Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (continued) -

I am reading a book by the aforementioned name and I guess that this post is a bit of a “book report” on this book. However, rather than writing a full-fledged report, I’m going to quote from the book and then include my commentary not only on that particular quote but on the author’s utilization of the quote.

Often times throughout the book the author, Yakov M. Rabkin, quotes Orthodox Jews who, before and during Israel’s existence, were and are fundamentally critical of Israel’s approach to religion and Torah. That is all and well, but Rabkin is not an Orthodox Jew and likely does not even agree with Orthodox paradigms. If that is true, which is relatively easy to see through the way he thinks, why does he use the Orthodox argument when pushed to honesty, he probably has fundamental issues with religiosity anyway? Is it intellectually honest to utilize the arguments of a group of people with whom you do not agree? It would be clear or at least possible to consider that he tries to fuse his dislike of Zionism with religious dislike of Zionism. In other words, it’s as if he uses the Orthodox anti-Zionist argument to support his own secular anti-Zionist argument, but the nature of the two is entirely different. This “alliance” that he is trying to create is curious – would Orthodox Jews whom oppose secularism just as much (he says) they oppose Zionism agree with Rabkin’s usage of their own ideas and ideologies? It is likely that they would not.

A few of Rabkin’s quotes:

“The Jewish tradition traces the origins of the Jews to the shared experience of the epiphany of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. As a group, the Jews are defined by their commitment to the Torah. Even though the Torah abounds in episodes of transgression and disregard for divine law by the children of Israel, the normative bond with the Torah remains the determining factor. It is precisely this bond, which obligates them to follow the commandments of the Torah, that makes Jews the “chosen people,” a status that implies no intrinsic superiority.” (32)

This is certainly an eloquent, truthful, and empathetic description of the essentials of Judaism. However, it makes you wonder if Rabkin is secretly fond of traditional Torah observance and religiosity, given his optimistic and friendly description. Does Rabkin even believe in the literality of the “shared experience” of revelation and the “giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai?” Does he really care about “this bond, which obligates them to follow the commandments of the Torah?” He even offers a warm explanation usually offered by Orthodox Jews themselves, “the ‘chosen people,’ a status that implies no intrinsic superiority.” Again, I have no absolute clue as to Rabkin’s religious background, but would he actually provide such a sympathetic depiction of Orthodox Judaism if it means “gaining access” to its particular criticisms of Zionism? Are the secular arguments against Zionism not good enough?

In a section titled “The Birth of the Secular Jew,” Rabkin writes:

“Unlike the Reform movement in Central and Western Europe, which modified Judaism but did not abolish it, the Jewish radical movements of Eastern Europe sought to eliminate every notion of religious responsibility. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, they had come to see themselves as the first generation to have cast off the yoke of the Torah, a conviction reflected in the Israeli national anthem, Ha-tikva: ‘our hope is not in vain, two thousand years of longing, to be a free people on our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The expression ‘to be a free people on our land’ contains an element that never fails to elicit a fierce response from the rabbinical authorities, who take it to mean ‘free from the yoke of the Torah,’ not only ‘free from oppression.’” (32)

For a moment I thought that Rabkin was actually defending Torah Judaism in Israel and criticizing Zionism’s application of Jewish thought to nationalism. Again, he gives ample voice to the Orthodox criticism of Zionism, but does he really believe it? Does that even matter? If intellectual honesty and avoiding committing fallacies is a value, then it clearly does.

He even goes on to quote from the most respected and revered Torah scholars (Gedolei Ha-dor; giants of the generation) to make his point. Suffice it to say that his presentation of their ideas might not be entirely honest to the initial intent or context, which would be a complicated thing to identify. Nevertheless, he quotes:

“Even Hafetz Haim, a recognized authority in the laws of proper speech, attacks the concept in the most categorical terms:

‘I fail to understand the expression ‘free Jews’ used today. What does it mean? True, they may be free, but they are not Jews. The two contradict one another, for the Jew is not free, and he who is free is not a Jew…. They [the free Jews] are like the dead extremities of our nation, which cause the entire body to rot. Even though they call themselves Jews, they inveigh against the Torah, an opinion based on the false concept according to which one can be a Jew without the Torah and its commandments. But this opinion uproots the Torah in its entirety. (Wasserman 1986,7)” (32)

I was not aware that Rabkin was a fan of the Chafetz Chaim or that proper speech and avoidance of “lashon harah,” improper or evil speech, was so important for him in his avodah (service of G-d).

“The concept of the secular Jew, the very antithesis of the traditional Jewish concept, became the cornerstone of Zionism.” (34) Again, wow, it seems like Rabkin actually cares about the traditional Jewish concept.

A few times he does something interesting, seemingly overlaying his own criticisms of Zionism, secular in nature, and presenting them under the headline of a particular criticism uttered by a respected rabbi. In this he misrepresents the ideas and beliefs of the rabbi’s whom he quotes. For example:

“In full awareness of Zionism’s anti-Judaic content, the influential Viennese rabbi and historian Moritz Gudemann (1835-1918) rejected, as early as the first Zionist congress in 1897, any attempt to separate the Jewish nation from its monotheistic faith (Wistrich, 151). In his view, the Torah must be free of territorial, political or national consideraton. Ever since the Babylonian captivity, the Jews had, he believed, become a ‘community of believers’; Jewish nationalism would, in spiritual terms, be a step backward with regard to the sublime vision of the messianic realm that the Jews had developed in the Diaspora. To return to a pagan concept that would confer exclusivity upon Jewish nationality would be a self-destructive form of collective assimilation for the Jews. For him, the nationalist approach stood as a contradiction in adjecto: one cannot be both Jewish and an atheist, that is to say, Jew and non-Jew, at the same time. Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), best known for his book, Hafetz Haim (He Who Desires Life), identified the same contradiction a few years later; it was to remain a vital component of the Judaic critique of Zionism.” (30)

The stance on how exactly the Land of Israel is to be settled in proper terms of acquisition according to the Torah is, as any Torah student can tell you, a machloket, a dispute, and the solution is not black and white. There are serious hashkafic (philosophical) divides with the Orthodox world on just what the Torah requires of the Jews in this particular field of Jewish Law, or Halachah. Rabkin’s presentation of the Torah’s view on settlement of the Land of Israel comes from an uninformed perspective, which screams “agenda.” Jewish nationalism (in the way the Torah defines it) is the core of Messianic redemption! The “sublime vision of the messianic realm that the Jews had developed in the Diaspora” was not developed in the Diaspora, it even predates entrance into the Land of Israel. “Exclusivity upon Jewish nationality” is not a “pagan concept,” but the core of Judaic thinking and it is antithetical to a “self-destructive form of collective assimilation for the Jews.” It is glaringly indicative that Rabkin is thinking about Judaism, ironically, from a secular, liberal, post-Zionist hashkafa (philosophy, or lens) and attempting to use the Torah and Torah giants as support beams for his argument.

“For Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneerson (1860-1920), the fifth Lubavitch Rebbe, whose influence in Russia extended well beyond the Hasidic community, to seek freedom from the yoke of exile is as pernicious as to seek freedom from the yoke of Torah. In order to escape their fate as Jews, the Zionists must abandon the Torah and the faith of Israel:

‘In order to infuse our brethren with the idea of being a ‘nation’ and an independent polity… the Zionists must give nationalism precedence over the Torah because it is known that those who cling to the Torah and the commandments are not likely to change and accept another identity, especially such as is implied in leaving exile by force and redeeming themselves by their own power…. Hence, in order to implement their idea, the Zionists must distort the essence [of Jewishness] in order to get [the Jews] to assume a different identity. (Ravitzky 1996, 16)’”

The problem; if Rabkin had not simplistically and retroactively assumed that Torah giants shared his contemporary post-Israel biases against Zionism, products of guilt waves in Israel due to liberal peer-pressure, he would find that there certainly are Torah-based permissions (and even obligations) to enter and settle the Land of Israel. Not only is this dishonest, it does an injustice to the giants of the generation whom he quotes, sorry to say, without getting a more complete picture of their view and the view of the Torah.

In the next few days I will add a few of Rabkin’s quotes about the Mizrachi, or North African Jews, who came from Muslim countries. Stay tuned and have a Shabbat Shalom.

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