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The Marketplace of Ideas (2)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

The Collapse of Ideologies

 

            The three cultures that we have been discussing (the generation of the flood, the generation of the dispersion, and Sodom) can serve as a representative sample of all the various ideologies which promised the world salvation in the modern era.  Eventually, each of these ideologies collapsed, either in the fiery tempests of revolution, or through persistent rotting at the core, as we saw in the case of communism.

 

            How must we approach these ideologies?  Rav Kook explains that those positions have consistently led humanity astray because they did indeed possess some sparks of truth.  In Kabbalistic terms, these ideologies are "kelipot" (shells).  In other words, they parasitically hang onto the coattails of truth.  These ideologies are based upon ideals, the moral and the national. However, these ideals were corrupted by the attempt to construct entire belief systems upon minute sparks of truth, in order to usurp the place of religion.

 

            These ideologies are, in fact, a modern form of idolatry.  Both Communism and nationalism strove for absolute rule in place of religion.  Communism expressed this drive through the propagation of atheism.  Torah establishments were persecuted by both Jewish and non-Jewish Communist agitators.  Nationalism and racism also aspired to become holy values, and in Nazism this process was heralded by the revival of early German mythology.  To the German people, this revival constituted a restoration of their former glory, a celebrated return to the period before Judaism had conquered the earth.

 

            Our account with European civilization is a long one indeed, with Christianity forming the focal point of this culture.  According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Christianity's most terrible sin was the construction of a false Judaism, a religion of darkness, of defining holiness as withdrawal from the world, and of anti-Semitism.  Many modern thinkers view Nazism as a logical extension of Christianity.  In their opinion, the swastika was merely an overdeveloped cross.  However, it seems to me that this approach is too simplistic.  In fact, Nazism was none other than a zealous return to idolatry.  This revival commenced in pre-Hitler Germany and is eloquently expressed in the rich mythology of Wagner's operas.

 

The Ideologies vs. Religion

 

            These movements were not simply social philosophies.  They attempted to take the place of religion through their impressive array of prophets and priests, their "holy writ" and its sanctioned interpretation, while educating their people toward self-sacrifice in the name of false ideals.  Indeed, history notes the singular phenomenon of Stalin's innocent victims, who confessed crimes which they did not commit, thinking that they were thereby forwarding the cause of the revolution.  Even at death's door, those people refused to accept the possibility that they had been duped by an illusion.

 

            In the marketplace of modern ideologies reigns the claim that religion is dead.  We will not dispute this position here.  Suffice it to mention that we have been hearing the prophecy of the demise of religion for three hundred years.  The numerous reiterations of this claim prove its ultimate worth, just as the number of times that a smoker quits tells us much about his willpower and intentions.

 

            The knowledge of God, according to Rav Kook, is the central and essential knowledge in life.  Every society since the dawn of history has searched for religious faith.  Our responses to religious questions lie at the center of our being.  And in the absence of religion, idolatry holds sway.  The sworn enemies, Nazism and Communism, constituted the two extremes of modern idolatry.

 

            Throughout the history of changing ideologies, Judaism has served as a mystical "thermometer."  Each ideology can be assessed based on its attitude towards Judaism.  The fact that Judaism suffered at the hands of both these extreme ideologies teaches us that both were dangerous illusions.  In his Epistle to Yemen, Rambam posits that the Jewish people have been faced with two types of enemies throughout our history.  We have contended with foes, such as Amalek and Haman, who endangered our physical existence; and we have met other enemies, such as Christianity, who threatened our spiritual well-being.  Christianity's wish was to save the Jewish soul, but the quest for "spiritual salvation" often translated into physical persecution.  In the modern world, matters have not changed much.  Nazi persecution stemmed from Amalek, while our conflict with Marxism was none other than a struggle over the spiritual commitment of the Jewish people.  Indeed, since its inception, Marxism kept up a peculiar rivalry with Judaism, despite the powerful attraction it had for many of our people.  Karl Marx, whose parents converted the family to Christianity while their son was yet a child, claimed that the Jews worshipped at the altar of the coin.  This is a difficult statement in and of itself, but in reality it is but a symptom of a more serious problem.  Marxism attempted to achieve redemption without God.

 

            The words of the Rambam have attained a new significance in our generation.  Nazism lacerated the Jewish body, while Communism ravaged the Jewish soul.  Judaism serves as a tragic measure of these ideologies, for their virulent anti-Semitism reveals their true colors and testifies that they are simply new forms of ancient idol worship.  The twentieth century has proven fertile ground for a renewed idolatry.  Thus, we have indeed returned to the starting point of the Kuzari.

 

Jewish Ideals

 

            Let us now move from ideologies to ideals.  Rav Kook teaches us that four human ideals exist: the Godly, the moral, the national and the religious.

 

            The moral ideal within us laments in response to the many injustices in the world, while the national ideal motivates groups to the struggle for independence.  Beyond these two ideals lies the Godly ideal, which the prophets have taught since the beginning of time.  Rav Kook clearly distinguishes between the Godly and the religious ideals.  The religious ideal translates lofty concepts to practical everyday life.  The Godly ideal embodies all the other ideals, and can be achieved only through the integration of all the others.

 

            To explain this interaction, I will make use of a wonderful rabbinic homily of Rabbi Barukh Yashar.  The Passover haggada quotes Rabban Gamliel the Elder, who states that a Jew who does not recite "Pessach, matza, and maror" has not fulfilled his religious obligation.  Let us imagine Rabban Gamliel standing on the Temple Mount and observing three groups of pilgrims as they approach Jerusalem.  The first group carries the Paschal sacrifice and thus expresses the religious significance of the holiday.  The second group bears matzot, the symbol of national freedom.  They perceive Passover as the celebration of our national independence.  A third group brings the maror (bitter herbs), for they see the holiday as a commemoration of the slave revolution.  Rabban Gamliel teaches us that whoever has not recited all three words Pessach, matza and maror, has not fully expressed the significance of the holiday.  The meaning of Passover, then, is the integration of these three ideals.

 

            Now, as of old, our people are divided amongst the various ideals.  Those who sought the moral ideal blindly followed the socialist trend.  Others who stressed the national ideal labored for the revival and national redemption of our people.  Together with the search for the religious ideal, these divisions succinctly express the history of human ideas.

 

            Rav Kook lived during the period when the Marxist illusion was in its glory.  Communism had not yet gained the power it would ultimately wield, but neither had it become corrupt.  In our day, we face the opposite problem.  One of the greatest tragedies caused by Marxism is the utter disillusionment with all social ideals, the collective despair of ever effecting social change.  Marxism destroyed the hope of social redemption, and its collapse may yet revive the nightmare of Fascism.  On the other hand, Fascism destroyed the hope of national-moral redemption.  The twentieth century has watched humanity waver between these two extremes, between the willingness to dispose of social reform in the name of nationalism, and the desire to destroy nationalism in the name of universal brotherhood.  And at this telling juncture, while the world views both nationalism and social reform with a jaded eye, we must continue to champion our Jewish ideals of unity and communal responsibility.  We must continue to uphold the moral and national ideals.

 

            I cannot conclude without an additional note regarding the question of nationalism.  Nationalism has the potential to be both a blessing and curse; it is both a wellspring of faith and the root of rebellion

 

            The Torah presents nationalism as the divine retribution for the construction of the tower of Babel.  It would appear, then, that nationalism contains a foundation of evil.  If this is true, then, how can we, in good conscience, speak of nationalism as an ideal?  How can we continue to uphold the values of Jewish nationalism and Zionism?

 

            Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch answers this question, and through his response we can, incidentally, gain valuable insight into the entire book of Genesis.  Rabbi Hirsch explains that God's punishments are not acts of vengeance; they are educational tools.  This is the essence of both of the central biblical punishments in Genesis: labor and nationalism.  Labor and nationalism are the building blocks of the two central ideas that we have previously addressed.  They are punishments whose goal is education.  Let me give you an example.  Occupational therapy is used as a cure in our day, not for the purpose of producing goods, but because the work itself is therapeutic.  This fact is true of all humanity, not only of ill and weak members of society.  Labor is a means of correction and improvement of man.  Nationalism, too, contains curative qualities; it grants us the means of expressing the uniqueness of each nation.  The messianic era will erase the transgression of the tower of Babel, and the entire world will speak an unified language once again.  This utopian vision will eventually be achieved through the vehicle of nationalism.  Nationalism and labor can become a blessing or a curse.  If abused, they set the stage for a tragedy.

 

            Jewish nationalism can only be understood against the background of these ideas.  And yet, we must remember that the Jewish people remains separate from the seventy nations of the world which came into being at the dispersion.  We were not born of that sin.  Our nation was created at a later stage in the world's history, a unique and miraculous creation of our God, who chose Abraham.  Thus was the world granted a new beginning.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.

 

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