The Rabbinic Debate over Napoleon

When Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces marched through Germany and Italy, they tore down the walls of the ghettos in which Jews had been forced to live—symbols, to Revolutionary French eyes, of the worldly power of the Catholic Church in the old regime. Some French Jews even wrote Hebrew panegyrics in Napoleon’s honor. When the emperor was poised to invade Russia, many prominent rabbis prayed for his victory, seeing French rule as clearly more beneficent than that of the tsars. But Shneyer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of the ḥasidic movement, disagreed. Dovid Margolin writes:

Shneyer Zalman’s s stark rejection of Napoleon was on the surface not an easy or obvious position to take. It placed him in direct opposition to other great contemporary Polish ḥasidic leaders, including Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein—known as the maggid (preacher) of Kozhnitz—and Rabbi Mendel of Ryminov, who insisted that the liberation promised by Napoleon would be preferable to Russia’s oppression of its Jews. After all, “[i]t was the ideology of the French Revolution, incarnated in Napoleon, that liberated European Jewry from confinement in the ghetto,” as Irving Kristol observed in a 1988 Commentary essay.

Rabbi Shneyer Zalman maintained his loyalty to the tsar despite his imprisonment by Russian police on false charges of sedition. In the final year of his life, he authored a homily about Sennacherib—the Assyrian king who sent the ten tribes of Israel into exile in 721 BCE—that Margolin reads as a veiled critique of Napoleon:

Unlike the other idolatrous kings of his time, [the rebbe wrote], who recognized the idea of a God of gods, Sennacherib rejected the very existence of a Creator. Shneyer Zalman alludes to the tradition that the [the founder of ḥasidism], Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, refused to travel in a wagon driven by a Gentile who did not make the sign of the cross while passing a church along the road: “There is more [possibility for redemption] for a non-Jewish believer than for a heretic,” Shneyer Zalman explained in the discourse. And so the lines were drawn: on one hand, there was Tsar Alexander’s religious faith in the one Master of the Universe who created and controls the world, and on the other hand was Napoleon’s [secularism].

Read more at Tablet

More about: Chabad, Hasidism, Napoleon Bonaparte, Russian, Russian Jewry

Hamas Wants a Renewed Ceasefire, but Doesn’t Understand Israel’s Changed Attitude

Yohanan Tzoreff, writing yesterday, believes that Hamas still wishes to return to the truce that it ended Friday morning with renewed rocket attacks on Israel, but hopes it can do so on better terms—raising the price, so to speak, of each hostage released. Examining recent statements from the terrorist group’s leaders, he tries to make sense of what it is thinking:

These [Hamas] senior officials do not reflect any awareness of the changed attitude in Israel toward Hamas following the October 7 massacre carried out by the organization in the western Negev communities. They continue to estimate that as before, Israel will be willing to pay high prices for its people and that time is working in their favor. In their opinion, Israel’s interest in the release of its people, the pressure of the hostages’ families, and the public’s broad support for these families will ultimately be decisive in favor of a deal that will meet the new conditions set by Hamas.

In other words, the culture of summud (steadfastness), still guides Hamas. Its [rhetoric] does not show at all that it has internalized or recognized the change in the attitude of the Israeli public toward it—which makes it clear that Israel still has a lot of work to do.

Read more at Institute for National Security Studies

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security