Two great Jewish archetypes emerged in 18th century Europe, and the enmity between them persists to this day.
- I Was a Teenage Kahanist
- Dear Leftists: This Isn't as Bad as It Gets
- The Proto-fascist Plot to Destroy Israeli Democracy
There were Hasidim, whose founder Israel Ba’al Shem Tov dug clay and lime for a living before he and his wife opened an inn. In time, he revealed himself to be a healer. His message, he said, was summed up on the Talmudic dictum that “God desires the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b) and in Isaiah’s observation of God that “the whole world is full of his glory” (6:13).
Fastidious piety was fine, and so was slavish scholarship, but God looks for people of spirit, who enjoy the world He created. God looks for people who sing, laugh and smile. He said, “if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy.” Young Jews across Europe embraced his philosophy, becoming Hasidim.
Which led to the second great archetype, Mitnagdim. The name literally means “those who oppose,” and what Mitnagdim opposed were Hasidim. The most celebrated mitnaged was Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman, or the Vilna Gaon. As he saw it, Hasidim were ignorant drop-outs who abandoned all that mattered about Judaism: strict adherence to commandments, a hierarchy that recognized the authority of Rabbis and their most learned students, and decorum.
Their singing was unseemly, their embrace as equals of simple working folks an insult to sages, their veneration of heart over mind an assault on what made Jews Jewish: yeshivadom and People-of-the-Book-itude. In a famous 1772 essay, the Vilna Gaon denounced the ecstatic piety of the Hasidim: their twirls and somersaults, their drinking, their singing, their jokes and all the rest. He set out a ban on all these things and, more generally, on the joy with which Hasidim lived and worshipped, so different from the dour severity with which the mitnagdim addressed God.
Five years later, the Gaon excommunicated the Hasidim of Vilna. And for the next twenty years, until he died in 1797, the Vilna Gaon complained constantly about the false and hypocritical reverence of the Hasidim.
These two types can still be found among the ultra-Orthodox today. There is a Rabbi who glides up and down my street on in-line skates holding a large yellow flag bearing a Lubavitch crest: he is a Hasid. And there is the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, who has for years been shocked, shocked by women wishing to wear prayer shawls: he is a mitnaged.
These types are not just found among the religious. They can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to politicians as well. Arik Sharon – a man of affability and improvisation and passion – was a hasid, Yitzhak Shamir – a sullen foot soldier of the status quo – was a mitnaged.
Recent events have shown that almost all of us on the Israeli left are mitnaged to a degree unseen since 18th century Vilna. We are dour. We complain: about settlers, the religious, and about right wing politicians and the people who vote for them. We complain about young people (who should know better) and old people (who should know better). We complain about folks who sold out for the bread and circuses of inferior entertainments like reality TV and the Euroleague.
We complain about the clueless media. We complain about people who live in the “periphery” who don’t vote for us, even though we’re the ones trying to waylay government funds from posh settlements to development towns within the Green Line. Our memes are sour and mean. We post links to the latest essay by Rogel Alpher declaring that he’s had it with this country and he’s leaving, this time for real.
We call our rivals fascists. We say that proposed legislation marks the end of democracy. When asked how we are, we sigh and say, how can we be, given the situation? We whine. We harrumph. We fail to see all that is beautiful in this country, and all the good things that have happened here over the past decades.
All of this makes for terrible politics.
Take, for instance, the recent brouhaha over the right-wing Im Tirtzu publishing ads claiming that human rights activists are traitors. The accusation is outrageous, and we responded with outrage.
This may be understandable, but it was stupid. There was something sullen in our fulminations against McCarthyism and something glum in our tsk-tsking about the death of Israeli democracy. We responded as we have lately taken to responding to everything, bleakly, and this practiced reply prevented us from seeing what may be the most important point about Im Tirtzu’s attacks. That they were funny. Ridiculous. Buffoonish.
Like many people who teach at a university, I have had the experience of kids auditing a lecture to gauge whether I may be straying too far from their orthodoxy, in which case they’d add me to some blacklist somewhere.
The drill - a pimply kid pumped with self-importance appointing himself arbiter of public political hygiene in your little graduate seminar – is essentially a comic one. For one thing, get a life! Nothing I’m saying will have much impact on national security, one way or another. For another thing, this is what you do for kicks? There must be easier ways to be a bully.
There is a crassness to this political monitoring of universities that is obvious to everyone involved, to the lecturer, to the other students, and to the self-appointed censure himself.
There was also a crassness to the recent Im Tirtzu video and print ads that was, well, kind of pathetic and kind of ludicrous. By responding in our mitnaged register – They will destroy democracy! Ban them! – we missed an opportunity to skewer them, and to have a laugh along the way. We missed the joke.
This doesn’t matter much in and of itself, because Im Tirtzu does not matter much in and of itself. But the mitnaged outlook of the left does harm us in more important ways. It diminishes our ability to get through to other Israelis whose support we need to bring political change that we want to see. It does not open lines of communication with Israelis who see their future here, and their childrens’, to declare that that’s it, we are emigrating to Berlin.
Neither does eulogizing the country’s deceased democracy. Nor calling this politician or that a fascist. We’ve become that guy at the pub, telling the bartender in shocked dismay about the people he works with: “I’ve called them lazy, I’ve called them stupid, I’ve called them incompetent, and I’ve called them liars: I’ve tried everything and still they won’t listen to me!”
It is time for a hasidic revolution on the left. Time to see in everyone a potential ally and fellow traveler. To appreciate all that our parents’ generation built here, and theirs. To speak, with an open heart, to everyone who will listen. To shed our dour and stern pessimism. Emma Goldman once said, “If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.” It is time to strike up the band.
This is not to deny that things of dreadful seriousness, bad things, occur almost every day. Israelis and Palestinians die, kids murder and are murdered, homes are demolished, and lives are wrecked. The power of hasidut is not that it denies such evils, but that it sees them and still rejoices in the good, believing that together we can bring a better future. We will do better if we abandon the angry and stern rectitude, outrage and despair, that have lately characterized our attitude on the left. We will do better strapping on skates.