Judaism’s Activist Spirit

Eikev By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Aug 27, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary | Israel

In his early Zionist tract, Rome and Jerusalem (1862), Moses Hess declaimed “that the Jewish religion is, above all, Jewish patriotism.” “Everything that reminds the pious Jew of Palestine is as dear to him as the sacred relics of his ancestral house.” By way of example, Hess recalled the intensity with which his learned and saintly grandfather prepared each year for the fast day of Tisha b’Av. As he read to his grandchildren tales of Jewish suffering in exile, “tears fell upon the snow-white beard of the stern old man (trans. By Meyer Waxman, N.Y., 1945, pp. 56-58).”

Hess, an important theoretician of European socialism, had abandoned that cause when he found it to be no less infected with antisemitism than the forces of the conservative right. The avowedly nationalistic History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz helped him adopt a view of Judaism bitterly at odds with that of contemporary Reform thinkers, detoxified of all particularistic strains. In the process, Hess celebrated the land-centered peoplehood of a homeless nation as nurtured by traditional Judaism.

This week’s parasha, rife with admonitory rhetoric, provides a striking and, I dare say, unexpected illustration of Hess’s deep insight. The Jewish practice of grace after meals (Birkat Ha-mazon) is anchored in the following well-known verse: “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you (Deuteronomy 8:10).” And indeed, that verse is incorporated toward the end of the second blessing of the grace. The connection between text and ritual seems straightforward. Maimonides in his code adds that the force of the word “vesavata – and you are satisfied,” is to oblige us to thank God only when we are no longer hungry. It was the Rabbis who insisted on grace even after a morsel of food as small as an olive (Mishne Torah, Berakhot 1:1).

The scriptural context for this commandment is a paean to the richness of the land about to be conquered by the Israelites. Canaan abounded with water, minerals and diverse crops. To acknowledge dependence on God in acts of thanksgiving would inculcate a state of mind that would never abuse prosperity. Yet the Rabbis universalized the duty to “bench” after meals. It was not restricted only to those living in the land of Israel, as was the commandment not to work the soil during the sabbatical year. All Jews, wherever they might reside, were expected to utter gratitude for the bounty of the earth.

However, the attachment to the land of Israel was never severed from the prayer itself. On the contrary, the four berakhot of the grace brim with national sentiment. As conceived by the Rabbis, Birkat Ha-mazon encapsulates much of early Jewish history into a reaffirmation of the inviolability of the land. Having finished a meal, Jews do not sing of the wonders of nature but rather the sanctity of their ancient homeland. Hess had it right: Judaism qua religion perpetuates a sense of nationhood.

According to Rav Nahman, who lived in early fourth century Babylonia, the four basic paragraphs of the grace are a composite that reflect four different periods. The first (ha-zan) was authored by Moses to voice thanksgiving for the manna in the wilderness. The second (al-haaretz ve-al ha-mazon), by Joshua to commemorate the conquest of the land. The third (bone berahamav Yerushalyim), by David and Solomon to celebrate the construction of Jerusalem and the Temple. And the fourth (ha-tov ve-ha-meitiv), by the Rabbis to recall the failed Bar Kochba rebellion (B.T. Berakhot 48b). In the spirit of this historical conception is surely the addition of Psalm 126 on Shabbat and festivals which sings of national restoration. Thus faced with an ever wider Diaspora, the Rabbis forged lifelines of ritual to keep center and periphery united.

But this religious drumbeat of national yearning did not pave the way for political Zionism at the end of the 19th century. The astonishing fact is that Eastern European Orthodoxy in both its Hasidic (Rabbi Shalom Dov Beer Schneerson of Lubavitch) and its Mitnagdic (Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik of Volozhin) garb bitterly condemned it. What turned them into inveterate opponents of Zionism was not the highly assimilated lifestyle of leaders like Herzl and Nordau, but the messianic views of traditional Judaism. Only the messiah would some day reverse the state of chronic Jewish exile with a swift and final restoration to the ancient homeland.

The natural patriotism of the religious Jew of which Hess spoke came with an incapacitating degree of political passivity. In the wake of three catastrophic rebellions against the Roman Empire, the Rabbis had adjured Jews not to take to the barricades, nor to try to throw off the yoke of gentile rule, nor to speculate on when the messiah might come. In return, God would ensure that the nations of the world not oppress their Jewish subjects too harshly (B.T. Ketubot 111a). According to the terms of this covenant, collective repentance alone might hasten the coming of the messiah. To the Orthodox, political Zionism with its embrace of human agency and incremental progress appeared as an arrogant repudiation of a cardinal plank of Judaism.

Moreover, it is precisely this intense activism which underscores the modernity of political Zionism. As the skies darkened for European Jewry with the Dreyfus Affair in France and ever more pogroms in Russia and wholly antisemitic political parties in Germany and Austria, young post-emancipated Jews gave vent to their anger and angst by espousing Jewish nationalism. Without this double estrangement — from Judaism and emancipation — the traditional passivity would never have been shattered.

But not vanquished! Two years ago, after Israeli independence day, I entered the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem to buy some books. On the walls I was greeted with Hebrew placards that could have hung 150 years ago in the Pale of Settlement, where the vast majority of Russia’s Jews were forced to live: “To be drafted into the army is, according to our holy Torah, a very grave sin.” I prefer to believe that God helps those who help themselves. And the history of modern Israel surely supports that view.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Eikev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld. This commentary is a reprint from 5759.