Anarchism and Orthodox Judaism
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This article describes some views of notable Orthodox Jewish figures who supported anarchism, as well as various themes within the scope of the Orthodox Jewish tradition or among the practicing Orthodox Jews that are generally considered important from the anarchist worldview. As is often the case with pro-anarchist movements and personal anarchist opinions in spiritual traditions, authoritative organized Orthodox Jewish bodies may view some of the views described here as marginal. Anarchism found a number of notable supporters among Orthodox Jews in the first half of the 20th century; on the other hand, a number of notable secular Jewish anti-authoritarians noticed some anarchic tendencies in traditional Judaism.
While there is no organized Orthodox Jewish anarchist movement similar to Christian anarchist movements, a number of pro-anarchistic ideas are found in the works of some Kabbalists and Hasidic teachers, as well as in the Jewish folk religion. A few Jewish mystical groups in Antiquity were based on anti-authoritarian or radically communal principles, somewhat similar to the Christian Quakers, Dukhobors and other similar movements. Some secular Jewish anarchists, such as Abba Gordin and Walter Benjamin, were interested in the connections between anarchism and biblical and Talmudic themes, as well as Jewish mysticism. Aharon David Gordon and Martin Buber, both of whose ideas were close to anarchism, were former Orthodox Jews and greatly influenced by the Hasidic tradition.
Some Jewish anarchists of the 20th century explicitly combined contemporary radical thought with traditional Judaism, insisting that, in their view, Judaism calls for abolition of the state, private property and class society. These Orthodox Jewish anarchists personally observed the Halacha, but supported the social system of communist anarchism or anarcho-syndicalism.
Orthodox Jews and Anti-authoritarian Left
British Orthodox Rabbi Yankev-Meyer Zalkind, was an anarcho-communist, a close friend of the anarchist thinker Rudolf Rocker, and an active anti-militarist, who was jailed by the British authorities for his anti-war activism. Rabbi Zalkind was also a prolific Yiddish writer and a prominent Torah scholar, who authored a few volumes of commentaries on the Talmud. He believed that the ethics of the Talmud, if properly understood, are closely related to anarchism.
The famous Kabbalist Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag believed in a religious version of libertarian communism, based on principles of Kabbalah, which he called altruist communism. Ashlag supported the Kibbutz movement and preached to establish a network of self-ruled internationalist voluntary communes, who would eventually dismantle the government and the system of law enforcement. However, most contemporary followers of the Ashlagian Kabbalah seem to be unaware of his anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian political stance.
Russian revolutionary and Territorialist leader Isaac Nachman Steinberg, whose ideas were essentially anarchist, although he defined himself as a left eser or left narodnik, was an Orthodox Jew. Like Martin Buber, Steinberg supported the idea of binational solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and tried to establish a compact self-ruled Jewish settlement somewhere else outside the Middle East.
Rabbi Abraham Yehudah Khein (1878–1957), a prominent follower of the Hasidic Chabad tradition, was eloquently committed to pacifism and non-violence during the days when the Jewish community in Palestine was battling the Arabs and the British. He tried to relate his readings of Leo Tolstoy and Pyotr Kropotkin to Kabbalah and Hasidism. Rabbi Khein deeply respected Kropotkin, whom he called "the Tzadik of the new world", whose "soul is as pure as crystal"
Historical and legendary communities
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Period of the Judges
The Bible indicates, that the pre-monarchic Israelite society was anarchistic: "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges, 21:25); The prophet Samuel harshly criticized the Jews for trying to establish a monarchy. Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, referring to the above-mentioned verse, believed, that the future society will be libertarian communist.
The Essenes were a monastic Jewish sect that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. Although the Essenic society was divided into four strictly hierarchic orders, they rebelled against the establishment, lived a radically communal life, kept a vegetarian diet and supported themselves by manual labor, usually agricultural. New initiates to Essenism took some vows, including an oath not to force personal views or authority on others.
The Account of Eldad ha-Dani
Eldad ha-Dani was a merchant and traveler of the ninth century, who professed to have been a citizen of an "independent Jewish state" in eastern Africa, inhabited by people claiming descent from the tribes of Dan (hence his name, "ha-Dani" = "the Danite"), Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. According to his travel narratives, there is somewhere in the world a large land, encircled by the mysterious river Sambation, inhabited by descendants of Moses. The inhabitants of this land have beautiful houses and live happy, wealthy and extremely long lives; they are all equal and farm their land by themselves, because they don't have servants; no one of them locks their doors at night, because they would consider it a shame; unlike the other tribes described in the story, no king or authority is mentioned.
Eldad ha-Dani's fanciful travel narratives were accepted by his contemporaries as true and were very popular in the Jewish world until recent times. Even today, there are a few people, who believe that this mysterious land exists, perhaps somewhere in a parallel dimension. Regardless of the factual truth of Eldad ha-Dani's account, it indicates that many medieval Jews believed that such a utopian society is possible and has been actually implemented.
Mystical communities in Eastern Europe
According to Eastern European Jewish legends, before the establishment of the Hasidic movement by the Baal Shem Tov, there existed a secret society of Kabbalists, who hid their mystical knowledge and refrained from public positions and honors. Some of these mystics, according to the legends, had establishing self-ruled agricultural settlements, which emphasized individual autonomy, solidarity and compassion, closeness to nature and living by their own labor. The sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, said that the village of Lyubavichi took its origin from such a settlement, established by a mystic, named Reb Meyer, whose love to his fellows, both Jews and non-Jews, was boundless, and who also showed great compassion to all living beings. According to the legend, the village was originally named "Luba", meaning "love" both in Russian and Polish.
Some Hasidic rebbes had proposed social structures that emphasize equality and anti-authoritarian principles. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piasetzno had organized a mystical circle of Hasidim, focused on spiritual development and meditation. Rabbi Shapiro had insisted that his organization should refrain from choosing the chairman, vice chairman etc., as it was a custom in many organizations, because in a place, where holiness is revealed, there is no rulership and honors.
Another example of Hasidic anti-authoritarianism are some sectors of the Breslov community, who refuse to obey any contemporary authorities and follow only the teaching of Rebbe Nachman and his disciple, Reb Noson. The Breslov community in general is very decentralized and includes followers of diametrically opposite political opinions, such as far-right settlers of the West Bank and Neturei Karta, as well as universalistic thinkers and apolitical contemplatives.
Related themes in Judaism
According to the Hasidic panentheistic view, God is the true nature of all reality and the true self of the human soul ("the soul of the souls"). All duality and multiplicity is an illusion, resulting from the Tzimtzum. The contemporary Hasidic researcher Immanuel Schochet had described this view as monistic acosmism. Everything in the world is ever-changing and lacks intrinsic reality, while the only true reality – God – is beyond all definitions and boundaries, including time, space, personality and even substantial existence. Such views of reality are common in the Chassidic literature, although many contemporary Chassidim are unaware of these teachings and might consider them too esoteric.
The appearance of God as a personal being in the world of Atzilut is also a result of the Tzimtzum and, according to the teachings of the Lubavitcher rabbi, is a reflection of the to-be-created human personality, though some other Chassidim might consider such views bordering on heresy. In Kabbalistic and Hasidic literature, God is commonly called Ein Sof (the Infinite) or, sometimes, Ayin (Nothingness). The purpose of "worshiping" God is the realization of the Absolute Reality and unification with it.
Such esoteric views of God differ radically from conventional monotheism and resemble the Eastern concepts of Nirguna Brahman, Suchness and Dharmakaya. Thus, Mikhail Bakunin's and Daniel Guérin's critique of religion can be only partly applied to such a theology.
According to the Hasidic esoteric philosophy, the Halacha is not a set of laws, imposed by an external authority (since in panentheistic view God is never "external"), but a framework of means for spiritual self-development, somewhat similar to the Eastern concept of Dharma. The reward of fulfilling the commandments is the inner development itself; the punishment for the sin is the destructive spiritual impact of certain actions. Thus, the religious laws are seen as natural (and, at same time, divine and supernatural), as the laws of physical nature. Halacha itself is open to inquiry, though actual change or violation of halachic norms, according to traditional Hasidism, usually requires extensive expertise and mystical knowledge, and should be taken with great caution. According to some Kabbalists, in the Messianic world the standardized Halacha will be abolished, because everyone will realize his/her personal spiritual path by personal intuition. Such views are very common in the classic Chassidic literature, although many contemporary Chassidim might consider these teachings too esoteric and view the Halacha primarily as "law".
Mutual Aid and International Solidarity
There are two clearly anti-authoritarian passages in the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot: "Love labor, hate mastery over others, and avoid a close relationship with the government" (Avot, 1:10); "Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress" (Avot 2:3).
Another passage in Pirkei Avot lists four possible social relationship schemes: "He who says, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours', is the median type, though some say that this is the quality of Sodom. He who says, 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine', is a simple (or, according to other readings, an ignorant) man. He who says, 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours', is a pious man ('Hasid'). And he who says, 'What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine', is wicked.'" (Avot, 5:13). According to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, consistent application of this ethical rule by all members of the society leads to voluntary communism.
During the Middle Ages, some Jews practiced usury against the non-Jews, while condemning it within the Jewish community. Most medieval rabbis approved of such practice, which helped the Jews to survive in antisemitic states, where they were excluded from most professions. However, a number of prominent rabbis explain that usury is unethical in nature, and is not allowed against people, who treat Jews well. Emphasis on cooperative productive word and criticism of wage labor and of profit from financial operations is found in some Judaic ethical treatises, including Sefer HaBrit by Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna, Tiferet Israel by Israel Lipschitz, and Memoirs of Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavicher Rebbe.
Traditional Judaism is often viewed as a national religion, concerned mostly with internal affairs. However, many well known Torah scholars called for international solidarity, cooperation and compassion. For example, the Lithuanian-born Rabbi Pinchas Elijah Horovitz, the author of Sefer haBrit, who lived in 18th century Galicia, had insisted that the Jews are obligated to love their neighbors, Jews and non-Jews alike, like themselves. He called for compassionate international solidarity, mutual aid and cooperative labor.
Contemporary Judaism rejects capital punishment and, at least in theory, almost never advocates physical coercion, except for some rare cases, such as forcing a husband who refuses to give a get to his wife, who wants to be divorced. However, historically Judaism (as laid down in the Torah) did mandate, at least in theory, the death sentence for certain crimes, provided that certain requirements are met, namely two eyewitnesses and the perpetrator being warned of (and acknowledging) the punishment if they were to carry out the crime. This however requires participation of active Sanhedrin (the supreme court of Jewish law) which is presently non existent. The only exception to that rule is the case of the "moyser" ("informer") who threatens the life of others by informing the authorities; such a person could be killed, in principle, even today.
While Tanakh contains many violent stories of military conquest, capital and collective punishment for various sins, the Talmud and the later commentators tend to interpret these stories not literally or reduce them to unique one-time contexts. For example, the Talmudic requirements for corporal punishments are so complicated and unrealistic, that render them virtually impossible even in the biblical times and certainly impossible today. The Talmud says, that a Sanhedrin, who would put someone to death even once (or, according to another version, more than once) in 70 years, deserves to be called a "bloody Sanhedrin". According to Kabbalah, the purpose of these rare punishments was the spiritual "correction" of the sinner's soul, in order to liberate it from the Klipot.
Rabbi Abraham Yehudah Khein, a supporter of communist anarchism, noticed that Rabbi Akiva, one of the most prominent Talmudical sages, rejected capital punishment altogether. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said that if they and their pupils were to participate in a Sanhedrin, they would make sure that no one is ever killed.
The Talmud teaches: "Who is mighty? One who controls his passions" (Pirkei Avot 4:1); "Who is the mightiest of heroes? He who makes an enemy into his friend" (Pirkei Avot, 5:11); "Be of the persecuted rather than the persecutor" (Bava Kama 93a). However, a number of anti-Zionist rabbis, especially, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the late Satmar rebbe, condemned the violence of the Israel Defense Forces, including the Six-Day War, although many observers considered this war an act of "preemptive self-defence". While Judaism fully recognizes the right of military defense, many Orthodox Jews only consider it legitimate in cases of clear and unavoidable danger. Even in such cases, some anti-Zionist Jews deny the right of the State to execute such power.
A few Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionist groups, especially Neturei Karta, don't support any Israel's military actions, interpret the Arab aggression as a result of the Zionist politics and reject the State of Israel altogether, because they view its existence as a heretical contradiction with the belief in the future Messianic redemption, which they usually don't see as the restoration of the Jewish statehood, but as a spiritual 'kingdom' of universal harmony and peace.
Critical approach to organized religion
Though in ancient times the Jewish religious practice centered on the Great Sanhedrin, which acted as a rabbincal legislative authority controlling the whole of ancient Judea, Modern Judaism is a principally decentralized religion that lacks a central clerical body.
Often today, Rabbis are considered to be just more knowledgeable people, who serve as advisors and analyze how the Halacha applies to different situations, although some rabbinical figures and organizations impose their authority though coercive means. Some rabbis have secular jobs and refrain from being supported by the community. Nevertheless, in ultra-orthodox Haredi circles, the concept of Da'as Torah still mandates near-complete obedience to the authority of gedolim (a special cadre of especially esteemed rabbinic scholars) in every area of everyday life. This authority structure exists both in the Haredi Litvish camp and among Hasidic groups, where the Admor or Rebbe is consulted for Da'as Torah. One notable exception are the Breslov Hasidim, who tend to be decentralized and individualistic.
Despite this, even in the most authoritarian Jewish communities it's very common to disobey the rabbis for various reasons, and to organize new independent groups, who would choose their own rabbis, or, sometimes, would refuse to obey any living authority. For example, some Satmar Hasidim refuse to recognize their current leadership and rely solely on the teachings of the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum; most Satmar Hasidim do not recognize and harshly criticise all Zionist and pro-Zionist rabbinical institutions, especially the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Some educated Orthodox Jews do not affiliate with any particular rabbi or group, and choose halachic opinions on their own, by researching rabbinical literature and comparing opinions of different rabbis.
The tradition of decentralization and somewhat critical approach to authoritarian structures is common among Orthodox Jews, especially among the Hasidim, who are divided into over 100 independent sects.
Relativity of power structures
The Kabbalistic and Hasidic literature often views hierarchies, dichotomies and casual relationships as relative and overturnable, based on the ontological principle of Sefer Yetzirah, that the beginning is wedged in the end, and the end is wedged in the beginning, and the monistic concepts of unity and interrelated nature of all things. For example, Malkhut, which usually represents the feminine aspects of Reality in Kabbalah, is the lowest and, at the same time, the highest of the Sephirot, because in its root it's identical with Keter; according to the teachings of Chassidus, Moses had lost some "sparks" of his spirituality due to the misdeeds of the Jews in the desert, because the leader is in some aspect lower the led, "like the head, that can not go without the feet, in which aspect the feet become the head"; the empty part of a book or a Torah scroll is considered more ontologically significant, because it enables the very existence of the text; repentance can elevate a sin to the level higher than a Mitzvah; destruction can be a creative force, like the seed, that must be destroyed in the soil, in order to grow into a new plant.
In general, the dialectic of Kabbalah often closely resembles deconstructivist philosophy.
Judaism accepts that truth is relative to some extent and that the opposite Halachic opinions can both be right, although this idea is usually not generalized beyond some traditional contexts. Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl had stated, that even contradicting descriptions of historical reality can both be, and sometimes are, true. According to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the true knowledge is denial of any final knowledge; when a person reaches the "peak" of one spiritual world, all his/her previous knowledge is nullified by the new knowledge, that he discovers in the next world. However, one must seek and follow his or her personal truth, in order to keep "climbing" to the higher worlds and new levels of the knowledge, which have no end.
Question of Messianic 'Kingdom'
The belief in the future restoration of the Messiah's kingdom on earth is considered one of the fundamental tenets of traditional Judaism. Some classic rabbinical commentaries, especially the Rambam, supported monarchy and viewed the future Messiah as a king in literal sense and the future Messianic redemption as restoration of the Jewish state. According to other classic interpretations, the Torah only tells what limitations are supposed to be put on the king's power and possessions, if the Jews decide to choose monarchy as an option. According to Isaac Abrabanel, the "king" Moshiach will be a universally accepted spiritual teacher and a judge, but not a monarch; the state will be abolished and humanity will eventually return to the original Edenic harmony. Though Abarbanel's commentary is complex and may be interpreted in a number of different ways, his view of the ideal society in not statist. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs considers Abarbanel an 'utopian anarchist'
A number of Hasidic teachers consistently rejected or spiritualized the idea of a future Messianic "kingdom", and viewed Messiah as a compassionate teacher and advisor, but not a coercive ruler. According to such Hasidic interpretation, the Messiah will "fight" God's eschatological "wars" by providing a role model of a great Tzadik. Some Jewish mystics emphasize the concept of 'Messianic spark' or the 'inner Messiah' within every righteous individual or every human soul. According to such view, the whole humanity will attain collectively redemptive Messianic consciousness in the future.
There is a seemingly monarchist passage in the Talmud: Pray for the stability of the kingdom, for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive (Avot 3:2). However, Isaac Abarbanel, Israel Lipschutz and a number of other classic commentators hold that this passage only stresses the need for social order ("kingdom"), which might be organized by the people, and not necessarily by the king. Some mystical commentators interpret this passage in non-literal fashion, as referring to the spiritual Divine kingdom inside every human individual, not unlike Leo Tolstoy.
- Love labor, hate mastery, and avoid relationship with the government (Avot, 1:10)
- He who says, "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours", is the median type, though some say that this is the quality of Sodom. He who says, "What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine", is a simple man. He who says, "What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours", is a pious man ("Hasid"). And he who says, "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine", is wicked. (Avot, 5:10)
- In worship of God there are no rules – and this statement is also not a rule.
- Someone whose spiritual root is good does not have to restrict himself. Whatever he does is good in God's eyes.
- In a place where holiness is revealed, there is no rulership and honors.
Orthodox Jewish anarchists
- Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag
- Isaac Nachman Steinberg
- Rabbi Yankev-Meyer Zalkind
- Abraham Yehudah Khein
- Shmuel Alexandrov
- Anarchism and religion
- Christian anarchism
- History of anarchism
- Islam and anarchism
- Jewish anarchism
- Jewish left
- Гончарок, Моше (2002). ПЕПЕЛ НАШИХ КОСТРОВ, Очерки Истории Еврейского Анархистского Движения (ИДИШ-АНАРХИЗМ) (in Russian). Jerusalem: Problemen.
- Altruistic Communism will finally annul the brute-force regime completely, for “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”... Indeed, there is nothing more humiliating and degrading for a person than being under the brute-force government.
- Jewish-Christian Relations :: Universalist Trends in Jewish Religious Thought: Some Russian Perspectives
- Cedars of Lebanon: "Sanctify the Ordinary"
- ר' אברהם חן, ביהדות התורה, v.1 p.79
- Luz, Ehud 1981 "Spiritualism and religious anarchism in the teaching of Shmuel Alexandrov" (Hebrew). Daat, no. 7 (summer): 121-138.
- Samuel 8:7-18
- In the highly unconventional Yiddish booklet by the Hasidic composer and lyricist Yom Tov Ehrlich, "קול מבֿשׂר ", the author suggests a connection between the Land of Lost Tribes and Shambhala
- Lubavitcher Rabbi's Memoirs, Volume One, Chapter One, Kehot Publication Society, 1993
- בני מחשבה טובה , page 8, ועד חסידי פיסנצה, 1989
- Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism and Messianism in Izbica & Radzin Hasidism, by Shaul Magid, The University of Wisconsin Press,2003
- The Great Maggid: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezhirech, Volume One, page 205, by Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Kehot Publication Society, 1990
- בונה ירושלים, נ׳
- לקוטי תורה, פ׳ ואתחנן, pp. 3-4, Kehot Publication Society, 1998
- בשעה שהקדימו - תער״ב, vol.2, p. 1144, Kehot Publication Society, 1992
- משנת חב״ד, מר׳ משה לייב מילער, ערך עצמות, pp 6-12
- דרך מצותיך, מצות האמנת האלקות, ד׳-ה׳, pp. 94-101, Kehot Publication Society, 1996
- מאמר ועשית חג שבועות - תשכ"ה, Ma'amar Veasisa Chag Shavuos 5725, published by Lahak Hanachos, 1999
- Zen Buddhism and Hasidism, by Jacob Teshima, University Press of America, 1995
- דגל מחנה אפרים, פרשת צו
- מי השלוח, פ׳ בראשית, הערה י״ח
- Controversy and Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition: A Reader, p. 113, 139, 144. Routledge, 2005. When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, on every issue he was shown forty-nine aspects to forbid and forty-nine aspects to permit. He asked the Holy One, blessed be He, about this, and He said that it is delegated to the scholars of Israel of each and each generation, and the ruling will be made in accordance with their view.
- "Communism must be turned away from the concept, 'What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours', which is sodomite rule, to the concept, 'What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours', meaning absolute altruism".
- הגהות מהרש״א , יורה דעה, 159:1;
- ,ספר הברית , pages 522-575, יריד הספרים, 1990
- תפראת ישראל, אבות א׳ י׳
- Lubavitcher Rebbe's Memoirs, Vol. 1, Ch. 1
- Between Enlightenment and Romanticism: Computational Kabbalah of Rabbi Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz, by Yoel Matveyev, History and Philosophy of Logic 32 (1), p. 97: Hurwitz explains how all humanity is interconnected as a single entity... Some very similar arguments were offered a century later by Peter Kropotkin
- Mishnah (Makkot 1, 10)
- תורה אור, פ׳ בראשית
- The Doctrine of Coincidentia Oppositorum in Jewish Mysticism, by Sanford L. Drob
- מאור עינים, פ׳ שמות
- שׂיחות הר״ן, ב׳
- Encyclopedia Judaica, on Isaac Abarbanel
- Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, On the Limits of Power, http://www.chiefrabbi.org/UploadedFiles/thoughts/shoftim5767.pdf
- תולדות יעקב יוסף, פ׳ שופטים
- Rabbi Nachmen of Breslov once said, Moshiach will "conquer" the world without a single bullet or gunpowder
- נחלת אבות on Avot 3:2
- According to the reading of Rabbeinu Yonah, who viewed this social scheme as positive; Rambam interpreted this term as "an ignorant man"