Jewish Journal

Books: Risky accommodation explored in ‘Jews and Power’

by Dr. Robert Wexler

Posted on Sep. 27, 2007 at 8:00 pm

"Jews and Power," by Ruth Wisse (Schocken, $19.95)

"Jews and Power," by Ruth Wisse (Schocken, $19.95)

According to the Hebrew Bible, there are any number of crimes for which death is considered the appropriate penalty. Murder another person, and your own life is forfeit. Violate the Sabbath, and you will be stoned. Indulge in incest or adultery, and it is all over. Worship idols, and you have committed a capital crime. And the list goes on.

These punishments were not just theoretical. Numbers 15:32 records the story of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. At first, Moses is unsure how to punish him, but after consulting with God, Moses orders him to be stoned.

Yet when we examine the manner in which rabbinic literature interpreted these biblical laws, we find a definite pacifistic streak. In Tractate Makkot (7a) the Talmud says, The Sanhedrin (Jewish high court) who executes a person once in seven years, is considered pernicious. Rabbi Elazar, the son of Azariah, said: "Even one who does so once in 70 years is considered pernicious." Both Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: "If we were among the Sanhedrin, a death sentence would never occur."

Which approach is authentically Jewish? Actually, both are. The apparent difference in attitude toward the death penalty may well reflect the sharp contrast between the political reality of Jewish life in the biblical period and that of the talmudic era. The argument goes something like this: During the biblical period, Jews enjoyed a large measure of political power and self-governance. They bore the primary responsibility for the maintenance of a civil society, and they met this responsibility by imposing stiff penalties on those who violated important social norms. Simply put, self-rule requires the judicious and consistent application of power.

The rabbis whose opinions are recorded in the Talmud, experienced a very different relationship to power. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva all lived in the Judean homeland, but under oppressive Roman rule. Jewish tradition records that the same Rabbi Akiva, who expressed leniency with respect to the death penalty, was himself subject to it at the hands of the Roman authorities. Perhaps their own vulnerability inclined these rabbinic sages to opt for middat ha-rachamim (the quality of mercy) over middat ha-din (the quality of justice.)

In her recently published extended essay "Jews and Power," Harvard professor Ruth Wisse provides a brief overview of the complicated historical relationship between Jews and political power. Well known for her right-of-center views with respect to modern Israel, Wisse expresses a deep concern about the politics of accommodation, a strategy she believes threatens the viability of the Jewish state.

According to Wisse, Jews should have already learned their lesson. Reflecting on the Jewish mindset in pre-Holocaust Europe, she notes that, "By no fair standard can European Jews be blamed for having failed to anticipate German intentions. The same cannot be said, however, for those who come after the genocidal war against the Jews."

She reminds us that scholars like the 19th century historian, Heinrich Graetz, routinely considered Jews in the Diaspora to be non-political. In their view, the Jews lost their aptitude for politics when they ceased to rule themselves. Wisse, however, argues that the Diaspora did not render the Jews non-political, but rather forced them to adapt their political strategies. Jewish political power was expressed through the art of accommodation rather than through the exercise of physical force. The ultimate redemption of the Jewish people and their return to the promised land would not come through Jewish military might but rather through divine intervention at the appropriate time. Waiting for the messiah became the religious modus vivendi, while minority group diplomacy became the interim survival strategy.

At times, Wisse tends to overgeneralize the Jewish inclination toward political adaptation. Her efforts to draw parallels between the actions of Mordecai and Esther in the Purim narrative and the behavior of Jews in 15th century Poland, while homiletically pleasing, do not really have a place in an historical analysis of Jews and power. Sweeping comparisons across time and place are intellectually risky, and Wisse overstates her case as she moves us through several centuries and several settings of Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Almost half of "Jews and Power" is devoted to a defense of political Zionism and the existence of a Jewish state. Such statements are always welcome and valuable. But given the analytic task that Wisse sets for herself, the extent of this particular defense goes beyond the needs of a book on Jewish political life.

Clearly this volume was written with the intention of applying the lessons (and dangers) of traditional Jewish political accommodation to modern Israel. A Jewish strategy that overemphasizes survival can backfire: "This pride in sheer survival demonstrates how the toleration of political weakness could cross the moral line into veneration of political weakness. Jews who endured exile as a temporary measure were in danger of mistaking it for a requirement of Jewish life or, worse, for a Jewish ideal."

For Wisse, the Oslo accords were an example of how the unrestrained politics of accommodation resulted in a "capitulation" and a "foreseeable and avoidable" political miscalculation. Given the experience of the past 14 years, it is difficult to argue with her conclusion.

With the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, Zionists visionaries believed that world Jewry could become "normalized." Jews would once again be a people with a homeland, and the State of Israel would be just another member of the world community. Assuming that Jewish rootlessness was a key ingredient in Jew hatred, a national homeland for Jews should, they reasoned, cause anti-Semitism to disappear.

The 60 years of modern Israel demonstrate that normalization still eludes the Jewish people, and Wisse knows why: "Unable to see themselves through the eyes of their enemies, they [the Jews] could not fathom that their utility as a political target rather than their actions defined their role in the politics of their opponents. The animus against them was not directed to any correctable attribute or rectifiable lapses."

Faced with this reality, the politics of accommodation are no match for the politics of annihilation.

Ruth Wisse will speak at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, 2008.

Dr. Robert Wexler is president of the American Jewish University (formerly University of Judaism) in Los Angeles.

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