(Religious Woman) Non-Normative (Western Wall Protest)

There was a leak in the press about a proposal by members of the ultra-orthodox Shas party to fine and imprison women at the Western Wall who show up in “immodest” dress or who seek to pray in ways that violate orthodox custom. The proposal was quickly pulled after igniting a firestorm against the new ultra-rightwing and ultra-religious government. This woman showed up in protest. It would be one thing if she were secular. According to the article here by Anton Goodman (director of Partnerships at Rabbis for Human Rights and boardmember of Oz VeShalom the Orthodox Jewish Peace Movement in Israel), the still anonymous woman is a member of a religious Zionist community. Another newsource noted that she had been observed praying (you can see the siddur in her hand in the bottom photo). Her action represents either a minor blip or a tectonic shift at the Kotel.

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(Judaism) Religion & Violence (Israel)

Backed up by the power of the state which it now controls, religon is a unique source of violence. Religious Zionism and Jewish Power are the ones demanding unnbidled settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and unbridled destruction of Palestinian homes in occupied East Jersusalem.

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Secular Zionism = The Dung of the Donkey of the Messiah (Abraham Isaac Kook) (Eulogy for Herzl)

Kook’s eulogy for Herzl, which you can read here, is an index of the hostility in religious Zionism as a form of orthodox Judaism to secular value systems. In his introductory remarks to “Lamentation in Jerusalem,” translator Bezalel Na’or reminds us that the Shulkhan Arukh requires one to wear festive garments at the death of a Jew who violates the commandments. In that spirit, Kook’s eulogy for Herzl does not even mention him by name even as he seeks to bring or force Herzl and the secular Zionism into a religious value schema.

Herzl was the Messiah son of Joseph, who in, Jewish lore, precedes the coming of the Messiah son of David. In this schema, Joseph-Ephraim stands for the universal and material, while David stands for the Torah and spiritual values.

It is a mistake to say that Kook held these in tension, or that he sought to “merge” the secular and the spiritual. It’s simpler than that. For the religious Zionism represented by Kook, one prepares the way for the other. There is no real unity of body and spirit. In this dangerous fantasy, they are not at odds, only because one is being yoked into service of the other. Complementarity gives way to the superiority of the spiritual over the material. Religion will suck out the vitality and discard the rest as waste. The vision of unity is one of supremacy, surrender, and subjugation. That is why, in the end, the Messiah son of Joseph is destined to be killed. In the meantime, Kook will look forward to sitting with Rav Yosef in the Babylonian Talmud in the shadow of the dung of the donkey of the Messiah.

Below are my subject annotated excerpts from the eulogy. They follow the order in the eulogy. These are followed by remarks from Yehudah Mirsky in his study on Kook:


The Psalmist gave expression to this vision of unity: “He will subdue peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He will choose for us our inheritance, the excellence of Jacob which He loves. Selah.” By gathering together these two powers, both would benefit: The material would be rarefied and sanctified by its exposure to the unique sanctity of Israel, and the spiritual would be invigorated to enhance Israel. Eventually, the rays would light up the entire world….. There would be room within the overall structure for the universalist dimension (represented by Jeroboam’s kingdom). But to the question—“Who is at the helm?”—the answer must be, “The son of Jesse is at the helm.” Without the recognition of the supremacy of the spiritual side—“For the portion of the Lord is His people; Jacob is the lot of His inheritance” —heaven forfend, Israel’s destiny would be lost.


Now since the major achievement of Messiah son of Joseph, which is the general advancement of mankind, is accomplished by de-emphasis of the unique Jewish form, Messiah son of Joseph cannot endure, so he is destined to be killed



Rav Yosef, who said that he penetrated the meaning of the verse in Zechariah only through its Aramaic translation, willingly accepted upon himself to witness the “birthpangs of Messiah.” When other sages said, “Let him (Messiah) come, and may I not see him,” it was Rav Yosef who said, “Let him come, and may I merit to sit in the shadow of the dung of his donkey!”

Even so, if this movement would not be so audacious as to spread in a way unbecoming Israel, it would be easy to accept. Were it not for its extremism, the movement would not find oppressive the spirit of the Torah, and it would not attack the foundation of Torah, which is tantamount to “blinding the eye of the world.” But the “dung,” the gross tendencies that are loathsome to all peoples, produce a shadow that dims the pure intellectual lights deriving from Torah. Nonetheless, Rav Yosef was confident that eventually all these negative manifestations would surrender to the light of Torah and the knowledge of God.”


“The evil will be transformed into good, the curse into blessing. This is the import of the cryptic passage in the Zohar: The head of the academy in the palace of Messiah said, “Whoever does not transform darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness, may not enter here.” The prerequisite for the generation of Messiah is the ability to utilize all forces, even the most coarse, for the sake of good and the singular sanctity with which Israel were crowned.”

(Ma’amarei RAYaH I [Jerusalem 5740/1980] pp. 94-99) [transl Bezalel Naor;;   

Yehudah Mirsky distinguished and considered judgment reads as follow:

[Kook’s] understanding of Jewish peoplehood became, for lack of a better word, increasingly essentialist, as did his understanding of the Land of Israel, taking on fixed, ontological characteristics, as their this-worldly manifestations are entirely collapsed into very abstract metaphysical categories” (p.329).

Rav Kook married the ontological necessity of the nation to the ontological necessities of God and the world—and to the ontological necessity of the universally minded ethical teachings of God’s Torah. That exhilarating and electrifying mix is hard to sustain outside a Messianic framework, and even harder when it fails to make room, as Rav Kook ultimately failed to do, for the truly darkest human impulses towards violence and the will to power (p.330).

Mirsky maintains further that Kook “did not foresee the disturbingly chauvinistic and violent uses to which these notions of his would be put” (p.331). Here I would demur. Those impulses and uses were baked into the form of religious-spiritual supremacy already there at the root of the project’s most systemic articulation. Regarding Mirsky’s analysis, I fully understand that my own conclusions are not exactly his. But from an excellent scholar one will often learn things unintended by the scholar, so I beg Mirsky’s forgiveness on this point. But by the time we get to the end of this very careful study, all kinds of doubts have been raised about mystical politics and political theology as an expression of heresy or the demonic, starting with the comparison of other human beings to excrement.

[Yehudah Mirsky, Towards the Mystical Experience of Modernity: The Making of Rav Kook 1865-1904]

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(Critique of Religion) Aharon Lichtenstein and Gerald Blidstein (Democracy and Halakhah)

The analysis below does not represent the view of an anti-religious and anti-clerical secularism. This critique of religion is internal to religion. By critique is meant demarcation: the limits of religion and the realm of values.

I am working off the views offered about halakhah and democracy by Aharon Lichtenstein and Gerald Blidstein, two important figures who, in their day, were stalwarts of centrist orthodoxy and moderate religious Zionism. What they both concede are the tensions, if not contradictions, between halakhah and democracy, particularism and universalism, orthodox Judaism and liberalism. As per Lichtenstein, the conflict boils down to authority: the authority of God and of Torah and the halakhic value of the sanctified hierarchies that define the religious nomos (as vested in the authority of the rabbis) over against the authority of the people (as vested in democratic institutions) and the value of human dignity and self-determination regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. Supremacy and rule are at the heart of the matter.

I am commenting upon two reflections, one by each of the these two thinkers from 2005 and 1997. Back then, the argument was abstract. Religious parties were not in the position of political power that they enjoy today. Setting aside the difference between theory and practice, at issue once upon a time was whether or not orthodox religious actors can or cannot merely accommodate themselves as members of a more or less small minority to a more or less large secular and not-strictly-orthodox majority. The problem is exceptionally pronounced in a Jewish state. If political sovereignty inheres in the people, what happens when religious institutional actors and political parties assume a central if not dominant position in a governing majority and dominate the state politically?

The mainstream religious Zionism represented at Yeshivat Har Etzion where Lichtenstein was Rosh Yeshiva sought to “merge the best tradition of Judaism studies with a pragmatic grasp of the modern world.” Lichtenstein, however, was aware of the contradictions at the heart of this project. Instead of softening the conflict between halakhah and democracy, he understood that, ultimately, one value-set will give way to the other and accommodate itself to the other.  

Lichtenstein highlights the contradiction. Blidstein offers a solution which only underscores the depth of the conflict between orthodox religion and democracy. Lichtenstein and Blidstein both together suggest that the conflict is a basic feature of the operating code of orthodox Judaism.

The thoughts by Lichtenstein included here are from a student summary of a speech on democracy and halakhah delivered at a conference sponsored by the Zomet Institute in spring 2005. They refer back to thoughts on religion and state  from 1966 which are now included in the first volume of his collected essays, Leaves of Faith.

The opening gambit in the address is to include the world of Torah within the sphere of democracy and to say that democratic values are “close” to Judaism, especially the theme of human dignity, which he says is “basic and fundamental to our political and social thinking.”   This, however, begs the question. What does “close” mean? Also, while human dignity and democracy are basic to the “political” and “social” thinking represented by Lichtenstein, they are not basic to halakhic “religious” thinking. His determination is that halakhah and (by implication) the moderate religious Zionism that he represents are not democratic “in the broad, secular sense of the term” and not “really able to abide by total democracy, in which this value is supreme.” Democratic values give way to halakhic principles of kiddush and havdala, sanctification and differentiation. “Let us not delude ourselves or our opponents by claiming that there are no gaps, no differences.” The question boils down to intention. “[T]o the extent that we focus on the moral spirit, the human spirit, that should drive and characterize a society worthy of itself, a society that seeks to build a human world on a super-human foundation – here, the cloak of democracy certainly belongs to and suits the world of Torah.” 

These remarks on halakhah and democracy mirror the famous essay written by Lichtenstein about whether or not there is an ethic that is independent of halakhah. There he basically said that it depends on how narrowly or broadly one defines the term halakhah. Here as well, Lichtenstein assumes the existence of separate spheres or worlds, and sees the contradiction while being honest about supremacy. Here it is the commitment to democracy that is fungible. To “the extent” that religious Zionism does not “focus on moral spirit,” democracy will then not be a cloak that suits the world of Torah.

The fundamental contradiction not resolved in this address is structural. It is one thing to assert the supremacy of the halakhic system within the walls of a semi-private (?) institution dedicated to that system. It is another thing to extend that supremacy outside the narrow confines of those walls and into the workings of the state. The contradiction that Lichtenstein did not see was the contradiction in the notion that a society might attempt to build a human world upon “a superhuman foundation,” as if the only society worthy of the name had to have religion as its foundation. This is Yeshiva stuff. The notion of a superhuman foundation undergirds the compact form of a paideic community. It does not scale up. In a superhuman value scheme, democracy is just a cloak that may, or may not, fit the world of Torah. From his own analysis, there is reason to expect that the superhuman hierarchy of the halakhic structure will trump human dignity.

Not the head of a yeshiva, Gerald Blidstein was a professor of philosophy at Ben Gurion, the recipient of the Israel Prize, and a long-standing member of the editorial board of Tradition. While not identified with religious Zionism, he was an expert in philosophy and halakhah. I am tagging his essay on democracy here. It appeared in Tradition magazine

Blidstein makes the same point about the difference between halakhah and democracy as Lichtenstein, while seeking out a modus vivendi that that does not rely on superhuman values. Against the hard religious right that rejects universal human values, Blidstein subordinates tradition to modern values. “We are not creatures of Halakhah alone.” Reflects back on the Spanish legal tradition in Judaism to consider the function of Jewish lay and civil authority in Jewish society, Blidstein insists that that civil legislation lays outside the scope of halakhah. With religious authority giving way to secular authority in matters outside synagogue, Blidstein rejects the institution of rabbinic review of secular law. Rejecting coercion in favor of persuasion and education (like Moses Mendelssohn), Blidstein maintains that most Jewish content in Israel is not “halakhic” but communal-civil. Blidstein is aware that that most “religionists” align with communitarianism, which he  rejects as fascistic. Blidstein is a liberal pluralist for whom the principles of darkhei shalom (ways of peace) and tzelem elokim (the notion that all people are created in the image of God).

For Blidstein, the question of democracy and halakhah depend upon that thin thread that is the image of God This is the concluding question and last word of the essay:

The nature and terms of our relationship with other Jews and non-Jewish men and women is an acute problem for many. From where I sit—a place where the pressures are powerful and the problems are complex—it looks as though the halakhic tradition, as defined by its bearers, itself is on trial. We may be quite capable of persevering, of course, day-to-day, but the intellectual and indeed spiritual basis on which we believe a better society should be constructed, seems inadequate—inadequate educationally and inadequate socially. Too often, we have reaped the harvest of that inadequacy. In textual terms, the issue seems to be: can the ‘divine image in man’ become a more powerful halakhic concept than it seems to be at present or than it has been historically?” [p.33]

Blidstein holds out the value of compromise and assumes that “most people” support both values-sets and can live with inconsistency. But that does not seem to be the case about most people. The upshot is grim, especially today, now that orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism are occupying real seats of political power in Israel today. The first grim upsohot is that the conflict between halakhah and democracy is radical and that all previous solutions have been proven inadequate. Second, there would seem to be a lack of value or what Lichtenstein called focus on the human dignity in orthodox Judaism and religious Zionism. The conclusions are fairly simple. Religious actors exacerbate the conflict when they look at halakhah not as something narrow and therefore circumscribed, but as something more totalistic or foundational in scope (p.33). Religion is an asocial form of sociality. On its own, religion or the sacred asserts the hierarchy of its own privilege, in contradiction to the good of society if need be. That the divine image in all people has never been a halakhic concept underscores that Judaism needs more humanism and less halakhah.

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(Israel) Critique of Religion (Eva Illouz)

The formula Jewish + Democratric is a brute contradiction only if one reduces “Jewish” to religious and “religious” to Haredi and ethno-religious orthodoxy. In this piece here at Haaretz, sociologist Eva Illouz understands that “critique of religion” the way out of the democracy crisis in Israel. With her eye on the occupation and the problem of settler nationalism, the model of a “new camp,” a democratic camp that binds all the citizens of Israel, Jewish and Palestinian, Mizrachi and Ashkenazi, religious and secular around a common human and humanistic core.

Illouz is a sociologist who writes about the creation of emotional bonds and the undoing of social bonds under conditions of capitalism. By critique of religion, Illouz is here touching upon the clasical enlightenment paradigm delineating the limits of religion in relation to power. Impilicit is the idea of a social contract.

I am highlighting what to me are the highlights of the article:

If religion demands power – and there is no doubt that this is what the Jewish religion in Israel demands – we must critique it as such.”


Religion enjoyed extra privileges in the post-Enlightenment era, even as it imposed an almost feudal regime. The time has come to voice criticism of religion and of the ways it corrupts healthy political institutions and distorts rationality in public discourse. Our critique should focus on both the institutional plane (how much power does religion possess?) and on its content (does religion promote humanistic values and respect freedom and reason?). Such criticism will help in the assemblage of a strategic alliance between the secular population and the many religiously observant people who feel uneasy about the extremist leadership that purports to speak in their name


I believe that we will be able to establish a broad coalition of secular and religious people, Jews and Arabs, who will promote what Thomas Mann in 1935 termed “militant humanism.” Humanism like that will be a value around which it will be possible to rally so as to do stubborn and uncompromising battle for human dignity and the principles of peace and fraternity. And the other side can try to claim that those are dirty words.

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(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]]]

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(Critique of Violence) Judaism & Zionism

Israel has always been a laboratory for political theory and Jewish Studies; always also, and especially now, a laboratory for the study of Judaism in relation to the politics of extreme ethno-national religion and political violence. The elections of November 2022 shed uniquely bright light on this quandary now that Benjamin Netanyahu has engineered a coalition utterly dependent upon far-right ethno-national religious and Haredi parties, his only “natural allies,” who have been placed at the center of political power. Critics from the political and religious left, such as they are, will argue with good reason that Political Zionism and the State of Israel have poisoned Judaism. It is just as true, if not more so, that “Judaism” has poisoned Zionism and the State of Israel at the root.

Two theories map the relation between religion and society, in general, and between the relation between religion and violence in Israel, in particular.

On the one hand, the violence and racism saturating the anti-democratic-national-religious camp in Israel is a mirror of Israeli state structure itself and of Zionism as an ideological form of ethno-nationalism. This is to assume that religion is not an actant. Religion would rather be but a mere function of society, violent religion a function of a violent and militarized society, the superstructure of ethno-religion a function of an ethno-state-national structure. The violent and anti-civil forms of religious-national and Haredi religion in Israel are epiphenomenal to the material workings of state or sovereign power. This is theory suggests two possibilities, one critical, the other apologetic. Human emancipation comes first, which will free it from either religion writ large or from the false form of reactionary religion writ small. In either case, the problem in Israel is primarily political, not religious, Zionism, not Judaism.

On the other hand, religion, and the religion of Judaism, demands a cold critical, even caustic look as an anti-democratic and violent force in society. Beliefs are actants that ramify out into society in which they are embedded. Sociological surveys and studies show consistent correlations between modern religion and political conservatism, and between extreme religious orientations and political violence. Data also correlate secularism with liberal and progressive politics. Not religious values, but secular values are the ones that underpin equality across lines of racial and religious difference and without prejudice to sex-gender and sexual orientation. Religion is a reactive and reactionary force when conjoined to state power and let loose on its own in the public domain. Anti-pluralist and socially dysfunctional, at the core of religion are the rites and representations of the “negative cult.” According to this theory, the sacred is set in opposition apart from that which lies outside its own domain. The sacred includes in its structure the violence with which religious actors seek to dominate and co-opt society in conformity to its own image. Lest religion destroy society, the task of government would be to contain if not co-opt the social energy that is unique to religion.  

An active force in its own right and not a simple social reflex, rightwing nationalist-religion lends itself to the second theory. We see this in Israel where religion has been conjoined with a state power that does nothing to constrain it. The religious form of nationalism dominating the proliferation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank has always been a unique source of lawlessness and political violence in Israel. It was true then as it is now today. Going back to the early days of Gush Emunim, private Palestinian lands and properties were seized by non-state religious actors; or they were seized by the state for the ostensible purpose of creating military outposts, which were then transferred to civilian settlement. In some cases, the seizure of private Palestinian properties and lands was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court only to be accommodated by the government. The virulent appearance of religious ultra-racist Meir Kahane on the political scene in Israel in the 1980s was not in itself unique. There was the anti-Palestinian violence and racism of settler leader Moshe Levinger, a leading rabbi in Gush Emunim. There was the so-called Jewish Underground in 1984, organized from among the crème de la crème of the religious Zionist settlement movement. The members of the Jewish Underground were an organized band of religious terrorists; they set off car bombs, attempting to murder West Bank Palestinian mayors; they conducted an armed attacked against Palestinian students at an Islamic college in Hebron, killing three and wounding thirty-three; they sought to blow up a bus carrying Palestinian workers in East Jerusalem, and came close to blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple  Mount. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a religious Jew from Kiryat Arba in 1994, murdered on the holiday of Purim twenty-nine and wounded one hundred and thirty five Muslim-Palestinian worshipers in a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron; His grave yard is a place of pilgrimage and, along with Kahane, he is revered to this day by members of the radical religiiys right, including members of the government. Religious Zionsits were among those against the Oslo Accords leading violent protests whipped up by Benjamin Netanyahu, inciting against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, his effigy dressed up in a Nazi uniform. A legendary figure in the history of Israel, Rabin was murdered in 1995 by a religious Zionist student from Bar Ilan University; based on a halakhic principle (din rodef), the murder of Rabin was and was encouraged by radical West Bank rabbis. Religious Jews, the so-called Hilltop Youth, in 1998 followed the lead of then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon when he urged settler youth, “Everyone that’s there should move, should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.” Encouraged by inflammatory anti-Arab religious teaching by extremist West Bank rabbis, young religious Jews continue to engage in “price tag” attacks against Palestinian farmers, shepherds, and villagers, the arson attack in 2015 in the village of Duma, murdering in their sleep a Palestinian family, including an eighteen-month-old baby, Ali Dawabsheh. They were defended in court by Ben-Gvir who has provided counsel for other figures on the radical and racist religious right. Radical rabbis like Yitzchak Ginzburg publish racist screeds like Tipul Shoresh (Treading the Root), which calls for the Arabs to be expelled from Israel in order to purify the Land. Yitzhak Shapira write Torat Ha’melech (The Torah of the King) in 2009 that called for killing Palestinians, including children.

While religion is a function that binds the social group together, it is sectarianism that defines the active and violent political force of religion in society. Here worth noting is the controversial distinction made by Hannah Arendt between “power” and “violence.” As understood in this schematization, power “corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” It always “belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” But, if the purpose of power is power itself, violence, in contrast, is merely instrumental. According to Arendt, violence as such and in its pure form is the action of a sub-group. Representing the One against the All, violence and rule by violence is bound up with the waning of power (On Violence, pp.44-56, 86-7). In line with this theory, state power and the use of violence to maintain and project state power in Israel reflects the action of the larger group acting in concert. In the West Bank, violence by the armed forces is an instrument of state power, whereas the settler violence in the West Bank unique to religious Zionism is a sectarian mutation that eats away at state power.

If it was only a wild weed, radical and violent religious settler-nationalism in the West Bank would have been ripped up a long time ago by secular state institutions and by the mainstream Jewish settlement leadership and religious Zionist community. That has not happened because religious settler violence is embedded in the DNA of the settlement project. It is tolerated by the state and largely ignored by the general public. The most violent of the religious radicals are themselves led by leading public figures and West Bank rabbis. The most radical and violent religious-party leaders in the coalition elected in November 2022 are themselves from settlements like Kedumim, Kiryat Arbah, and the Jewish settlement in Hebron that are dominated by religious radicals. Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leaders of the Religious Zionism Party and the Jewish Power party, both have criminal records related to charges involving incitement to racism and terrorism. They are the radical fringe who won support, not simply from the radical fringe, but from the majority of so-called ordinary, mainstream religious voters who want to prove that Jews, not Arabs, are the “landlords” in the Land of Israel. Religious Zionism and Jewish Power are the only political homes of religious Zionism and national-religious voters with Knesset representation today.

Normally, religion constitutes a symbolic superstructure and form of social organization that legitimate state power and economic relations. Not normal is the inversion of that ratio in Israel. In the ideology of religious Zionism, the secular Zionist project and the secular State of Israel were always but mere instruments that legitimate Judaism. And not just in religious Zionism. The inversion began with the status quo forged between religion and state by Ben-Gurion after the establishment of the state. Instead of religion serving the public good as organized by the state, the monopoly given to orthodox Judaism and exemptions and privileges proffered to Haredi Judaism are today embedded in the social structure of the country. In due course, secular state actors were the ones who legitimated, surreptitiously or not, and in violation of international law, even radical Jewish settlements in the early days of the occupation. First under Labor governments and more or less limited, this legitimation accelerated with the rise of the Likud under Begin in 1977. What was not predicted in 1948, 1967, and 1977 was the way religious nationalism would radicalize in tandem with Haredi Judaism, while dislodging secular Zionism as an ideological force at the center of state power.

Judaism is at the root of the problem in Israel. All the powerful ethno-religious strains in Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah, and Hasidism are there: hostility to gentiles, the subordination of women, the contempt for non-observant Jews. These are the excremental flavors boiling over and seeping into the metal pot of the state structure. Since the early days of the occupation, they have been stewing in that cauldron for half a century.

We know that, historically, the religion of the rabbis was never this active. Always a minor political force, rabbinic power was always contained by gentile sovereign rule and by the power of Jewish lay leadership, as well. While religious values saturated Jewish society, they did so in loose ways not really ruled, at least not consistently, by rabbis. Rabbinic authority was more or less restricted to the study hall, synagogue, and the domestic sphere. We know also that there is zero basis in the history of religion or in the history of Judaism for modern things like value-pluralism, equality before the law, human rights, the establishment of the citizen as free and sovereign in a democratic state. Indigenous to religion are less abstract and human values like compassion, derech eretz, charity, kindness, humility, justice, modesty, human dignity, tikkun olam –which all stand outside the political as such.

I am not trying to argue that Judaism is the “cause” of violence in the West Bank or in the history of Zionism so much as to say that religion cements and hardens in place political violence. Religion is more unbending in the medium-term than secular nationalism. Based on the idea of the holy, religion is a force of disruptive or divine violence that aggravates and makes more radical the ordinary state creating and state maintaining violence of state power.

The cultural logic leading up to that hardening in the modern Jewish history and the history of Zionism follows a crude dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Traditional forms of Judaism and Jewishness would be the thesis at the core of Jewish belonging at the beginning of the modern period. Modern secular Zionism is the antithesis. It responds to unprecedented historical crises that shook Jewish modernity. Political Zionism comes from the outside in as an opposition force meant to free Jewish life from the heavy burden of tradition and Jewish religion. As a historical movement, religious Zionism is the synthesis creating a new thing in the history of Judaism. But the synthesis has done nothing to resolve and sublimate ideological conflict so much as to make it worse. Predicted by Arendt against Hegelian dialectic, violence begets more violence. Generated by violent conflict, Religious-Zionism-Jewish-Power is a violent mutant.

Once upon a time secular state actors in Israel thought they could control religion and religious Zionism. There was confidence that religious Zionism represented and advanced state interests, that Religious Zionism subordinated religion to the state it sacralized, and that it would restrict its claims to a few basic things relating to the public and private sphere which it would more or less leave alone. With more seats in the Knesset, today Religious-Zionism-Jewish-Power and Haredi political parties are subordinating the State of Israel to Judaism. Never before in the history of the state has a ruling coalition depended for its existence solely on religious parties. One wonders about the lifespan of this misbegotten creature as the religious element enters into the harsh world of political reality that would under normal circumstances not leave religion unconstrained and out of the box.

Since the Enlightenment, liberal theorists have always maintained that religion needs to be constrained by overarching civil-constitutional social contracts. But in Israel today there are no roughly agreed upon contracts between religion and state, between Haredi Jews and society, between Arab and Jews in Israel, and no democratic rights for West Bank Palestinians in either a 1 or 2 state federated compact under recognized regional and international rubrics. There is zero prospect that Jewish religion in Israel can contribute to democratic solutions to the ideological fissures that are the essence of pluralism. Judaism cast in the form of Jewish Power and Religious Zionism holds out nothing but conflict and violence.

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(2023) Tel Aviv (Secular City)

80,000+ people came out to protect rule of law and secular society in Israel against the far-right ethno-religious-Haredi-national government. Uncivil religion unites civil society against it.

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Regime Change in Israel (Jewish Religion Identity State)

Illiberal democracy rests on bare majoritarian rule without checks and balances. In contrast, liberal democracy conjoins the general will of citizens with rule of law and the principle of judicial and legal autonomy and separation of powers, including limits on executive and parliamentary branches. Essential are a robust and variegated civil society sphere, codified rights, and equal protections respecting the dignity and autonomy of all citizens. For all its faults and contradiction, the State of Israel used to be a liberal democracy, more or less. The new government engineered by Benjamin Netanyahu represents a radical threat to the old regime. The combination of majoritarian power, anti-Arab racism, Jewish ethnic supremacy, rightwing Religious Zionism, settlements (all of them illegal) in the occupied West Bank, and Haredi power was always eating away at liberal structure. The mutation promises to render incoherent once and for all the formula of a “Jewish + democratic” state. It eats away at the very coherence of the secular state itself.

Before the establishment of the state and in the early days of the state, secular rightwing or Revisionist Zionism represented the minority against the political and cultural hegemony of Labor Zionism. Even after he was elected to power in 1977, Menachem Begin and his people understood the importance of the secular rule of law and the neutrality of state institutions as essential to protecting their own political voice and power. Netanyahu has since then turned the Likud party into a populist party based on a crude majoritarianism. Having mastered the arts of mob rule and gutter politics, the Likud under Netanyahu has purged itself of any trace of the lower-case liberal rule-of-law conservativism that once characterized rightwing, secular Revisionist Zionism. To secure his place in power, Netanyahu and the Likud needed coalitional allies. The only ones left were religious. Regime actors and apologists lay claim to a pseudo majoritarian principle. “The new government is acting in accord with the will of the people.” The claim is arguably not true. The unprecedented confluence of illiberal ethno-politics and illiberal religion in the State of Israel under the new government elected in November 2022 and its transformation into something that looks like theocracy.

Engineered by incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure his hold on power, all of the parties that have been joined to this coalition are exclusively radical and religious. There are three rightwing religious factions that ran together under the Religious Zionism Party: Religious Zionism, Jewish Power, and Noam. There are also 2 Haredi parties representing at least three sectors in Haredi society: United Torah Judaism and Shas. Netanyahu probably thinks he can control them, but they reflect his own worst instincts. All of the religious parties are committed to narrow, socially divisive sectoral interests. Religious parties have now been given unprecedented power to advance sectorial religious interests. These interests include [1] deepening the hold of the settlements in the occupied West Bank, [2] cementing the character of Haredi Jewish society as a separate and autonomous enclave, and [3] extending the hold of rightwing and orthodox Judaism into the public sphere. Apart from the Likud, which represents half of the coalition, there are no secular parties in this coalition.

The threat to liberal political governance under what is a new ethno-religious regime will be directed against the separation of powers made possible by the relative independence of the judiciary, media, education, police, and army. It concentrates power in the Knesset and Prime Minister’s office. It works to politicize the entire structure of the state by placing partisan party operatives in charge of the entire governing apparatus. The new regime puts a rightwing religious stamp on Jewish identity and a racist, political stamp on Judaism. From liberal democracy to populist theocracy, the new regime in the State of Israel institutes a new mutation.

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American Rabbis Draw A Red Line (Political Racism & Uncivil Religion in Israel)

As reported here, over 300 American rabbis have signed on to this statement calling to boycott members of the incoming government of Israel. One can argue about the statement itself; if it goes far enough in this way or that, if it should have said this or that in this way or not. Cynics will also observe that representatives of Religious Zionism and Jewish Power have no intention to visit liberal synagogues to begin with. But the statement on its own is remarkable as a clarifying document. Worth noting are three things. To date there is no sign-on from orthodox rabbis. The liberal rabbis here committ to speaking out when the representatives of these racist parties appear in other community fora. Jewish values are universalistic, namely democratic and in “the image of God.”


In 1984 when Meir Kahane was first elected to the Knesset, an outpouring of condemnation came from almost the full breadth of US Jewish organizations. Israel’s most recent election saw the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) and the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction together receive a shocking 11 percent of the vote, becoming crucial partners with Likud in the formation of a new Netanyahu-led government.

Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the leaders of the respective parties, have been arrested for incitement, trespassing and intimidation – with Ben Gvir being a former member of the now-defunct Kach group, which was designated as a terrorist organization by both Israel and the United States.

Their policy proposals are anathema to the tenets of democracy, contradicting the spirit and intent of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, their implementation will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship, as they are an affront to the vast majority of American Jews and our values. These proposals include:

● changing the Law of Return–including the refusal to recognize Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist converts and their descendants – a policy that negates the Jewish identity of the majority of Diaspora Jewry;

● eroding LGBTQ rights and the rights of women, causing irreparable harm and disenfranchisement among these communities;

● subjecting Israeli Supreme Court decisions to the whims of the Knesset, a policy clearly intended to erode individual and minority rights;

● annexing the West Bank without giving Palestinians the right to vote, thereby further undermining Israeli democracy;

● and expelling Arab Israeli citizens who are seen as opposing the government, challenging the democratic right to freedom of speech.

We, the undersigned, who care deeply about the security and well-being of the democratic State of Israel, are signing this letter of protest, pledging to not invite any members of the RZP bloc–including but not limited to Otzma Yehudit leaders–to speak at our congregations and organizations. We will speak out against their participation in other fora across our communities. We will encourage the boards of our congregations and organizations to join us in this protest as a demonstration of our commitment to our Jewish and democratic values.

When those who tout racism and bigotry claim to speak in the name of Israel, but deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us, we must take action. We must speak out. We must show the world that we are a people whose founding principles require us to see every person as B’tzelem Elohim –in the image of God.

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