THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS

OF RADICALISM



 

 

 

THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF RADICALISM

 

 

(The following excerpt comes from The Politics of Bad Faith: The Radical Assault on America’s Future, by David Horowitz (1998).

 

                                   

   Mr. Marx does not believe in God, but he believes deeply in himself. His heart is filled not with love but with rancor. He has very little benevolence toward men and becomes...furious and...spiteful...when anyone dares question the omniscience of the divinity whom  he adores, that is to say, Mr. Marx himself.

 

                                                               ---Bakunin, 1872

 

            As an orthodox Jew in pre-war Poland, the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, found himself captivated by a passage in the Midrash about Rabbi Meir, the great disciple of Rabbi Akiva. The passage described how Rabbi Meir took lessons in theology from a heretic called Akher (“The Other”). On one particular Sabbath, as Deutscher recalled, “Rabbi Meir was with his teacher, and as usual they became engaged in a deep argument. The heretic was riding a donkey, and Rabbi Meir, as he could not ride on a Sabbath, walked by his side and listened so intently to the words of wisdom falling from his heretical lips that he failed to notice that he and his teacher had reached the ritual boundary which Jews were not allowed to cross on a Sabbath. The great heretic turned to his orthodox pupil and said: ‘Look, we have reached the boundary -- we must part now; you must not accompany me any farther -- go back!’ Rabbi Meir went back to the Jewish community, while the heretic rode on -- beyond the boundaries of Jewry.”[1]

            Deutscher was fascinated with the story. “Why,” he wondered, “did Rabbi Meir, that leading light of orthodoxy, take his lessons from the heretic?...Why did he defend him against other rabbis?...Who was he? He appeared to be in Jewry and yet out of it. He showed a curious respect for his pupil’s orthodoxy, when he sent him back to the Jews on the Holy Sabbath; but he himself, disregarding canon and ritual, rode beyond the boundaries.”

            In the figure of the heretical stranger, Deutscher saw a paradigm for his own radical career. The Jewish heretic who crosses boundaries and transcends their limits -- Deutscher wrote -- is the prototype of the modern revolutionary. By way of defining the revolutionary tradition to which he himself belonged, he identified its exponents: Spinoza, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky. These famous revolutionary heretics “found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting,” and therefore “looked for ideals and fulfillment beyond it.” In the secular world they entered, they were outsiders as well: “They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. Each of them was in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it.” Living beyond invisible boundaries, made them almost god-like: “It...enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.”

            Isaac Deutscher was my teacher, and Akher -- the heretical stranger -- is a figure with whom I came to identify in my life as a radical. I was the scion of socialists and Communists, of Jews estranged from Judaism who pursued ideals beyond the limits of its community and traditions, of revolutionaries who pursued fulfillment in a liberated future beyond the confines of the societies and nations that defined the human present. When I was nine, I remember marching with my parents in a Communist May Day Parade in New York City. The year was 1948 and Communist political forces directed by Moscow and backed by the Red Army were taking control of Eastern Europe. In February, the Communists had overthrown the government of Czechoslovakia. In March, President Truman went before Congress to mobilize America’s forces for the anti-Communist battles that loomed ahead. It was the beginning of the Cold War and our May Day parade was conceived as an act of political defiance.

            My parents and I were already on the other side of invisible boundaries -- boundaries that separated us from the nation on whose margin, and in whose nooks and crannies we lived. And yet, as we chanted our slogans -- One, two, three, four/We don’t want another war... -- we felt anything but homeless. In marching in these ranks, we had crossed another boundary into a realm of our political imaginations, where the revolutionary future was already here. In our hearts we felt an immense, reassuring pride to be part of the vanguard of progressive humanity, marching towards a world in which war and injustice would be only memories of a distant past.

            Along the route down New York’s Eighth Avenue, gray wooden barriers with black stenciled letters “N.Y.P.D.” lined the sidewalks to hold back the crowds of hostile onlookers. The fear I had tried not to feel was held at bay by the pressure in my lungs from our chants and songs. At one point our ranks fell silent as we stopped to let the cross traffic pass. As we waited to resume our march, a group of street kids, some no bigger than I, leaned over one of the barriers and began to chant back at us: Down with the Communists, up with the Irish! The taunt wounded and confused me, as though an actual blow had been delivered. A hurt stuck in my throat: it was so unjust. I wanted to cry back, You don’t understand! We’re doing this for you. For Irish and non-Irish alike. For the day when there won’t be any wars and there won’t be any nations, just one human family. I wanted to respond, but I didn’t. All day I had been chanting into the air with the others to an invisible audience, whom I was sure needed to hear the truth we were telling. Now I was confronted by real people who heard what we had to say and who despised and hated us for saying it.

            This is the only clear memory I have of that entire May Day in 1948. For the next twenty-five years I remained in the ranks of the political Left. I was a soldier in an international army fighting on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. In my mind I had taken on the cause of all the communities of the dispossessed. It was only much later that I came to realize that in becoming part of the Left I had really taken on the cause of no community at all. Though we were in society, we were not of it. Except for the Party rulers in Moscow from whom progressives took their cues, we represented no one, not even ourselves. In all those years of championing the oppressed, it would never once have occurred to me, for example, to shout out, like those Irish kids: Up with the Jews!

            I did not identify myself as a Jew. I was a revolutionary and an internationalist. To see myself as a Jew -- a member of a real community in all its human limits, with all its human faults -- to identify with the claims of such a community, would have been a betrayal of the revolutionary Idea. In all those years, I never allowed myself to explore what it might mean to have a real sense of myself as a Jew, just as I never really felt myself to be an American, or to identify with any community less extensive than humanity itself. In this attitude, I was typical of the Left. It was only after I finally gave up the revolutionary fantasy, that I began for the first time to experience my own reality and the reality of the communities to which I belonged, only when I had left the ranks of the political vanguard whose mission it was to change the world.

            When I had left the Left, the moral I drew from the Midrash story of Rabbi Meir and the heretical stranger that so impressed Isaac Deutscher, was no longer his moral. In fact, it was quite opposite. The moral, for me, is the importance of boundaries -- the religious boundaries that separate the holy from the profane, and also the secular boundaries that separate the uncharted from the familiar and durable, the apocalyptic from the mundane. Among the conservative lessons my heretical life has taught me about boundaries are the costs incurred in crossing them.

            When I was starting out as a radical in the 1960s, Deutscher was already a celebrated cultural figure as the Marxist biographer of Trotsky and Stalin. Forty years earlier, when the Bolshevik Revolution was still young, Deutscher had been a political activist in Eastern Europe. As a mentor to New Leftists like me, Deutscher was always ready with an instructive anecdote about those intoxicating times. One of his amusing parables concerned the two most important leaders of the Communist International, Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev, who had come to Germany in 1918 to stoke the fires of revolution. Like many other leading Bolsheviks (Sverdlov, Kamenev and Trotsky, for example) both Radek and Zinoviev were Jews, as was the foremost figure of the German Revolution -- Rosa Luxemburg -- and the head of the new revolutionary government in Hungary, Bela Kun. And, of course, the inspirer of all their revolutionary exertions, Karl Marx himself had come from a long line of famous rabbis in Trier.

            Radek was addressing the crowd. “We have had the Revolution in Russia and the Revolution in Hungary, and now the Revolution is erupting in Germany,” he roared, “and after that we will have the Revolution in France and the Revolution in England and the Revolution in America.” As Radek worked himself into a lather, Zinoviev tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “Karl, Karl, there won’t be enough Jews to go around.”

            The story is apocryphal, but the point is telling. For nearly two hundred years, Jews have played a disproportionate role as leaders of the modern revolutionary movements in Europe and the West. To these socialist revolutionaries, the bourgeois freedom established by the French Revolution was only half-freedom. The universal Rights of Man had created a unity of mankind in the political realm, but had left the citizenry divided and unequal in civil society. Only a socialist revolution could make whole the defect in the human cosmos. By carrying the revolution to its conclusion, socialists would usher in a millennium and fulfill the messianic prophecies of the pre-Enlightenment religions that modern ideas had discredited. Through this revolution, the lost unity of mankind would be restored, social harmony would be re-established, paradise regained. It would be -- to employ the language of Lurianic Kabbalism -- a tikkun olam, a repair of the world.

            If the revolution was a secular faith, its Moses was a deracinated Jew whose father had changed his name from Herschel to Heinrich, and converted to Christianity to advance his government career. The young Marx grew into a brilliant but rancorous adult, consumed by hatred not only for the society that disdained him, but for the community that had raised him. Internalizing the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes, he incorporated them into his early revolutionary vision, identifying Jews as symbols of the society he wanted to overthrow: “The god of the Jews has been secularized and has become the god of this world,” he wrote in one of his early manuscripts. “Money is the jealous God of Israel, beside which no other God may stand.” In a catechism for revolutionaries he took on the voice of his people’s timeless persecutors: “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, selfishness. What is the secular cult of the Jew? Haggling. What is his secular god? Money...Money is the alienated essence of man’s work and existence: this essence dominates him and he worships it.” Salvation for the Jews lay in the revolution that would destroy the foundations of the social order itself. For once the revolution succeeded in “destroying the empirical essence of Judaism,” Marx promised, “the Jew will become impossible, because his consciousness will no longer have an object.” The revolutionary equation was thus complete: “the social emancipation of Jewry is the emancipation of society from Judaism.”[2]

            For secular Jews, like Marx, the radical idea that the bourgeois revolution had somehow been incomplete carried irresistible appeal. The bourgeois bill of rights had emancipated Europe’s ghettoes, granting civil freedom to individuals, but refused to recognize the people itself which stubbornly rejected assimilation. As a result, even secularized Jews like Marx were looked on as members of an alien nation. To them, the socialist revolution promised a true restoration of their own humanity and general liberation -- a society freed from religious illusion and national division; a world made whole; a tikkun olam. Communism, as Marx put it, was “the riddle of humanity solved”-- as though the problem of human alienation and suffering was nothing more than an intellectual puzzle.

            Anti-Semitism was an animating passion of the founders of socialism (Fourier and Proudhon, as well as Marx), but throughout the 19th Century its poisons emanated principally from the Right, while Jews found their defenders on the political Left. After 1914, the First World War and its barbarities shattered the expectations of civil progress and revived the passions of revolt. Out of the ashes of the cataclysm, two destructive radical movements emerged.

            Fascism and Communism were both rooted in the messianic ambitions and gnostic illusions that the Enlightenment had unleashed;[3] both invoked the salvationist claims of the socialist promise; both looked to a historical transcendence, proposing final solutions to what had been timeless problems of the human condition. Both set out to create their socialist futures by first destroying the bourgeois present, and erecting their utopias on its smoldering ruins. Both intended to restore the lost unity of mankind by first dividing humanity into opposing camps: the politically saved and the morally damned, the children of light and the carriers of darkness, Us and Them. Fascism proposed to build its utopia on the volk, the purity and solidarity of the tribe. International socialism proposed to build its utopia on class foundations -- the creation of a morally purified, proletarian ubermensch, the “new man” and “new woman.” The means of purification, for both messianisms, was political terror. “Proletarian coercion in all its forms, beginning with the firing squad,” explained the Bolshevik Bukharin, later a victim of his own prescription, “is...the way of fashioning the communist man out of the human material of the capitalist era.”[4]

            After 1917, these movements declared political war on the liberal orders of bourgeois Europe. In Germany, the Communist Party ordered its activists to collaborate with the Nazis in political violence designed to cause the collapse of the democratic governing coalition.[5] In 1933, they succeeded in destroying the Weimar Republic, an act which settled the fate of European Jewry.

            Deutscher was a soldier on one side of that political battle. In a moment of intimacy we shared as teacher and disciple, he confessed to me his guilt at having been wrong on an issue which spelled life and death for millions of Jews. Along with other Jews active in the Marxist Internationals during the inter-war years, Deutscher had argued relentlessly in behalf of the self-determination of all nationalities -- except Jews. In becoming revolutionary internationalists, these Jewish heretics curiously adopted a tenet of the Biblical faith they had rejected. As a people without a land, they argued, Jews were endowed with a special mission in humanity’s march towards the revolutionary future. Their mission was to be a revolutionary “light unto the nations,” to point to the redemption of man in a united world where nations themselves would no longer exist.

            As Lenin’s right hand in power, the Jew, Trotsky (ne Bronstein) had turned a deaf ear to the pleas of his own people, dismissing Soviet Jews as creatures of the despised petite-bourgeoisie. In the second year of Hitler’s war, Trotsky pontificated from his Mexican exile on the fate of his fellow Jews:

 

            The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of the Jews to Palestine can now be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people....Never was it so clear as it is today, that the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.[6]

            Thus Trostky and Deutscher and the other internationalists argued within the Jewish community in the Thirties that its salvation lay in the overthrow of capitalism, that the solution to the “Jewish problem” was the Marxist revolution -- in other words, the destruction of liberal society in Germany and elsewhere. They argued against those Zionists in the socialist movement who urged Jews to emigrate to Palestine and the nascent Jewish state as a place of refuge and an ark of survival; and they argued against all those non-socialists who struggled to shore up the liberal democracies of the capitalist West, as bulwarks against the barbarian threat.

            By working to destroy these liberal societies and to undermine their bourgeois rights, radicals like Deutscher and Trotsky helped to remove the life supports of European Jews. The revolutionary salvation they promised never came. Only the handful who disregarded their appeals and went to Palestine to build a Zionist state survived; the multitudes who heeded them and their comrades, and stayed to fight for socialism, perished in the Nazi holocaust.

            In Russia, itself, hardly a single one of the Bolshevik Jews survived the Stalinist terror: Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Sverdlov, and Trotsky all were murdered by the revolution in which they had placed their faith. The bulk of Soviet Jewry survived the Nazi invasion, a fact which fed the illusion that socialism might still offer the Jews hope. But as soon as the war was over, Stalin began preparing his own “final solution” to complete the job that Hitler had started. In 1948 the arrests and murders of Soviet Jews began, and only Stalin’s death prevented the new holocaust from running its course.[7]

            Stalin’s campaign against the Jews was inspired by his own paranoia, but its rationale remained well within the parameters of the socialist project. Lenin himself had written: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, puts forward the slogan of a Jewish ‘national culture,’ (whatever his good intentions may be), is an enemy of the proletariat, a supporter of the old...an accomplice of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie....’”[8] Or, in Marx’s own formula: “In the last analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Stalin’s anti-Semitic heirs continued their cultural and religious assault on the Jewish community, as on all minorities within their socialist empire, training the terrorists and supplying the arsenals with which the Arab enemies of Israel threatened the survival of the Jewish state.

            Before 1917, the locus of international anti-Semitism was on the Right; today it is on the Left. The two havens of post-holocaust Jewry, Israel and the United States, are the two states that have been under assault by the international Left almost since the end of World War II, “US imperialism” and “Zionist racism” the Great Satans of leftist imaginations. Within the United States, the PLO and other Arab terrorists have struck alliances with racist and anti-Semitic black “nationalists” like Louis Farrakhan, while allies of Farrakhan have become part of the “progressive” rainbow of the Democratic Party. And prominent, still, in this broad movement of the contemporary Left are Jews laboring under the same illusion as the Jewish radicals of the past: that they are a light unto the nations; that their revolution will bring about a messianic transformation of communal hatred into socialist harmony, human evil into social good; that it will mean a tikkun olam.[9]

            What accounts for the persistence of this self-destructive commitment to the messianic ambitions of the revolutionary Left? Why -- in the face of its practical catastrophes -- does the Left continue to attract so many idealists, and Jewish idealists in particular, to its political cause?

            An answer frequently given is the ethical affinity between socialism and Judaism. In this view, socialism is the fulfillment of the moral teachings of the Jewish prophets; socialists are the compassionate angels of the secular world. But what is moral or angelic about a movement that aligns itself with anti-Semites and racists, and advances its agendas behind a veil of deception? What is compassionate about a cause that gave the world the gulag and the politically instigated famine; that spawned the generalized misery of the socialist world? To say that the revolutionary promise of social justice is what attracts Jews to the radical cause is only to identify a self-delusion. It does not explain why Jews continue to feel at home in the Left, despite the grim record of radical practice. To explain this, one must first understand the nature of their secular faith. For to sustain belief in the face of such contradiction requires, above all, an act of faith.

            As others have recognized, revolutionary hope is a religious gnosticism.[10] It is the belief in a world possessed by evil and an earthly redemption achieved through knowledge. The Left is impervious to its own catastrophes because the perception of catastrophe is the very premise of its faith.  The religious foundation of its political beliefs is the idea of history as a fall from grace. If a socialist experiment proves to be corrupt, it has merely failed to escape the existing corruption. The Left is not about reforming particular institutions through a program of social reform. It proposes, instead, to rectify the general catastrophe of existence itself. Until the general redemption is achieved,  the potential always exists for a particular lapse.

            To the secular messianists of the radical Left, the world we know is a social illusion, mankind alienated from its “true self.” Likewise, to the religious gnostic, reality is a delusion of false consciousness. The religious revolutionary believes that humanity creates its own reality. There is no limit, therefore, to what humanity may become. Alienation and suffering can be ended by a revolution that restores humanity to its authentic being. Reactionary religion, by contrast, reconciles humanity to its unacceptable reality with a dream of divine intervention and other-worldly hope. It is the opium of the people, projecting humanity’s own power -- the power to redeem itself -- onto a supernatural being, God. The revolutionary faith rejects the illusion of divine grace and proposes itself as the messianic force. The revolutionary answer to the religious question is the demand to change the conditions that make religion necessary. The revolutionary prophet proclaims a liberation theology: You shall be as gods, creating the conditions of your own redemption. 

            “Alienation” is the Marxist name for the catastrophe that has befallen human existence, for the fact that there are not merely particular injustices to be remedied by specific reforms, but that there is injustice in the very structure of mankind’s being in the world, that no mere reform can heal. Jews have a name for this catastrophe of existence, too, and it is the same name: Exile. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto the proletariat is identified as a people in exile like the Jews: “Proletarians have no country....Proletarians of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

            The political prelude to the First World War refuted Marx’s proclamation. When war was declared, the socialist parties aligned themselves with their respective nations, proving that proletarians did have a patria and thus more to lose than their chains. Exile was not the real condition of proletarians, but it was the real condition of Jews like Marx. Self-excluded from his own community as a religious expatriate, excluded from German society as a Jew, self-excluded again as a socialist revolutionary in bourgeois England, Marx conceived his internationalist dream to solve this riddle. Socialism was the wish to free himself from his personal exile by destroying the very idea of nations, by uniting mankind in a Marxist Zion.[11]

            It is the paradigm of exile that links the fate of the Jews to the radical left. The same paradigm forges the false bonds between Jewish faith and revolutionary fervor. And it is the paradigm of exile in the Jewish tradition that warns us of the dangers of such messianic hopes – of hopes that are gnostic and apocalyptic, that propose a self-transformation of men into angels, and that promise the establishment of paradise on earth.

                                                            *          *          *

            In the Jewish tradition, an exile stands at the threshold of all human history: the expulsion of the first couple from the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were our parents, but they did not know good and evil, shame and suffering, labor and death. They are our parents and our innocence; we are of them, but we are not like them. They are what we dream of being.

            Genesis is a cautionary tale of who we are. In its Garden only one fruit was forbidden: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” To eat from this tree was to lose innocence and thus the very paradise that had been given. But after God had warned them, the serpent came to Eve and, in words which are almost exactly the words of the Marxist promise, urged her to disregard what God had commanded: “For...when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,...”    So Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and God punished them, causing them to bear children in pain and to toil all the days of their lives, until death.

There was a further penalty -- expulsion from paradise:

            Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” -- therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the source the garden of Eden he placed an angel, and a sword of the spirit which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.           

In this parable, the possibility of redemption is symbolized by the flaming sword that points the way back. But the sword also symbolizes that return is possible only through a divine grace.

            In the Biblical tradition, the expulsion from paradise is the threshold of human history. God’s curse -- to live in exile from paradise, to labor in pain, to suffer and die -- can be translated thus: You shall be human. The moment that our common parents eat from the tree of knowledge, mixing good and evil, we are human: permanently exiled from our origins, perpetually estranged from ourselves.

            The theme of exile recurs through Biblical history. Not long after the first couple were banished from Eden, the Bible relates that God was again so provoked by the spectacle of human mischief, that He decided to expel His creation from the earth itself. (“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth...So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground,...’”) But one man, Noah, found favor with God for his goodness, and God relented, deciding to spare Noah, saying “I will establish my covenant with you;...”

            After the flood that God had sent to destroy the world, Noah built an altar and made an offering. When Noah had done this, God was ready, as a wise if rueful parent, to reconcile himself to His own creation: “When the Lord smelled the pleasing odor [of Noah’s offering], the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.’”

            Here, in the first of those remarkable self-bindings of the divine power in Jewish tradition, God sets the boundaries of human existence, declaring that He will live with His creation, destined though His creatures are to disappoint Him and to do evil. This is the first covenant which, in the course of the exodus from Egypt, becomes a covenant between God and His people, Israel. Later, in the Sinai wilderness, God tells the Israelites: “You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But even though they are chosen, the Israelites remain children of Adam, in whose hearts good and evil are confused.

            Because they are chosen, God provides the Israelites with a path back towards the source. This path is the Law that God first gives to Moses at Sinai. In Eden, before the Fall, there was but one commandment. Now there are many. Lest their essential meaning be forgotten, God tells His prophet: “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put on the fringe of each corner a blue thread.” The fringe signifies the boundary they must observe to keep their human hearts in check: “You shall have it as a fringe so that when you look upon it you will remember to do all the commands of the Lord, and you will not follow the desires of your heart and your eyes which lead you astray.” Human beings are still the children of Adam and Eve -- creatures prone to evil through the desires of the heart.

            God’s covenant is two edged, like the sword which guards the gates of Eden, both blessing and curse:  


See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear,... you shall perish;... [I will] scatter you among the nations...the land of your enemies shall eat you up.[12] 

 

Exile is God’s curse for breaking His covenant, for choosing evil over good. But because God is bound by His own covenant not to destroy his creation, this exile is also the ground of hope. To those whose hearts are open to God and who keep His commandments, there is the promise of a return to the source.

            Throughout the early exiles of the Israelites, this hope of redemption is bound up with the coming of a messiah, one anointed by God, like David, to lead the return of God’s people to their home in Zion. But as the exile from the Land of Israel becomes more and more permanent, an apocalyptic strain develops in Jewish messianism, which no longer conceives the event as a restoration of the good of a previous time. Before, the vision of the messianic future was summarized by a saying in the Talmud --“The only difference between this eon and the Days of the Messiah is the subjection [of Israel] to the nations.” But now the prophets begin to speak, instead, of an “End of Days,” whose coming will be miraculous and sudden, in which God Himself will reign and establish His Law, and which will signal an end to historical time.

            Even this apocalyptic messianism, however, did not forget the meaning of history: In God and His covenant lie the sole hope of man’s redemption. Thus, the cornerstone of the prayer service of diaspora Jewry, the Amidah, is a paean to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which celebrates the covenant and its promise: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the Redeemer of Israel....Blow the Great Shofar for our freedom, and lift up a banner to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who gatherest the banished of Thy people Israel.”

            The humility of defeat, the suffering of exile teaches us who we are. It is no coincidence that the great formative periods of the Jewish religion -- the time of the Patriarchs, of the revelation at Sinai, of the compilation of the Talmud -- are all periods of Jewish exile. But there is a danger in exile too. Its sufferings can become so terrible that we forget the truth behind the covenant: We are children of Adam, destined by what we are to confuse good and evil; condemned by who we are to dwell far from the source in Eden. Forgetting who we are, we no longer struggle within the terms of the condition we have inherited to make ourselves better and more just; instead, we rebel against the condition of exile itself. In search of an entirely new kind of redemption, we turn to mystical knowledge and miraculous faiths, to false gods and self-anointed messiahs.

            After the destruction of the Second Temple, as hundreds of years of Israel’s persecution and exile grew to be thousands, Jews in the diaspora began to ask themselves unthinkable questions: How could God have chosen the Jews and then abandoned them? How could God’s chosen people deserve such punishment? How can God be God and yet such evil exist? These questions were really one question: How can our exile be explained?

            About the time of the Renaissance in Europe, a group of Jewish mystics, living in Palestine, formulated an answer. In so doing, they developed a view radically different from traditional views of the Jewish exile, and the messianic redemption as well. In the Kabbalistic teaching of Isaac Luria and his disciples, God Himself became part of the exile of His people, and God’s self-exile the explanation for how evil entered the world.[13]

            Before Eden, according to the Lurianic teaching, there was a primal act of creation. God withdrew into himself, creating the nothingness -- the non-God -- out of which the world was created. Thus in Lurianic gnosticism, there was no longer one divine creation, in which God’s children chose freely between what is right and what is wrong, but a creation dominated by warring forces of good and evil. The elements of this creation are the Sefirot or vessels of emanated light radiating the plenitude of the Divine influence. According to Luria, during the primal act of creation only the first three levels of Sefirot could adequately contain the primal Divine Light. When the radiation reached the six lower Sefirot, their capacity failed and they were shattered by the radiance. Sparks of the Divine Light were trapped in the fragments of these vessels, and some mounted aloft, while others descended and sank. Those that sank, the Klippot or husks were transformed into the forces of impurity and evil, whose strength derives from the sparks of Divine Light that are still trapped within them.

            This is the Lurianic Exile -- the light entrapped within the broken vessels and subjected to evil. No longer is it an exile merely of the children of Adam, but of God Himself; no longer are the Israelites alone in their exile: the Shekhina, the Divine Presence dwells in exile with them. For in the course of its creation, the universe itself has become flawed. Its flaw is a flaw in man and God, in creation itself. To heal the wound in creation requires a tikkun olam -- a repair of the world.

            This tikkun olam is the new Lurianic doctrine of redemption. The Shekhina must be reunited with God. The task of reunion is given to the people whom God has chosen. Redemption takes place through the holiness of the Chosen whose observances and prayers are performed with a mystical intensity that deprives evil of its power. By redeeming the Divine Light, they perfect not only the soul of the Jewish people but of the whole world. For when the sparks that are trapped in the broken vessels are liberated and returned to their source, the Exile of the Light comes to an end, and the human and cosmic redemption is achieved.

            What has happened in this Kabbalistic re-vision of the meaning of exile is the transformation of the religious teaching into a gnostic creed: Redemption is no longer a divine release from the punishment of exile, but a humanly inspired transformation of creation itself.[14] The concept of human exile has become divorced from the realities of history, the attempt to restore a covenant broken through humanity’s continuing capacity for evil. It has become instead a mystical Idea: the liberation of the divine light that will make the cosmos whole. In the gnostic view, the evil that men do emanates not from their own flawed natures, but is the result of a flaw in the cosmos they inhabit, which can be repaired. Man is his own redeemer.

            Thus the meaning of human exile is dramatically -- and demonically -- transformed. It is no longer a punishment, but a mission; no longer a reflection of who we are, but a mark of our destiny to become agents of salvation. In this gnostic vision, Israel is dispersed among the nations in order that the light of the whole world may be liberated. In the words of the Kabbalist Hayim Vital: “this is the secret why Israel is fated to be enslaved by all the Gentiles of the world: In order that it may uplift those sparks [of the Divine Light] which have also fallen among them... And therefore it was necessary that Israel should be scattered to the four winds in order to lift everything up.”[15] The Israelites are the first revolutionary internationalists.

            Gnostic messianism is a precise echo of the serpentine voice that seduced Eve and led Adam to his Fall: You shall be redeemers; you shall be as God.

            In the years following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the time of Columbus, and other cataclysms of the Jewish diaspora, the new doctrines of Isaac Luria spread rapidly. Then, in 1648, the year of the Chmielnicki massacres, a tormented mystic named Shabbtai Zvi appeared in Smyrna, claiming to be the true Messiah. For seventeen years, no one paid attention to his pathetic claims. An eccentric, manic-depressive, Zvi was given to blasphemies in his ecstatic states, pronouncing the forbidden name of God, violating Jewish law and holding a mystic marriage with the Torah under a wedding canopy. He often invoked the benediction “To Him who allows the forbidden.”

            For his heresies Shabbtai Zvi was expelled in turn from Smyrna, Salonika and Constantinople and would have been forgotten, except that, finally recognizing that he was sick, he decided to seek the help of a brilliant young Kabbalist in Jerusalem, hoping the scholar would be able to exorcise the demons that afflicted him. This Kabbalist was Nathan of Gaza.

            Nathan of Gaza was the prototype of the Jewish revolutionary gnostic whose tradition culminated in Karl Marx. Instead of attempting to cure Shabbtai Zvi, he reinterpreted his dementia and disobedience as signs that the messianic hour was indeed at hand -- the point at which human history passes beyond good and evil. In 1665, Nathan of Gaza proclaimed the madman Shabbtai Zvi to be the true Messiah, and devised a new doctrine to justify his choice.

            According to the new doctrine, during the process of creation, when some sparks of the divine light fell into the abyss following the breaking of the vessels, the soul of the Messiah, embedded in the original divine light, also fell. Since the beginning, the soul of the Messiah had dwelt in the depth of the great abyss, held in the prison of the Klippot, the realm of darkness. Drawing on the fact that the Hebrew word for serpent (Nahash), has the same numerical value, in Kabbalistic doctrine, as the word for Messiah (Mosiach), Nathan identified the Messiah as the “holy serpent” of this darkness. When the historical process of perfection was complete, the soul of the Messiah would leave its dark prison and reveal itself to the world. Only to the degree that the process of the tikkun of all the world, liberated the good from evil in the depth of the primal space, was the soul of the Messiah freed from its bondage.[16] Shabbtai Zvi’s violation of the laws far from disqualifying him as one anointed by God, were the sure signs that he was engaged in a messianic mission.

            There had been other messiah claimants before Shabbtai Zvi. But they had no prophet, like Nathan of Gaza, to anoint them, and no dialectical science, like the Lurianic doctrine to sanctify them. Shabbtai Zvi, who had been previously dismissed as a man deranged, now was endorsed by the rabbinate, becoming the repository of messianic hope for Jewish communities from Frankfurt to Jerusalem. No one now believed in Shabbtai Zvi more than he himself. He announced the very date of Redemption for June 18, 1666, proclaimed the imminent deposition of the Turkish Sultan and sailed for Constantinople. But when his ship reached Turkish waters in February 1666, the Messiah was arrested and put in chains. Brought before the Sultan and given the choice of death or conversion to Islam, the Jewish Messiah renounced his faith.

            After the apostasy, the betrayed communities of diaspora Jewry were overcome with confusion and despair, and the institutions of orthodoxy drew a veil of silence over what had transpired. But a hard-core of believers remained unshaken and undaunted, and the rump of the Shabbatian movement survived. Nathan of Gaza explained the apostasy of the Messiah in dialectical fashion as the beginning of a new mission to release the divine sparks scattered among the gentiles, to redeem the light entrapped in Islamic darkness: it was the Messiah’s task to take on the appearance of evil in order to purify others.

 

                                                            *          *          *

            In the gnostic messianism of Nathan of Gaza and Shabbtai Zvi, in the antinomian belief in redemption through sin, in the arrogant ambition to transform human nature and remake the world, and in the self-anointing presumption of a messianic party lies the true ancestry of the revolutionary Left.

            The gnostic vision of Exile -- the Light entrapped and subjected to Evil -- is precisely the Enlightenment vision of human oppression, which Marx and the socialists inherited, and developed: Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains. Men are naturally social beings and equal, but everywhere they are in conflict and unequal. Mankind is benevolent and angelic, but is everywhere alienated from its true self. No vision of human potential could be further from the realities of the sons and daughters of Adam: confused in their hearts between right and wrong, whose exile is the reflection of their disobedient wills.

            Just as religious gnosticism sees evil as a flaw in the cosmic creation, so secular gnosticism sees evil as a flaw in the social cosmos, as a force external to humanity itself. For the secular gnostics of the socialist Left, this flaw in the cosmos is private property. It is private property that creates alienation and inequality, irrationality and social conflict, and condemns humanity to perpetual exile from its own freedom. To set mankind on the path back to an earthly paradise, it is only necessary to abolish property. Thus redemption does not lie in the fulfillment of moral covenants and the adherence to law, but in the abolition and “transcendence” of both. Its path is not disclosed by a divine grace but by a human reason which is, in fact, not reason at all, but a mysticism of liberation. This mysticism is at the heart of every movement that seeks a revolutionary transformation of the world we know.

            In this revolutionary mysticism, the messianic liberator is imprisoned in capitalist darkness; it is a force without property, that is in society but not of it; a force that is revolutionary because its revolt is not against the particular injustices of man’s social existence, but the injustice of the existence itself. The messianic force is a class of people dispersed among the nations, but not of the nations, who in lifting the yoke of their own oppression will lift the yoke of all.

            This class is the proletariat, the Chosen People of the Marxist faith. The proletariat, as defined by Marx, is a class “which has a universal character by reason of the universality of its sufferings, and which does not lay claim to any specific rights because the injustice to which it is subjected is not particular but general....It cannot liberate itself without breaking free from all the other classes of society and thereby liberating them also... It stands for the total ruin of man, and can recover itself only by his total redemption.”[17]

            Here we see the mystical core of the Marxist faith, and of all the faiths of the revolutionary Left: a class representing the “total ruin of man” will bring about the “total redemption” of man. This is a logical absurdity. But, as gnostic heresy, it is theologically precise: light from darkness.

            The analytically specific “proletariat” has been replaced in the liberation theology of the contemporary Left by the generic “poor” and “third world oppressed,” by exploited races and downtrodden genders. But the formula has not changed. From total ruin, redemption; from oppression, liberation; from evil, good. From the fallen children of Adam and Eve, self-creating gods.

            Thus in his notorious preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the French radical Jean-Paul Sartre extols the path of revolutionary redemption which will restore humanity to its paradise lost: “this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man recreating himself....The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self.”

            You shall be as God.

            Here we see the sinister, seductive spell of the gnostic illusion, and its tikkun olam: You, Nathan of Gaza, shall no longer be a youthful divinity student, but a prophet, a “holy lamp” unto the nations; and you, Shabbtai Zvi, shall no longer be a misfit and outcast, but a Messiah. The gnostic doctrines of Nathan of Gaza and Karl Marx are doctrines of self-loathing and self-exaltation, the enthronement of man in general and of mankind’s self-anointed redeemers in particular. To eat from the tree of radical theory will make you gods. This is the socialist delusion, the intoxicating fantasy that makes the socially alienated into political saviors: not the compassion of angels, but the arrogance of the Serpent -- the belief that revolutionary ideas can confer the power of self-creation, the power of gods.

            And this is what makes radicals so dangerous and destructive. Since (for the revolutionary) the End of Days is at hand, the rejection of the law -- of the old prohibitions -- is the sign of election. The benediction of all revolutionaries is “To Him Who Allows the Forbidden.” Redemption through sin. Thus Sartre: “When the peasant takes a gun in his hands, the old myths grow dim and the prohibitions are one by one forgotten.  The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity....to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remain a dead man, and a free man...” Out of darkness, light.

            Here we see the murderous, dehumanizing, passion of the Left in all its gnostic splendor. Here is the voice of Pol Pot ordering the extermination of educated Cambodians in order that Cambodia might be free of oppressive culture. Here is the voice of Winnie Mandela praising the necklacing of black South Africans burned alive in order that South Africa might be liberated. Here is the voice of Marx proclaiming the emancipation of the Jews through the emancipation of mankind from Judaism itself.

            As Deutscher wrote, Marx was indeed the prototype of the radical “non-Jewish Jew,” much as my parents and I were, as we marched down Eighth Avenue in that May Day parade when I was nine. We were Jews who had turned our backs on Judaism, but who belonged to no other real community or place. We were in America, but not of it. We had embraced a cause that set us against it. We had puffed ourselves up into thinking we were saviors of humanity, but we did not really identify ourselves with any particular part of the humanity we intended to save. If we had the courage to be truthful, in fact, we would have admitted that, in our own eyes -- like Shabbtai Zvi -- we were really nothing at all. We had taken up a messianic cause in behalf of all humanity, especially black and poor humanity, and the third world’s oppressed. But we had no cause that was our own. Those we championed hated us as Jews, as middle class people who had made a modest success, and as Americans too.

            The international socialist creed that Marx invented is a creed of hate and self-hate. The solution that Marxism proposes to the Jewish “problem” is to eliminate the system that “creates” the Jew. Jews are only symptoms of a more extensive evil that must be eradicated: capitalism. Jews are only symbols of a more pervasive enemy that must be destroyed: capitalists. In the politics of the Left, racist hatred is directed not only against Jewish capitalists but against all capitalists; not only against capitalists, but against anyone who is not poor, and who is white; and ultimately against western civilization itself. The socialist revolution is anti-Semitism elevated to a global principle.[18] From darkness, light.

            A former radical, a heretic and stranger -- what I have learned through my own exile is this: respect for the boundaries between the profane and the holy, between man and God; distrust of the false prophets of a tikkun olam. Marxism and liberation theology are satanic creeds. There can be no return from our exile by any path other than the moral law; no redemption that takes us beyond the boundaries of who and what we are.



[1] Isaac Deutscher, The Non-Jewish Jew, Oxford 1968 p. 25

[2] Karl Marx “On the Jewish Question.” On the relation between Marx's Jewishness and his Marxism, see John Murray Cuddihy, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity, New York 1974; Julius Carlebach, Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism, Boston 1978; Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, New York 1987

[3] On the revolutionary roots of modern German Anti-semitism and Nazism, cf. Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany: From Kant to Wagner, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1990. On the socialist roots of fascism, see Ze’ev Sternhell, The Birth of Fascist Ideology, Princeton 1994

[4] Cited in Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man, New York 1988. p.3

[5] Cf. Jan Valtin (pen-name of Richard Herman Krebs), Out of the Night, NY 1941 Krebs was a Comintern official: “Those who objected were threatened with expulsion from the Party. Discipline forbade the rank and file to discuss the issue. From then on, in spite of the steadily increasing fierceness of their guerrilla warfare, the Communist Party and the Hitler movement joined forces to slash the throat of an already tottering democracy.”

 

[6] Quoted in Robert S. Wistrich, Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky, NY 1976

[7] Louis Rappaport, Stalin’s War Against the Jews, NY 1990.

[8] Wistrich, op. cit.

[9]   A radical magazine of the contemporary Left is even named Tikkun.

[10] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism, Chicago 1968; Irving Kristol, Reflections of A Neo-Conservative. On Marxism’s roots in Christian mysticism, see Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Volume I The Founders, Oxford 1978.

[11] Cf. Cuddihy, op. cit.

[12] Deuteronomy 30, 28; Leviticus 26:38.

[13] H.H. Ben-Sasson, Ed. A History of the Jewish People, Cambridge, Mass. 1976, pp. 695ff; Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, New York 1961

[14] Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, New York 1971, p.87

[15] Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, op. cit., p. 284

[16] Scholem, op. cit., p. 297

[17] Marx, Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Cf. Kolakowski, op. cit. pp. 127ff

[18] Cf. Paul Johnson, op. cit. pp. 352-3