The triumph of the Jewish polemic

Up until the century-long campaign of forced conversion in Spain that began in 1391, the Jewish apostate was the exception to the rule.

Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When we think of the Zionist pantheon, we think of Herzl, Nordau, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and other luminaries who crafted the movement to found a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. But Jakob Klatzkin does not immediately come to mind; his vision was brilliant but limited.
Klatzkin not only stated that “the galut [exile] is unworthy of survival,” he was also a firm believer that the Jewish state would simply be a third-rate entity based on language and land. This is the primary reason that Klatzkin’s vision – or lack of it – does not resonate with Jews.
Until the onset of modernity, Jews believed themselves superior to the majority cultures that surrounded, tolerated and persecuted them. In this way, 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 a cut above.
How do we explain Jewish survival in the ancient, medieval and early-modern Diaspora? How do we explain that rapid assimilation and loss of identity of American Jews today? In a span of three generations, the descendants of the great wave of Jewish immigration to America from Eastern Europe are assimilating at an alarming rate.
This is usually analyzed as the result of ignorance of Jewish tradition or being “loved to death.” The Jewish encounter with modernity has been an experience of psychological inferiority, and a feeling that the majority culture is superior to a primitive and outmoded superstition.
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,” and being culturally and socially superior to worshipers of false gods.
With the onset of modernity and the granting of emancipation – and the Enlightenment’s severe critique of tribalism – the Jewish sense of superiority was lost.
From a psychological standpoint, the rise of Zionism heralded a return to the notion of being a unique and great nation, something that the initial Jewish encounter with modernity had destroyed.
I WANT to provide the reader with an outstanding example of traditional Jewish exceptionalism.
The year was 1263 and the setting was the Christian royal court of Aragon in Barcelona. Rabbi Moses ben Nahman – better known as Nahmanides – was coerced into a disputation with Friar Paul, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism and made the claim that the Hebrew Bible and Talmud predicted the coming of Jesus Christ as the savior messiah.
While most modern Jews would interpret the disputation as a form of persecution, this was not how Nahmanides debated in front of the royal court and Christian clergy. The great rabbi “spoke to the gentiles without restraint,” and afterward published an account in which he claimed victory.
While this eventually resulted in his exile from Aragon and his aliya to the Land of Israel, Nahmanides pulled no punches. His account was one of triumph and unabashed superiority over Christianity and Friar Paul’s attempts to interpret Jewish texts from a Christological point of view. Nahmanides had no fear. While he originally penned his bold account in Hebrew, he actually translated it into either Latin or Catalan for the bishop of Girona; only the Hebrew account remains extant.
Nahmanides paid with his boldness not long after the disputation – Aragon’s 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.
The reality of the medieval epoch was that, despite the threat of persecution, Jews were not apologetic and did not always cower in fear of repression and blood libels. Jews believed in their cultural and religious superiority over the pagan, Christian and Islamic majorities that surrounded them.
I am a true believer that celebrated historian Salo Wittmayer Baron was right on target in condemning the “lachrymose” version of the history of the Jews. Ancient Jews were fearless in their polemics; Medieval Jews as well had no hesitation in declaring the superiority and exceptional nature of their identity and faith, even in a dangerous public realm.
The portrait painted by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre of Jews existing solely because of the Christian hatred of Jews is inaccurate and way off the mark. Jews reveled in their identity as a “treasured people” and “holy nation.” Up 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 preeminence was almost universal in Zionist circles, even among thinkers like Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, a strident foe of tradition.
As Berdichevsky wrote in 1899, “A holy people must surely be a living people.”
The holiness espoused by this rebel is obviously secular in nature, and representative of a revival of what Max Nordau called “muscular Judaism.” Berdichevsky yearned for the emergence of the “New Hebrew,” a superior man who would erase the shame of exile. This Zionist thinker, following philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, was a firm believer in reviving “monumental history” and the greatness of the Israelite and Jewish ancient warrior past.
This is a radically different approach from Klatzkin’s retreat into normal Jewish existence in a third-rate, unremarkable and unexceptional Jewish state.
The revival of the glories of the past is a marker of most Zionist thinkers, and this revival would prove that yet again, Jews could be a phenomenal people.
I ask the reader to keep this is mind when approaching the issue of how the American ethos and spirit have undergone a transformation similar to that of the emancipated Jews of the Diaspora.
There is a parallel here that must be addressed; there is much that 21st-century, post-9/11 America can learn from the Zionist revival, and from the ancient and medieval Jewish world.
The last great American polemic was president Ronald Reagan’s willingness to address the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”; meanwhile, Thomas Paine penned the brilliant polemic for revolution against England in Common Sense more than two centuries ago. The present- day leveling of the playing field in every endeavor and in foreign policy is destroying America.
Americans today suffer from the malady of most of their Jewish fellow citizens – they cannot articulate why they are exceptional. Why would America ever be a beacon of freedom to the world if there is nothing superior about our country’s founders and their ideology? Everything is equal. There is no evil or good to address. Tolerate everything and everyone. No one is to blame. No one fails. No one succeeds. This uniformity of “vision by committee” undermines America, the Jews and the world.
We are American Jews in search of a polemic; we are Americans in search of a polemic. Without any articulation of why we are superior, there is no future for our country – or its Jews.
The writer is rabbi of the Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.