To the Editor:
Rabbi Nathan Wise answers the question, “Should Jews be ‘Like Unto the Nations’?”, with a resounding affirmative. That is his privilege. But he must recognize that in doing so he is running counter to normative Jewish tradition. He has the right to renounce that tradition, of course; but let him at least acknowledge that that’s what he’s doing. Let him not argue as if he were carrying forward the tradition and it was I who was adulterating it with my “Marxism.” A curious way for “materialistic” Marxism to show itself—in depreciating the “physical” and exalting the “spiritual”!
Rabbi Wise makes no effort to controvert my reading of Israel’s history and tradition. He simply makes the tradition relative to “circumstances” (a suspiciously “Marxist” procedure!) and implies that circumstances have changed. Of course they have—and not only in the past two centuries. The circumstances of Jewish life have changed drastically more than once in the course of the past two and a half thousand years, but the normative Jewish tradition, embodying the developing Prophetic-Pharisaic-Rabbinic outlook, has remained essentially self-consistent and continuous. That tradition, it seems to me, is classically expressed in Saadya’s famous dictum: “Our people is a people only by virtue of its Torah,” or as Dr. Finkelstein has recently phrased it: “The Jewish people must be maintained in order that their tradition may live. It is not the tradition that lives in order that the Jewish people be maintained.”
I would not be so certain as Rabbi Wise seems to be as to the providential meaning of the dispersion. We read in the Talmud: “God scattered His people over the earth, for only so could the nations be gained for His service” (Pesahim 87b). The fact seems to be that the dispersion, like so much else in Jewish existence, is ambivalent: a curse and a blessing, or perhaps better, a burden turned into an opportunity for service to God and mankind.
Where did Rabbi Wise and Dr. Judah Goldin get the impression that I hold the Land of Israel to be “peripheral to (or, say, a minor theme in) the teaching of Judaism”? Certainly not from my article; there I say specifically. “Palestine has a great and indispensable role to play in the fulfillment of Jewish destiny but this role is not to reabsorb the Galut and ‘normalize’ Jewish life along secular national lines. Palestine’s destiny, rather, is to serve as the ideal pole of ‘normality’ in dialectic relation to the ‘abnormality’ of the Galut, each functioning as a norm and balance for the other.”
In other words, the Land and the Galut are the two foci of Jewish existence: to be focal, I submit, is something very different from being peripheral. I oppose the view that denies the Land just as vigorously as I oppose the view that denies the Galut. Land and Galut are focal to Jewish existence; for the Jews, one implies the other.
But transcending both and everything is the Torah. Salo Baron (A Social and Religious History of the Jews, i, 83-84) describes the mature Prophetic viewpoint as follows: “The political independence of Jewish nationality may gradually vanish, the Jews may be more and more forced to abandon the country for foreign lands. . . . Not territorial basis, not even the highest religious expression of territorial anchorage, the Temple and its sacrifices, really matter; to obey the commands of the Lord in all places is what matters to the Jew. . . . Thus in days of great suffering and, in a profound sense, out of them, was born the idea of a Jewish people beyond state and territory, a divine instrument in man’s overcoming of ‘nature’ through a supernatural process in the course of ‘history.’“
I do not see that I have much to disagree with in the remarks of Dr. Goldin except that here and there he seems to misinterpret my views. But that is not of major importance. He states some significant truths and states them with force and passion. He does deplore my stress on Jewish “abnormality,” but he himself says: “The world as it should be is the world where Israel’s normalcy will finally be enacted.” Exactly! Until the world is at it should be—and that, I presume, will not be until the “last days”—Israel’s position in the world will remain an abnormal one. There may be some difference in our two formulations but surely they are not essential. There are, finally, a number of points in his letter that I might dispute, but since they do not seem to me to be relevant to my article, I will refrain from comment.
Dr. Zeitlin charges me with three factual errors: (1) I said Johanan ben Zakkai was Ab Bet Din of the Sanhedrin, whereas he was not; (2) I said that when Johanan appeared before the Roman commander he was accompanied by Joshua ben Hananya and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, whereas there is no evidence to that effect; and (3) I called Eleazar ben Jair a Zealot leader whereas he was one of the Sicarii.
Of course, I am utterly incompetent to argue matters of scholarship with Dr. Zeitlin. I merely want to point out that only the third point has the slightest relevance to the argument of my article. Whether Johanan was or was not Ab Bet Din, whether he was or was not accompanied by his two disciples when he appeared before the Roman, is obviously immaterial to the validity of the thesis I was trying to establish. Even the last point—whether Eleazer belonged to the Zealots or Sicarii—is only of peripheral significance, as any one can see by glancing at my article. The conclusions would be exactly the same were the word “Zealots” replaced by “Sicarii” in all relevant passages.
However, in extenuation of my errors, I would like to state the following:
- Johanan ben Zakkai is referred to as Ab Bet Din by Graetz and others. Here is what Graetz says (ii, 240): “Johanan ben Zakkai was made vice-president of the Sanhedrin.” (“Vice-president,” it is well known, is the usual way of rendering Ab Bet Din in English.)
- My imagination apparently misled me in having Joshua and Eliezer accompany Johanan before the Roman commander. The accounts refer to Johanan alone.
- Graetz (ii, 239) calls the Sicarii an extremist section of the Zealots: “Another band of Zealots . . . were called Sicarii. . . . The Sicarii belonged to the very refuse of the Zealots.” Other histories and encyclopedias I have consulted say very much the same thing.
I am grateful to Dr. Zeitlin for calling attention to these points, which I intend to investigate further.
Finally, permit me to thank Dr. Rosenheim and Mr. Shinn for their good opinions of my article. I have certainly tried to express the attitude of traditional Judaism as I find it relevant to the perplexities of our time. It is good to have Dr. Rosenheim’s word that I have succeeded to some extent.
New York City