What Price Messianism?
To the Editor:
Jacob Katz’s article, “Is Messianism Good For the Jews?” [April], starts with a quotation from Gershom Scholem’s Sabbetai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah indicating that Jews have paid a high price for their messianism. In his erudite essay, Mr. Katz, one of the most important scholars of Jewish social history, tells us his conception of this price: extreme quietism in the face of terrible sociopolitical conditions. . . . He also warns of the danger of the irrational wave of extremist messianism in Israel.
Messianism, however, also bears fruit, says Mr. Katz. The Zionist movement has benefited from it, for the obvious reason that, properly understood, “Jewish messianism [is] the longing for regained independence in one’s own country.” But “with the establishment in 1948 of the secular state of Israel, the messianic issue would seem to have lost all actual point.” It was only “in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967, in a dialectical turn of history, [that] there arose in Israel a new quasi-fundamentalist messianism.” Mr. Katz is critical of this new movement, Gush Emunim, and reminds the Jewish people that they might have to pay a heavy price “for their lasting commitment to the messianic idea.”
I cannot agree more with Mr. Katz’s critique of the logic of messianism. I find it puzzling, however, that, in the face of his warning against messianism, Mr. Katz himself insists that it is a necessary part of present-day Zionism. But he fails to explicate his own support of messianism and, thereby, to comply with common standards of critical analysis. Let me illustrate.
Mr. Katz concedes that Jewish Zionist messianism has been associated not only with the hope for national freedom but also with “more far-reaching expectations of a religious, national, and social character.” These expectations, he says, “were also attached to the hoped-for culmination of the historical process.” Precisely which historical process he is referring to and what its hoped-for culmination is to be, are not clear. Is the historical process the preparation of a modern national homeland for the Jews? Is its culmination the establishment of the state of Israel?
Mr. Katz says that, historically, for the traditional Jew, “abandoning messianic belief would have meant rejecting Jewish ritual itself, the consequence of which would have been to drop out of the Jewish community.” Has secular Zionist activity come to replace Jewish ritual for Mr. Katz? Is this why he claims that the proper response to fundamentalist messianism “cannot be a repudiation of the historical connection of Zionism with messianism”? Is this why he would not let go of messianism altogether? Or does he really believe in a messiah? If not, what is, in actual fact, his own brand of messianism? Why does he not discuss it explicitly and teach us about its possible price?
Mr. Katz claims that democracy and messianism ought to be jointly applied in Israel. But nationalist messianic goals—either religious or secular—are both anti-individualistic and utopian in nature and, therefore, . . . at times, compromise democratic liberal principles and the structure of the nation-state. Has the German experience five decades ago not taught us that much? Why, then, would Mr. Katz ignore his own question and refrain from applying it to his own case? Is his brand of messianism good for the Jews?
New Haven, Connecticut
Jacob Katz writes:
Nathaniel Laor’s letter contains a number of misreadings of my article which lead him to question my conception of the role messianism ought to play in the life of the state of Israel. Nowhere did I state that messianism “is a necessary part of present-day Zionism,” nor did I claim “that democracy and messianism ought to be jointly applied in Israel.” What I did insist upon—as Mr. Laor quotes in his letter—is that “the historical connection of Zionism with messianism” cannot be denied. This connection is evident in the commitment of all elements of the Zionist movement, in all their activities, to regaining national independence in the ancient homeland—the very core of messianism.
To negate this connection in order to counter the messianic claim of Gush Emunim or any other coterie is therefore a futile enterprise; it amounts to rewriting the history of Zionism for a dubious ideological benefit. The proper answer to such a claim is that no one sector of the population has the right to impose its particular—even idiosyncratic—version of messianism upon the state as a whole. That such versions of messianism do pop up in Israel’s public life is no wonder, given the deep imprint messianic ideas and imaginings have left on the collective Jewish consciousness in the past. They cannot be uprooted, but their effect can be limited by granting them no more room or weight than is their democratic due. There can be no “joint application” of messianism and democracy, for the former must abide by the rules of the latter.
Mr. Laor asks about the brand of messianism to which I myself adhere. In answering his question I could follow the example of the late political philosopher Leo Strauss who once replied to a similar question by saying, “I’m just a poor historian who is not supposed to have any ideas of his own.” Strauss of course had plenty of ideas and convictions of his own, but did not want to leave the impression that his personal views were compelling conclusions deriving from his historical insights. But though I think this attitude a commendable one for historians, I will nonetheless satisfy Mr. Laor’s curiosity about the place of the state of Israel within my overall conception of Jewish messianism.
There is a prayer for Israel’s welfare recited during the synagogue service which refers to the state of Israel as “reshit geulatenu”—the beginning of our redemption. Whenever I hear it I am inclined to change the wording to read “helek mi-geulatenu”—i.e., a part (albeit an important one) of our redemption. My reason is that to speak of a “beginning” in this connection suggests a belief that the state of Israel is no more than the commencement of a process which requires culmination. It is precisely this line of thinking which has led people to devise means of hastening the process of redemption and has thus contributed to the ideology of Gush Emunim. I do not need such a future-oriented dimension in order to value the Jewish state. Imperfect as it may be, I grant the state messianic status not because of some imaginary future but because of its historic roots.