On ‘Redemp­tive Paral­y­sis’

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - AHARON E. WEXLER The writer holds a doc­tor­ate in Jewish phi­los­o­phy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.

One of the ques­tions that should guide our study of Zion­ism is the question “Why didn’t Zion­ism hap­pen ear­lier?” In other words, why didn’t Zion­ism hap­pen in the 5th cen­tury, or the 15th cen­tury? And as a corol­lary to that question, “Why were sec­u­lar Jews the ones who came up with Zion­ism, and not re­li­gious Jews who pray thrice daily for a re­turn to Zion?” I believe that the answer to th­ese ques­tions is what I call “Redemp­tive Paral­y­sis.” Let me ex­plain:

Shortly be­fore Judea was cap­tured and her Temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground, a man named Jeremiah roamed the streets of Jerusalem warn­ing the peo­ple to re­pent of their evil ways. If the peo­ple did not re­pent, Jeremiah warned, God would de­stroy His own house and ex­ile His peo­ple.

This idea was a rad­i­cal one and was counter to the cul­tural, re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal hubris of the time. Jeremiah was thought to be a blas­phe­mer, a traitor, and a liar. To think that God would de­stroy His own house! Jeremiah was im­pris­oned by the right­eous king Zedekiah for trea­son. He was also ac­cused of be­ing a false prophet.

When Judea was fi­nally destroyed in 586 BCE and the Jews were sent into ex­ile in Baby­lon, Jeremiah was turned from a prophet of doom and gloom to a prophet of re­demp­tion. In the face of the ut­ter de­struc­tion, when it seemed that all was lost and God had for­saken his peo­ple, Jeremiah proph­e­sied that there would “yet be heard in the cities of Judea and streets of Jerusalem, the sounds of glad­ness and Joy, the voices of groom and bride.”

Yet, 70 years later, when the prophe­cies are re­al­ized and the Temple is re­built, it is done by human agency. There were no mir­a­cles from on high. No prophets, no manna from heaven or water from rocks. In fact, Cyrus, the pa­gan king of Per­sia, is the one who gives the mandate to the Jews to re­build their Temple and is the in­stru­ment of their sal­va­tion.

Dur­ing the Has­monean re­volt, af­ter cen­turies of prophetic si­lence, the Jews took up arms against an en­emy greater than them in num­bers and strength to

fight for their Ju­daism. They no doubt re­lied upon the God of their fa­thers to see them through this nightmare and with their faith, they en­dured and pre­vailed. This is story of Hanukkah.

When the Sec­ond Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, the Jews were still with­out prophets and had to rely on previous ex­pe­ri­ences to help them nav­i­gate an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

In the year 117 CE, the Jews in the Di­as­pora re­belled against their Ro­man op­pres­sors. We know very lit­tle about this re­volt ex­cept that it was called the Ki­tos re­volt, (a cor­rup­tion of the name of the Ro­man Gen­eral Qui­etus) and it left many Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in the Ro­man Em­pire in ruin. This is an ex­am­ple of a failed re­demp­tion.

In 132 CE, when the 70-year an­niver­sary of the de­struc­tion of the Temple grows near, the Bar Kochba Re­volt breaks out.

There can be lit­tle doubt that Bar Kochba and his ar­mies looked to Ju­dah the Mac­cabee for in­spi­ra­tion in the be­lief that the same God who saved them in the past would bring His sal­va­tion in the present. The Bar Kochba re­volt was so suc­cess­ful in scope that none other than the fa­mous sage Rabbi Akiva de­clared Bar Kochba to be the Mes­siah. Bar Kochba suc­cess­fully raised an army, threw Rome out of Judea, establishe­d the third Jewish Com­mon­wealth and made plans to build the third Temple. He even minted coins with the façade of the Temple on them. The Ro­mans, on the other hand, came back with a vengeance and com­pletely destroyed Bar Kochba and his army. They razed Jerusalem and caused havoc and de­struc­tion to the towns and vil­lages left from the de­struc­tion of 70 CE. His­to­ri­ans re­port that more one mil­lion Jews were killed, many of them women and chil­dren. This num­ber con­sti­tuted one tenth of the en­tire Jewish pop­u­la­tion of the world. We were lit­er­ally dec­i­mated in Hadrian’s geno­cide. The rab­bis, us­ing rab­binic hy­per­bole, tell us that there was so much blood spilled that it was up to the horses’ noses. Rab­binic literature pre­served countless sto­ries of the star­va­tion and des­ti­tu­tion of the pe­riod. It was at this time that the Temple Mount was plowed over and we hear the sto­ries about the mar­tyrs of Ju­daism. The fail­ure of the Bar Kochba re­volt was a turn­ing point in the Jewish un­der­stand­ing of re­demp­tion. So scarred were the rab­bis from this ut­ter fail­ure of Jews tak­ing the re­demp­tion in their own hands yet again (The Great Re­volt was the first, Ki­tos the sec­ond and Bar Kochba the third) that the rab­bis de­vel­oped a the­ol­ogy of the Mes­siah as a su­per­nat­u­ral re­demp­tion in­stead of the nat­u­ral re­demp­tion that it had been pre­vi­ously con­ceived of.

This is Redemp­tive Paral­y­sis. By push­ing off the re­demp­tion as some­thing su­per­nat­u­ral, it par­a­lyzed the Jews from tak­ing re­demp­tion in their own hands. Hav­ing to sit and wait for the Mes­siah gave rise to fan­tas­ti­cal myths about the Mes­siah and the mes­sianic age, fur­ther push­ing the Mes­siah out of the realm of the real into fan­tasy. Re­demp­tion was to come from God alone and the best we can do is wait, pray and keep the com­mand­ments.

This was the sit­u­a­tion of the Jew un­til the 19th cen­tury. When the Jews emerged from the ghet­tos of Europe af­ter their eman­ci­pa­tion, many tried to as­sim­i­late. But an­ti­semitism con­tin­ued. If in the past, an­ti­semitism was re­li­gious in na­ture, in the post-en­light­en­ment age, it be­came cul­tural and later racial. European Jewry’s fail­ure to as­sim­i­late is the seed that brings forth the har­vest Zion­ism. Hav­ing failed to be­come fully European, the Jews had to seek their own so­lu­tion to the Jewish Question. Zion­ism was the re­sult.

This an­swers both of our orig­i­nal ques­tions. The rea­son Zion­ism hap­pened in the 19th cen­tury and was cre­ated by sec­u­lar Jews was that eman­ci­pa­tion and the fail­ure of as­sim­i­la­tion freed some Jews from their Redemp­tive Paral­y­sis. ■

The fail­ure of the Bar Kochba re­volt was a turn­ing point in the Jewish un­der­stand­ing of re­demp­tion

(Wiki­me­dia Commons)

‘THE BAR Kochba Re­volt,’ Arthur Szyk, 1927.

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