So, what is going on? How can people who are sincerely open-hearted, who sincerely do their spiritual practice, and who in almost any other social context could be counted on for ardent progressive views, take such oddly militaristic positions?
Part of the answer is surely emotional, rather than rational. First, this is a traumatized community, shell-shocked by terrorist attacks, and wounded by the failure of the Oslo process. Second, those with friends or relatives in the territories -- probably a majority of the hippie-Right/Carlebach crowd -- also experience first-hand the beauty of the government-subsidized settler lifestyle, and the pain of its partial destruction. Whereas very few of them know anything about daily life in Arab Palestine. One spiritual teacher sent a glowing report, pre-disengagement, of how lovely and open the Gush Katif community actually is, and how the media has it all wrong -- seemingly oblivious to the fact that the community only exists because of the tanks parked outside, and to the fact that its sprawling suburban houses were a government-contrived injustice next to the packed slums of Khan Yunis. So there is trauma, pain, the love of the settler lifestyle, and obliviousness to the suffering of others. And of course, the "others" are demonic. Most Israelis, certainly most religious Israelis, do not go to peace gatherings where rabbis do zikr with Sufi sheikhs; they drive through dirty Arab towns and get hustled by Arab merchants or laborers. They don't know Palestinian poets; they encounter thieves and terrorists.
Another part of the answer is that Judaism obviously lends itself to right-wing positions. In the contemplative world these days, you see many statements like "Judaism is a set of mindfulness practices" or "the point of religion is to connect us to God." These are all very nice things to say, and they do apply to religion as practiced by some. However, they certainly do not describe religion as practiced by all. For some people, Judaism is a set of ethical practices designed to make us less cruel to one another. For others, it is a set of required behaviors, mandated by an all-powerful God, whom we obey regardless of whether the behaviors make us feel good, or "spiritual." (For many others, of course, Judaism is not a religion at all but a nationality and culture; however, I am concerned here only with those who practice Judaism as a religion.) There are dozens of possible "points" to Jewish religious practice, and it is both specious and arrogant to claim that one or another is the main one. Moreover, all of us can look to proof-texts in the Bible or the Talmud to support our positions, from the rationalist-covenantalists to the magical-Kabbalists to the secular-humanists and the anarchists. But the fact is that no text is both unambiguous and determinative as to what the point of it all is. Hillel's Golden Rule? The first of the ten commandments? The Shema? These yield different "points." And what about the general thrust of the Torah's legislation -- is it to create a just society based on law? What about the Priestly Codes and rules regarding sacrifices and temple architecture? Maybe it's about "peoplehood" -- maybe it's just about tribe.
This multiplicity of "points" may be one of Judaism's great strengths, particularly as compared with religions of creed. It has long been observed that Judaism is less about beliefs than about practices -- it's not what you think, but what you do, that counts. And so, I can stand next to an ardent and (in)famous Kach supporter in shul, and pray together with him -- as I did recently -- even though I think we probably disagree on every point of what holiness, morality, Israel, and God are about. To be sure, there are plenty of disagreements on practice, but they're still less contentious than arguments over ideas.
However, the multiplicity of points does mean that everyone can find a text to support their position -- including ethnic cleansing, not trusting non-Jews, not trusting Ishmaelites in particular, and ardent right-wing nationalism. Personally, I see the practices of Judaism as engendering and then expressing a certain form of God-consciousness. But I also see, as Maimonides did, that Jewish law functions on a number of levels, in a way that seems to be intentional. The same practices work with different theologies, and different purposes.
But I want to go a few steps further, because it's not just those who think Judaism is about the Holy Land who have espoused far-Right views lately -- it's the contemplatives too. Even for those who agree with me that Judaism is a path of spiritual enrichment -- even these people -- can end up with extreme Right-wing political views. The ones who are meditating; the ones who think this is about spiritual practice; the ones who are striving to be in the Divine Presence -- these are precisely the ones who are the among most ardent pro-settler, anti-peace-process Jews in Israel.
I do not want to say "well, they've got God wrong." I don't think that's true, and of course it's arrogant to say so. Rather, I want to give the Carlebach Right full credit. I want to say that, in their davening, they really are reaching an exalted spiritual place. Not delusion, as the secular Left would say -- but really, a place of spirituality and holiness. I want to agree with them that they are doing this Jewish work to reach a state of closeness to the Divine, and that it is working. Some may be mere freaks or weirdos -- but some are authentic mystics, with serious contemplative practice and far more knowledge than I have of the Jewish mystical tradition. What is happening is real. These people are pulling a trigger, and experiencing the Divine. But then they fetishize the trigger.
Happy Jew Year
The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania
Joyce Ellen Weinstein
Fetishizing the Trigger
The Goats of War
Our 760 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall 2005 issue out this month