Shimen was in many ways the ultimate galuti (diaspora) character. For Shimen, power meant nothing more than the ability to live his life according to his community’s traditions and to pass on his cultural and intellectual legacy to his children. The capacity to move armies was not among his aspirations. He was suspicious of, if not downright antagonistic to, political authority. So, it would be no small irony if some version of the Yiddishkeit that he lived were to ultimately be revived in Israel.
In the meantime, the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that a revival of organic Judaism in Israel seems unlikely. If American Jews have failed to balance universal and particularist values (as discussed in Part 1), Israeli Jews have failed to balance laws and social norms (as discussed in Part 2).
To appreciate why this is so, let’s meet Shimen’s cousin, Yossel. Yossel grew up in a family of Gerrer chassidim in the town of Dvort, near Lodz. After his bar mitzvah, he studied in his hometown in the beis medrash of Rav Meir Dan Plotzky, where he was regarded as a promising Talmudic scholar. But, like many of his friends, Yossel felt stifled by the lack of economic and intellectual opportunity available in his provincial town and social milieu. At the age of 16, he left for the more metropolitan Warsaw, where he abandoned the chassidic way of life and eventually took up the study of law. Unlike many of his friends who had traveled a similar path, he did not join the communist Bund, but rather became active in Al Hamishmar, a radical Zionist party with representation in the Polish Sejm that was opposed to anti-semitism and chassidic Judaism in approximately equal measure. In 1935, Yossel left for Israel, joining Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Since Yossel was educated and witty, and not cut out for manual labor, he quickly became active in the politics of the kibbutz movement, taking an active role in moving Beit Alfa from the socialist Mapai movement to the more hard-core Mapam movement.
Yossel’s Zionism was rooted in the understanding that the Jews had no future in Poland and that without a state of their own, they had no future anywhere. But, for Yossel and his friends, Zionism was about much more than just self-defense; they sought nothing less than the transformation the Jewish psyche. In the years leading up to the foundation of the state, Yossel anticipated that statehood would force the Jews to overcome old habits of quietism and forbearance and to replace the authority of elders and sages with the authority of the young and vital. He hoped the state would become an arbiter and enforcer of new values and would use its authority to promote ideas and virtues central to the nationalist ethos.
In his enthusiasm, Yossel failed to grasp that Jewish nationalism stripped of the very traditions that defined the Jewish nation would lead to policies riddled with self-contradiction. Yossel’s nationalist impulse was sufficient that, in the aftermath of the foundation of the state, he strongly supported welcoming to Israel Jewish immigrants from deeply traditional backgrounds, despite the immense cost of absorbing them. But, in the absence of shared beliefs and practices, this impulse was inadequate to overcome Yossel’s antipathy for Jews who did not share his new view of the world. Yossel was thus entirely sympathetic to state policies in which traditional Sefardic immigrants were dumped, against their will, in distant development towns or in secular kibbutzim such as his own Beit Alfa, with the intention of transforming “human dust into a cultured nation”, as Ben-Gurion put it.
Yossel even regarded his own cousins who came to Israel after The War with a certain degree of contempt for their weakness; they, in turn, were ashamed to speak of their experiences. Shimen, who went to the United States after The War, was most certainly not ashamed to speak of his experiences and on the one occasion he visited Israel, he and Yossel argued bitterly. Shimen insisted that there was heroism in maintaining one’s dignity and faith in the face of terrible suffering and Yossel was just as insistent that dying helplessly in a concentration camp could never constitute dignity or justify faith. Shimen was disgusted that Yossel supported the state’s decision to commemorate The War by emphasizing the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as if the mere murder of six million Jews were an embarrassment unworthy of commemoration for its own sake.
To be sure, Yossel did see in Zionism some elements of the biblical narrative and viewed the return of the Jews to Israel in millennial terms. But his millennialism derived more from Hegel’s romantic nationalism and Marx’s dialectical materialism than from the prophesies of Isaiah. Yossel’s ideological collectivism required that the Jewish state supersede Jewish communities. He wished to replace traditional religion with socialism and communal social norms with state laws.
Yossel’s contempt for traditional Jewish communities was, to say the least, not a promising foundation for the revival of organic Judaism. As I explained at great length earlier, the regulatory welfare state cannot replace moral communities. Its top-down structure fails to incorporate the moral intuitions of its members and its attempts at social engineering are doomed to backfire. But, for Yossel and other escapees from the shtetl, religion and free markets were evils that needed to be overcome and the state was the vehicle for overcoming them. The result is that Yossel and his fellow collectivists who wished to liberate themselves from the tyranny of rabbis have instead subjected generations to come to the tyranny of bureaucrats.
On the face of it, none of this augurs well for the revival of Shimen’s version of communal Judaism in Israel. Simply put, organic Judaism cannot take root among those whose primary identity is Israeli rather than Jewish. If this is true for Yossel’s generation, it is even more so for the generation of Yossel’s granddaughter, Adi, whom we shall meet in the next post. Moreover, as we shall see in the post (or two) after that, the religious responses to secular Zionism have themselves further exacerbated the problem. If Shimen wouldn’t quite fit in with either Yitzy or Ben in the United States, he’d be even more lost having to choose between Itcha Meir and Bentzi in Israel.