As the protests against the Israeli government’s judicial reforms continue and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubles down, I must confess to a feeling of mild despair: This thing is not going to be solved anytime soon. Both sides are dug in and impossible to dislodge. It will go on and it will get uglier. Everyone, the best and the worst, is filled with Yeats’s passionate intensity.
Regrettably, from a historical perspective, this is hardly unknown among the Jewish people. It is, in fact, something of a constant. It goes all the way back to the Exodus, during which hatred of Moses was rife among many of the Israelites and they often turned back to idolatry at inopportune moments. From the beginning, it seems, the “stiff-necked people” were causing trouble for the prophets.
The prophets themselves were also hardly slouches in the stiff-necked department. They went about the land denouncing the remnants of idolatry, destroying totems and calling down divine wrath on those who continued to pay homage to Moloch or worship the Ashtaroth.
In the Second Temple period, the religious and ideological ferment in Judea was unbearable and unsustainable, with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots arranged against each other, all convinced the others were at best misguided and at worst traitors. At the extreme, the Sicarii roamed the cities and countryside, murdering anyone they viewed as a collaborator with Rome.
All of this “baseless hatred,” as the Sages called it, culminated in a horrendous unwinnable war with Rome that ended with the Zealots burning the storehouses of Jerusalem and Titus the Wicked breaching the walls and destroying the Temple.
This was not the end of the ferocity. A few decades later, in a fit of messianic intensity, the Jews hurled themselves at Rome again under Shimon Bar-Cochba, resulting in the devastation and depopulation of Judea. It would be 2,000 years before there was again a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel.
These are merely the ancient examples. In the ensuing centuries, the Jews disputed endlessly, albeit in a less physically violent manner, with results as large as the Karaite schism and as small as the herem placed on Baruch Spinoza. Patriarchs and heresiarchs abounded.
It should be noted, however, that this phenomenon is hardly confined to Judaism. Christianity was even more ferocious in its zealotry, offering up its happy martyrs, brutally suppressing Greco-Roman paganism, smashing heresies left and right, slaughtering schismatics like the Cathars, burning witches wherever they found them and, of course, ruthlessly persecuting the Jews.
Islam initially spread by the sword, conquering vast territories it ruled according to religious law. Like Christianity, it tolerated other faiths when it chose to, but sometimes chose not to, and its own schismatics were often either eliminated or persecuted into retreat to the mountains. Today, its fanatics commit atrocities that shock the world, and will likely continue to do so for some time.
Given all this, one feels bound to ask whether there is some underlying force at work, and whether it can tell us something about Israel’s current impasse.
In his seminal book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer wrote, “J. B. S. Haldane counts fanaticism among the only four really important inventions made between 3000 B.C. and 1400 A.D.” Moreover, Hoffer notes, “It was a Judaic-Christian invention.”
It is difficult not to conclude that there is something in this. There seems to be a certain quality of passionate intensity for the One in the Abrahamic religions: One true faith, one true God, one true way of knowing and worshipping him. Those who do not accept this, therefore, are not simply wrong. They are in denial of the reality of earth and heaven, and at times, collaborators with evil.
This may be, regrettably, a flaw in monotheism itself. The first religious zealot we know of is probably the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton, who sought to impose a monotheistic faith on ancient Egypt, first by relatively benign means, but then through increasingly violent tactics that resulted in a campaign of iconoclasm. The smashing of the old gods could not survive his death, and all trace of him was wiped away for centuries, but the example stands.
Many atheists see this fanatical side to monotheism as the essence of monotheism itself. They lionize the relatively tolerant polytheistic societies that monotheism replaced—though they were not nearly as tolerant as some like to think—and denounce what they see as the inherently oppressive and bigoted monotheistic societies that succeeded them.
Such a view is, of course, convenient for the atheist, but it is not true—or at least not entirely accurate. As Hoffer says of fanaticism: “It is strange to think that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection.”
There can be little doubt that this is true of the Jewish people. If Moses had not hewn true to his relationship with the one God and defeated his enemies, we would never have existed. If the prophets had not smashed the idols, Jewish civilization would never have emerged. If the Sages had not been fanatically devoted to the emerging rabbinic tradition, Judaism could never have survived the Temple’s destruction.
And in the modern age, without the passionate intensity of Zionism, the devastation of the Bar-Cochba revolt could never have been, at long last, overcome and a Jewish state reconstituted in the homeland.
Nor can the great accomplishments of Christianity and Islam be ignored. Out of their ferocious belief in the One, they created great civilizations—extraordinary art, literature, theology, mystical traditions and monuments of human philosophy.
Abraham’s sword, it seems, is double-edged. At the moment, Israel is suffering for this, but it also could not exist without it. It may be that fanaticism and the resulting divisions and baseless hatreds are the price we pay for the Jewish people’s extraordinary powers of resurrection.