Sunday, January 1, 2012

Zealots Gone Wild

Growing up as part of a minority has its advantages – sometimes. There is a certain convenience in being able to point the finger at “them;” blaming them for everything that’s wrong--after all they are the majority and majority rules. Being educated in a parochial Jewish day school reinforces those feelings and more: that we are “the chosen;” that we aren’t capable of perpetrating the evils that Christians have done to us and to others. We were raised to believe that it is “them versus us,” we naturally being the good guys and could do no wrong. Even the Jewish history texts that we studied carried that theme as the thread running through our history; the common denominator uniting Jews throughout the world, Ashkenazi and Sepharadi against them. Heinrich Graetz the preferred orthodox historian of choice in those years reinforced the idea that we Jews suffered prodigiously by the gentile hand, which was true; but never suggested the proposition that perhaps we too could be responsible for the suffering of “others” if only we had the opportunity, motive and power, if only we would one day become the majority.

There were enough classical texts that should have clued me in to the possibility that we Jews could be as dangerous, venomous and vindictive as the Christians. Apparently and coincidental of this Chanukah season we seem to have a tendency for zealotry, causing the suffering of others for the greater glory of God. The earliest examples of that is the carnage perpetrated by Dina’s brothers Simeon and Levi following her rape by a Canaanite prince. Another incident was that of Pineas murdering Zimri and Cozbi during our 40 year sojourn in the desert trying to develop a spirituality that would draw us closer to God. We experienced our first Jihad when Joshua conquered the “Promised Land,” which God showed him and commanded him to liberate from the infidels. Centuries later when King Saul didn’t liquidate the Amalakites as commanded Samuel denied him the continued kingship.

The eons that we were in the proverbial desert, exile, we were powerless and to be sure victimized. That didn’t mean that we didn’t have the potential to bring harm and suffering to others; we may have had the motive but not the opportunity; Purim, the exception to the rule, is the annual joyful, almost ecstatic retelling in detail of our first pogrom with the ‘other” being on the receiving end. And while we celebrate the Chanukah story let us not forget that the Maccabees were zealots and in the commission of their vision they slaughtered Jews that were comfortable with and adapted well to Hellenistic culture. One wonders whether zealotry is in our DNA.

Where we didn’t have the opportunity to bring harm to “others” we unfortunately exploited opportunities where we intentionally turned on our own and brought immeasurable and irreversible harm to them. While not wishing to drudge up the sordid details of our remarkable history a few examples will suffice. Hassidic courts over the centuries in Europe sought means by which they could exercise greater power. Power in a hassidic court was measured in numbers of followers as leverage, a means to influence governments. The larger the court: the greater the power. Most hassidim weren’t attracted to a court because of the rebbe’s spirituality but because he had the potential of providing work for them. A powerful court was a court that could win royal charters, such as selling liquor, making candles, operating inns, etc. Lords were inclined to grant these royal charters to hassidic leaders who demonstrated control over large communities of Jews. When hassidic courts were threatened by others rebbes encroaching on their territory, turf warfare wasn’t uncommon and sometimes it was brutal. An example was the turf war between the Belzer and Satmar hassidim during the interwar period when due to the outcome of the war the boarders were rearranged. Followers of court became problematic as the new borders redefined the influence a rebbe could have. If half his community now lived under communism and unable to cross over to his rebbe a 5th column was created in the other rebbe’s “backyard. This precipitated warfare among the competing hassidic groups which invariably led to violence, acrimony and jail sentences for members of a court found guilty of trumped up charges made by, suborned and perjured by the competing hassidim. As a footnote, the Belzer Rebbe, Aharon Rokeach, so obsessed with the possibility of loosing power if his hassidim left Europe in flight from the Nazis implored them to stay put, not to leave for the godless America or Palestine, while he escaped later on.

The Misnagdim, too had their wars as well. Many of theirs was fought in an attempt to contain the spread of hassidut, which was believed to have contributed heavily to the deterioration of the Kehilla and the breakdown of the family unit. The Vilna Gaon went so far as to put them into Herem. One of the more toxic examples of zealotry gone wild was that between Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz and Rabbi Jacob Emden. Neither of them were small time rabbis; each was notable in their own right. Eybeshutz was a child prodigy in Talmud who settled in Prague was the head of a well-known yeshiva and was considered second only to their dayan, avid Oppenheim. Because of his quick rise to fame in Prague many of the rabbis there accused him of being a Sabbatean. Because of these vicious rumors he only was appointed a dayan, but not the chief rabbi of Prague. In 1750 he was elected rabbi of the “three communities”, Altona, Hamburg & Wandsbek. He was considered a genius but had the rare quality as well of being charismatic. At about this time Rabbi Jacob Emden, known as the “Yavetz” was a leading German rabbi who made his career on fighting the Sabbateans. He published 31 books and Moses Mendelssohn had an intellectual affinity to Emden. He held no official post, lived in Altona and made his livelihood by publishing books. Emden accused Eybeschutz of being a secret Sabbatean basing his accusation on the interpretation of amulets that Eybeschutz crafted. At the time that he was appointed chief rabbi of the “three communities” the controversy reached its peak. Emden, a zealot accused Eybeschutz not only of being a Sabbatean but also having an incestuous relationship with his own daughter. Most condemned Emden and even after the council labeled him a slanderer he continued his philippics against Eybeschutz. Refusing to leave Altona as ordered to do by the council relying on the king’s charter. Ultimately he left for Amsterdam where he continued his fight at the court of Frederick V of Denmark which found in Emden’s favor, and fining the council. Emden moves back to Alton where the fight continued for another 5 years, in the process destroying reputations and livelihoods.

These are mere examples of zealotry when we weren’t in positions of power, when we were for the most part minorities in host countries or a minority in our own. Imagine what our track record would look like had we been in power for the past two thousand years. Well we are now, and zealotry, judging from current events (Price Tag, haredi intimidation of women, etc.) is alive and well. Ironically, these zealots are once again a minority in a democratic Israel. Dare to imagine if they were the majority?