On holy rebellion: Is it always necessary?

Is it possible to follow the will of God by defying Him?

9,000 participants united during the three days of the 2016 World Kabbalah Convention. (photo credit: ASHER BITON)
9,000 participants united during the three days of the 2016 World Kabbalah Convention.
(photo credit: ASHER BITON)
In his concise 2018 biography of Gershom Scholem, Professor David Biale devotes four consecutive pages to one of the Master of Kabbalah’s most important essays. Scholem, a German Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1923 and was a legend at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, titled this Hebrew language essay “Mitzvah ha-Ba’ah be-Averah.” The literal English translation is “The Commandment Fulfilled by Its Transgression,” although that is rendered in The Messianic Idea in Judaism by translator Hillel Halkin as “Redemption Through Sin.” According to biographer Biale, the long 1934 Scholem essay “possibly more than any other of his writings, secured his reputation in the eyes of both his colleagues and a wider public as the most provocative Jewish scholar of his generation.”
Biale writes of the groundbreaking essay’s thesis: “Zionism had made it possible for Jews to explore the most heretical moments in Jewish history since it freed them from the need to justify themselves in the eyes of the non-Jewish world.” Biale continues that “in later years, Scholem would emphasize repeatedly that Zionism should not dictate a particular view of Jewish history but rather make possible the fullest exploration of all facets of the Jewish experience.”
What are we to make of the failed messianic movement of Shabtai Zvi in the mid-17th century and its aftermath? While Scholem sees the seeds of Jewish modernity in radical Sabbateans who followed Shabtai in his conversion to Islam – a conversion that marked the end of any credibility Shabtai had as a messiah among most Jews – the question remains if Scholem exaggerated the line from Sabbateans and Frankists to Reform Judaism and Jewish Enlightenment.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the enthusiasm for Shabtai Zvi among Jews from Yemen to Krakow undermined the authority of the rabbis who opposed him and did play an important role in ushering in modern movements in Judaism. The argument among most traditionalists when modern Zionism emerged in the mid-19th century was that the movement mimicked Sabbateanism in its rejection of rabbinic authority and its crossing over into heresy. By calling for the return to the Land of Israel and the reestablishment of sovereignty without a messiah, Jews participated in the same heresy as Shabtai Zvi 200 year earlier.
This time, however, the heresy embraced was not Islam or in Jacob Frank’s case Christianity – it was socialism and European nationalism. Even religious Zionists were targeted by the followers of Moses Sofer. Rabbis Hildesheimer, Mohilever and Pines, early traditionalists who followed Herzl, maneuvered around the criticism of their Zionism by stripping the movement of its messianic component and arguing that a State in Israel would solely be a safe haven for those persecuted Jews in Europe and a Holy Land – in which the mitzvot pertaining to Eretz Yisrael could be followed.
If, indeed, the Zionists, especially those in the secular camp, were crossing the line into heresy, I would argue that it was a necessary and holy defying of the will of God as interpreted by the traditionalists. For more than 1700 years the strategy of not going up to Israel without a messiah actually allowed Jewish communities to thrive through the vehicle of self-governance. There was no chance—until the waning of the Ottoman and British Empires—for Jews to create a sovereign state in the Land of Israel. The Shabtai Zvi debacle proved that.
With emancipation and the creation of nation-states, as well as the increasing specter of pogroms and even racial antisemitism, the heresy of the nation-state saved our people. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook realized that most traditionalists would not defy the oath not to immigrate to Israel “like a wall.” He transformed Zionism into a messianic movement with the “heretics” serving the holy purpose of God to usher in the messianic advent. He made Eretz Yisrael central to his thought and life.
 I would argue that even without the messianic component of Rav Kook’s thought, that the defying of God by socialist and nationalist Zionists was a holy act that saved a remnant of the Jewish people, inspired Jews to overcome disaster, and has, ironically, led to a renaissance of Judaism and Jewish life in the State of Israel and the Diaspora. Heresy was transformed into a holy mandate of the divine.
The prime example of a “holy rebel” is Micah Joseph Berdichevski (1865-1921). Berdichevski mocked the rabbinic culture that began in Yavne and elevated the Zealots of Jerusalem who fought the Romans in 66-70 CE. His polemics are fierce and his rejection of the religious past angered many. The last Jews and the First Hebrews. This was a total rebuilding of the Jew into a modern colossus, devoid of a faith that withered our people in Exile. I am not alone is praising Berdichevski’s necessary transformation of the Jews despite that I disagree with his caricature and debasing of Yavne and rabbinic culture.
 Torah scholar Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) recognized Berdichevski as a “holy rebel” – that is my phrase, not Weinberg’s – whose defiance of tradition was “suffused with the spirit which enlivens faith.” The Orthodox rabbi writes in 1921 that Berdichevski is “an ethical heretic, a Jewish heretic, whose heresy is suffused with spirit, which enlivens faith.” Rabbi Weinberg writes that: “Belief that is tranquil and satisfied testifies to an inner emptiness and lack of thought.” Berdichevski challenges the Jewish believer not to be complacent, to always be challenged. That is the essence of true faith, of real emunah.
Is “Holy Rebellion” always necessary? Often it is not and it can even be harmful. The experience of Jews in the pre-modern Diaspora testifies to the importance of oaths that prevented the Jewish people from disappearing after endless rebellion. But in the times in which we live, the “heresy of Zionism” has strengthened all Jews and saved us from annihilation.
Is it possible to follow the will of God by defying Him? That has often proven the case for more than 200 years. The spirit and polemic of Berdichevski has forced us to confront the forces of passivity that led to disaster. When reality hits you in the face, perhaps God is sending you a message. Again, I respect and admire the achievements of Yavne and its successors but we are living in times where challenging rabbinic interpretations of God’s will is absolutely necessary. This is not so much the thesis of Gershom Scholem that the nihilism of the Sabbateans was central to Jewish modernity. But it is something to keep in mind.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.