Judaism's Apocalyptic Horsemen
Understanding the Mind Set of the Radical
By Tzvee Zahavy
According to the New York Times (January 29, 1997), a Hebron Jewish
settler "said she was coping with the loss [of Jewish control of Hebron]
by trusting that this was all part of a divine plan, a prelude to an
apocalyptic war and messianic redemption."
The road to tragic events to often is paved with apocalyptic
pronouncements as historic events in the middle East demonstrate. But
what is this "apocalyptic"?
To make any sense of what is going on in the world today, we must
understand the apocalyptic mentality of the settlers and some other
mainly Orthodox Jews.
First, we need to accept that religion is a major cultural mechanism
for advancing or deterring a radical agenda. Second, we must realize
that the radical mentality takes many forms. The apocalyptic mind set is
one of the most explosive and intimidating. Let's look at examples drawn
from the history of religions (Judaism in particular), the areas in
which I have some academic expertise.
The term apocalyptic describes ancient movements and a
literary genre. Parts of the book of Isaiah, of Daniel, and some
pseudepigraphic works are central to the formation of this category.
Professor Paul Hanson of Harvard has elaborated a broad social theory of
apocalyptic emphasizing the value and function of its common accounts of
visions and symbols for powerless groups on the margins of Israelite
culture.[Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Phila., 1975.
Also see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, New York,
In Ancient Judaism
Apocalypticism itself since antiquity has taken numerous forms. The
apocalyptic proponents of the book of Daniel appear to be mainly a
passive group outside the corridors of power in Hellenistic Israel,
awaiting the inevitable downfall of the evil empire they despise.
Jacob Neusner, writing as an historian of religions, singles out
three major groups representing competing trends in first century
formative Judaism: priests, scribes, and zealots. The activist
apocalyptic holy men of the zealot group, sometimes seen as messiahs by
their followers, acted out their visions of leadership on the
battlefield yielding the Israelite "prophetic and apocalyptic hope for
meaning in history and the eschaton mediated by the messiahs and
generals."[Jacob Neusner, "Judaism and Christianity: Two Faiths Talking
About Different Things," in The World and I, November, 1987, p.
684. Also see his Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Boston, 1987, ch. 3.]
Professor Alan Segal of Columbia University in a recent book
emphasizes commonalities between ancient and modern apocalypticism.
He says, "Both movements characterize time as a linear process which
leads to the future destruction of the evil world order... As opposed to
holding an optimistic view of progress, which moves to the final goal by
slow approximations, apocalypticists are totally impatient with the
corrupt present, seeing it as a series of unprecedented calamities.[Alan
Segal, Rebecca's Children, Cambridge, Mass., 1987, p. 70.]"
Apocalypticism is also evident in groups holding the reigns of power
but watching the inevitable process of its dissolution. This may be one
of the dominant stimuli to triggering the apocalyptic mode of expression
and imagination, and a facet of the situation in Orthodoxy today. In the
contemporary world we find another particularly apt example of such a
In South Africa
In reporting the apocalyptic characteristics of white South Africans,
Vincent Crapanzano summarizes the features of their framework of
understanding the world. The adherents of an apocalyptic system often
base their world view on the three components: watching, waiting, and
worrying. In their conceptions the present day stands secondary to the
future and the past. "The world of immediacy slips away; it is
derealized. It is without elan, vitality, creative force. It is numb,
muted, dead."[Vincent Crapanzano, Waiting: The Whites of South
Africa, New York, 1985, p. 44.] Crapanzano explains that in this
mode of understanding, meaning is always expressed in future terms.
Something in the future is yet to come, but cannot be sought. This state
of mind produces great anxiety, "feelings of powerlessness, helplessness
and vulnerability." To escape the suspense, the apocalyptic tells
stories and seeks a "swirl of everyday activity." This manifests itself
in the form of prayer, pilgrimages, offerings, "personal taboos, and
idiosyncratic rituals."[Ibid., p. 45.]
Commonly, the apocalyptic mentality sees omens in everyday events.
Their waiting takes on the function of expiation. The one who waits
believes he can do little to change the courses of history. This can
lead to the paralysis of dread, uncertainty, existential angst. We can
translate this fear into longing, but the ambivalence of oscillating
between anxiety and optimism, leaves opening for fulfillment, and more
likely, for terror. For the commoner, waiting provides a framework of
interpretation and a means of separation. The apocalyptic white in South
Africa lives within a complex mass of potential enemies. He believes his
world is disintegrating. And he waits.
The Last Decade In Orthodoxy
Orthodox Judaism's right-wing spokesmen of late have grown ever more
vocal and militant. Many recent protests, proclamations, and actions of
Orthodox Jews have puzzled and troubled the outsider. A certain
transformation has overtaken one major segment of the Jewish community.
Orthodoxy increasingly looks like an oppressively apocalyptic style of
This form of Judaism has coherent world views and particular ways of
life that may be categorized more and more as an apocalyptic Orthodoxy
of conflict. This categorization helps to define the "reversionary"
"ultra" or "right-wing" Orthodox in substantive terms. It also serves to
explain what generative conception distinguishes one group claiming to
be Orthodox observers of Torah and mitzvos, true to the ideals of
halakhah, and loyal to their rabbinic figures of authority, from another
group claiming the same traits, but appearing to form its social life
and defend its ultimate goals in recognizably different manners.
The apocalyptic Orthodox Jew also waits as his role as sole scribe,
circumciser, kashrut supervisor, and educator to the Jewish world slips
away and as he sees it, as Western society crumbles. Through his
survivalist sub-motif he proclaims in triumphalist theological prophecy
that the moral disintegration in Western culture will be accompanied by
the assimilation and disappearance of all modern Jews from the face of
the earth. The Orthodox will be the last Jews on earth, if not the sole
survivors of a totally decadent and corrupt world that is heading
straight for damnation. Only immersion in the Torah-True life of mitzvos
(commandments) and avoidance of the onrushing waves of secularism can
stem the tide of assimilation. Some such apocalyptic ideological
component of the reversionary or right-wing world view is integral to
its definition as a system.
Social action out of such an apocalyptic context expresses itself in
engagement in conflict. The elite within this apocalyptic group assume a
role akin to that of the warrior in a tribal society.[Some say the term
"tribalism" describes the frequent internecine strife between separate
social groups, common in many forms of right-wing Orthodoxy.] In a
confrontation of foreboding dimensions between the saving remnant and
the crumbling world, the designated combatant is permitted to engage in
many forms of attack in his sacred battle for the survival of his
people, and hence of mankind. Combat with the competing or neighboring
clans is sanctioned and even desired.
In right-wing Orthodoxy the attitude of triumphalism often is acted
out in aggressive assaults on the nearest competition, the modern
Orthodox and the Conservative Jews. The primary means of aggression and
attack of apocalyptic Orthodoxy normally takes the form of character
assassination rather than physical violence, and commonly is directed
against weak and select targets. It rarely expresses itself as
indiscriminate aggression against all Jews or all Gentiles outside the
immediate world of the circle.[Bernard Lewis wrote a book called The
Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, Oxford, 1987, dealing with the
"first group to make planned, systematic use of murder as a political
weapon." Defamation of character is another mode of assassination.]
The modern Orthodox remain the favorite targets of apocalyptic
Orthodoxy. Chaim Dov Keller provides an apt illustration of this
posture, "Years ago, my sainted Rebbe, Reb Elya Meir Bloch zt"l, Telshe
Rosh Yeshiva, made a remark which I vividly remember since the occasion
was my own wedding: `We no longer have to fear Conservatism--that is no
longer the danger. Everyone knows that it is avoda zara [idolatry]. What
we have to fear is Modern Orthodoxy.'"["Modern Orthodoxy: An Analysis
and a Response," in Reuven P. Bulka, ed., Dimensions of Orthodox
Judaism, New York, 1983, p. 253 reprinted from the Jewish Observer
6, no. 8, June, 1970, pp. 3-14.] In a recent instance a writer in the
Jewish Press called Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, son-in-law of HaRav
Joseph Soloveitchik, scion of Orthodoxy, "evil" for allegedly making
overtures to conservative and reform Jews. Lichtenstein, who has a Ph.D.
in English from Harvard, is a favored target of the apocalyptic
Orthodox, for he represents the liminal Orthodox scholar and Talmudist
who has obtained a higher education.
In May, 1987, Orthodox rabbis in Israel inspired by Rabbi Eliezer
Shach, head of the Agudat Yisrael Council of Sages and mentor of the
Shas party, forbade under threat of excommunication, study in a Kollel
program run by a former American rabbi, a graduate of Yeshiva
University, in which a woman [the venerated Orthodox biblical scholar,
Nechama Leibowitz] taught. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled that the woman
could continue to teach from behind a screen. Nevertheless, many
students left the program as a result of the encounter with Orthodox
The conflict-prone Orthodox, as noted, apparently make a point of
targeting for attack some of the most vulnerable targets, such as women,
minors and the dead. In November, 1987, Orthodox extremists in Mea
Shearim pasted posters to the walls of their quarter of the city to
publicly express their joy over the death from cancer of Yigal Shiloah,
50 years old, November 14. They had long before accused him of having
violated Jewish law by digging near the old city of Jerusalem, thus
disturbing ancient graves.
Rabbi Steven Riskin reported a decade ago that he overheard the
following exchange on a bus in Jerusalem between a right-wing Orthodox
man and a secular woman. "Please close the window, the draft is
bothering me," said a modern looking Israeli woman. "Please lengthen
your sleeves, your arms are bothering me," replied the Haredi man
sitting next to her.[S. Riskin, "Religious and Secular Conflict in
Israel," in Hamevaser, the student newspaper of Yeshiva
University, October, 1987, p. 2.] Note in another more serious incident
on Simhat Torah in Jerusalem, 1986, a passing band of Orthodox men
attacked a reform synagogue where they saw women dancing with the Torah.
They acted properly and with justification, as they conceived of it, to
restore the Torah and Jewish women to their cosmically destined places
What a pity that this trend continues. Orthodox Jews are the most
literate in traditional learning and the closest to the historic
practices of Judaism. But in the apocalyptic mode, developing with
increased intensity over the past decade, menacing aggressive practices
dominate Orthodox ideology and customs and a foreboding, ominous and
somber world view overshadows as the organizing force of the system.
We must understand the mind of the radical. We must analyze and
expose that worldview -- lest the apocalyptic among us trigger the
Tzvee Zahavy was
ordained at Yeshiva University and received a PhD in religious studies
at Brown University.
Page Design by Yori
Hosted by Zahavy