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.)
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)