Messianic & Sacrificial Logic of Anti-Zionism (Hermann Cohen & Yoel Teitelbaum)

sacrificial altar

Anti-Zionism was once a consensus across the Jewish ideological spectrum. But so what? Consider two key examples are the classical liberal vision of Hermann Cohen as reflected in the Religion of Reason and in the Va’Yoel Moshe of Yoel Teilebaum, the Satmar rebbe. Both texts were written at times of or on the traumatic heels of great Jewish suffering, the other more terrible than the one. Both thinkers situate this suffering in larger religious frames. Astonishing really are the common binding motifs that connect two such distinctly different thinkers. These are: Jewish suffering, messianism, and sacrifice.

Cohen, vicarious suffering. Not an anti-Zionist text per se, the opposition to Zionism figures in Cohen’s notion that the Religion of Reason drops the Jewish state idea. It means so little to this people because what matters is the idea of monotheism, not empirical human life as such. The state falls away and the people are preserved, which is itself a providential symbol of messianism (pp.251-3). A figure of sacrifice, Israel is the image (in the image) of suffering Humanity. The logic is sacrificial. The suffering of Israel is vicarious; they suffer for the sake of others a vicarious offering, a terrible sacrifice. The Messiah takes upon his own shoulders and the Jewish people take upon theirs the suffering of man [sic] (pp.263-8). The Jewish people suffer vicariously for the sins of man. They are a vicarious offering. We don’t quite have the image of a burning altar. But to complete the picture, we can imagine it right over there, just out of view.

In the Va’Yoel Moshe, the sacrificial motif is picked up in reation to the vision of the Temple, not the physical Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple in heaven. He imagines tzadikim building the Heavenly Temple by their own good deeds. But the kind of heresy represented by Zionism has this long metaphysical reach, the power to defile and tear up a metaphysical object. This is a power in mirror opposition to the power of the righteous to build the Heavenly Temple and to destroy idolatrous heavenly temples. One day, when the Messiah finally comes, God will be so pleased with the righteous of Israel for waiting for so long and through so much.

Both Cohen and the Satmar Rebbe look for big frames larger than the small one of a Jewish state. They are both sensitive to state violence. They both look toward the future.  But at what cost? First, we know that for Cohen, atonement is the key term and we know that atonement is ties up in Torah with the ritual offering of animals. And this: at some point I want to post about the Esh Kodesh, a Chasidic text written by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira from the Warsaw Ghetto. There’s this image there of a heavenly altar, and the archangel Michael (or is it Gabriel) burning the souls of the righteous. In this awful light, I’m reading Cohen and Teitelbaum. There is for both of them the offering, the sacrifice, the slaughter of Jewish lives, Jewish animal life on the altar of monotheism and morality, the altar of God and the Torah of God, the altar of a heavenly Temple, the altar of messianic waiting. Framed theologically, the anti-Zionist spectacle is terrible in its complete disregard for human life.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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