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Reclaiming Judaism from mystical nationalism

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My high school in Jerusalem was a few minutes walk from the Mt. Herzl military cemetery. Mt. Herzl is Israel’s National Cemetery. On Israel’s Memorial Day (which was celebrated in Israel last Wednesday) we attended state ceremonies there. The grounds and graves are remarkably well tended. Graceful paths curve round the hillside under a canopy of lofty trees. Each identical grave is meticulously constructed with a low wall surrounding a green bed of garden cover. Each grave resembles a bed with a pillow of stone as the tombstone. The serene beauty presents these tragic deaths as orderly and dignified.

However, this week I looked again at images of the Mt Herzl cemetery and found them disturbing. Perhaps it is my becoming a parent that opened my eyes to see the child in each soldier. Thinking of these dead boys as sleeping serenely in their eternal beds misses the point and is frankly, creepy.

My high school’s close proximity to Mt Herzl was not just geographical but ideological. We were part of the Bnei Akiva movement a partner in the settler movement. This ideology is promoted both in high schools and in post high school yeshivas and mechinas. These institutions are pre-military academies. They prepare Orthodox young men to be religiously devout and ideologically sound before beginning their three year military service. They are funded by the State of Israel.

The Bnei David Mechina on the West Bank settlement of Eli made headlines recently when its faculty Rabbi Ophir Walls endorsed genocide against the Palestinians. (Before that, Rabbi Yigal Levenstein of Bnei David was pilloried in Israel for his outspoken prejudice against LGBTQ.)

Rabbi Eli Sadan

The founder and dean of the Mechina is Rabbi Eli Sadan who has given unqualified support to his staff. Like me, Rabbi Sadan studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, another military seminary. Bnei David, in particular,  prides itself on the high percentage of its graduates who excel in competitive, high prestige roles such as air force pilots. The Mechinah  prides itself on the high percentage of graduates who get placed in elite positions in the armed forces, including air force pilots, military commanders and other combat troops. Bnei David sees itself as a pioneering force, that assumed the mantle of noblesse oblige previously held in Israeli society by the kibbutz movement, but in this case making it possible to be Orthodox and an elite soldier. This is part of a larger strategy to gradually move into key leadership positions throughout Israeli society and government.

On the occasion of last year’s Israel Memorial Day, Rabbi Sadan recorded a 7 minute video message to hundreds of his former students including those in uniform. Sadan’s graduates in uniform are combat soldiers. They risk their lives every day. He pitches the Memorial Day address as a morale booster.

Rabbi Sadan finds mystical meaning in the shared ritual of communal mourning.

“Memory is not just a private moment. Memory is a joining of the individual to the nation’s wellspring of courage.”

He has a fascist longing to subsume individuality within the nation’s collective consciousness:

“Memory is the situation in which each and every one of us is swallowed [nivla] into the uplifting of the nation. We are in awe at the sight of tremendous life forces.”

Zionist supersessionism is here too. Judaism before Zionism was asleep if not dead:

“The nation has a soul awakening. The shekhina [God’s spirit] is returning to Zion. The spirit of the Jewish people [knesset Yisrael] has appeared! From the deep wellsprings of life, the nation comes back to life.”

For Rabbi Sadan, Jewish nationalism is the supreme value, not God or the ethical life:

“In the collective subconscious of us all, beyond the political disagreements, there is a clear awareness that there is nothing more important than the rebirth of Israel in its land.”

The preeminent value of Zionism ennobles Jews to sacrifice their lives to the cause.

“This gives birth in the people to a heroism, determination, and commitment to sacrifice that is beyond words.”

The inference is that Jews before Zionism were not capable of such sacrifice. Rabbi Sadan is aware of generations of Jews who died on the pyres of the Inquisition and other oppressors. These Jews went to a certain death with nothing but their spirit, courage and dignity. They did not have weapons and a powerful army and the optimism soldiers can muster that they will make it through this battle unscathed.

After an obligatory nod to the value Judaism places on human life, Rabbi Sadan gets to this key caveat:

“…but with one exception. The mandatory war [milchemet mitzvah] in which case “all must go to war, including the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her wedding ceremony’ [(Mishnah Sota 8:7)]. [see Mondoweiss article showing that Israel’s war with the Palestinians is such a mandatory war] When the issue at hand is Israel’s rebirth in its land there is no room for private considerations. Every one of us becomes the entire nation. Every one of us is the community.”

He closes by equating the military to God’s temple and soldiers to priests. The soldier’s role brings godliness into the world.

“The priest represents God in manifesting holiness to the Jewish people.

“In the same sense [as the donning of priestly vestments], the entire nation is in military uniform! The uniform instructs us that my personality and opinions belong only in my [personal] kitbag. Because now I am a warrior of Israel! Now I bare my deepest soul.”

Which leaves no room for a Jew to have a meaningful, private life outside the Zionist collective:

“For every one of us, the value of life and the inner meaning of our lives draw from the grand arc of the nation.”

He has the literalist’s confidence in stating that the  Biblical Exodus from Egypt took place “3329 years ago.” He is similarly confident about the future, however terrible it is. Human sacrifice is an inevitable part of the Messianic plan:

“We are filled with faith. We see clearly how God redeems his people. All these troubles are the pangs of childbirth that presage a more complete reality.”

Rabbi Sadan’s spiritual lineage goes back to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the Zionist movement in Palestine, who similarly glorified war. Just a few years after the end of WWI, Rabbi Kook wrote his iconic “Lights” (Orot). The work opens “The Lights of War.” Chapter 6 reads:

“Nations develop and realize their potential by following their natural patterns. War deepens each nation’s special quality until is emerges fully formed and in ultimate detail. Israel is the mirror of the entire world. [Therefore,] so long as there is any nation in the world that has not been fully realized in all its cunning, there is a corresponding dullness in the internal light of the Jewish people.

“Therefore, when the governments of the world battle with each other, unique qualities emerge that bring to fruition the development of the nations. This necessarily gives birth to the force that will complete the Jewish people as it looks forward to the coming of the Messiah.”

What happens when an expansive mystical theology is constrained within the confines of “the nation”. The inherent contradiction obliterates any consideration for what lies outside the nation. It supercharges the dispossession, expulsion and wanting killing of Palestinians with a heady religious force.

This is the ideology that drives the settler movement, a growing number of Israeli military officers and civic leaders. In the U.S. Jewish community, Rabbi Kook’ mysticism – if not his virulent nationalistic writings – are similarly growing in popularity.

Judaism doesn’t have to be this way.

Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869-1931) was a contemporary of Rabbi Kook’s, and studied at the same yeshiva  in Voloshin, then Russia. In a clear repudiation of Kook, Tamares’ response to the ravages of WWI was closer to the interwar pacifism of American Jews. In the context of Eastern Europe, he was an iconoclast pacifist and modernizer.

Tamares fiercely rejected nationalism as dehumanizing and a rejection of God:

“‘Liberating’ human beings from their inherent nature is known as “states” and “kingdoms”. This is the destruction of the actual, living human being. Breathing life into “national symbols” and erasing the symbol of God [in other words], obliterating that which was created in the Divine image is for those “fine young men of Zion”, our political careerists a fine and dandy thing.”

(Shlosha Zivugim Bilti Hagunim Three Inappropriate Unions,  (Pyetrekov, 1929), p.38)

He prophesied of the inevitable moral corruption that follows:

“This false god, as it flies on its great sword casts thunderbolts in both directions, acts in two different ways. On the one hand, he sends forth the terror of war on the other nation while [simultaneously] casting  ugliness and spiritual defilement on his own people…

“In this way, this false god makes “the honor of the motherland” the center and the defining “heart” from which flows all manner of wickedness within the country. All the base inclinations to greed and bullying of every private “citizen” unburdens their filth into the heart.

From here – from the fantasies of blood, power on a global scale – the filth will sweep in ever greater abundance over all that country’s people.”

(Knesset Yisrael umilchamot hagoyim The Jewish people and the Wars of the World, Warsaw, 1929, p. 19)

Rabbi Kook’s mystical nationalism creates an expansive consciousness – but for Jews only. Like Kook, Rabbi Sadan’s expanded Jewish consciousness blocks out the reality of Palestinian lives. There is no place for them in his heart.

Kook’s mysticism is tied up in a knot of self-contradiction. Mysticism draws us in with its vision of cosmic unity; nationalism erects emotional barriers.

Rabbi Tamares cut that knot. A “spirituality” that glorifies war, the nation and soil by denying the concrete reality of the individual is doomed to consume itself. Israel’s war cemeteries and never-ending battles on the West Bank and Gaza are a constant reminder.

(h/t to Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel for the Tamares quotes)

About Rabbi Michael Davis

Rabbi Michael Davis is a rabbi in Chicago where he co-leads a new, Jewish-Muslim Interfaith group

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38 Responses

  1. eljay
    April 24, 2018, 10:38 am

    Mr. Sadan, a Jewish supremacist (Zionist) who appears not to care that 20% of Israelis are non-Jewish:
    – anti-Semitically conflates Israel with all Jews and all Jews with Israel; and
    – paints a legitimate military target (” … the entire nation is in military uniform! … “) on the back of every Israeli (or perhaps even every Jew).

    I get why Zionists hate non-Jews, but I still can’t figure out why they hate Jews so much.

    • Mooser
      April 24, 2018, 11:20 am

      ” I still can’t figure out why they hate Jews so much.”

      Because we are failing Zionism. If we embraced and supported Zionism the way we’re supposed to, Israel would be the size of France by now.

      • eljay
        April 24, 2018, 2:12 pm

        Zut alors!

      • gamal
        April 24, 2018, 2:46 pm

        Zut alors!

        “Because we are failing Zionism” yeah going to wind up working in a gas station to

        “If we embraced and supported Zionism the way we’re supposed to” but the torture never stops

        “Israel would be the size of France by now” and you could all be wonderful winos

        sadly it’s all just black napkins and we know that leads to sleep dirt.

        and that is all my friendly little finger can manage today,

      • Mooser
        April 24, 2018, 3:52 pm

        We just didn’t do all that we could of. Not even close.

      • RoHa
        April 25, 2018, 3:00 am

        Could have, Mooser!

      • Mooser
        April 25, 2018, 11:58 am

        “Could have, Mooser!”

        With John Greenleaf Whittier I say: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It could of been’.”

        I had already rejected “could have” and “could’a” as insufficiently sad.

        Remember “RoHa”: “Use proper English and you’re regarded as a freak!”

  2. JLewisDickerson
    April 24, 2018, 11:27 am

    RE: “The nation has a soul awakening. The shekhina [God’s spirit] is returning to Zion. The spirit of the Jewish people [knesset Yisrael] has appeared! From the deep wellsprings of life, the nation comes back to life.” ~ Rabbi Sadan

    MY COMMENT: That certainly reeks of fascism. It’s very similar to things said in Germany and Italy in the 1930s. And, it’s not completely unlike “make America great again”!

    • Stephen Shenfield
      April 24, 2018, 6:09 pm

      Is it significant here that in Kabbala the Shekhina is the feminine aspect of God? The Shekhina as ‘mother’ of the reborn nation? Perhaps — the masculine aspect of God never forsook Zion, but before the advent of Zionism it was bereft of its feminine counterpart? Or am I reading too much into this?

      • Mooser
        April 24, 2018, 8:22 pm

        I’m just hoping for a dues ex mechina to slide in on a wire and start the cirrhosis.

    • Citizen
      April 24, 2018, 6:33 pm

      I was thinking the same thing. Here’s a quickie summary of the Nazi belief in the primacy of the group over the individual, the collective soul, and why: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007457

      • JLewisDickerson
        May 13, 2018, 9:36 am

        A nice summary of Nazi ideology. Thanks for the link.

  3. Ossinev
    April 24, 2018, 1:23 pm

    @JLD
    “That certainly reeks of fascism. It’s very similar to things said in Germany and Italy in the 1930s”
    100% agree. Very spooky. And remember the West is fixated courtesy of Zio propaganda on Iranian “zealotry” and the possibility of Iranian zealots having access to nuclear weapons and is simply unaware or simply chooses to ignore the fact that the only ” democracy” in the Middle East is being taken over by these nutjobs who will in due course have access to the buttons.

  4. Annie Robbins
    April 24, 2018, 10:35 pm

    what to say? so much sadness/depressing nationalism gone amok in this article. it just makes me very grateful i am not part of this cult. i can’t help but feel sorry for kids being raised this way.

    “…but with one exception. The mandatory war [milchemet mitzvah] in which case “all must go to war, including the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her wedding ceremony’ [(Mishnah Sota 8:7)]. [see Mondoweiss article showing that Israel’s war with the Palestinians is such a mandatory war]

    i added an embed to Yossi Gurvitz’s recent article “Genocide is a mitzvah” in this last passage. i hope that’s what Rabbi Michael Davis intended.

    (h/t to Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel for the Tamares quotes)

    if you’re reading this, miss you shmuel!

    • Philip Weiss
      April 25, 2018, 3:22 pm

      Yes and it also suggests that this is not going to end without violence. I sure hope not, but these are committed soldiers.
      Ditto Shmuel

      • Annie Robbins
        April 25, 2018, 8:11 pm

        i sure hope not too phil.

  5. RoHa
    April 25, 2018, 2:59 am

    “so long as there is any nation in the world that has not been fully realized in all its cunning,…”

    Has anyone got any idea what this means?

    • Rabbi Michael Davis
      April 25, 2018, 2:52 pm

      Thanks for pointing this line out.

      This comes from the ancient idea that each group of people (defined linguistically and religiously) has a defining nature. E.g. Jews are typically compassionate and stiff-necked, among other attributes. The Talmud has a taxonomy of other peoples which can be flattering (e.g. the Greek are wise philosophers), derogatory (all manner of ethnic jokes and jibes) or impartial (taking stock of the world around the Jews).

      There’s nothing unusual about a small people having its catalog of jokes and folk wisdom about its neighbors and enemies.

      Rabbi Kook’s theology places Israel’s messianic path in the present moment within a global plan of redemption. There is a mirror pattern and a causality between Jews and “the nations of the world.’ That’s where his Messianic vision for the Jews is part of a whole.

      Regarding my translation, the Hebrew is takhsis which entered the language in the ancient Rabbinic era from the Greek. Originally, takhsis meant a military strategy or plan. The English word “tactic” comes from the Greek. The Modern Hebrew meaning is closer to the English with the pejorative meaning of guile and trickery.

      Rabbi Kook lived on cusp of the development of Modern Hebrew. He was highly inventive in his mystical, poetic language. He developed a new theology around mystical nationalism and simultaneously created a new lexicon and ways of speaking to express and generate his new ideas.

      Here, in line with traditional Hebrew, perhaps a non-judgmental translation works better: “so long as there is any nation in the world that has not been fully realized in all its ways”.

      • Philip Weiss
        April 25, 2018, 3:24 pm

        what about tachlis? unrelated?

      • Mooser
        April 25, 2018, 3:52 pm

        “tachlis”? As in, “let’s get down to brass tachlis“?

      • Rabbi Michael Davis
        April 25, 2018, 3:59 pm

        Tachlis (TACH-liss) has the same form as tachsis (tach-SISS) but with the Hebrew root k.l.h. Originally, tachlis meant “end” as in the end of the building (Nehemiah 3:21) and in the Middle Ages. eg. the Adon Olam liturgical poem: “God has no beginning or end.”
        In Yiddish culture, tachlis took on the meaning of “getting to the point” or “brass tacks”.
        Curious that tachliss made it from the Yiddish culture into both Israelis and American parlance. It’s one of a handful of words that are preserved in Israeli Hebrew in its Yiddish pronunciation (TACH-liss rather than tach-LEET).

      • Mooser
        April 25, 2018, 4:20 pm

        Well, unless it’s absolutely necessary, why be tachless?

        On the other hand, who cares what we do, actually, as long as we pronounce it properly?

      • Maghlawatan
        April 25, 2018, 5:40 pm

        To be truly tachless you need a tachometer.
        But as to driving trucks, Jews wouldn’t do that. My son the truck driver doesn’t really have that cachet.

      • RoHa
        April 25, 2018, 7:54 pm

        Thank you for explaining that. I think I more or less understand those crazy ideas. Rabbi Kook was not misnamed.

      • RoHa
        April 25, 2018, 7:55 pm

        I will add that just about everyone, not just “small peoples”, has a catalogue of jokes about the neighbours and enemies.

      • Mooser
        April 26, 2018, 11:07 am

        “what about tachlis? unrelated?”

        Phil, just swallow a couple of these pilpuls, and you won’t even feel the tachlis you just sat down on.

  6. guyn
    April 25, 2018, 9:15 am

    Great man this Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares.

    “Zionism is a surrender, not a solution. It is a retrogression into the blackest error, and not progress toward the light.” – Henry Morgentau

  7. Naftush
    April 26, 2018, 2:37 am

    Rabbi Davis, what’s the point? Did you approach Rabbi Sadan about his remarks or at least bring your concerns to his knowledge? If not, is this anything but a phishin’ expedition or a dog-whistle for Israel-haters?

  8. Stogumber
    April 27, 2018, 1:26 pm

    I can’t find that religious nationalism is a modern aberration. It seems the basic of the Tanach between Joshua and Maccabees.

    • Rabbi Michael Davis
      April 27, 2018, 5:04 pm

      So, there was no argument available within the last 2+ millennia, iow the entire history of rabbinic Judaism? From its outset, rabbinic Judaism disdained Joshua’s genocide of the native inhabitants of Canaan and was critical of the Maccabees’ fusion of the role of king and priest. Destroying an entire people hasn’t been part of Judaism since before there was such a thing as rabbinic Judaism.
      It took the Rabbis Kook, Sadan et al to innovate that.

      • echinococcus
        April 27, 2018, 6:26 pm

        Rev. Davis,

        From its outset, rabbinic Judaism disdained Joshua’s genocide of the native inhabitants of Canaan and was critical of the Maccabees’ fusion of the role of king and priest. Destroying an entire people hasn’t been part of Judaism since before there was such a thing as rabbinic Judaism

        Even accepting all the good things you say about rabbinics, genocide is still on the books in several spots, officially on the main book/Old Testament, X,000 years of rabbinic opposition notwithstanding.

        So who should a layman like me believe? Controversial talk or my lying eyes?

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2018, 6:30 pm

        .” Destroying an entire people hasn’t been part of Judaism since before there was such a thing as rabbinic Judaism.”

        True, true, the chance of “destroying an entire people” doesn’t come along very often for us Jews, and the theological contingencies of the situation have been ignored for some time.
        But hey, when the situation changed, the Rabbis were right on it and came up with what was needed.

      • gamal
        April 27, 2018, 6:54 pm

        “It took the Rabbis Kook, Sadan et al to innovate that”

        It reminds me of “you weakened the rock that begot you” that a Jewish teacher quoted when telling us about Heschel, and the unity of all Judaisms, he was very erudite I recall that God gets weak when people flaunt his laws, very different to anything I had ever heard, big place this world.

        ( this was actually in a Madrasa, but it was kind of my Madrasa so anything goes)

        thank you Rabbi

      • Rabbi Michael Davis
        April 27, 2018, 7:40 pm

        Echinococcus, the short answer is: an eye for an eye is still on the Christian books but no one holds Christians accountable for that one – unless a Christian decided to act on the authority of that Biblical verse.
        The value of holding on to the horrors of Joshua and other parts of the Bible is a. as a cautionary tale. b. if we don’t have the language to describe the atrocities going on all around us then how can we engage and combat this reality? That’s the problem lots of liberals have living in their suburban bubbles. They (we) lack the language and concepts to imagine what Gaza and other places are actually like. The Bible is not so squeamish and tells it like it is. The rabbinic tradition made it clear that the Biblical zealots are not role models.

      • echinococcus
        April 27, 2018, 10:14 pm

        Well, Rabbi, I never doubted that the so-called Semitic religions –each one appropriating the preceding one and thus carrying the accumulated evil of all– are not perceptibly different from each other, so no contest re Christian/Muslim violence etc. In fact, ditto for other religions, too.

        My problem is that no matter all the exegesis and talk and discussion, what there is to read about religion, especially for laymen, contains several serious incitements to genocide –from the mouth of the Big Boss himself, no less. If that is cautionary, then the caution is blasphemous. Logically speaking.

      • RoHa
        April 28, 2018, 3:22 am

        “The rabbinic tradition made it clear that the Biblical zealots are not role models.”

        Neither are the various prophets, heroes, kings, ladies, sons of God, apostles, etc., good exemplars of the best Confucian, Stoic, or Buddhist morality.

        And God himself is a particularly nasty character.

        “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel. ” Paine, The Age of Reason.

        “As to the book called the Bible, it is blasphemy to call it the Word of God. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book.” Paine, Letter to William Duane, April 23, 1806.

        The best thing to do is reject the whole lot.

      • RoHa
        April 28, 2018, 3:23 am

        “I recall that God gets weak when people flaunt his laws,”

        Showing those laws to everyone certainly should make decent people think twice about following them.

      • Mooser
        April 28, 2018, 12:24 pm

        “The rabbinic tradition made it clear that the Biblical zealots are not role models.”

        That was the old Rabbinic tradition. Then we won the 67 war, stole the nuclear bomb, and a new Rabbinic tradition, reflecting our new status and power came about.

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