a single dogmatic framework. Secularity is here to stay.

As if it were not enough that the people of Israel did not become penitents, since the 1980s, the State of Israel has repeatedly reduced its sovereignty over the territories of the Land of Israel. The withdrawal from Sinai, in the wake of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement, was the first serious blow to Kookist theology, followed by the withdrawals from the cities of the West Bank in the Oslo Accords and from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Kookist messianism, which categorically rejected any possibility of withdrawal, had to cope with recurrent contradictions in regard to the paradigm it espoused. They undermined it and ultimately caused it to crumble.

These three intertwined factors render the backtracking from Kookism to a simple national-religious conception – like that of Hamizrachi, the inceptive religious-Zionist ideology – almost inevitable. The bourgeois thrust transformed the attitude toward the state from ritualistic to realistic, and from idealistic to pragmatic. Due to the state’s secular character, it is looked on with growing reservations, even alienation. The courts become an obstruction, the country ruled at times by a “government of malice,” and not even the IDF is as holy as it was. When the state also initiates actions that flagrantly contradict Kookism, the alienation becomes blatant.

Religious Zionism in Israel has thus withdrawn to the stance of modern Orthodoxy. It has redivided reality into a secular realm and a religious realm, with the state considered a secular matter (with which it’s necessary to have dealings, and to try and draw as close as possible to the right values); while everything that takes place in its communities (in the religious education system, the youth movements and the synagogues as well) falls under the aegis of the Shekhinah. True, unlike Europe or the United States, this is the state of the Jewish people, but like them it is also a modern nation-state, and as such is based on secular logic that confines religion to a certain enclave and excludes it from rule in the fields of power and knowledge.

Using religious simbolism to inhance nationalism

Nationalism as Secularisation

But the disintegration of Gush Emunim generated additional shock waves. The tendencies that began with the collapse of the Kookist worldview intensified. In the past decade, it’s become clear that religious Zionism has reached a new phase in its relinquishment of Kookist ideals. It has entered a stage that places a strong emphasis on the distinction between religion and nationality – in other words, on the intensification of secularity. These processes are related to the greater share that accrues to the national dimension in the identity makeup of religious Zionism: that is, the ethnic element and the right-wing political posture have become far more central than they were in the past.

Beginning in the 1990s, the National Religious Party became declaredly right-wing. The party’s “historic alliance” with Mapai, forerunner of Labor, went by the boards in 1977, but its existence before that attests to the NRP’s character at the time. Its pragmatic and dovish leaders, such as Yosef Burg and Zerach Warhaftig, were replaced by declared right-wingers such as Hanan Porat, Yitzhak Levy and finally Naftali Bennett. Its current incarnation as Habayit Hayehudi has brought the process to a peak. The party’s composition shows clearly that a right-wing stance is more important than a halakhic one: The party will take in secular right-wingers but has no place for religiously observant left-wingers.

Moreover, the national-religious party is no more than the image of its voters. In a comprehensive study conducted in 2014 under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute, political scientist Tamar Hermann and her associates found that among the broad circles of this public, a “political-security right-wing” approach is a more stable and more permanent common trait than a uniform, binding religious way of life.

In her study of ex-Orthodox Jews in Israel, Poriya Gal Getz quotes a former religiously observant individual as saying, “Even after I stopped being religious, the feeling is that parents and community will be hurt far more if you become a leftist, because that’s perceived as sheer treason.” Treason, understandably, is a move against one’s reference group, which embodies our primary identity traits. When the reference group is determined more according to one’s political stance than by halakhic strictness, the relative share of those elements in one’s personal identity becomes clear.

Here’s what the increasing secularization of religious Zionism looks like: Its adherents view themselves in the first instance as members of the Jewish people and defenders of the State of Israel. True, they also observe the commandments, but that’s just their “religion,” something they pile onto nationality that expresses their personal relationship with God. Their basic identity is ethnic-Jewish and national-Israeli. What remains of the Kookist package, then, is the veneration of nationalism, but without the translation of nationalism into a theological language.

There still are religious Zionists, of course, who believe in the coming of redemption and in the settlements as the central project that is hastening it. However, they have been marginalized and now find themselves in a situation similar to that which preceded the Six-Day War. There are also religious Zionists whose halakhic identity remains very powerful and overrides the nationalist aspect. They are what’s known as “Hardalim” (acronym for national-Haredi), a group that coalesced parallel to the general disintegration of Kookism. These groups continue to abide by different versions of Kookism, but they constitute a minority in the religious-Zionist movement. For most religious Zionists, modern nationalism and the observance of the precepts constitute two separate foci of identity, and the former is becoming increasingly paramount.

From the ruins of Gush Emunim, then, religious Zionism emerges less halakhic and more nationalist. This is religious Zionism without messianic fervor and with a diluted Jewish identity, one that draws primarily on the national aspect and puts forward a simple, ethnocentric Jewish perception.

The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz was wrong when he predicted that disappointment in the messianic vision would lead Gush Emunim’s adherents to convert to Christianity. But he knew well that exalting nationalism to the status of a religious principle meant its deification: namely, its idolatrous positioning as the center of the religion. “The ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories,” he wrote in April 1968, are no more than “an expression of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism” (translation from a 1992 collection of essays by Leibowitz, edited by Eliezer Goldman). Nationalism is the core, religion is the cover. Today we see vividly the grotesque result of the process.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the current stage in the tangled and tense relations between Jewish religiosity and Jewish nationality is the final one. From the moment they were separated by the birth of modernity, each of these two elements has been attracted to its twin. The desire to bring the public space under its wing is deeply embedded in the religious system that underwent secularization, all the more so in the case of all-embracing monotheistic systems such as Judaism and Islam. Holiness is to religion as blood is to the human body. Another attempt at unification, like the consolidation of God with his Shekhinah, of religion and nationality, is only a matter of time. And time, as we know, is all that needs to be leaped over in order to arrive at the End of Days.

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Published in Haaretz today.

Betzalel Smotrich, Religious Zionism, and Fundementalism

Betzalel SmotrichAt a gathering of religious Zionist public figures two weeks ago, Deputy Knesset Speaker Betzalel Smotrich talked about his diplomatic plan, which he dubbed “The subjugation plan.” The purpose of the plan, he said, was “to erase all Palestinian national hope.”

Under the plan, the Palestinians will be given three choices – to leave the country; to live in Israel with the status of “resident alien,” because, as Smotrich made sure to note, “according to Jewish law there must always be some inferiority,” or to resist, “and then the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do.” When the deputy Knesset speaker was asked if he intended to wipe out whole families, including women and children, Smotrich replied, “In war, as in war.”

Smotrich presented the Book of Joshua as the source for his remarks. According to the Midrash, Joshua sent the residents of the land of Canaan three letters in which he set out the three aforementioned conditions. Maimonides explains that if the non-Jews do not flee, they must have limitations imposed on them “so they should be despised and lowly, and not raise their heads in Israel.” If they resist, he says, “not a soul must be left among them” – in other words, kill them all.

How many of those who sat and listened to these horrible things – learned men and women, Torah scholars and community leaders – agreed with him? It’s impossible to know. There were protests raised during the question period, in which some of those in attendance expressed shock. But not everyone was shocked.

I thought back to the op-ed by Yossi Klein last month that raised such a storm. Does “religious Zionism” want to “seize control of the state and cleanse it of Arabs,” as he wrote? No, definitely not. Are there people in that community who indeed want to do this? Yes, absolutely. The question is how numerous they are, or, in other words, where to place Smotrich. Is he on the margins, part of an extremist, fundamentalist and zealous minority, who isn’t taken too seriously – or in the center, a future leader of a large public?

One of the characteristics of fundamentalist religiosity is the reduction of religious tradition into a rigid and simplistic framework of principles. It’s generally joined by a monolithic perception of history, as if all eras are identical and what was true 2,000 years ago is still valid today, and a strong desire to renew our days as of old, i.e., to bring the past into the present. All these together create a one-dimensional surrender to the authority of Scripture. This is generally done in a very untraditional manner, since fundamentalist obedience hews closely to the literal meaning of the text, while traditional religiosity recognizes that religious truth is complex (“There are 70 faces to the Torah”), provides interpretations of Scripture, and integrates other considerations into its approach to faith.

Religious Zionism is not fundamentalist. Most of the community leads a traditional religious life of interpretation and flexibility. Most live in the center of the country, in Jerusalem and Petah Tikva, Kfar Sava and Ra’anana. We’re talking about a middle-class, solid, bourgeois, satisfied community. Judaism for them is a deep identity and a way of life, but they don’t dream at night about rebuilding the Temple and they are pleased to live in a democracy.

But Smotrich understood something when he spoke with this community’s representatives. Because he was speaking to a totally observant audience, he allowed himself to expose the religious-mythic underpinnings of his ideas. He hoped that speaking about Jewish law and the Book of Joshua would lead to an automatic identification with his remarks that would be reinforced by the dormant foundations of a deeply rooted tradition. He hoped that his religious language would make his ideas much harder to oppose. Unfortunately, that hope is not unfounded.

Democracy, like liberalism, is an ethos. Religious tradition, like nationalism, is the foundation of identity and narrative perception. In a contest between them, it’s very difficult for the former to triumph. If during the 20th century Western nationalism substantively included democracy and liberalism (and thus also moderated religion), in recent decades there’s been a gap emerging between them. As we can see from the refugee crisis in Europe and the Brexit vote, when the masses feel that liberalism is undermining the foundations of nationalism, the response is to boost nationalism at the expense of liberalism. Narrative and identity trump ethos.

Certain people in the religious-Zionist camp, Smotrich among them, turn to Jewish identity and use a mythic narrative to enlist support for anti-liberal ideas. In a situation in which liberalism is perceived as opposing identity, or in a situation in which there is no answer defending liberalism that’s based on identity, they will succeed in drawing many after them, first and foremost those who are deeply connected to tradition. Only a position that emerges from one’s identity toward liberalism, that reunites nationalism and liberalism (and even religion and democracy), can prevent many religious Zionists and others from being drawn to the insane ideas of Smotrich and his ilk.

The fact that Smotrich is a dangerous fundamentalist who seeks to give the Palestinians a choice between transfer, apartheid or genocide is horrifying. It’s hard to complain to the Palestinian Authority about their encouragement of terror when the deputy Knesset speaker of the State of Israel supports this type of “subjugation plan.” He should be removed from his post and thrown out of the Knesset.

But even if this were to happen, the important question is what kind of response we, the religious and secular Zionists, proffer to his ideas. Until there is such an answer, he will continue to move from the margins to the center.

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Published today in Haaretz

Religious Violence and the Radical Settler Youth’s Quest for Authenticity

There was in him a vital scorn of all:
As if the worst had fall’n which could befall,
He stood a stranger in this breathing world, 
An erring spirit from another hurled …
So much he soar’d beyond, or sunk beneath
The men with whom he felt condemn’d to breathe.

These lines, from Lord Byron’s tragic poem “Lara” (1814), vividly convey the mood of the tormented Romantic genius. He stands alone on a frozen cliff, contemptuous of all he sees below: the bourgeois society with its provincial normality, the masses caught up in a daily struggle for a slightly larger slice of the pie, the whole civilized world with its games, its rules, its falsehoods. He, the genius, is alien to all that. He fell from a different world, yet is condemned to breathe the same air as the plebeians.

ByronLord Byron did not think it worthy of him to breathe city air. He was destined for radically different heights. After voluntary exile from England, wanderings across Europe and a few years of living in Italy, he decided, at the age of 35, to join the struggle of nascent Greek nationalism against the Ottoman Empire. After equipping the Greek fleet at his own expense, and despite his complete lack of military experience, he placed himself at the head of a force that was preparing to capture the fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth. Only the fact that he fell ill and died from complications of influenza prevented him from suffering a heroic death on the battlefield.

Byron was exceptional simply because of his talent and his fortune. Around him, young people sought a life of daring and adventure, of gushing emotions and soul-searching. Interestingly, in the view of those Romantics, such a life was obliged to interweave rebellion and truth, as though truth that does not rebel is not valid, and rebellion that does not involve a quest for truth is not true rebellion. Byron thus embodied a general European phenomenon.

Exactly 40 years before “Lara” appeared, Goethe published “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Goethe was only 24 when he wrote the epistolary novel that made him the voice of his generation. Werther, the tormented artist, describes in letters to his friend Wilhelm his impossible love for Charlotte, who is engaged to a different man. Ultimately, his intense, terrible love leads Werther to commit suicide, but not before he shares with his friend some insights. Young Werther finds in nature the balm for his soul, which seeks to truly live and create.

According to Werther, we must

keep to Nature alone in future. Only nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist. A good deal can be said of the advantage of rules and regulations, much the same as can be said in praise of bourgeois society. A man shaped by the rules will never produce anything tasteless or bad, just as a citizen who observes laws and decorum will never be an unbearable neighbor or an out-and-out villain; and yet on the other hand, say what you please, the rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression! (translation by Michael Hulse).

The world of laws and rules, the world of settled folk, is perfectly reasonable and safeguards us from evil. However, its reasonableness is also its weakness. It’s average, ordinary, logical. It is incapable of soaring. And, as such, it destroys in people any real contact with nature – which is to say that it destroys the place of truth within us. It subdues our creativity and thrusts us onto a fixed, preordained track. The only course, then, is to rebel against it.

Close game with truth – and death

GoetheEveryone who listens to the voices emanating from the circles of “hilltop youth” in the West Bank will discern salient resemblances to the sentiments expressed in the quotations above. The soul-searching, the desire to get close to nature, the contempt for the society they have abandoned, the rebellion that is construed as truth and the close game with death. There’s nothing new in this and we didn’t need the murder of the Dawabsheh family in the village of Duma last July to hear it.

In an article on radical settler youth in the hills of Samaria, published in the August 2007 issue of the now-defunct settler magazine Nekuda, Shoshi Greenfield quoted Uri Alon, who worked with young people at risk, who observed that, “youth who are looking for truth without compromises, and not the compromising, tepid truth of the adults’ world.”

In early January, the religious-Zionist newspaper Makor Rishon published an anonymous testimony by someone who was active in the hilltop youth 15 years ago. “I grew up in the groves of the religious-Zionist movement, but I was scornful of it and of its key figures,” he wrote.

They seemed to me old-fashioned, with a Hanan Porat-type of naivete [a reference to the late right-wing rabbi and political leader], disconnected from the new way of life that included working the land and tending sheep, a deep connection to the earth, making do with little and displaying esprit de corps … The Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] model of an uncompromising disconnect and of creating a sealed-off autonomy amid the Israeli licentiousness fit us like a glove.

This is not a new phenomenon, and its characteristics are largely fixed: a rebellion against parents and society, a quest for truth, an unwillingness to compromise. Last December, journalist Karni Eldad published an interview in the newspaper Maariv with Eliashuv Har Shalom, 26, the resident of a remote settlement outpost. He explained,

There [were] always those who sacrificed themselves on the altar of truth, ready to pay the price, and these fellows are ready to pay the price. But the question is: Where does this place us as a society? We are not ‘wild weeds,’ we are fruit-giving trees. You raised us. Suddenly you are dissociating yourselves from us? Suddenly we are not part of you?…  What is Zionism? We don’t know what ‘Zionism’ means anymore. I understand the people who distance themselves from the term, because now it’s like being ‘next to’ or ‘just like’ the real thing. I know what Zionism used to be – draining swamps and Beit Hadassah in Hebron. But if being a Zionist is to apologize for your very existence, then there’s a question whether I am a Zionist. Today we are spitting in the face of Zionism. True Zionists would not have turned ‘nationality’ into asterisks on the ID card.

Let’s look again at the elements that recur in these last few quotations: contempt for society; rejection of compromise and interpretation of it as being disingenuous; search for truth by means of breaking away from the commonalty; closeness to nature as an ideal; and the self-perception of being authentic successors to the religious-Zionist movement and of the Zionist movement as such. Thus the roots of hilltop youth lie in European Romantic streams, and the ethos their movement expresses is merely a Jewish translation of the Romantic quest for authenticity.

From Romanticiam to Religious Zionism

Still, we need to see what sets hilltop youth apart from classic religious Zionism – which also owed a large debt to Romanticism. The Romantic movement, emerging at the end of the 18th century, was never an orderly, sharply defined phenomenon, accommodated a broad range of artists and thinkers, ideas and creative works. At the same time, it can be said simplistically that, as a reaction to the Enlightenment, which prioritized reason and viewed it as the eternal, universal and dominant element in man, Romanticism sought to elevate emotion, creativity and uniqueness to the highest rung, viewing these as essences to be investigated in the course of the journey undertaken by the individual – or the nation – to self-fulfillment.

Alongside writers like Byron and Goethe, who manifested in their lives and their works a personal, sentimental search for self, there were others who believed that the basic element of that search lay not in the individual but in the national collectivity. Such late-18th-century thinkers as Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte saw the individual as a derivative of the culture and the nation in which he originated. Only if the individual recognized his essence as a cell within the national organism could he realize himself fully, they held. Life was unity before it was multiplicity, an interconnecting flow and not static alienation. The individual is bound by every fiber to the whole, and even if he wishes to, he cannot disconnect and live his life alone. A full life is expressed in the individual’s faithfulness to – if not in his actual merging with – the collective.

kookRabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935) was very much influenced by Romantic thought. For him, too, reality is a tremendous spiritual unity, and for him, too, the individual’s quest for selfhood is equivalent to his quest for the truth – and both are manifested in the Torah and the God of Israel. In his writings, Kook fuses the individual track (self-fulfillment by merging with the totality of things) and the national track (self-fulfillment by merging with the nation).

However, it is the latter that has been emphasized by the rabbi’s pupils and disciples, particularly in the doctrine of his only son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891-1982). Comprehensive research has shown how the stance that sanctifies nationhood was magnified in the writings of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, at the expense of his father’s more personal and individual-directed writings.

The religious-Zionist movement – which beginning in the 1970s adopted the concepts presented by the senior Rabbi Kook as a central meta-narrative – has expressed the broader, national orientation in its approach (which attributes supreme importance, even holiness, to the state’s institutions), by adopting the ethos of self-sacrifice and of acting for the general good, and in perceiving itself as the authentic successor to the Zionist movement. All these notions, of course, placed the emphasis on the collectivity at the expense of the individual.

Since the latter half of the 1980s, the religious-Zionist movement has also seen the rise of the phenomenon of the personal, spiritual search that seeks to give expression to creativity, uniqueness and an intimate relationship, essentially private, with the Divinity. For their textual and conceptual platform, those in the forefront of this approach – at the time, Rabbis Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) and Menachem Froman, and afterward also Ami Olami, Benny Kalmanzon and Dov Singer – drew on Hasidic materials, hence the term “neo-Hasidism” that is applied in general to a phenomenon that has since spread greatly and resisted attempts to suppress it. Today, the idea of embarking on a personal spiritual quest is very widespread in the religious-Zionist public.

The Ethics of Authenticity

The hilltop youth, including the terrorists they have spawned, embody a private case of this general phenomenon. Here, self-fulfillment within the religious-Zionist movement is no longer perceived to be conditional on one’s connection to the national collective; on the contrary, it is based on a personal quest for self-expression. In contrast to the phenomena of neo-Hasidism as a whole, these young people do not make do with embarking on a personal spiritual journey that is parallel to life within a greater society: They are looking for authenticity precisely by unequivocally withdrawing from the generality. It is, indeed, their extreme rebellion against the society at large that allows them to consider themselves to be the only ones who are truly faithful to Torah and God.

This is not a chance development. It is how the ethos of authenticity works.: embodying a modern ideal, and typifying Romanticism. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains in his book “The Malaise of Modernity,” for an action to be considered authentic, it must inherently be exceptional. If I come to a New York law office in a suit and tie and declare that I dressed that way because I felt it was an authentic expression of myself, I will get bemused looks – because what’s authentic about a suit and tie? But if I arrive barefoot, in torn jeans, or in a top hat, my colleagues will likely interpret that as an authentic reflection of my original and unique personality.

Authenticity, according to Taylor, entails creativity, originality and a rebellion against conventional norms – that’s how it’s created. However, if this is indeed so, we have to understand that authenticity is closely bound up with those rules. Only an act that in our society is thought to be original or creative can be considered authentic. Even if it poses as a personal quest for maximum originality, in its essence, it is a dialogue with the society from which it emanated. In fact, I would argue that achieving so-called authenticity will always involve not only a rebellion against certain societal norms and values, but also radicalization of other norms and values of that same society.

This is how we must understand hilltop youth. No doubt, they are rebelling against the society around them. They are scornful of their parents, reject rabbinical authority, and of course are breaking the laws of the state. In their Romantic pursuit of authenticity, they are bound to turn their back on the society from which they came.

hilltop youthWe need to look closely, however, at what these young people are rebelling against and what they are not rebelling against. Their rebellion does not take the form of volunteering in left-wing organizations such as Breaking the Silence or Peace Now. Nor do they stop being religiously observant, buy large motorcycles or revel in celebrations of sexual liberation. Because the greater society always defines for us even what is authentic, if we want to be considered as such by others, it is not possible for us to rebel against all its conventions. As noted, a central part of our rebellion will not lie in breaking the rules, but in radicalizing them.

Let us return to Lord Byron. He rebelled against his milieu by leaving his homeland, England, without intending to return. He disdained bourgeois society and its conventions. However, his greatest adventure, in which he was killed, was based on a desire to cling tightly to values that were widely accepted in his time: He fought for nationality and freedom. We find a similar pattern in Goethe’s young Werther. He withdraws from society and tries to lead a simple life, close to nature. He spurns the “laws” and the “general welfare.” However, his life ends because he is so faithful to the obligatory call of love, a familiar and accepted ideal.

The rebellion of hilltop youth is against the society from which they sprang, which they consider spineless, compromising, unauthentic and untrue. Their rebellion is against the religious-Zionist rabbis for the same reasons. However, they are not rebelling against the education they received – on the contrary, they are radicalizing the values accepted in their milieu: settlement in Judea and Samaria, strict halakhic observance and an imperious attitude toward the Palestinians.

As another representative of this group, Zvi Sukkot, wrote on his Facebook page on December 21,

Whoever burned the house in Duma did not do it because he thinks he knows more about security than the defense minister, but because he thinks that the Torah understands more than the defense minister. And there is revenge in the Torah. He see himself as representing the Torah in this world. You were the ones who gave him that education. When you opposed peace with Arabs, when you built without permits and became champion manipulators in money laundering, [when] you said that under no circumstances will women sing in the IDF, when you talked about the state and the High Court of Justice in criminal terms. And you did it all in the name of the Torah!!

Hilltop youth are rebelling against the rabbis who were their teachers, but not against their religious teachings. Rather, they are using those teachings as a spring: the further they stretch them, the more intense they become. It is precisely the radicalization of these teachings, and their fundamentalist understanding of them, that create an authentic Jewish existence for these individuals.

Every society that is committed to certain common ideals, every society that is ideological, summons up extreme, sometimes violent fringes, and the religious-Zionist community is not alone in this. What needs to be examined in regard to hilltop youth is not their extremism, but the values on which they are establishing their interpretation of Jewish authenticity. The mold into which those values are cast is Romantic, but the material from which they are forged is found in the Jewish tradition, and the impression arises that sometimes not only is it not neutralized, but that its praises are sung. In such a situation only one step separates perception of it in a controlled manner that is aware of the gap between the ideal and the reality, and its zealous interpretation, which is a prelude to violence.

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Published in Haaretz

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.

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.

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Published in Hebrew in Haaretz, 7.8.13


Tomer Persico

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

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