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Judaism's Apocalyptic Horsemen

Understanding the Mind Set of the Radical Orthodox

By Tzvee Zahavy PhD

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, 1984.]

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 group.

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 Judaism.

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 pressure.

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 and roles.

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 apocalypse.

Tzvee Zahavy was ordained at Yeshiva University and received a PhD in religious studies at Brown University.

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