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Redemptive fictions: Holiness, heresy and the ironies of Zionism

The profound historical necessity of a renewed Jewish state was finally comprehended by the world and its remaining Jews only after millions were murdered by a Judeophobic madman and his ostensibly rational apprentices


From Havruta Magazine , Vol. 1, No. 2
By Stuart Schoffman
In the late 13th century, after fleeing from Spain to Palestine at age 73, the great kabbalist and biblical commentator Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (known as Ramban) concluded a lengthy Rosh Hashanah sermon in the Crusader city of Acre by quoting the Sifre, an ancient halachic text: “Dwelling in the Land of Israel is equal in importance to all the commandments of the Torah.” According to Nahmanides, religious observance in exile is a dress rehearsal; only in the Holy Land does Jewish ritual achieve mystical power and cosmic significance.
In the 21th century, secular Israeli cosmopolites who never heard of Ramban or the Sifre take the idea of sacred geography as a free pass, utterly confident that living a Hebrew life in Tel Aviv while willfully oblivious to Jewish tradition makes them more fully Jewish than overseas Jews, the denizens of galut (exile). Meanwhile, in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, legions of ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to live in imaginary galut, denying the validity of the Zionist state. Hypersensitive to infractions of Jewish law, they take very seriously what Nahmanides said in that same Rosh Hashanah discourse about “those who are privileged to dwell before the Holy One, Blessed be He, in his Land, for they are as those who see the King’s face”:
If they are heedful of His honor, it is beneficial to them and they are happy. However, if they rebel against Him, woe to them more so than to all [other] people, for they make war and provoke the King in His [own] palace. . He [therefore] removes them from there, as Scripture states, a people that provoke Me to My face continually (Isaiah. 65:3)  Again it states, They shall not dwell in the Eternal’s land (Hosea. 9:3) (Ramban, Writings and Discourses, translated by Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel (1985).
The intimidating image of a king’s palace helps us fathom why ultra-Orthodox Jews throw rocks at cars on Shabbat and have zero tolerance for gay parades in Jerusalem. Its broader implications may also be the reason – as such disparate Israeli intellectuals as A. B. Yehoshua and Aviezer Ravitzky have suggested – why Diaspora Jews, for many centuries, were afraid to make aliyah. All that holiness was way too dangerous. Moreover, as the acerbic Anglo-Jewish author Israel Zangwill wrote in 1919, in the giddy aftermath of the Balfour Declaration, overheated Zionists should keep in mind that the Holy Land is not holy to Jews alone:
Zion is a bride who after her divorce from Israel has been twice married to Gentiles – once to a Christian and once to a Mohammedan – and when Israel takes her back he will find his household encumbered with the litter of the two intervening ménages. Such considerations, however, are still invisible to the stock Zionist on whose self-spun structures realities impinge in vain, and whose Zion is as much a city of dream as that builded on celestial foundations by the popular imagination yearning for the Messiah.
Zionism, in other words, is a tricky business, but the Jews had, and have, little choice. In 1882, in the wake of the pogroms that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the Odessa physician Leo Pinsker delivered a trenchant diagnosis of the Jewish condition in his tract Auto-Emancipation:
With the loss of their country, the Jewish people lost their independence, and fell into a decay which is not compatible with existence as a whole vital organism. The state was crushed before the eyes of the nations. But after the Jewish people had ceased to exist as an actual state, as a political entity, they could nevertheless not submit to total annihilation they lived on spiritually as a nation. The world saw in this people the uncanny form of one of the dead walking among the living. . . . A fear of the Jewish ghost has passed down the generations and the centuries.
Pinsker had a name for this fear. “Judeophobia is a psychic aberration,” he continued. “As a psychic aberration it is hereditary and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable.” As a Jew in Jerusalem, I regret to agree that this is still so. But as any serious patient can tell you, there’s a vital difference between “curable” and “treatable.” “Hypertension” is a fair metaphor for the vulnerable, nervous Jewish condition, which is hereditary, like high blood pressure or diabetes, and treatable, if not curable.
The best treatment, as Pinsker prescribed, is Zionism. It was precisely because the Jews, unlike other nations, lacked a country of their own, argued the good doctor, that they could never feel truly secure anywhere.
The foreigner has a claim to hospitality, which he can repay in the same coin. The Jew can make no such return; consequently he can make no claim to hospitality. He is not a guest, much less a welcome guest. . . . Since the Jew is nowhere at home, nowhere regarded as a native, he remains an alien everywhere. That he himself and his ancestors as well are born in the country does not alter this fact in the least.
Theodor Herzl, as it happened, hadn’t yet read Auto-Emancipation when he drew the same conclusions and, in 1896, launched the political movement that captured the imagination of many Jews – and ignited the anxieties of far more. You want us to do what? exclaimed Western Jews who worried, understandably, that their hard-won rights as citizens might be jeopardized by a scheme to relocate from Europe to an Ottoman backwater called Palestine. Heresy! cried Orthodox rabbis, who (not without justification) suspected Herzl of harboring messianic fantasies, and denounced the movement at large as a violation of the religious dictum that only God, not man, could effect the ingathering of the exiles and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
But the idea caught on, albeit all too slowly, and it was Hitler who drove it home. The profound historical necessity of a renewed Jewish state was finally comprehended by the world and its remaining Jews only after millions were murdered by a Judeophobic madman and his ostensibly rational apprentices. And with the restoration of Jewish sovereign power came a sea change in the status and self-image of American Jews. Back in 1936, Fortune magazinecould declare, in a special survey called “Jews in America”:
The Jew is everywhere, and everywhere the Jew is strange. Japanese are strangers in California but not in Japan. Scotsmen are outlanders in Paris but not in Edinburgh. The country of the Jews, as Schopenhauer puts it, is other Jews.
In 2008, when the country of the Jews is called the State of Israel, Pinsker trumps Schopenhauer. Never have Jews benefited from the hospitality of America as broadly and brazenly as they have in our day, as they stand at their full height with a blue-and-white flag waving at their back. Now, in Israel, we Jews are full-fledged hosts, world leaders in science and technology. Here, collectively, we are a Grand Hotel on the Mediterranean shore, with a menorah in the lobby instead of a tree. And oh yes, we have an army.
Too often, however, it seems that the vaccine against Judeophobia has only revived it, in new and virulent forms. Anti-Zionism is sometimes a mask for anti-Semitism, but often not, complicating the problem. Staunch advocates of Israel are infuriated (and shaky Jewish liberals are unnerved) by the postcolonial cant emanating from respectable universities that lumps Zionism with the Crusades and defies the legitimacy of the state. Many overseas Jews are unhappy with the Israeli press, which appears to hang dirty laundry online for the instantaneous delectation of our foes worldwide. In an ironic inversion of Nahmanides, many Diaspora Jews observe a strict ritual wherein one is forbidden to criticize Israel except in Israel itself, where transgressors have the most to lose. Others, of course – including many lovers of Zion – behave like Israelis and don’t observe that ritual at all.
The beginnings of wisdom
In grappling with the perplexities of modern Jewish history, it is the writers of fiction who can get away with almost anything. With this in mind, I return to my days as a teenage Zionist, when I attended a modern-Orthodox high school that put a high premium on the Hebrew language. Our literature teacher assigned a novella called Le’an? (Whither? in February 1899, by a precocious writer named Mordechai Ze’ev Feierberg, who died shortly thereafter, at the age of 24, in his hometown of Novograd-Volinsk, Ukraine. Feierberg was the son of a sternly religious Lubavitcher Hasid, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) by trade. The intriguing story begins as Nachman, the brilliant but tormented twenty-year-old son of the sternly religious Rabbi Moshe, commits the unthinkably heretical act of blowing out a candle in the synagogue on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, as everyone looks on aghast. ), completed
The narrator flashes back to Nachman’s childhood, unspooling the events that led to his apostasy. Nachman yearns to run around with other boys, but Rabbi Moshe warns him that having fun is submission to the yetzer hara, the Evil Urge: “Every moment of pleasure and enjoyment,” says the father, “is put there by the devil to drag us down into the vanities of the world so as to rob us of our place in the next.” So while normal kids go out and play, little Nachman fights off the devil in traditional fashion, by sitting in the synagogue and obsessively studying Torah: “He went to the bookcase and chose a volume that was called The Beginnings of Wisdom.”Attractive title, but an unfortunate pick: Reishit Hochma, a 16th century treatise of kabbalistic ethics by Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas of Safed, scares the child silly:
So it’s all true, he thought: It’s true that there’s really a hell. . . . Wherever you went, sin followed after. If you didn’t say “amen” the right way after a single prayer, your soul was already damned. If you forgot to wash your hands even once before praying or eating, it was condemned to live in a frog for seven whole years. – It’s so terrible, God, it’s so hard to live in Your world. (M.Z. Feierberg, Whither? and other Stories, translated by Hillel Halkin (1973); republished in 2004 by Toby Press.)
The boy is consumed with anxiety. “His thoughts were confused and spasmodic. . . . Thousands of angels and hidden powers lurked all about him.” Satan rules, the Land of Israel lies in ruins, the Shechinah – the divine presence – is in exile, and so is the holy Torah. “The Messiah must be brought. He must, no matter what!” concludes young Nachman, and vows to do just that, employing traditional methods of study and prayer. The Messiah doesn’t come. Teenage Nachman seesaws feverishly between doubt and epiphany:
Within his frail heart all that was holy and precious was at war with all that was holy and precious. He realized then that not only did Evil do battle with Good, but that Good itself had many different shades and parties which fought among themselves. Previously he had known that Maimonides, Nachmanides, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Rabbi Levi ben Gerson, David Kimchi, Abrabanel, the Narboni, Shlomo ben Adret, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Abraham ben David, Yedaiah ha-Penini, Joseph Caro, and Rabbi Azariah of the Adumim were all holy men whose commentaries were as tried and true as the Law itself. Yet now that he had begun to delve into their works, he discovered that their views were as far apart as east was from west, and he was left to wander like a lost soul among them.
Most fatally, Nachman is drawn to Levi ben Gerson – also known as Ralbag or Gersonides – the 14th century French rabbi, philosopher and astronomer who argued (via Aristotle and Maimonides) that prophecy is a function of “active intellect,” a notion that undermines the lad’s understanding of divine revelation, of Torah from Sinai. And then self-knowledge dawns: “Yes, he was a heretic!” Whereupon he stops reciting the Shema Yisrael and Grace after Meals. He marries the daughter of a well-off businessman, an observant Jewish rationalist unfazed by the Evil Urge, who provides the provincial Nachman with a tutor. He learns French and Russian, reads Kant, Spinoza, Darwin. But he feels bereft and guilty, mourns “the death of the old.” He seeks solace in secular, iconoclastic Hebrew writing but finds it sterile. He leaves his wife. And then – gevalt! – Nachman snuffs out the candle on Yom Kippur and assumes the role of village madman.
“Month pursued month, year followed year, and crazy Nachman sat stock-still in the synagogue, or in his room in his father’s house, saying nothing.” Until finally – and this, presumably, is why our Israeli teacher in Brooklyn had us impressionable 16-year-olds read this wild, destabilizing little book – crazy antinomian Nachman, confounded by traditional Judaism, becomes a Zionist. He attends a Zionist youth rally and astonishes the assembled by requesting permission to speak. His strong, deeply spiritual peroration is all the more poignant, flowing as it does from the pen of the hapless M. Z. Feierberg, the dying tubercular prodigy who would never set foot in the Land of Israel:
“You, my brothers . . . are gathered here tonight to seek a cure for our people’s illness and to help restore it to its ancient homeland . . . Europe is ailing now – everyone feels how our civilization is coming apart and how its pillars of faith are already eaten through. Society is weary of it all and thirsts for a new word of God, for the prophet and the lawgiver. . . and meanwhile Humanity must wander in the dark until a new wind blows from God and brings it the nourishment on which to live for another thousand years. . . . And here I want to say to you, my brothers, that not only are we ourselves eastward bound, but that the whole West has been journeying in this direction for some time . . . And if the Jewish people has a destiny to fulfill, let it forge that destiny and that truth for itself and take it with them to the East. Not just to Palestine but to the entire East . . .
“To the East! To the East!”
The young Zionists leave the village and Nachman remains. “Only the madman still sat on as before in his dusky corner . . . One look at him was enough to know he was mad. His speech at the meeting hall was the last outward spark he threw off,” ends the novella. “From then on God’s candle burned gradually down within him, until death had compassion and snuffed out his tedious life.” As for so many other Eastern European Jews, Zionism came too late for Nachman. Today, in Israel, invigorated by new winds, we may salute his gift for self-criticism and draw strength and practical wisdom from the rich textual tradition he found so bewildering and frightening.
Wrecking and building
The alleged opposition between Zionism and Judaism was articulated in a masterful short story called “The Sermon,” “HaDrasha” – from the same root as midrash – published in 1943 by the Hebrew author Hayyim Hazaz. Born near Kiev in 1898, Hazaz began his career writing for HaShiloah and other European Hebrew journals; spent the 1920s in Paris and Berlin; and arrived in Jerusalem in 1932. His “Sermon” takes place in Palestine; its Russian-born protagonist is called Yudka, which could translate as “little Jew.” This Yudka is a strong silent type, a hewer of stones who fearlessly patrols the kibbutz perimeter alone in the dark but never says a word in the endless meetings where members bicker over Zionist ideology and socialist housekeeping – except for the one time he surprises his comrades by requesting a committee meeting for the express purpose of making a speech. “I want to state,”  he begins, “that I am opposed to Jewish history. (Haim Hazaz, “The Sermon,” in Israeli Stories, 1962, Joel Blocker, ed. I have made several small alterations in Ben Halpern’s translation.)
His fellow kibbutzniks have a good chuckle. The man running the meeting says, you want to talk about history, “go to Mount Scopus.” (The hilltop location of the Hebrew University affords a play on words: “Scopus,” HaTzofim in Hebrew, alludes to an ivory tower of “observers” who excel at critique but shun real work.) No, insists Yudka, I’m serious, I’ve been thinking a lot about this during those long nights on guard duty:
We didn’t make our own history, the goyim made it for us. Just as they used to put out our candles on Sabbath, milk our cows and light our stoves on Sabbath, so they made our history for us to suit themselves, and we just took it from them. But it’s not ours, not at all! Because we didn’t make it, because we would have done it differently, because we didn’t want it to be that way, it was others who wanted it and they forced us to accept it, against our will.
An explosive image, which vividly conflates the classical Zionist notion of shelilat hagalut – rejection, or “negation,” of the Diaspora – with a rejection of Judaism itself. Sabbath, the day of rest, the cornerstone of religious tradition, the brilliant virtual edifice of transcendence – Heschel’s “palace in time” – here symbolizes the contemptibly passive Jew. The Shabbes goy, the gentile who enables him to circumvent halacha, who acts in his stead, becomes the architect of Jewish history. If Jews in their own land want to make authentic history, Yudka preaches, they have to act like goyim.
Jewish history is so dull, uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches, always begging for mercy . . . I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: “Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land, we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.”
Jews, Yudka concedes, have bravely endured centuries of oppression, but this is hardly heroic. “With no way out, anyone can be a hero,” he says. Such heroism “amounts to great weakness . . . a kind of special talent for corruption and decay.”
This type of hero sooner or later begins to pride himself on his “heroism” and brags about it: “See what great torments I withstand! . . . Who can compare with me? ” . . . We want to be tortured, we are eager, we yearn for it . . . Persecution preserves us, keeps us alive . . . A Jew without suffering is an abnormal creature, hardly a Jew at all, half a goy . . . The world grows narrow, cramped, upside-down. A world of darkness, perversion and contradiction. Sorrow is priced higher than joy, pain easier to understand than happiness, wrecking better than building, slavery preferred to redemption, dream before reality . . . It’s horrible! A different psychology is created, a kind of moonlight psychology…
This is unbearable stuff. Here we are in 1943, of all terrible years, and Hayyim Hazaz dares to write that Jews yearn for suffering? But of course this is not the author speaking, any more than a self-lacerating Jewish character in a Philip Roth novel – even when named, as in Operation Shylock, “Philip Roth” – is actually Philip Roth. Yudka is a fictional creation, an imaginary amateur dialectician who intuits the complex pitfalls of Zionist thinking. Listen to his bottom line:
Zionism and Judaism are not at all the same, but two very different things . . . things that contradict one another! When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist . . . Zionism begins with the wreckage of Judaism.
Here the rough-hewn Yudka tips his cap to the prolific Hebrew writer and scholar Micha Josef Berdyczewski, who was born to a Hasidic family in Ukraine and studied German philosophy in Berlin. “The ‘long, dark night’ is gone,” wrote Berdyczewski, forty years before Hazaz, “and new days, with new circumstances, have replaced it.” Echoing Nietzsche, Berdyczewski called for “a transvaluation of the values which have been the guidelines of our lives in the past.” His essay “Wrecking and Building” (the Hebrew title “S’tira U’vinyan”derives from the thirty-nine Mishnaic categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat) reaches the same problematic conclusion as Yudka: “We have come to a time of two worlds in conflict: To be or not to be! To be the last Jews or the first Hebrews . . .” But there’s a heavy price to this reversal of Jewish history, this rupture, as Yudka tells his fellow pioneers in Palestine:
This community is not continuing anything, it is different, something entirely specific, almost not Jewish, practically not Jewish at all . . . In the same way, we are ashamed to be called by the ordinary, customary Jewish names, but we are proud to name ourselves, say, Artzieli or Avnieli. Haimovitch, you will agree, that’s a Jewish name, entirely too Jewish, but Avnieli – that’s something else again, the devil knows what, but it has a strange sound, not Jewish at all, and so proud!
It’s natural, in other words, for Shlomo to become Seymour in the Diaspora, for Zimmerman to become Bob Dylan. But why, in the Land of Israel, the ancestral homeland, should Jews trade in their ancestral surnames or prefer Nimrod to Nachman? Yudka the quarryman excavates the final irony:
There we were living among strangers, people who were different and hostile, and we had to hide, to dissimulate, to be invisible, to appear different from what we really were. But here? Aren’t we among our own, all to ourselves, with no need for shame? . . . A little detail, quite unimportant, it didn’t deserve going into so much, but it is a symptom of far more . . .
Behold the paradox of Jewish independence. Wallowing in a long night of Jewish sorrow is no way to live. It’s “too Jewish,” not proudly Israeli. But the more you become like all the nations, unfettered to your own past, “normal” and sovereign, you risk losing touch with your nefesh Yehudi, your Jewish soul. For ultra-Orthodox opponents of Zionism, this means the desecration of Torah. For other Jews, secular and religious alike, Jewish statehood entails a supreme, ongoing challenge to the ethical imperatives of their ancient tradition.
The Impossible Task
So where does that leave us? As befuddled as Feierberg’s Nachman? As committed as Nahmanides to the unique holiness of the Land? The way I read the map, we might as well make a virtue of the inescapable ironies of Zionism. Uncertainty and contradiction are built into the system – so why not celebrate them as the seedbed of Jewish national creativity?
Toward the end of Philip Roth’s endlessly convoluted and irreverent Operation Shylock (1993), set in Israel in the midst of the first intifada, the elderly, disabled Holocaust survivor Louis B. Smilesburger turns out to be (Warning: Plot Spoiler) a Mossad spymaster. (It’s that kind of book.) Readers whose perceptions of Roth are mainly framed by Portnoy’s Complaint may be surprised to come upon Smilesburger’s learned discourse about the source of Jewish troubles:
Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of this hatred of one Jew for another. Why has the Messiah not come? Because of the angry hatred of one Jew for another. Angry disputes, verbal abuse, malicious backbiting, mocking gossip, scoffing, faultfinding, complaining, condemning, insulting – the blackest mark against our people is not the eating of pork, it is not even marrying with the non-Jew: worse than both is the sin of Jewish speech. We talk too much, we say too much, and we do not know when to stop. Part of the Jewish problem is that they never know what voice to speak in. Refined? Rabbinical? Hysterical? Ironical? . . . “For each and every moment that a person remains silent, he earns a reward too great to be conceived of by any created being.” This is the Vilna Gaon quoting from the Midrash.
On goes Smilesburger for another half page, eventually invoking a simple prayer of the pious Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, 1838–1933), famed for his definitive writings on lashon hara or “evil speech”: “Grant me that I should say nothing that is unnecessary.”
I am a disciple of the Chofetz Chaim. No Jew had more love for his fellow Jews than the Chofetz Chaim. You don’t know the teachings of the Chofetz Chaim? A great man, a humble scholar, a revered rabbi from Radin, in Poland, he devoted his long life trying to get Jews to shut up . . . In his old age, the Chofetz Chaim extolled his deafness because it prevented him from hearing loshon hora. . . . The poor Chofetz Chaim was an Anti-Defamation League unto himself – only to get Jews to stop defaming one another . . . He could not stand their quarreling, and so he set himself the impossible task of promoting Jewish harmony and Jewish unity instead of bitter Jewish divisiveness.Why couldn’t the Jews be one people? Why must Jews be in conflict with one another? Why must they be in conflict with themselves? Because the divisiveness is not just between Jew and Jew – it is within the individual Jew. Is there a more manifold personality in all the world? I don’t say divided. Divided is nothing. Even the goyim are divided. But inside every Jew is a mob of Jews. The good Jew, the bad Jew. The new Jew, the old Jew. The lover of Jews, the hater of Jews. The friend of the goy, the enemy of the goy. The arrogant Jew, the wounded Jew. The pious Jew, the rascal Jew. The coarse Jew, the gentle Jew. The defiant Jew, the appeasing Jew. The Jewish Jew, the de-Jewed Jew. Shall I go on? . . . Is it any wonder that the Jew is always disputing? He is a dispute, incarnate!     
What Roth’s wily secret agent does not mention is that the Chofetz Chaim, along with other rabbinic luminaries, was a leader of the anti-Zionist Agudath Yisroel movement, founded in Eastern Europe in 1912. In his commentary on the Torah portion Devarim (featured on a Web site called jewsagainstzionism.com), the Chofetz Chaim cites a powerful statement by Nahmanides regarding the tense encounter between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32. The character of Esau, of course, symbolizes in Jewish lore such future archenemies of Israel as Amalek, pagan Rome, and the militant Church (which roped Ramban into the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 and ultimately drove him from Spain). The Torah teaches, wrote Ramban, that future generations need to emulate the righteous Jacob and ward off dangerous gentiles with three methods: Prayer, gifts (see Genesis 32:14–16 for all the ewes, bulls and camels Jacob gave Esau to quell his anger), and (as a last resort) flight. But now, laments the Chofetz Chaim, alluding to the Zionists, “new leaders have arisen who chose new modes of conduct, leaving behind our ancestors’ weapons and adopting the tactics of our enemies,” thereby sinking the Jews into greater travails.
 Including, inevitably, the efflorescence of lashon hara, which has reached its zenith in the Jewish State. As Smilesburger freely admits:
Well, I can testify to it – I am, unfortunately, an example of it – the loshon hora in Eretz Yisroel is a hundred times worse, a thousand times worse, than it ever was in Poland in the lifetime of the Chofetz Chaim. Here there is nothing we will not say . . . When it comes to defaming Jews, the Palestinians are pishkerehs next to Ha’aretz. Even at that we are better than they are! Now, once again it can be cynically argued that in this phenomenon lies the very triumph and glory of Zionism . . .
Yes, indeed it can, and not at all cynically. Fictionally spoken in Jerusalem, Roth’s loquacious riff may be deplored, if one so chooses, as a provocation of the King in His own palace. But isn’t it also, couched in thick layers of redemptive irony, a splendid evocation of modern Israel, and of the open, energetic, unabashed Jewish mind that Israel empowers worldwide – in short, an inadvertent (or perhaps deliberate) Zionist manifesto?

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