Judaism & Politics
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s review of The Wineskin and the Wizard and Zionism Reconsidered [Books in Review, January] was compounded of a joyously vicious and propagandistic mixture of distortion, innuendo, half-truth, and plain name-calling which placed it securely in the tradition of Jewish reaction that many of us now associate with COMMENTARY magazine. As such, it was a matter of neither surprise nor dismay.
I am not going to comment on all the points that Mr. Halkin made—or rather scored—but one is central to his entire argument and is so utterly fallacious that I must attempt to set the record straight. “What was new about Zionism,” Mr. Halkin declares, “was not its interest in power—Jews have always had an interest in power, like human beings everywhere—but rather its aim of attaining it through the agency of a Jewish state.” So bald and uninformed—and indicative of so profound a misunderstanding of the nature of Judaism—is this remark that one boggles at the fact that a purportedly serious Jewish magazine could permit it within its columns. Contrary to what Mr. Halkin assumes, the question of power has always been of central but controversial importance in Jewish thought, the higher elements of which have always insisted on the necessity of its renunciation by Jews.
“From. Moses to Moses there was none like Moses,” and I trust that I will be allowed by Mr. Halkin to base what I have said on Maimonides’s own writings without once again being accused of abysmal ignorance of things Jewish. The aim of the Torah and hence of Judaism, Maimonides tells us, is twofold. On the one hand, it seeks to inculcate in its adherents the “well-being of the soul,” or the spiritual perfection of individual men. On the other hand, the Torah seeks to bring about the “well-being of the body” which, as he says, is “established by a proper management of the relations in which we live with one another.”
Two answers, reflecting the polar extremes of an antinomy which pervades the entire course of Jewish history, and which most significantly describes that history, have been given to the question of what is meant by “a proper management of the relations in which we live with one another.” On the one hand, there are those who view the Messianic era as the reinstitution of the ancient biblical polity, following which (and as a result of) a divine intervention of a miraculous nature, an era of universal peace or, in other recensions, of Israel’s hegemony, will be inaugurated. In this view, human endeavor in the political realm is required to bring the first phase of the Messianic era into being, and there is therefore no objection to political action so long as it is consonant with this goal. The ethos here is one which a Reconstructionist friend of mine advocates in terms of “Might and Power in accordance with My spirit.”
The inversion, of course, is beautifully absurd. No doubt, Mr. Halkin is unfamiliar with the words, so let me repeat them as they appear in the Bible: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (i.e., the most powerful Lord). The other view, then, holds that the Messianic age will be a profoundly non-political one and that it can only be brought into being by human endeavor—in Samuel Hirsch’s words, “The Messiah cannot come before we have become completely good.”
Maimonides describes two ways to the attainment of the “well-being of the body,” namely, “the removal of all violence from our midst” and the “teaching to every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.” In the concluding verse of H. Melakhim he describes the Messianic era in comparable terms. There will be, he says, “neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. . . . The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord.” Maimonides insists that the Messianic age will not be accompanied by miraculous interventions and will not transform nature.
The Messianic era, then, is marked by the absence of evil (in the sense of violence and contention, in particular) and by a universal preoccupation with the quest for truth. In Maimonides’s view, politics is evil and is wholly incompatible with the quest for truth.
Commenting on Shemaiah’s exhortation, “Loathe mastery and do not familiarize yourself with the powers that be,” Maimonides’s remarks center round his quotation of the Talmudic dictum, “When a man is appointed leader of a community below, he becomes wicked toward heaven,” and makes it clear that not only rulers but also lesser political actors are subject, inescapably, to the corrupting effects of power. Even more interesting is Maimonides’s comment on Nechunya bar HaKanah’s “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah they remove from him the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly occupation. However, whoever casts off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of the kingdom and of worldly occupation”:
The yoke of the Torah means the constancy of study. The yoke of the kingdom means the burden of the king and his armies. The yoke of worldly occupation means the burden of fortune. He said that in recompense for his assuming the yoke of the Torah, the Lord, may He be blessed, will deliver him from and relieve him of the burden of fortune. His statement, “casts off the yoke of the Torah,” refers to one who has said, “the Torah was not divinely revealed and I will not bear it.” [The ancient sages] said, “Haruth—engraved” upon the tablets means “Heruth—freedom”; meaning to say, freedom from the consequences of fortune and from the affairs of kings is granted to one who accepts and practices what is written on the tablets.
. . . Two points of fundamental importance for an understanding of Judaism must surely emerge from this all-too-cursory survey. The first is that the goal of attaining the well-being of the body is one of the two goals toward which Judaism directs its adherents; the second is that there are two different notions as to what this goal is and therefore as to how it is to be achieved. On the one hand, there is a “political” view of the Messianic future, according to which political behavior in the present is considered acceptable if it brings that future any closer to attainment. This parallels the general idealist view of politics, a view which had led to such wondrous rationalizations of our evil impulses as the notion that it is possible to fight a “war to end all wars,” or that the upbuilding of a bureaucratic state is the way in which to make the state wither away. On the other hand, there is the view which antithesizes the Messianic and the political conditions, which declares that all power necessarily corrupts, and that the pursuit of Torah and the pursuit of power are mutually incompatible. Political action can therefore never bring the Messianic era into being, for it is the very absence of politics (evil and falsehood) that describes the Messianic era (love and truth).
Both points of view are amply present in the Jewish tradition; for every “loathe mastery and do not familiarize yourself with the powers that be” there is a “the king’s servant is king; cleave to the heat and it will warm you.” The dimension of Jewish holiness and profanity, of Jewish distinctiveness (which is implied in the Hebrew kadosh which we translate as “holy”) and “normalcy,” is to be drawn precisely between these two polarities: “Normalcy” is what describes the non-Messianic era, hence profanity, hence power; distinctiveness is that which describes the Messianic era, hence holiness, hence powerlessness.
So dismally does Mr. Halkin misunderstand the nature of Judaism, and of Jewish history, that he considers it relevant to ask whether “Jews are somehow above the ordinary range of human business and concerns.” He and so much else in contemporary Judaism are-eloquent testimony to the fact that they are not. The point is not whether Jews are, but whether they should be. For Zionists, and indeed for others throughout the course of Jewish history, normalcy is a desirable goal, and the “ways of the nations” an acceptable arbiter of behavior. Of such people, who deny the Messianic possibility by defining the Messianic era in “normal” terms, we can say, with Shimon ben Yohai in his comment on Isaiah 43:12: “If you are ‘My witnesses’ I am the Lord; and if you are not ‘My witnesses,’ I am not, as it were, the Lord.” For others, not the standards of a viciously evil world, but those of the Messianic kingdom, are the arbiter of action: “We define a good action,” Steven Schwarzschild has written, “by asking whether it will be imperative both for the hastening of the Kingdom in time and within the Kingdom once it is established.”
New York City
Hillel Halkin writes:
Michael Selzer prefers not to comment on the points that I made—or rather scored—in discussing his book. I will accept this as the plea of nolo contendere that I assume it was meant to be.
I am not sure why Mr. Selzer has chosen to quote so extensively from Maimonides—who, incidentally, was so convinced that “when a man is appointed leader of a community below, he becomes wicked toward heaven” that he spent the last decades of his life as the recognized leader of the Jewish community of Cairo—unless it be that because a number of Maimonides’s writings have been translated into English, he is one of the few authoritative spokesmen of the Jewish tradition whom Mr. Selzer is able to read. (Would it be wide of the mark to guess that the reason Mr. Selzer never footnotes his sources, neither in his present letter nor in The Wineskin and the Wizard, is that such a minimal concession to scholarship would require him to reveal that he is entirely dependent for his knowledge of Jewish history on secondary studies and English translations?) In any case, whereas Maimonides is concerned in these passages with the Messianic era, I had thought that Mr. Selzer and I were more interested in our own. In point of fact, I know of no Zionist leader or author of note, with the exception of the mystical Rabbi Kook, who ever suggested that Zionism was in part or in whole a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. Zionism arose and has essentially continued to this day as a national movement of finite if ambitious political, cultural, and social goals and not as an intended inducement of the millennium. To find it equated with the latter, one has to range further afield: to the writings of Christian chiliasts, and occasionally, of anti-Zionist Jews.
Finally, Mr. Selzer wishes to assure the readers of COMMENTARY that he does not think that Jews are above ordinary human concerns but merely that they should be. I have reread my review and do not find that I in any way misrepresented him on this point.