The Moral Confusion of Repenting for Jewish Power

October 14, 2016 | David Schraub
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“A favored pastime of Jewish intellectuals this time of year,” writes David Schraub, “is to point out various sins of the Jewish community as a whole—Israel is a frequent target, though not the only one—and urge repentance.” With this in mind, Schraub comments on a recently formed “non-Zionist” (in fact, anti-Zionist) synagogue in Chicago, whose official ideology of “Diasporism” is based on a belief that Jewish political power is sinful in and of itself:

The ideal Jewish role, according to Diasporism, is a critical one—we imagine ourselves as the conscience, the gadfly, the light unto [the host] nation. Sometimes, of course, Diasporism keeps us busy simply [trying to survive]. By definition we are not the dominant group. . . . We certainly are not the oppressor group. . . .

Power gives one the opportunity to do things: terrible things and great things alike. . . . Jews in the Diaspora did not need to worry about “occupying” anyone; we had no nation that could do the occupying. We would never be responsible for promulgating unjust laws; the laws were not ours to promulgate. We had no risk of significantly hurting others; the hand on the sovereign sword was not ours. Even our uprisings and resistances were blessed in their hopelessness. In Max Weber’s terms, we could live a pure ethics of conviction, with zero concern for the ethics of responsibility. There is no true responsibility in Diaspora, nothing really falls on our shoulders.

Diasporism is, at root, the Jewish fear of Jewish power. It knows that powerful Jews have the potential to be bad Jews—in fact, it sees powerful Jews acting as bad Jews—and its solution, its t’shuvah, is to give up the trappings of power and return to the disempowered Diaspora state. But as Maimonides observes, this is not repentance. The man who cuts off his tongue so that he cannot slander his neighbor has not repented; he has made true repentance impossible. Complete repentance must coexist with the opportunity, the strength, the power to commit the sin once again and the free choice not to. To “repent” for the sins derived from Jewish power by abolishing that power is no repentance at all—it is a tacit belief that Jewish power will always, unavoidably, inherently be sinful power.

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