The Religious Roots of an American Rabbi’s Disregard for Reality

August 15, 2019 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Six years ago, Allan Arkush wrote an essay in Mosaic about Abba Hillel Silver, a prominent American Reform rabbi who did much to rally U.S. Jewry behind the state of Israel. Arkush there compared Silver favorably with Judah Magnes, one of his most important colleagues. Reviewing a recent book on Magnes by the Israeli scholar David Barak-Gorodetsky, which delves into the same comparison, Arkush returns to the subject:

Barak-Gorodetsky, who has considerable respect for Magnes, left me thinking somewhat more highly of Magnes but did not disabuse me of my previous, rather unfriendly opinion. I had portrayed Magnes as a man who, like Silver, had been for a long time a nonpolitical and cultural Zionist but who, unlike Silver—who had become a fiery advocate of Jewish statehood —had failed to grasp, despite the Holocaust and intractable Arab hostility, that Zionism’s cultural and spiritual aims were unattainable without Jewish political independence. Indeed, he fought tooth and nail up to the very end (May 1948) to prevent the creation of the state of Israel.

An eclectic thinker indebted to the founders of classical Reform Judaism, Ahad Ha’am, the leaders of the American Social Gospel movement, William James, and Karl Barth, among others, Magnes was a rabbi whose connection with God was by no means as strong as his moral beliefs. This is not to say that his religiosity was anything less than genuine. One of Barak-Gorodetsky’s main aims in this book is to correct what he sees as the failure . . . to understand the deeply religious roots of Magnes’s political thought. He succeeds in doing so, but he elucidates at the same time the precariousness of his faith. “Magnes’s religious experience,” he writes, “was one of inability to communicate with God, and of God’s hiding of His face from him.”

Seen in this light, Magnes’s futile efforts on behalf of a binational state [of Arabs and Jews]—especially in the aftermath of World War II, when it was unmistakably apparent that there was no Arab interest at all in anything of the sort—look very different. Magnes was not blind; he was doing what he felt he had to do, regardless of the outcome. Nevertheless, it is precisely this righteous disregard for the likely impact of his actions and the prospects for their success that prevents me from seeing Magnes as my kind of Zionist—or, for that matter, my kind of man.

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