Zionism and the Jewish polemic – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on September 4, 2021

When we think of the Zionist pantheon, philosopher Jacob Klatzkin does not come to mind: Klatzkins vision was brilliant but limited. Arthur Hertzberg, in his landmark study The Zionist Idea, describes Klatzkin as the most devastating anti-traditionalist of all the rebels within Zionism. Klatzkin was a firm believer that the Jewish state would in no way be David Ben-Gurions light unto the nations, but simply a third-rate entity based on language and land. The Diaspora would disappear. Klatzkins vision does not resonate with Jews. Zionism is very much a Jewish movement in that its luminaries could not imagine the revival of the Jewish nation to be nothing less than brilliant and superior.How do we explain Jewish survival in our history and the failing of American Jewry in the Diaspora today?

The Jewish encounter with modernity has been an experience of psychological inferiority and a feeling that the majority culture is superior to a primitive, tribal and outmoded superstition. Heinrich Heine, the great German poet of the 19th century, explained his reasons for conversion from Judaism to the Lutheran faith as the entrance ticket to Western civilization. Jewish identity, Jewish national ties and Judaism were the stumbling block for the Diaspora Jew in the modern period. Jewish self-hatred reflected the disadvantage of an identity that for thousands of years had been based on a sense of Divine destiny, being chosen by God as a holy nation. The rise of Zionism decades after emancipation heralded a return to the notion of being a unique and great nation, something that the initial Jewish encounter with modernity had destroyed.

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Zionism inherited a long tradition of Jewish polemic. The year was 1263 and the setting was the Christian royal court of Aragon. Rabbi Moses ben Nahman Nahmanides was coerced into a disputation with Friar Paul, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and made the claim that the Hebrew Bible and Talmud predicted the coming of Jesus Christ as a savior messiah. Nahmanides debated in front of the royal court and Christian clergy. Nahmanides spoke to the gentiles without restraint. Afterward he published an account, one of triumph and unabashed superiority over Christianity and Friar Pauls attempts to interpret Jewish texts from a Christological point of view. While Nahmanides penned his bold account originally in Hebrew, he actually translated it into either Latin or Catalan for the bishop of Girona. The Aragonese royal court expelled him from the kingdom. He migrated to the Land of Israel, settled in Acre, and produced his legendary commentary on the Hebrew Bible.

Another example of the Jewish polemic is the Nizzahon Vetus, the Old Book of Polemic. In the words of the polemics translator, historian David Berger, the anonymous authors approach to Christianity ranges from somber to sarcastic. The collection of anti-Christian arguments current in thirteenth century Ashkenaz, the Nizzahon Vetus according to scholar Berger is a striking example of Jewish disputation in its most aggressive mode. One forceful statement by the polemicist: We ask you heretics how you can talk about fear of God and exalt yourselves by referring to Scripture when you dont believe properly. The Jew shall raise his voice and say: It is our duty to observe the Torah; it is we who have this obligation, as it is written, In Judah God is known, his name is great in Israel [Psalms 76:2] The image of the medieval Jew hiding in the shadow of Christian majorities is dispelled by Nahmanidess account and the Franco-German polemic of Nizzahon Vetus.

The reality of the medieval epoch was that, despite the threat of persecution, Jews were not apologetic. Jews believed in their cultural and religious superiority to the pagan, Christian and Islamic majorities that surrounded them. Jews reveled in their identity as a treasured people. Until the century-long campaign of forced conversion in Spain that began in 1391, the Jewish apostate was the exception to the rule.

The Jewish sense of superiority was almost universal in Zionist circles, even among thinkers like Micha Josef Berdyczewski, a strident foe of tradition. As Berdyczewski wrote in 1899, a holy people must surely be a living people. Berdyczewski yearned for the emergence of the New Hebrew, a superior man who would erase the shame of Exile. That seminal religious-Zionist thinker Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Berdyczewski, a fierce foe of tradition, could agree on Jewish exceptionalism and superiority is remarkable. Zionism recaptured a Jewish sense of superiority that has a long pedigree in thousands of years of Jewish history.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom, in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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Zionism and the Jewish polemic - The Jerusalem Post

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