‘The Catechism of the Jew Is His Calendar’

A Controversial Israeli Rabbi Uses the Holidays To Explore His Own ‘Militant Theology’

By Michael Rosenak

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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Moadim Lesimcha: Explorations into the Jewish Holidays

By Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

Urim Publications, 208 pages, $22.

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The ideological quandary of almost all post-Enlightenment Jews has been how, and even whether, to be both modern and Jewish. Modern Jews, in contradistinction to merely contemporary ones, are, of course, those who say it can and should be done. And certainly one of the fascinating communities of Jewish modernity is that called Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi, the Religious Zionist movement.

Early 20th-century members of this camp were Orthodox Jews who defied rabbinical bans on partnership with the secular nationalists; who, rather quixotically, envisioned “the people of Israel [ingathered] in Eretz Yisrael [living] by the Torah of Israel.” They lived a hyphenated existence: If socialist pioneers, they were the vanguard of Torah-V’avodah (Torah and Labor); in the political arena they eventually came to be known as Dati’im-Leumi’im (the National Religious Party). They created a school system of their own, gloried in speaking the holy tongue, established a small but unique kibbutz movement. Though excellent and committed citizens, they lived among the secular Jews, the hofshi’im, with some unease. On the one hand they carried the Zionist banner proudly, buoyed by the doctrines of their greatest rabbinic mentor, the late Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), who taught that the return to Zion, far from being a heretical challenge to the tradition of waiting for the messiah, was in fact evidence that the messianic era of redemption was under way. On the other hand they knew that while their fellow Zionists politely respected them for their undoubtedly value-oriented lives, they were held in disdain for their archaic religiosity. The disdain was uncomfortable, but so was the vague sense of guilt at being less religious than the “really” religious of the “old Yishuv” of Jerusalem and Bnai Brak.

Religious Zionism underwent a profound change after the Six-Day War of June 1967. The seemingly miraculous outcome of that conflict and its traumatic sequel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 made Kook’s mystical-national conceptions seem prophetic and compelling. The messianic age seemed to many believers to be truly at hand. Kook’s conceptions now were being honed and radicalized by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, who taught that Zionists could bring redemption closer by settling the land miraculously delivered to Israel in the war. The most practical manifestation of the change was the Gush Emunim (“the bloc of the faithful”) movement, which adapted the Labor Zionist ethos of pioneering to the younger Kook’s settlement vision and reshuffled National Religious Party values so that military might became a commanded instrument of Zionism’s now divinely ordained return to history.

Gush Emunim was more than “turning ploughshares into swords,” as Rabbi Yitzchak Blau describes it in a 2000 edition of the journal Tradition. It generated and expressed a new religious Zionist self-confidence. History and providence had made them spiritual leaders within Zionism and no longer mere fellow-travelers. This called for a broadening of religious Zionist involvement in the secular domain, together with ever greater piety and religious fervor. Thus, the people of Gush Emunim, under the tutelage of “their” rabbis, outflanked the now domesticated socialists on the left as well as the ultra-Orthodox world of the charedim on the right. They are humorously referred to, even among themselves, as Hardal (mustard), a combination of charedi and Mafdal, the acronym of the National Religious Party.

One of the spiritual leaders of this Hardal phenomenon is Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, rabbi of the Bet El settlement north of Jerusalem and head of the Jerusalem Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva. He is a prominent and controversial figure on the Israeli public scene, owing to a number of published opinions “halachically” opposing a Palestinian state or even Palestinian autonomy and for stating that reservists who refuse to serve beyond “the Green Line” deserve the death penalty. Yet he remains almost entirely unknown outside Israel. Aviner’s recent book, “Moadim Lesimcha: Explorations into the Jewish Holidays,” is an excellent starting point for exploring aspects of his spiritual world and values. Festivals are indeed designed to locate and celebrate values; they are liturgical occasions for public discourse on “the inner meaning” of these special days. Providing a window into his own values, Aviner pinpoints value issues germane to each festival: Around the theme of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur he addresses the concept of repentance; for Sukkot he discusses the desirable relationship between the material and the spiritual; on Chanukah he reflects on miracles; theodicy preoccupies him on Holocaust Remembrance Day; on Israel Independence Day he explains “the process of redemption,” and so forth.

The pattern of discourse that characterizes this book may be stated as follows: Aviner, taking off from the themes underlying the festivals in midrashic and exegetical literature, states their central ideas, and thereby gives us a kind of theological infrastructure of Judaism. (Herein he exemplifies an educational maxim attributed to the 19th-century neo-Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that “the catechism of the Jew is his calendar.”) From these systematically stated “ideas” flow the values that stipulate valued (i.e. good) attitudes and actions, which, in turn, are readily translated into a detailed program for the commanded life.

Now, most traditional readers are likely to agree that certain ideational statements — such as belief in God — transcend the halachic plane insofar as they are the ground and rationale for normative-halachic action; observing commandments as a service of God indeed presupposes God’s existence. Yet they may also believe that most theological discourse is an ongoing conversation about what can be said within midrashic-exegetical Judaism about God, humankind and the world: that this conversation is inherently valuable because it has helped Jews to resolve perplexities and to clarify their Jewish understandings and commitments. Aviner, however, since he will draw clear-cut halachic conclusions from these doctrinal statements, and since he views them as intrinsic to halachic deliberation, sets them down as true doctrines from which clear halachic decision-making may be expected, and with regard to which the faithful will habitually “ask the rabbi” halachic questions. Instead of opening diverse windows, they are presented as keys to the house itself: alternative ways of “seeing” Judaism become dogmatic certainties within it.

For example, the “essential” spiritual distinction between Israel and the nations, and the innate spiritual superiority of Israel even before accepting the Torah, is presented not as one position (and for many a highly problematic one) within Jewish thought, but as a “fact.” From this “fact” it is deduced that all collective action that serves the interests of the Jewish people is worthy and holy by definition, a kiddush haShem! Why so? Because the interests of Israel are also those of God, whose kingdom manifests itself through the kingdom of Israel. From this flow various commanded behaviors, nationalistic and collectively self-serving, about what constitutes kiddush HaShem.

Yet, surprisingly, such dogmatic belief-statements are also, usually by implication, presented as “not the whole story.” For example, the saga of the Maccabees teaches us that God will perform miracles for those who act for Judaism courageously and heroically. And yet sometimes He doesn’t, and we report for military duty (a dominant metaphor

here!) simply because it is a duty, because we are loyal. Likewise, we cannot understand the role of providence in the Holocaust; it is unclear, nay, incomprehensible. But what is certain is that we are in an epoch of redemption. I conjecture that the latter is presented as “certain” because that is where we find the commanded) action: of building and defending the reborn commonwealth of Israel.

Thus if, as Aviner posits, God’s promises require human activity for their actualization (a central doctrine of the settler movement), and given the sequential relationship of divine promise and commanded action, the central statements must be unequivocally true in order to command unambiguously. Thus, what is highly controversial theology, namely the messianic version of Zionism as a true portrayal of contemporary historical reality, must be presented as indisputable, for Aviner’s halachic ruling is that Israel must act resolutely for the divine promise to be fulfilled, on the basis of the “commandment” of national redemption.

Yet the ultimately redemptive-messianic model is not the only one in Jewish tradition. The Bible is replete with redemptive acts that were “a great salvation” but not a finale to the sufferings and absurdities of history. Aviner seems aware of this. In describing historical paradigms of redemption he sometimes intimates that these were limited in time. With regard to the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome (132-135 C.E.) that led to a momentary Jewish independence, he says this explicitly. Hence, Rabbi Akiva was not wrong in supporting Bar Kochba, for he regarded Bar Kochba’s “proud Jewish identity, his heroism and his courage — which enabled him to conquer the Romans, bringing salvation and independence to Eretz Yisrael for several years” — as the focus of this hero’s greatness and of this event’s significance. The consequences of that rebellion seem to deter him not at all in advocating a similar stance today.

And yet Aviner almost whimsically introduces musings that undermine his own halachic exposition of a confident, even militant, theology. He urges tolerance between adherents of the right and the left, as between the religious and the secular publics. He acknowledges that, despite the inherent holiness of Israel, which he exposits along semi-racist lines, there are aspects of Israeli life that require repair.

And so, seated just behind Aviner’s front-row gallery of large certainties are the small qualifications, the existential reflections that make God as reliant on human determination and heroism as humans are on the love and compassion of God. In giving voice to these questions, Aviner is indeed modern as well as Jewish. But do existential questions, in leaders who feel responsible for dictating their disciples’ every action, partially because of these paradoxes and questions, necessarily further human freedom? The absurdly comprehensive scope of “asking the rabbi” about everything, which Aviner has fostered, may be a way to “protect” people from such questions. Yet without such questions and the inner freedom to which they point, there can, paradoxically, be no genuine modern decision for faith and the life of faith. Herein lies a vexing problem which deserves the conscious and serious engagement of rabbinical leadership, in Gush Emunim and beyond.

Michael Rosenak is emeritus Mandel professor of Jewish education at the Hebrew University and a senior faculty member at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, also in Jerusalem. He has written widely on Jewish education and theology, and his book, “Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge: Conversations with Torah,” was reviewed in these pages on August 16, 2002.






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