Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and philosophy blog.

Toward an Internationalist Judaism

E-mail this post

Remember me (?)

All personal information that you provide here will be governed by the Privacy Policy of More...

The Gifts of Exile: Toward a Return to an Internationalist Judaism

Ben Newman

Contemporary History


Spring ’05

Over the course of many centuries, we Jews have learned how to deepen our faith and joy and connection to God in the midst of uncertainty, vulnerability, and powerlessness. Other faiths can offer the world their expertise in dealing with the challenges of aligning a religion with worldly power. Christianity is a prime example: the separation of church and state that we treasure in this country is a direct result of the Church's experiments with the alternative. Islam has not yet come to this conclusion. Our expertise as Jews is different. Until the establishment of the State of Israel, we were not distracted by the responsibility for run­ning states and fielding armies. Living in exile freed us from the corruption of power and taught us to survive without its bene­fits. As the Dalai Lama recognized, we Jews had become special­ists in the pursuit of a holiness that was both deeply rooted in this world and, at the same time, completely independent of worldly structures of power. If the phrase "a light unto the nations" has any justification, it is that for most of our life as a faith we did our mission not by coercion, but by modeling our convictions. We are experts in exile.—

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi[1] p. 103

This passage from R’ Zalman’s book arises in a chapter called “Why Be Jewish?” He discusses how when he and other rabbis met with the Dalai Lama, the Lama’s most pressing question was how the Jews were able to survive for such a long time in exile. Much of this story is recorded in Roger Kametz’s The Jew in the Lotus. In the book from which the above quotation was taken, R’ Zalman includes this Jewish ability to survive in exile, or Jewish exile culture, as one of the most important contributions of the Jewish people to the world. Though he only briefly mentions in this passage the fact that the creation of the state of Israel changed this aspect of Jewish life, ending our tenure as an exilic people, I feel that this idea has been largely neglected in modern Jewish discourse, both scholarly and popular. Perhaps the reason for this is the fact that the existence of Israel has become an unavoidable aspect of Judaism, and it is taken for granted that Israel as a Jewish nation actually benefits Judaism and that it should continue to exist.

Though many are unaware of this, as I was up until a few years ago, there has been a significant amount of opposition to the existence of the modern state of Israel since the inception of Zionism from both secular and religious Jews. Most of this opposition was on the grounds that Israel was ultimately harmful to Judaism, and that its mere existence would contradict several important aspects of Jewish doctrine which had developed over about two thousand years of exile. In this essay I will present several anti-zionist pieces from a variety of thinkers, both religious and secular, in an attempt to ferret out commonality among their perspectives.

The Judaism of the rabbis was born with R’ Yochanon Ben Zakkai’s flight from Jerusalem. Since the time of the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans, the Jewish people had begun to resign themselves to exile. Judaism can be seen to be a religion of exile, from the exile in Babylonia, to slavery in Egypt. Only during certain periods in history has the Jewish people existed with a Jewish state with governmental power. The Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis, the Gaonim, the Rishonim, the Achronim, and of all Jewish authorities for many generations was developed in exile. In this time, the Jewish exile became an essential part of Jewish theology, culture, thought prayer and philosophy. This Judaism of exile was the backdrop upon which the Judaism of modernity projected itself. In 1789, with the French Revolution and the emancipation of the Jews, the idea of the separation of church and state was born. Many Jews began to try to integrate themselves into non-Jewish society. (Jews, though separate, had still interacted with many different cultures over the generations.) Despite their desire to be part of the cultures of their respective countries of residence, Jews experienced great persecution. Early Zionists proclaimed a new active approach toward ending the exile of the Jews. In general, they rejected what they viewed as the passivity of generations of Jews who had undergone suffering.

One Zionist document from the “Bilu” declared:

To Our Brethren and Sisters in the Exile, Peace be with You!

"If I help not myself, who will help me?" (Hillel.)

Nearly two thousand years have elapsed since, in an evil hour, after an heroic struggle, the glory of our Temple vanished in fire and our Kings and chieftains changed their crowns and diadems for the chains of exile. We lost our country, where dwelt our beloved sires. Into the Exile we took with us, of all our glories only a spark of the fire, by which our Temple, the abode of our Great One, was engirdled, and this little spark kept us alive while the towers of our ene­mies crumbled to dust, and this spark leapt into celestial flame and shed light upon the faces of the heroes of our race and inspired them to endure the horrors of the Dance of Death and the tortures of the autos-da-fe. And this spark is now again kindling and will shine for us, a true pillar of fire going before us on the road to Zion, while behind us is a pillar of cloud, the pillar of oppression threatening to destroy us. Sleepest thou, O our nation? What hast thou been doing till 1882? Sleeping and dreaming the false dream of Assimilation. Now, thank God, thou art awakened from thy slothful slum­ber. The pogroms have awakened thee from thy charmed sleep. Thine eyes are open to recognize the cloudy structure of delusive hopes. Canst thou listen silently to the flaunts and the mockery of thine enemies? Wilt thou yield before ... ? Where is thine ancient pride, thine olden spirit? Remember that thou wast a nation possessing a wise religion, a law, a constitution, a celestial Temple[2]

Here we see a clear statement of the Zionists’ rejection of what they felt was an attitude of passivity which earlier generations Jews possessed, in this case, their ancestors in southern Russia. The Bilu was developed as “a reaction to the 1881 pogroms in southern Russia…” and the first group of Biluim arrived in Palestine in 1882. This statement refers to Jewish theology, but criticizes Jews for their passivity, as mentioned earlier. It would seem that they saw themselves as heralding a sort of messianic return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. After the pogroms, they decided that the Jews should no longer endure exile and oppression.

Much of Zionism was based on this idea. Max Nordau wrote: “I said: ‘We must think of creating again a Jewry of muscles.’”[3] Theodore Hertzel commented that: “We are one people—our enemies have made us one in our despite, as repeatedly happens in history. Distress binds us together and thus united, we suddenly discover our strength.”[4] Though distress bound together the Jewish world, it would seem that the idea that Jews should actively overcome the exile created an ideological division. Before this moment, it would seem that one of the ideas which united the Jewish world was that the Jewish people should not take on an active role in ending the exile, but should wait, and endure exile, for this was the will of God. There was, of course, always a messianic inclination in Jewish thought, from Bar Kochba to Abraham Abulafia, from Shabbetai Tzvi to Jacob Frank. However, messianism was largely rejected by the Jewish community--perhaps because of its repeated failures.

An essential part of exile is hope, but the problem is that sometimes people get their hopes too high. The Jewish vision of Israel for those in exile was messianic and utopian. A re-creation of a Jewish state for them would take place in a time when peace would reign throughout the world. This hope is still enshrined in throughout Jewish liturgy, despite the creation of the modern state. This utopian impulse, perhaps, was also one of the elements of Judaism which inspired the Jewish affinity toward the idealistic philosophies of socialism and anarchism. It also inspired great faith in certain communities of devout Jews that the Jewish people had been put into exile for a reason by God, and that eventually, God would bring about a utopian era.

Let us first look at an excerpt from a piece by “A united front of German rabbis—both Reform (liberal) and Orthodox…”[5] which was written in 1897 responding to the emerging Zionism of Hertzel and his colleagues. The diverse group of rabbis wrote:

Eighteen hundred years ago, history made its deci­sion regarding Jewish nationhood through the dissolution of the Jewish State and the destruction of the Temple. Recent Jewish scholarship can count among its highest achievements the fact that this conception has gained the widest circulation among the Jews of all civilized countries.

The Zionists want to provide "an interna­tionally guaranteed place to call home" for those Jews "who cannot or do not want to assimilate in their present places of resi­dence." But where are the Jews who do not want to assimilate? The fact that right now they are still unable to assimilate in many countries makes it precisely our duty to fight in common with the most noble and best men of all confessions for the removal of dis­criminatory laws. Let us protest in the most decisive manner against such a defamation [implied in the claim that there are Jews who do not wish to assimilate] as well as against the insult that the Zionists level at us in that they speak of a "Jewish distress" which they want to eliminate. …

We ask the Zionists then, in whose name and by what authority do they speak? …1. The efforts of so-called Zionists to cre­ate a Jewish National State in Palestine are antagonistic to the messianic promises of Ju­daism, as contained in Holy Writ and in later religious sources.

2. Judaism obliges its followers to serve the country to which they belong with the utmost devotion, and to further its interest with their whole heart and all their strength.[6]

This is a very strong united Jewish statement against the Zionist ideal. For the authors of this statement, it seems, exile was a defining characteristic of Jewish existence since the destruction of the second temple. They did not embrace Zionism as a fulfillment of a messianic promise. Rather, they saw it as a hindrance to the coming of the messiah. Instead of working to create a state, they advocated actively trying to work to end discrimination in whatever land in which they were living.

Another interesting response is that of the hasidic Zadok ha-Cohen of Lublin. His perspective is staunchly religious, but contains some of the same sentiments expressed in the quote above and in the examples which I will present later. He writes:

A voice was heard from on high, a voice of lamentation from the imperial city of Vienna in a matter relating to all of Israel. It con­cerns the sect that has arisen recently under the name of Zionists. …

We surely know that if we were believers and truly trusted in the salvation of the Lord and observers of the commandments of

God, we would even today be dwelling in our holy land, For it is known that the land of Israel, by its very nature and the power of its holiness, was created for Israel alone.

It is said in the Midrash that the Holy One, blessed be He, created the land of Israel only for Israel; but it is also known that because of the power of its holiness the land rejects transgressors in the same way that the stom­ach vomits forth that which is incompatible with its nature. This matter is not subject to dispute. Yet now there have arisen fools and malicious conspirers whose deeds are born of a bitter poison. They proclaim that the life of Israel is in jeopardy and that they, the Zionists, will hasten salvation by founding a state.

They ask why we have been in exile for so long. But this question has already been asked of the sages and the prophets, and has been explained by the Holy One, blessed by He: "Why did the land perish? Because they abandoned My law which I put before them. " It has already been made clear that the Zionists reject all the commandments and cleave to every manner of abomina­tion....

Do we not know that the whole purpose of redemption is to improve our ways so that Israel may observe the Torah with all the re­strictions that have been placed upon it by our sages who should not, Heaven forbid, be men of power and influence among us. [Moreover] as the prophets foresaw our re­demption, we will not require an army and strategies of war. From this we can see that [the aspiration of the Zionists] is opposed to the spirit of Judaism and to the hope of re­demption.

I have heard it said in the name of the Zionists that without a state modeled after other states there would be an end to Judaism, Heaven forbid. To them we would reply that the land of Israel and the people of Israel are above the rules of causality and that, thank God, in our day at least the majority of Jews remain steadfast in their faith.

Here we see a religious response to the emergence of Zionism. Zadok ha-Cohen rejects what he sees as the Zionists’ messianic pretensions. He affirms a belief that God will redeem the Jewish people and create a utopian world in some future time, but that the destiny of the Jews is to wait for God to make this happen. This is not a completely passive waiting, as he affirms that Jew can indeed hasten the coming messianic age through performance of the mitzvoth. The exile for R’ Zadok ha-Cohen appears to be a kind of symbol for the imperfect nature of the world, and the Jewish people. Though the Jewish people are charged to improve the world through performance of mitzvoth, they are partially to blame for the exile because they are not fulfilling God’s command. The moral perfection of the Jewish people itself in this example is one of the posited reasons for exile. For R’ Zadok, messianic hope and survival in exile are thus integral parts of Jewish theology.

R’ Zadok was not the only Hasidic thinker to rebel against the pretensions of Zionism. The thought of the Satmar sect of Hasidism to this day is clearly opposed to Zionism for many of the same reasons as expressed by those above. Much of the modern material is based on that of Rabbi Joel (Yoel) Teitelbaum, (d. 1979), the Satmar Rebbe, who was a prominent Hungarian Hasidic leader. He was a holocaust survivor, and is said to have saved a train-load of Hungarian Jews from the camps. He was most widely known for his opposition to Zionism, following the opinions of his father and predecessor Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum. He encouraged his followers to form self-sufficient communities outside of the State of Israel and forbade "official" engagement with it. His most popular work is a book on his belief that Zionism is prohibited by Jewish law entitled VaYoel Moshe. The following excerpt is from a contemporary Satmar website:

The so-called "State of Israel" is diametrically opposed and completely contradictory to the true essence and foundation of the People of Israel… The only time that the People of Israel were permitted to have a state was two thousand years ago when the glory of the creator was upon us, and likewise in the future when the glory of the creator will once more be revealed, and the whole world will serve Him, then He Himself (without any human effort or force of arms) will grant us a kingdom founded on Divine Service. However, a worldly state, like those possessed by other peoples, is contradictory to the true essence of the People of Israel. Whoever calls this the salvation of Israel shows that he denies the essence of the People of Israel, and substitutes another nature, a worldly materialistic nature, and therefore sets before them, a worldly materialistic "salvation," and the means of achieving this "salvation" is also worldly and materialistic i.e. to organize a land and army. However, the true salvation of the People of Israel is to draw close to the Creator. This is not done by organization and force of arms. Rather it is done by occupation to Torah and good deeds…In the past two thousand years of the dangers and sufferings of exile not once did any of the Sages of Israel suggest that we make a state to protect ourselves. In every generation we had thousands of Sages well versed in the Torah. We have thousands of legal work of Torah law that have been handed down to us by the Sages of all generations. Not once do we see a word suggesting the establishment of a state. What we do find is warnings against it.[7]

Here we see that according to the Satar Hasidim, Zionism contradicts much of the basis of Jewish doctrine. Moreover, they believe that Zionism is harmful to Judaism. They saw the exile as being intentionally imposed by God. For them, the Zionist dream was simply an expression of human hubris. For them, the essence of Judaism is the performance of “good deeds.” They reject the argument that the weight of the suffering of exile was greater in the modern age than ever before, therefore necessitating the creation of the state. They claim that despite the many generations of Jewish suffering, never before has the Jewish community advocated actively forcing God’s hand to bring an end to exile. For them, exile is an important element of Jewish theology.

Religious Jews were not the only sector of the Jewish community to reject the Zionist call. With the advent of Labor Zionism, many Jewish socialists and anarchists were convinced of the efficacy of the Zionist argument. However, many socialist and anarchist leaders did not heed the call of socialist Zionism. They also felt that Jewish exile transformed Jews and Judaism, endowing them with a uniquely internationalist and pacifistic perspective.

Emma Goldman, is one of history’s most famous Jewish anarchists. She was avowedly not a religious Jew. Her thought is emblematic of a maverick group of Jewish socialists and anarchist active in the early 20th century. In 1906 she began publication of her magazine “Mother Earth,” which presented many of the positions of this group. In the excerpt from the first issue of “Mother Earth” which I present below, the author, writing under the pseudonym “the Internationalist” argues that one of the most important lessons of Jewish exile was the internationalist perspective it afforded to the Jewish people:

The Jewish circles in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities in America are aroused over the visit of a spectre called Nationalism, alias Territorialism. Like all spectres, it is doing a lot of mischief and causing much confusion in the heads of the Jewish population.

The spirit of our ancestor, Abraham, has come to life again. Like Abraham, when Jehovah commanded him to go in quest of the promised land, the Jewish Nationalists make themselves and others believe that they long for the moment, when with wife and child and all possessions, they will migrate to that spot on earth, which will represent the Jewish state, where Jewish traits will have a chance to develop in idyllic peace.

Natural science calls retrogression of species, which shows signs of a former state already overcome, atavism. The same term may be applied to the advanced section of the Jewish population, which has listened to the call of the Nationalists. They have retrogressed from a universal view of things to a philosophy fenced in by boundary lines; from the glorious conception that "the world is my country" to the conception of exclusiveness. They have abridged their wide vision and have made it narrow and superficial.

The Zionism of Max Nordau and his followers never was more than a sentimental sport for the well-to-do in the ranks of the Jews. The latter-day Nationalists, however, are bent on reaching those circles of the Jewish race that have so far followed the banner of Internationalism and Revolution; and this at a moment when revolutionists of all nationalities and races are most in need of unity and solidarity. Nothing could be more injurious to the Russian revolution, nothing prove a lack of confidence in its success, so much as the present nationalistic agitation…[8]

As a people without a homeland we were forced to learn how to live among other nations. In this milieu, the Jewish people developed a doctrine of peace flying in the face of nationalist power. For “the Internationalist,” Zionism is “atavism,” the return of an organism to an earlier stage of evolution. Zionism disregards what he or she sees as the important lesson of exile. Though not religious in character, the author of this excerpt clearly felt that in some way the attraction of many Jews to socialism and anarchism was derived from Jewish thought. The author sees socialist Zionism as a perversion of these important elements of Judaism.

Radical left-wing secular Jews were not the only non-religious Jews who opposed Zionism on these grounds. Even respected Jewish philosophers and scientists expressed reservations about Zionism and affirmed the unique lessons learned by the Jewish people during exile. Hermann Cohen said, “It is only, we maintain, the universal humanistic Jewish nationality that can preserve Jewish religion…We thereby view the entire historical world as the future abode of our religion. And it is only this future that we acknowledge as our true homeland.”[9]

Albert Einstein’s view is also somewhat anti-zionist, though it is not clear whether Einstein would have agreed with the other thinkers mentioned above. The two quotes below illustrate his opinion:

Nationalism, in my opinion, is nothing more than an idealistic rationalization for militarism and aggression.[10]

My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain -- especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.[11]

Despite these quite clear attacks on Zionist nationalism, Einstein was one of the founding members of Hebrew University. Would he have gone so far as to agree with the above quotes concerning Zionism and the lessons acquired in the exile?

Philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen argues that "Zionists fundamentally accept the racial ideology of anti-Semites, but draw different conclusions. Instead of the Teuton, it is the Jew that is the pure or superior race."[12] Though I would not necessarily make such a bold statement, perhaps there is something we can learn from the excerpts presented above. Perhaps the exile did provide the Jewish people with a unique perspective on the world. In could be said that Zionism, simply through its ideological foundation, attempted to erase this unique exilic perspective in favor of another more aggressive one.

In a late 15th early 16th c. cautionary tale the kabbalist R' Yosef Della Reina[13] tries to force god's hand to bring the messiah by killing the evil Samael and Lillith by magical means, ending their reign on earth. In the process of his quest to destroy Samael, he encounters many celestial beings who call his motives into question. Time and again, he responds that he is doing this for the sake of heaven. In the end, however, he fails by inadvertently offering frankenscence to Samael, thereby committing a form of idolatry. Perhaps, then, we can learn from this something about the zionist enterprise--despite its claim that its quest is for the sake of heaven, it has become an inadvertent form of idolatry. Perhaps the modern state israel is a contemporary Golden Calf. We got tired of waiting for god to redeem us as the Hebrews got tired of waiting for Moshe, and decided to create our own redeemer. But what will happen when the real Moshe comes down from the mountain?

[1] Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman. Segel, Joel. Jewish with Feeling, Riverhead Books, New York, 2005, p. 103.

[2] “The Bilu Manifesto (1882)” from Mendes-Flohr, P., and Reinharz, J. The Jew in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, New York, 1995, p. 532.

[3] Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, p. 547.

[4] Hertzel, T. “A Solution of the Jewish Question (1896)” from Mendes-Flohr, P., and Reinharz, J, p. 534.

[5] Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, p. 540.

[6] Ibid., pp., 358-9.

[7] [Neturei Karta International- 2003]

[8] Emma Goldman's magazine MOTHER EARTH 1, vol. 1, p.49, "NATIONAL ATAVISM" By “Internationalist.”

[9] Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, pp. 574-5.

[10] From the first draft of a speech at Royal Albert Hall, London, October 3, 1933; quoted in Nathan and Norden, Einstein on Peace, p.242.

[11] Einstein, Albert. Out of My Later Years, New York, Philosophical Library, 1950, p. 263.

[12] Cohen, Morris R. "Zionism: Tribalism or Liberalism?" in Selzer, Zionism Reconsidered, p. 67.

[13] For a translation and interpretation of this story see: Dan, Joseph. The Heart and the Fountain: An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experiences, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 184-194.

About me

Previous posts



ATOM 0.3