Opinion |

A Simplistic, Power-driven Religious Zionism Marches Away From Jewish Values

Parading through Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter, the Orthodox Jews marching for Jerusalem Day equate Jewish heroism with militaristic nationalism. But there are, and always were, other paths

William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener
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Waving flags during a march marking Jerusalem Day in 2016.
Waving flags during a march marking Jerusalem Day in 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
William Kolbrener
William Kolbrener

While some of those Israeli and Diaspora Jews marching triumphantly Tuesday through the Old City on Jerusalem Day will feel themselves to be enacting Jewish values, Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the pre-eminent American rabbis of the last century would have disagreed.

He would have said the marchers are in fact undermining them. Soloveitchik – part of the Brisk family dynasty – followed the advice of his mother (against his father’s wishes) and earned a PhD in philosophy in Berlin. With the sensibility of those dual commitments, he helped to create the world of American modern Orthodoxy, with many of his students now heading synagogues and yeshivot throughout North American and Israel as well.

Soloveitchik was offered and turned down an opportunity to be Chief Rabbi of Israel in 1935, at the urging of his uncle, whose Brisk family were staunch anti-Zionists. But after World War II, he broke with them– and publicly proclaimed his Zionism, his gratitude, love and devotion for the Jewish state. On account of this embrace of Zionism, some of his family-members would describe him as a ‘Boston Sadducee.’ Where they – with other ultra-Orthodox Jews of the time – rejected Israel's establishment, Soloveitchik saw what he called a ‘third-way’ between their rejectionism and what he saw as the Zionist ‘deification of the state.’

A march marking Jerusalem Day near Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Soloveitchik’s position emanates from his understanding of Jewish history, and in particular, the transformation the Jewish people underwent at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, an older conception of ‘congregation’ (or kahal) was ‘sublimated and transposed’ into a new conception: the community (edah).

For Soloveitchik, the idea of community transcends the here-and-now of congregation to create a connection between both past and anticipated future. The Men of the Great Assembly, those who helped created this new kind of self-conscious Jewish community, marked the ‘beginning of a new phase in Judaism’. In this new phase, ethical fellowship replaces political domination. This new conception of the Jewish community could survive through exile, suffering and historical calamity, even without territorial sovereignty, and certainly with no political power.

Which brings us back to Jerusalem Day, triumphalism and provocation. Surely there will be those today – including of course those Muslim Quarter marchers – who will condemn Soloveitchik’s old ‘exile mentality,’ accusing him of shying away from Jews holding tangible territorial power. Indeed, the heroism Soloveitchik celebrates is not an aggressive militaristic one, but rather one that based on an ethics of reciprocity, what he calls an ‘ethico-spiritual heroism.’

This new form of heroism has as one of its fundamental precepts: "One human being shalt not exercise power over another." Only God has such power, so "man wielding power over his fellow takes over an exclusively divine prerogative." The scholar, teacher and pupil – a community made possible through teaching and study – replace the political rule of the King. In the community of the Jewish people founded in study, love and reverence for the other replaces a desire for political power and conquest.

Policemen separate Israelis and Palestinians at Damascus gate, Jerusalem Day, May 8, 2013.Credit: AFP

In a novel reading of the Jewish tradition, Soloveitchik identifies what he calls an ‘anarchistic tendency’ in the Jewish sages – for them, wielding power is reprehensible under all circumstances. The ‘desire for power in all its manifestations’ whether it be ‘political, economic, judicial or even spiritual’ undermines the intrinsic dignity of man. That holds true both for the one who suffers conquest, but also –and perhaps just as much - the one who conquers. A corrupt political reality, informed by the desire for power, negatively affects each individual. Man compromises his divine image when he exploits his powers to have mastery over others.

Soloveitchik wrote about the dangers of political dominion in 1951, just three years after the Jewish state’s founding, in many ways hedging against the possibility of a Zionism gone too far, anticipating the theological and political excesses of today.

The skeptical anarchism he attributes to the sages may, in fact, be a good antidote for the potent cocktail of messianic thinking so predominant in Israel today. Of course, given contemporary polarization, it’s hard to imagine Soloveitchik’s third way between rejectionism, now not only embraced by ultra-Orthodox, but some on the far left as well, and a triumphalist Zionism, embraced now not only by settlers, but the normative right and center.

Complexity is not for weak minds, but perhaps, on this Jerusalem Day, there is a way to celebrate with the self-consciousness Soloveitchik urges: Honoring genuine Jewish values: gratitude and love, rather than conquest, and the incessant drive for power and dominion over others.

William Kolbrener is Professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University, author of Milton’s Warring Angels (Cambridge 1996), Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love (Continuum 2011); and The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana University Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @OMTorah

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