Commentary Magazine


Redemption Through Politics

For me—though I would imagine that much the same would be true for anyone who has been living with at least some degree of intellectual alertness through the polemical agitations of this highly politicized era in which we all unhappily find ourselves—the experience of reading Gershom Scholem’s “The Holiness of Sin” (p. 41) was rather like having an amplified carillon implanted inside my head, so many bells did this account of a remote Jewish sect, remote in time and apparently remote in its preoccupations, ring in my mind and so loudly did they reverberate throughout my entire being.

In the 1930’s, when “The Holiness of Sin” was first published, the quip became popular among those who knew enough Hebrew to read it that Scholem had produced the most illuminating analysis anyone had yet done of the Stalinist mentality, particularly as that mentality was responding to such shocks as the massacre of the kulaks, the Moscow Trials, the purges, and the Hitler-Stalin pact. Scholem, of course, made no explicit comparisons himself and was almost certainly not thinking consciously of Stalinism at all. Nevertheless, a reader of “The Holiness of Sin” in 1937 would have had to be very narrowly focused indeed in his thinking to miss the breathtaking similarities between the kinds of arguments the Sabbatians used in denying that the conversion of Sabbatai Zevi to Islam proved that he was not after all the Messiah of the Jews, and the arguments employed by the Stalinists in trying to persuade themselves against all the evidence of the senses that a socialist revolution was in fact being fulfilled in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Today we are not so likely to dwell on those similarities, but we are just as likely to be struck by another set of equally astonishing contemporary resonances having to do with the basic doctrine of the holiness of sin itself or, as the Sabbatians generally put it, the idea that the violation of the Law is its true fulfillment.

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When the Sabbatians spoke of the Law, they specifically meant the Torah, the Commandments, but as Scholem’s account makes unmistakably clear, they also meant something not very different from what the term “Establishment” has come to signify in our time. It included, that is, all traditional forms, customs, and institutions, together with all classes of people who supported or sustained them. In repudiating the Law in this sense, the Sabbatians—some in public practice or through conversion, some as “voluntary Marranos” in secret, and some only in the privacy of their own minds—were actually repudiating not rabbinic Judaism (though they were also doing that) but Judaism of any variety. In other words, whatever else they wished to be and whatever they may have told themselves they wished to be and with whatever degree of candor they may have told it to themselves, they did not wish to be Jews. How can one fail to be reminded in reading about these people of the type of revolutionist in America today who declares that the authority of this society is illegitimate and that the law must therefore be resisted and indeed violated if it is to be truly fulfilled? Are not these revolutionists, in addition to repudiating the American social order as concretely and existentially constituted—under cover to be sure of the claim, which they make perhaps as much to themselves as to others, that they represent the true American Constitution—are they not expressing with varying degrees of candor and without necessarily wishing to “convert” to any other national identity, the yearning not to be Americans? (Alexander Bickel’s piece about the Chicago conspiracy trial on p. 31 is, as the saying goes, nothing if not relevant here, bathetic though the comparison between Nathan of Gaza and a vice president of Random House may seem to some.)

I myself, at any rate, find the parallel dizzyingly suggestive, and a thousand others like it will occur to every attentive reader of Scholem’s essay. But my intention here is not to put forward any such vulgar proposal as that the history of the Sabbatian movement be seen as an exact or even as an approximate prefiguring of the ideological battles taking place in American political life today. What I do want to propose, however, flows directly from the fact that these parallels can plausibly be drawn with so little violence to the integrity of the immense differences between the two situations. For if the story of a distant religious movement can tell us so much about the political storms by which we ourselves are being battered, then surely those scholars (men like Hans Jonas, Norman Cohn, J. L. Tahmon, and of course Gershom Scholem) have been right all along in their understanding of large areas of contemporary political thought and behavior as the acting-out in secular guise of impulses and conflicts which are actually religious rather than political in character. Nor is this merely an “academic:” point. “If they want a sense of purpose,” said Harold Macmillan when he was Prime Minister of England, “let them go to their bishops.” The trouble is that when they do go to their bishops nowadays, they are sent right back to the Macmillans with the bishops leading the way.

Yet the fact remains that the religious impulse cannot in the nature of things be satisfied within the political order any more than religious ideas can be adequately expressed within the social order; and the effort to make politics do what only religion for better or worse can do invariably puts those who engage in this profoundly unholy effort directly in the way of the diabolical temptation that some of us still know as totalitarianism, though it may travel, in neatly analogous accordance with the principle that the violation of the Law is now its true fulfillment, under many other seductively sweet-sounding names.

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