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On Revolutions and the Jews

Is it coincidental that Jews had an important role in several major revolutions of the modern era or are Jews just prone to revolutions? Does Jewish culture recognize the possibility of revolution and possibly even encourage it, or is revolutionary consciousness foreign to Jewish culture? In light of the wave of revolution in the Arab world, Professors Avi Sagi and Menachem Lorberbaum discuss the concept of revolution and its place in the Jewish world - from the period of the Bible through the beginning of the Zionist era to today

Is it coincidental that Jews had an important role in several major revolutions of the modern era or are Jews just prone to revolutions? Does Jewish culture recognize the possibility of revolution and possibly even encourage it, or is revolutionary consciousness foreign to Jewish culture? In light of the wave of revolution in the Arab world, Professors Avi Sagi and Menachem Lorberbaum discuss the concept of revolution and its place in the Jewish world – from the period of the Bible through the beginning of the Zionist era to today.
Over the past few months, we have witnessed several attempts at revolution in the Arab world, which fed off of each other and created a continuous wave of revolution. Although the political implications of these revolutions have been discussed in various forums, we have chosen to explore the concept of revolution and its place in Jewish life.
Historically Jews have had a significant role in several modern revolutions– in some cases even leading them. Is this a coincidence, or are Jews prone to revolt? Does this tendency find expression in the traditional Jewish world as well, or can it only be found in arenas outside of tradition? In other words, does the Jewish tradition recognize the possibility of revolution and perhaps even encourage it, or is the revolutionary consciousness foreign to this culture?
Herzl addresses the Second Zionist Congress in Basel, 1898. (From Wikipedia)
We discussed these topics with two of the Institute’s researchers, Professor Avi Sagi and Professor Menachem Lorberbaum, who have dealt intensely with connections between the Jewish halakha and political philosophy.
Does the term “revolution” in its political sense, of which we have seen examples in the Arab world over the past few months, exist in Jewish tradition?
Avi Sagi: Absolutely. Within the Jewish world, there have been several revolutions, perhaps the most dramatic of which was the Zionist revolution, which saw itself as undermining the entire Jewish history, rather than another link in the ongoing chain of Jewish existence that had developed up until that period.
The concept of revolution however is not a traditional one. One interesting fact is that traditional Jews who wanted to join the Zionist revolution had to interpret it as non-revolutionary, at least in its early stages. Mizrachi leaders led by Rabbi Reines chose to view Zionism through a prism of pragmatism – as an attempt to bring about a physical solution to the problem of the Jews – rather than through the prism of revolution, and certainly not as a religious revolution. This is in contrast to the Zionism of Eastern Europe led by Ahad Ha’am, who called for a real revolution designed as an alternative approach to existing Jewish tradition. In the second stage of religious Zionism, Rav Kook made a heroic attempt to join the Zionist movement out of a sense of revolution and a desire to create real change in the world of traditional religious Jewish values. This revolution too was interpreted via internal traditional mechanisms.
Menachem Lorberbaum: There is certainly a revolutionary voice in Jewish culture, which also finds expression in practical politics. Gershom Scholem characterized this voice in his beautiful article, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,” in which he claims that within the Jewish religion, there is a recurring theme of yearning for renewal of the world, for the apocalypse. This is an authentic revolutionary voice that repeats itself in different ways throughout Jewish history.
The roots of this revolutionary voice, which ultimately includes the Zionist revolution, can be found in the most formative event of Jewish history – the Exodus from Egypt, which, as my teacher Michael Walzer says, was effectively a revolution. You might say that the Jewish people were born out of a revolution in which a nation of slaves won its freedom. The Exodus from Egypt was a revolution that uprooted the master-slave relationship, which is the most basic element of an unliberated society.
The Exodus revolution as a foundational story of the Jewish people is clearly echoed in human history, to the extent that many other nations have used it to tell their own stories, and it has become part of their own foundational narratives. There is no greater testament to the power of this story, in which a nation of slaves becomes a nation of free people overnight.
Do these revolutionary foundations continue to echo in Jewish history, or was the revolution a one-time event that has been replaced with the creation of a static, conservative culture?
Menachem Lorberbaum: The answer to this question depends on the way one chooses to interpret the most important moment in Jewish history and what kind of stories Jews are prepared to tell themselves about themselves. For example, there are many Jews who are profoundly anxious of freedom, and therefore choose to retell the story of the Exodus as a shift from one type of servitude to another– serving God. There are those who blur the revolutionary characteristics that appear throughout. I think that the fundamental revolutionary spirit, inspired by the Exodus legend, continues to pulsate within Jewish culture.
Jewish culture is characterized by an ongoing vitality that I believe is an outgrowth of its revolutionary origins. The perpetual Jewish restlessness, which is felt, for example, in the character of Israeli society, is a function of this. This is true, by the way, in the Diaspora as well – Jews, without national independence, who wandered between exiles with a strong Exodus legend in their hearts, were stuck in an internal dissonance, an unyielding restlessness, which was also part of their strength.
Israeli society is today trying to overcome this dissonance and subdue the Jewish restlessness, in ways that I believe are inauthentic to its Jewish roots. The idea of Jewish normalization, the desire to be whole, peaceful, is in my opinion contrary to the Jewish revolutionary spirit. One of the strongest expressions of this is the story about Hermann Cohen’s reaction to his students when they told him of their support for the Zionist idea. He stood before them, stunned, and uttered in disbelief, “They want to be happy.” There was nothing as strange for him as Jews who wanted to be happy. I don’t identify with Hermann Cohen, and I do not think that the desire for happiness negates the religious imperative, but his reaction certainly represents a particular Jewish line of thinking.
Since the Emancipation, when Jews became an important component of European and then American life, they have held a permanent position as inciters in the different societies in which they have lived. Revolutionary incitement accompanied them in the different nations in which they lived and to which they made vital contributions.
Avi Sagi: It is hard to find another example of the Exodus model, the occurrence of a strong and spontaneous revolution, in Jewish tradition. Jewish culture internalized the Exodus lesson, in which the nation clearly went through changes that it was unprepared and immature for too quickly. The Torah itself shows us over and over how this nation of slaves found it difficult to adapt to a new consciousness of freedom and continues to return to its origins.
As Nietzsche said, liberation that releases a person from one thing but does not build something new (this is what philosophical tradition calls “negative freedom”) is not real liberation. A person whose free consciousness is merely a function of freedom from something that binds him is in a profound way actually still chained to that thing from which he was released. Creating a complete and true revolution requires a deep social process like that of the Communist or French revolutions that succeeded due to the preparation process that preceded them. By contrast, revolutions like that of the Shah of Iran, which attempted to transform Iran into a modern Western country without preparing the people first, resulted in a huge wave of fundamentalism that captured the nation 30 years ago.
It is hard therefore, to find sharp and fast revolutions during the rest of Jewish history. In my opinion, in the Jewish world it is more correct to talk about “reform” or the concept of “tikkun olam,” which is very different from a revolution. The “tikkun olam” consciousness accepts the world as imperfect and tries to deal with its bad sides. By contrast, revolutions envision a utopian good, that negates the existing world, and try to replace it with this utopia. In a profound sense, the idea of tikkun olam is the polar opposite of a revolution; while the latter focuses on negating that which exists, tikkun olam adapts to the current reality while strengthening its positive aspects. Rather than trying to replace that which exists, it identifies the places of evil or imperfection and works to repair them.
I believe that Jewish culture is unique in its conceptualization of this tikkun olam. Although different philosophical theories deal with reform, even after many years of studying these issues I have not come across a tikkun olam model like the one in the normative Jewish tradition that is always split– looking positively at the past and the present but always facing the future.
Is this model also true for Jewish revolutions within the world of the Beit Midrash, such as the Sages’ revolution of biblical exegesis?
Avi Sagi: To a large extent yes. In general, we have to distinguish between revolutions aimed at turning a culture on its head and internal revolutions that occur within a given culture. In the former, we often find Jews in leadership positions who had lived on the margins of Jewish existence, such as Marx, Freud, or Herzl. By contrast, revolutions from within always occurred as part of mainstream Jewish culture, led by members of the mainstream. These revolutions had a different character and were longer and more carefully developed processes.
An excellent example of this is the revolution of biblical exegesis, which took place over hundreds of years. As we know, the Sages revolted against the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye,” according to which the appropriate punishment for someone who hurts his friend is to inflict a similar physical wound. The Sages instead instituted monetary punishment. This is a dramatic revolution that goes against the simple reading of the verses and changes the entire concept of biblical punishment, but is accompanied by a constant appreciation of tradition. In fact, the reasoning and explanations that the Sages used are based on textual interpretations of the canons themselves.
In this context, it is worthwhile mentioning the distinctions between three different approaches to change in traditional society made by sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt. The first is rejection of change; the second is adaptation to change, wavering between the new and the old; and the third is transformative, in which the revolution is accepted but translated into the language of the past, the language of tradition. This is exactly the case of “an eye for an eye” – there is no rejection of the new, and also no adaptation, but rather a new reading of the actual source. Only this kind of revolution, which consciously maintains continuity, is possible in a traditional society.
Menachem Lorberbaum: The revolutionary aspect of the Sages’ religious creativity does not find expression in replacing the voice of God with the voice of humanity. This is what characterized the modernist revolution in Europe. The Sages’ revolution is different in that it tries to emphasize the existence of the human voice alongside the divine voice, insisting on the importance of the human conversation with God that characterizes the Torah. This is one of the most important lessons in the story of the “oven of Akhnai.” This is elaborately described in the context of a discussion about the oven in the Beit Midrash in Yavneh, which caused a great debate between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer about the place of humanity vis-à-vis God in the religious world. In the story, the Beit Midrash is tilted – the walls are not straight, to honor Rabbi Eliezer, but also don’t collapse, to honor Rabbi Yehoshua. This is a symbolic reference to the ambivalence of the Sages. They are not entirely certain how they are meant to navigate the relationship between Divine revelation and human insight and what the correct balance between the two is or ought to be. In that sense, we are dealing with a cautious revolution, one that does not “go all the way” and does not want to destroy that which exists. After all, the price of revolutions is their absolute character; you can leave Egypt, you can create a revolution of freedom, you can leave slavery behind you, but the next day you may find yourself at the shores of the Red Sea or in the Sinai desert –at the edge of the abyss or in front of a world with no boundaries – and then you are exposed to a great threat. If the revolution does not nurture tools for dealing with that threat, there will be a crisis.
The Sages’ revolution was thus conducted in measured steps that do not erase what came before. At the same time, they are very self-aware, armed with the knowledge that their steps are not taken for granted, and they are built on a glaring revolutionary foundation.
How does this revolutionary foundation find expression in the traditional world today?
Menachem Lorberbaum: Today’s Orthodoxy is typified by its conservatism. In general, Orthodoxy developed as a reaction to modernity, and it is propelled not by tradition but by the conservative drive. In everything related to revolution, conservatism is a paralyzing force. In light of this fact there is still some vitality within the Beit Midrash, which in some Orthodox circles is nothing short of miraculous.
Avi Sagi: It is interesting to see that even revolutions taking place within the Jewish world today, such as the feminist revolution or the gay/lesbian revolution, are preserving consciousness of continuity. In retrospect, those who support the rights of these groups should have said that the tradition maintains values that do not suit them which they have to revolt against. The rhetoric and writings of the “revolutionaries” have however adopted new outlooks on these issues that testify to the fact that they are interpreting the actual tradition in a new way. Thus, the revolution is in synch with tradition, not against it.
Professor Avi Sagi is chair of the program for Jewish Exegesis and Culture at Bar-Ilan University and a lecturer in Philosophy there. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. 
Professor Menachem Lorberbaum is founding chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Hebrew Culture Studies and current chair of its School of Philosophy and is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. 

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