Zionism's beginnings: 'Redemptive Paralysis'

The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt was a turning point in the Jewish understanding of redemption.

‘THE BAR Kochba Revolt,’ Arthur Szyk, 1927. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE BAR Kochba Revolt,’ Arthur Szyk, 1927.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the questions that should guide our study of Zionism is the question “Why didn’t Zionism happen earlier?” In other words, why didn’t Zionism happen in the 5th century, or the 15th century? And as a corollary to that question, “Why were secular Jews the ones who came up with Zionism, and not religious Jews who pray thrice daily for a return to Zion?”
I believe that the answer to these questions is what I call “Redemptive Paralysis.” Let me explain:
Shortly before Judea was captured and her Temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground, a man named Jeremiah roamed the streets of Jerusalem warning the people to repent of their evil ways. If the people did not repent, Jeremiah warned, God would destroy His own house and exile His people.
This idea was a radical one and was counter to the cultural, religious and political hubris of the time. Jeremiah was thought to be a blasphemer, a traitor, and a liar. To think that God would destroy His own house! Jeremiah was imprisoned by the righteous king Zedekiah for treason. He was also accused of being a false prophet.
When Judea was finally destroyed in 586 BCE and the Jews were sent into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah was turned from a prophet of doom and gloom to a prophet of redemption. In the face of the utter destruction, when it seemed that all was lost and God had forsaken his people, Jeremiah prophesied that there would “yet be heard in the cities of Judea and streets of Jerusalem, the sounds of gladness and Joy, the voices of groom and bride.”
Yet, 70 years later, when the prophecies are realized and the Temple is rebuilt, it is done by human agency. There were no miracles from on high. No prophets, no manna from heaven or water from rocks. In fact, Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, is the one who gives the mandate to the Jews to rebuild their Temple and is the instrument of their salvation.
During the Hasmonean revolt, after centuries of prophetic silence, the Jews took up arms against an enemy greater than them in numbers and strength to fight for their Judaism. They no doubt relied upon the God of their fathers to see them through this nightmare and with their faith, they endured and prevailed. This is story of Hanukkah.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, the Jews were still without prophets and had to rely on previous experiences to help them navigate an uncertain future.
In the year 117 CE, the Jews in the Diaspora rebelled against their Roman oppressors. We know very little about this revolt except that it was called the Kitos revolt, (a corruption of the name of the Roman General Quietus) and it left many Jewish communities in the Roman Empire in ruin. This is an example of a failed redemption.
In 132 CE, when the 70-year anniversary of the destruction of the Temple grows near, the Bar Kochba Revolt breaks out.
There can be little doubt that Bar Kochba and his armies looked to Judah the Maccabee for inspiration in the belief that the same God who saved them in the past would bring His salvation in the present.
The Bar Kochba revolt was so successful in scope that none other than the famous sage Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be the Messiah. Bar Kochba successfully raised an army, threw Rome out of Judea, established the third Jewish Commonwealth and made plans to build the third Temple. He even minted coins with the façade of the Temple on them.
The Romans, on the other hand, came back with a vengeance and completely destroyed Bar Kochba and his army. They razed Jerusalem and caused havoc and destruction to the towns and villages left from the destruction of 70 CE. Historians report that more one million Jews were killed, many of them women and children. This number constituted one tenth of the entire Jewish population of the world. We were literally decimated in Hadrian’s genocide. The rabbis, using rabbinic hyperbole, tell us that there was so much blood spilled that it was up to the horses’ noses. Rabbinic literature preserved countless stories of the starvation and destitution of the period. It was at this time that the Temple Mount was plowed over and we hear the stories about the martyrs of Judaism.
The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt was a turning point in the Jewish understanding of redemption. So scarred were the rabbis from this utter failure of Jews taking the redemption in their own hands yet again (The Great Revolt was the first, Kitos the second and Bar Kochba the third) that the rabbis developed a theology of the Messiah as a supernatural redemption instead of the natural redemption that it had been previously conceived of.
This is Redemptive Paralysis. By pushing off the redemption as something supernatural, it paralyzed the Jews from taking redemption in their own hands. Having to sit and wait for the Messiah gave rise to fantastical myths about the Messiah and the messianic age, further pushing the Messiah out of the realm of the real into fantasy. Redemption was to come from God alone and the best we can do is wait, pray and keep the commandments.
This was the situation of the Jew until the 19th century. When the Jews emerged from the ghettos of Europe after their emancipation, many tried to assimilate. But antisemitism continued. If in the past, antisemitism was religious in nature, in the post-enlightenment age, it became cultural and later racial.
European Jewry’s failure to assimilate is the seed that brings forth the harvest Zionism. Having failed to become fully European, the Jews had to seek their own solution to the Jewish Question. Zionism was the result.
This answers both of our original questions. The reason Zionism happened in the 19th century and was created by secular Jews was that emancipation and the failure of assimilation freed some Jews from their Redemptive Paralysis.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.