Left, Right and wrong: Solzhenitsyn and Jewish politics

"There should be an alternative to Right and Left that taps into the riches of Judaism and Jewish history."

Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1998. (photo credit: Reuters)
Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1998.
(photo credit: Reuters)
With the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 2008, the world lost the heroic voice of a writer who dared to challenge the repression of an evil empire. The Nobel Prize winning author, in both his novels and his masterwork, The Gulag Archipelago, exposed the tyranny of the Soviet penal system and a dictatorship that suppressed religious belief and freedom of conscience.
The Solzhenitsyns, the Sakharovs and the Sharanskys played a significant role in the toppling of the Soviet empire – the brutal political system under which they lived never cowed them into submission or surrender.
Yet, there are elements of Solzhenitsyn’s thought that are disturbing. The Russian genius was an enemy not only of Soviet communism. He was also an acid-penned critic of Western democracy and an opponent of freedom of the press.
Solzhenitsyn’s commitment to Russian Orthodox Christianity and his Slavophile rhetoric marred his heroism in standing up to the Stalinists and their successors. Solzhenitsyn was a religious fundamentalist who yearned to overthrow the gains humanity made in modernity in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the French Revolution. If he did not specifically want to return Russia to the rule of the Czars, he did yearn for a pre-Bolshevik golden age in which the anti-Jewish, conservative Russian Orthodox Church would dominate politics, theology and morality.
Like his great predecessor Fyodor Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn was no friend of democracy or the liberalism of modernity. Solzhenitsyn censured the immorality of the West and condemned both democracy and communism.
This sounds like the rhetoric of fundamentalists in the Islamic world regarding the role of Islamic law in modern societies and the condemnation of the West as decadent and immoral. But the parallels are not precise. Perhaps there is something important we can learn from the celebrated 20th-century Russian author.
Solzhenitsyn made no secret of his beliefs. Over 35 years ago, the Russian dissident addressed the commencement exercises at Harvard University, telling an audience of 22,000 that America was declining because of a “collapse of courage” brought on by capitalism and a spirit of individualism that bred immorality and vice. Solzhenitsyn, in June of 1978, told the Harvard audience that he “could not recommend today’s West as a model” and that the Slavic world of Eastern Europe was spiritually far ahead of America. He did not reject the humanistic heritage of the European Renaissance but argued that the values of medieval life and theology must be a dominant part of modern humanity’s heritage.
The commencement speech at Harvard drew much praise and an equal amount of criticism. The ideas presented by Solzhenitsyn at Harvard remained an essential core of his beliefs till the end of his long life.
Cold War America presented Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Soviet hero in much the same way the United States supported the Muslim mujihadeen fighting the Russians decades ago in Afghanistan. Neither Solzhenitsyn nor the Muslim fighters turned out to be friends of the West in the end, despite their fierce anti-communism.
What concerns me most, as a Jew and a religious Zionist, is the anti-modern rhetoric that permeates Solzhenitsyn’s life and work. Zionism, while a movement that owes a great debt to traditional Jewish faith and theology, is a modern movement that has fostered democracy and basic freedoms. While Judaism should play a public role for Jews living in Israel, the Jewish state should not be a theocracy ruled by Torah law.
The parallel to Solzhenitsyn’s reactionary religious beliefs can be found in the Jewish world today. Just as Solzhenitysn condemned Soviet communism and Western democracy, Rabbi Moshe Joel Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar hassidic sect, condemned Zionism as an “awful heresy.” Teitelbaum and his successors are foes of all that is modern – not only the socialist component of Zionism but also the importance of a democratic Israel. Solzhenitsyn’s yearning for a return of Russia to its pre-Bolshevik and Czarist roots is a distant cousin to the Satmarers demonizing the modern movement of Zionism with its roots in 19th-century liberal nationalism.
Both Solzhenitsyn and Teitelbaum were reactionaries who wanted to turn back the clock and reject the legacy of modern life, politics and ideology.
I will not deny that Western capitalism has sometimes created societies driven by an empty consumerism that have bred vice and mediocrity.
We must hope that the State of Israel, having lost the Socialist spirit and politics that drove the Zionist movement and the early years of Jewish sovereignty, will not replace that outworn ideology with a vacuous mimicking of the worst American culture and life has to offer. In that way, Solzhenitsyn had an important statement to make relevant to Jews. However, the West has always had more to offer than just crass materialism and immorality.
Beyond the fundamentalists’ caricature of a decadent and declining America is the reality that freedom of speech, religion, expression and economic activity has produced an American nation that remains a model for the rest of the world. This reality was missing from Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard.
Despite all my caveats regarding Solzhenitsyn, I learn an important lesson from his stance on the world.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn posed an intriguing challenge to Jews to look beyond the politics of the Left and the Right and to find a political life and society rooted in 4,000 years of Jewish history, rather than the modern revolutions in France and America.
Who are our role models: Burke and Marx, or Saadiah and Maimonides? Perhaps the time has come for Jews to find political solutions not within conventional liberal or conservative standpoints – these are foreign imports from outside of Judaism – but within Jewish history itself.
We can still be staunch defenders of democracy in Israel and America yet still search for alternatives to the political movements of modernity. There should be an alternative to Right and Left that taps into the riches of Judaism and Jewish history.
Perhaps the Diaspora was not just a “dark hole” of persecution and political passivity. We do not need to descend into the realm of fundamentalism. We simply need to search for authentic Jewish voices from our past that will allow us to shape ideologies and theologies beyond those limited by the politics of our own day.The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.