When Religion Refuses to Go Away

In The Paradox of Liberation, the political theorist Michael Walzer examines how secular movements for national liberation from colonial rule, after achieving success, have been challenged by movements for return to religious tradition. He focuses on three examples: Algeria, India, and Israel. In his review, Yehudah Mirsky argues that the paradox is even more profound than Walzer acknowledges:

The paradox of liberation is not just that the old ways are cherished by the people whom the liberators seek to set free; it goes deeper than that. Secularism, certainly secular revolution, is not a transparent visage of the plain sense of things. It is a chapter in the history of the pursuit of ultimacy that we in the modern world call religion. The revolution in fact must rely on the very cultural sources it seeks to overcome.

[Thus] secular Zionism was of course a revolution against the path that Jewish history had taken in millennia of exile, but it was acutely dialectical. It was no simple casting-off; rather it was a recasting, a reworking of the tradition—a reinterpretation whose shape and form came out of deep currents and recesses in the tradition itself. . . .

Zionists sought to create a new Judaism on the embers of the old. By draining the traditional religious terms of their transcendent reference, they were able to harness the rhetorical and spiritual power of religious language to their enterprise, and in so doing to argue—often persuasively—that while they were breaking with rabbinic Judaism, they were reconnecting to its original pre-exilic form in which people, faith, and land were unified. That gave them the superior claim to be Judaism’s rightful heirs. . . .

And so, [in the 1970s], . . . new generations of Religious Zionists decided to lay hold of the Zionist movement as a whole, and took the religious language that Labor Zionism had made into a functional tool for a political program and re-infused it with its classical religious meaning. . . . Not only were Religious Zionists re-enchanting the national enterprise but—precisely because of the phase of disenchantment that had gone before—the re-enchantment now had special power.

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More about: Algeria, India, Michael Walzer, Religion & Holidays, Religion and politics, Religious Zionism, Secularization, Zionism

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays