(Secular Israelis) Wait Here With The Donkey (Joseph Soloveitchik)

Here are jarring remarks by Joseph Soloveitchik about orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism regarding secular Jews. I am re-reading them after the November 2022 election as the main political representatives of orthodox Judaism dominating the new coalition declare war on democracy, secular society, and liberal Judaism in Israel. In embracing the religious Zionism of what was at the time called the Mizrachi movement, Soloveitchik was ahead of the curve in the expression of these antipathies. The remarks are from The Rav Speaks, whichis an English translation of the Hebrew translation (Ḥamesha Derashot) of the original Yiddish delivered at religious Zionist Mizrachi conventions between 1962-1967.

David Schatz introduces the English volume, evoking the contemporary appeal of these addresses. “In these circumstances of stress and strain, which can so depress the spirit, we sorely need a broad, cohesive, and affirmative understanding of the religious significance of statehood. This understanding must not only be intellectually rigorous. It must grip us existentially and give us confidence. This is what the Rav delivers to us even today, his eloquence and power undiminished. His majestic homiletic insights in these discourses, unparalleled in their beauty and sweep, merge the present with our Jewish past, with the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebeccah, Joseph, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, and the experience at Sinai. They cannot fail to inspire a vision that transcends the hardships of daily existence and infuses renewed hope into the life of the covenant.”

With these words in mind, one should nonetheless observe that these essays are not all of them inspiring. Soloveitchik understood that his own remarks regarding secular Israeli Jews are “insulting,” “not pleasant,” and not “natural” (p.47). The five derashot say something unpleasant and ugly about the deep orthodox paideia that Soloveitchik personified when set in relation to the social practice of power politics against the norms of liberal pluralism.

The essay that first grabbed my attention already years ago as a graduate student in the 1990s involves the figure of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. “Wait Here With the Donkey is a part of the larger derash And Joseph Dreamt a Dream”. Its topic is the Binding of Isaac, which Soloveitchik has turned into a religious Zionist political symbol. The focus of the address, “wait here with the donkey” is addressed to the two servant lads left behind as Abraham and Isaac continue on the way up Mount Moriah. The two lads in the derash are secular Israelis. Having made use of their service, Abraham and Isaac and the religious Zionism that they now represent will leave them behind. Secular Israelis are dispensable figures in a story which Soloveitchik has transformed into a theopolitical nightmare. In the bizarre fabulation of the derash, the State of Israel is nothing other but nothing more than the road to the immolation established at Mount Moriah.

“Wait Here with the Donkey” underscores three essential features that characterize the tight coupling of orthodox Judaism and political Zionism: [1] deep conviction that the (Jewish) state has a religious meaning, [2] contempt for secular Jews and non-Orthodox Judaism, and [3] religious will to political power.

In bad faith, religious Zionism cooperates with secular Jews, secular Zionism, and the State of Israel only with an eye to their co-option into a religious schema. Their only function was to do the violent work, to clear the road of “full of snakes, scorpions, and also wild Canaanites who lay in wait for Abraham and Isaac” (p.44).

To build a State of Israel,” writes Soloveitchik, “we march together with all the parties, because we believe that the State of Israel is the road that leads to Mount Moriah, and it is clear to us that we cannot succeed in this journey alone. Therefore we put into effect ‘and he took his two lads with him and Isaac his son and got up and went toward the place about which God has spoken to him’ (Gen. 22:3)” (p.45.).

The relation between religious Zionists and secular Israelis is ultimately a non-relation. It is ultimately marked by complete contempt, a parting of ways, a rude an unpleasant thank you and goodbye:

“True, Abraham did not adopt the view of separatism, but complete union and brotherhood were impossible as long as the two lads were not prepared to bow down to God on Mount Moriah. Abraham and the lads journeyed a certain distance together, but when they arrived at some point along the road to Mount Moriah, the group split up and Abraham separated from the two lads, saying “remain here with the donkey”: you can accompany us no further; from here on I remain alone with Isaac. My thanks for your company until now, for your help and support, but from now on we are no longer partners; from this moment on my motto is separatism – “you remain here with the donkey and I and the boy will go there and worship (Gen. 22:5).”

Here we see that what one party might have trusted to have been a genuine civil contract is simply torn up. The real relation was the one between a master and a servant or slave, between a rider and his mount.

About the will to power, Soloveitchik notes that in the 1950s the matters that relate to “Mount Moriah” were relatively circumscribed, held in check by secular society. The were matters relating to marriage and divorce, education in state supported religious schools, public Sabbath observance, kashrut in state institutions, establishment of the Rabbinate and religious courts, [47]

But religious Zionism wants more.

Here in another section of the derash is Soloveitchik writing about political power and turning on secular society:

“As we have indicated, the Mizrachi is also symbolized by the “turning sword”; we, too, wish to be ‘great men’, rulers, leaders and policy makers, members of parliament, politicians, economists. We have an organization that employs in its struggle all the means available to the ‘great man’. Why do we need to use the “turning sword”, the tools of the ‘great men’? The answer is plain. Because we fight not only against another book, against a satan, a creator of dark worlds, but also against the “turning sword” of the secular parties who enjoy ample financial means and administer power, and who strive to control Jewish life in all its aspects by the power of the sword. Even as God barred the way to the “tree of life” by means of “the cherubim” and the “turning sword”, so we, too, attempt to do likewise (p.70).

Here the voice of the first-person plural is revealed. The words of the words of Soloveitchik are the hands of the hands of Ben-Gvir. We want to rule. As observed by Yoel Finkelman, “Soloveitchik prefers that the transformation from a secular public state to a religious one should occur gradually and non-coercively, with religion influencing people through ideology and education, employing the peaceful ‘power of the book.’ Politics and coercion, the ‘power of the sword,’ are inferior. Still, with some apprehension, he admits that, ‘Halakhah never denied that in certain circumstances, it is impossible not to employ the sword….In the practical world it is necessary to be organized, and, on occasion to impose the will of society upon the individual.’ If it were not for the fact that the ‘secular parties’ in Israel ‘strive to control Jewish life in all its aspects by the power of the sword,’ then religious Zionists could also abandon their interest in power politics” (bibliographical citation below, p.65).

This is the satan, the creation of a violent world in this fable ruled by orthodox religion in its reach for both the “sword” and the “cherub.” The lower-case liberal-secular and liberal religious takeaway is simple. Don’t give to uncivil avatars of orthodox Jewish religion political or any other form of ideological control over civil society in Israel, Jewish identity, or Mt. Moriah.

Readers of rabbinic literature reading these derashot will be reminded of the story of the great R. Akiva, who after offering a patently ridiculous midrash about a giant frog was told by the rabbis to leave Aggadah alone and stick with Halakhah.

[[[Dov Schwartz wrote to this same effect re: Soloveitchik’s anger that the State of Israel was not a halakhic state, and re: his disregard for secularism and secular Jews. See Dov Schwartz, “Mishnato Shel HaRav Y.D. Soloveitchik BeRei HeHagut HaTzionit- HaDatit: HaHilun VehaMedinah,” in Avi Sagi (ed.), Emunah BeZemanim Mishtanim: ‘Al Mishnato Shel Ha Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik, (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization and Ya’akov Herzog Center, 1996), pp. 123-145. See also Yoel Finkelman, “Religion and Public Life in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik” in Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 13, No. 3/4 (Fall 2001), pp. 41-71]]

[[Banksy, Donkey Documents, work on a wall in Bethlehem]]]

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Secular Israelis) Wait Here With The Donkey (Joseph Soloveitchik)

  1. tzvee says:

    With each passing day I realize more clearly how frightening the horror story in the Torah of the akedah is – Abraham is going to kill his son – and how compoundly bizarre and derogatory this twisted pseudo-midrash of the Rav is in his characterization of the heroic Zionists who fought and died and built the state of Israel while the Rav stood derisively chattering away to his 20 fawning disciples in Washington Heights and Brookline. My regret in life is every moment of the time I wasted as a respectful yeshiva student. I should have stood up and spoken the truth and then walked quickly away long ago. So I guess thanks for citing this reminder to us all of the horrors to be found in rabbinic chattering.

  2. tzvee says:

    And so I asked BARD the google AI to rewrite Genesis 22 and have the lads rescue Isaac from the murderous Abraham. Here is the result:

    As Abraham was about to raise the knife to his son, Isaac, the two lads appeared. They had been following Abraham and Isaac from a distance, and they had seen everything that had happened.
    “Abraham, what are you doing?” the lads asked.
    “I am following God’s command,” Abraham said. “He has told me to sacrifice my son.”
    “But why?” the lads asked. “Isaac is your only son. He is the son of your promise. Why would God ask you to sacrifice him?”
    “I do not know,” Abraham said. “But I must obey God.”
    “But we cannot let you do this,” the lads said. “Isaac is our brother. We love him. We cannot let you kill him.”
    “You cannot stop me,” Abraham said. “God has commanded me to do this, and I must obey.”
    “But we can try,” the lads said.
    And so, the lads wrestled with Abraham. They tried to stop him from raising the knife. But Abraham was strong, and he resisted them.
    Just when it seemed that Abraham would succeed, Isaac spoke.
    “Father,” Isaac said, “do not do this. I know that you love God, and that you want to obey him. But this is not the way. There is another way.”
    “What other way?” Abraham asked.
    “God has provided a ram for the sacrifice,” Isaac said. “Let us use the ram instead of me.”
    Abraham looked at the ram, and then he looked at Isaac. And then he put down the knife.
    “You are right, my son,” Abraham said. “God has provided a ram for the sacrifice. We will use the ram instead of you.”
    And so, Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of Isaac. And Abraham and Isaac went home together.
    The lads were relieved that Isaac was safe, but they were also saddened by what had happened. They had seen the pain that Abraham had been through, and they knew that he would never be the same.
    But the lads also knew that Abraham had done the right thing. He had obeyed God, even when it was difficult. And that was a lesson that the lads would never forget.

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