Sunday 28 June 2009

Anarchist tendencies in Judaism

- by Furio Bagnini, edited by Bas Moreel -

"God's people, the people that received the revelation
before Christ came on earth, that is most universally
spread on the surface of the earth, has always seen
that the Christian teachings of the Church fathers
were incomplete, has always proclaimed that a great
age would come called "kingdom of the Messiah" with
the religious teachings presented as fully as
possible, with the spiritual and worldly powers in
balance and the human race united in one single
religion and one single organisation... The golden age
of the human race is not behind us but before us. It
is to be sought in the perfection of the social order.
Our fathers haven't seen it but our sons will see it
one day. For them we ought to level the road" (Henri
de Saint-Simon, Le nouveau christianisme). As a
socialist free from antisemitic sentiments Saint-Simon
was probably one of the first to formulate the hypothesis that
socialism affirms values claimed as its own by the
best Jewish tradition.

The modern revolutionary utopias, especially those of
the libertarian and anti-authoritarian kind, with
their belief in a forthcoming liberating revolution,
originate from two different psychological attitudes.
One is the critical examination of the essence of
human life and of the substance of society; the other
is the longing for a more genuine social life, for a
human society based on love, mutual understanding and
mutual aid. The former attitude springs from Western
thinking, the latter from Judaism. The prophets were
the first to transform this longing into a "political"
message of equality and justice, the Hassidic Jews
were the last collectivity trying to live this message
as something absolute. At certain times expressed
openly, at other times concealed / hidden the longing
has never disappeared. When the Jews left the ghettoes
and joined the world society the two attitudes merged
into the teachings and the apostolate of modern

Martin Buber, the famous Jewish philosopher who was
inspired by a strong "religious anarchism", defined
Judaism as a synthesis of three basic concepts: the
idea of unity, the idea of action and the idea of a
future. The idea of unity takes shape in the idea of
transcendental unity. God, creator of the world, is
one and unique, and he alone must be loved as essence
of all ethical perfection. The knowledge of God
teaches us what man should be, the divine tells us
what the human is. The basic teachings of Judaism as a
whole are summarised in the prohibition of idolatry,
which the prophets saw as the origin of all evil. As
God is one, so, the morals as laid down in the Torah,
the civil and social law of the people of Israel, must
be one. Equality and justice are the basis of the law
derived from Leviticus [one of the five books of which
consists the Torah]. Equality involves recognition of
the basic rights of man (the right to live, to own, to
work, of asylum, of rest and of freedom), whereas
justice ought to translate itself into the acceptance
of the obligations towards the weakest and the

The second idea is the idea of action. In its essence
Judaism doesn't demand theological adhesion but
practical compliance with the law, from the oldest times onwards action was the core of Jewish religiosity. In all the books of the Torah
there is very little talk of belief and much more of
action. Every action, even the most insignificant one,
is somehow linked to the divine and gets universal
significance and importance. Every joint action
becomes exemplary, as says a Chassidic saying: "When I
went to see the rabbi that was not to hear his
teachings but to see how he unlaces and laces his felt
shoes". The right praxis is important, important
is to live in accordance with the Torah, to behave in
accordance with the Torah in daily life. Action in the
shape of work and study ought to aim at a
transformation of reality towards a more just future.
Max Weber showed already that this aspect of Judaism
has a revolutionary potential when he tried to find an
answer to the question why so many Jews adhered to
revolutionary movements. According to the Torah the
world is neither eternal nor unchangeable but created,
and its orders are the product of actions of humans;
it is a historical realisation aimed at making room
again for a situation really wanted by God. As Weber
observed, the whole attitude of Judaism in respect of
life is marked by the idea "of a future political and
social revolution guided by God".

The third basic idea of Judaism is the idea of future.
Jews should keep the future in mind. In this respect a
traditional Jewish comment on the passage in Genesis
(21.9 seq.) in which Sarah, Abrahams wife, chases
Ishmael from the house of his father together with his
mother Haggar [a maid of Abraham with whom he had got
Ishmael]. The teachers have wondered how Sarah could
behave so cruelly towards Hagar and her son. One of
the answers has been that Ishmael "was playing", as
the word metzacheq is generally translated, with an
explicit sexual connotation. In reality, the word
metzacheq has the root tzadi chet kof, which means ‚to
laugh' and is also in the name Yitzchaq. One of the
possible interpretations then is that Ishmael wasn't
playing but "laughed very loudly"; morphologically the
word metzacheq is an intensive form of the verb,
whereas Yitzchaq, on the other hand, is rather the one
who "will laugh". Sarah shows her prophetic power
here, as she understands before Abraham that somebody
who is able to laugh loudly in a world so full of
injustice and grief doesn't deserve to be
his heir. But somebody who acts on something and in
such a way that he can laugh one day in a more just
world deserves to be his heir.

This orientation towards the future is connected with
the hope of redemption in the messianic times. From
the times of the Torah till the times of the chassidic
fervours the messiah and the future in which the
perfect life in truth and the unity of the world would
have become reality, with the separation between good
and evil abolished by the definitive annihilation of
sin, were the final existential aspiration of the
Jewish people. In Jewish as opposed to Christian
thinking, the messiah will not bring an apocalypse or
a horrible end of the world but the full realisation
of man, also as a social being. The coming of the
messiah will not take place in the other world but is
being prepared in history. In the Jewish, as opposed
to the Christian, thinking about the messiah, the
redemption, writes Gershom Scholem, will be kind of "a
public historical event in the Jewish community, a
visible event unthinkable without this exterior
manifestation. Christianity sees the redemption as a
spiritual, invisible event that takes place in the
soul, in the personal world of the individual human
being requiring an interior transformation not
necessarily accompanied by changes in the course of
history... What Judaism has irrevocably placed at the
end of history, as the event in which culminate the
exterior events has become the centre of history in

Man is the main agent of redemption, his actions alone
which will speed up the coming of the messiah: "If all
Israel respected the sabbath if only one single day,
the Messiah would come immediately, for it is written:
"To-day if you were to listen to his voice"". The
mentioning of the sabbath, the day devoted to rest, is
not accidental. As say the teachers, the sabbath is
"an example of the future world", an anticipation of
the messianic times when man will no longer be another
man's slave and be freed from daily alienation. The
sabbatical year when all activities stop is also an
announcement of liberation and of the exemption from
daily work. The jubilee is also a revolutionary
institution, as can be read in Leviticus. It restores
social equality every fifty years by the
redistributioin of property. On this subject Gustav
Landauer wrote: "Uprising as basic law, change and
overthrow as a rule for all times... that was the
greatness and the holiness of the mosaic social order.
We need that again: new rules and a spirit of change
that does not fix things and laws definitively but
declares itself permanent. The revolution should
become part of our social order, the basic rule of our
basic law".

The election of the Jewish people involves in the
first place the obligation for every Jew to take part
in the anticipation of the day of redemption. The
coming of the messiah on earth depends on the free
efforts of individual human beings during their life.
Not by chance did rabbi Nachman from Breslau [Wroclaw]
(???), one of the most fascinating and original
Chassidic teachers, conclude: "To become more perfect
man should renew himself day after day". What is
needed is a permanent mental revolution. Those who
live to-day must work for social justice, as in the
past those living then had to work for it in their
time and as those living in the future will have to
work for in the future: the coming of social justice
depends on them.. As is said explicitely in the texts
of the prophets, this "revolution" will take an
international character and will be a universal
movement involving all the States of the world. This
shows another difference between Jewish and Christian
messianism. Christianity has eliminated the political
element of the redemption maintaining only the
spiritual element. Christianity, writes rabbi Elia
Benamozegh, "speaks of ascetic morals, of an ascetic
kingdom and of an entirely spiritual messianism;
instead of political liberty it has spiritual freedom
for its followers".

In Jewish messianism, religious as well as political,
two currents can be distinguished: a restaurative
current and a utopical one. The restaurative current
expects the return and the resurrection of a situation
of the past but that has always been seen as an ideal
in the collective imagination of the Jewish people.
The redemption was seen as the return to an ideal
state of the past, a lost golden age. The utopical current looked
forward to a situation that has never existed and was
nurtured by the dream of a radical overthrow of all
that existed, of the coming of an absolutely new
world, of the "the unheard of", of "something that has
never been, the peak of bliss", as writes Walter
Benjamin. Although each other's opposites these two
currents have always gone together, both can be
tracked in the historical manifestations and
ideologies of messianism and in almost all modern
revolutionary currents. This combination of
restauration and utopia, as stresses Michael Löwy, can
also be found in libertarian thinking, where
"revolutionary utopia goes always hand in hand with a
profound nostalgia of forms of the precapitalist past,
of the traditional peasant community or of the

Isaac Luria's concept of the Tiqqun, reparation or
reintegration, is the most important example of this
duality in Jewish messianism. Isaac Luria and his
disciples of the Safed school in Galilea had
formulated (end 16th century) a cosmologic doctrine
directly linked to the belief in the messiah.
According to this theory God had voluntarily limited
or contracted his powers (tzimtzum) when creating the
world. The imperfectness of the world was a symptom of
the disintegration of the universe resulting from the
Shevirat ha-kelim, the "breaking of the pots", which
had been too weak to contain the divine light. The
scattered fragments of the pots had kept small sparks
of the divine light, however, and are a harmful
residue for the world. From them come the Qelippot,
the dark forces of evil. Man and Israel as a whole
have the mission to lift the scattered holy sparks and
to free the divine light from the domination of the
Qelippot, which, historically, represent tyranny and
oppression. This process is called Tiqqun and all
should contribute to it. The Tiqqun will restore the
ideal order disturbed by the "breaking of the pots"
and Adam's subsequent fall. Humankind has the task to
repair the pots, to eliminate evil, to bring the
absolutely perfect back, to restore the proper nature
of things and to put them back in their [right] place.

In this context reparation and redemption become
identical notions. When the world will have been
repaired it is impossible that there will be no
redemption [i.e. that it will not be free], as
redemption represents the perfect state of the world, a harmonised world in
which everything will be in its right place. The
Tiqqun leaves the purely mystical domain and drops its
cosmic and ontological dimension becoming messianic
and political. The Tiqqun world, as rightly observes
Michael Löwy, is thus the utopian world of the
messianic reform, of the elimination of impurity, of
the disappearance of evil.

Isaac Luria's kabbalah, which blended old mysticism and
traditional political messianism led to an explosive
manifestation of the forces that created it and made
it successful. The hope of an imminent redemption
putting an end to sufferings and injustices found a
dramatic historic and spiritual expression in the
adventure of Sabbatai Zwi (1626-1676). Sabbatai
Zwi was born in Smyrna [now Turkey] on the 9th of [the
Jewish month] Av, the day on which the destruction of
the First and the Second Temple is commemorated.
Already as a young man he had started studying the
kabbalah. In Jerusalem, where he had moved in 1662,
his disciple Nathan from Gaza persuaded him that he
was the messiah. The news that the messiah had come
spread like wildfire and caused great excitement among
Jews all over Europe. A true mass movement inspired by
him developed upsettinbg life in the whole Jewish
world. Sabbatianism, "the most polyedric heretical
movement of Jewish mysticism", according to Scholem,
became a definitive theoretical system thanks to
Nathan from Gaza, who, on the basis of Isaac Luria's
kabbalah and the cosmogonic conepts of those days,
imagined that the messiah suffered unspeakable pains
when he set out to restore the initial harmony on
earth. In order to overcome evil from the inside the
redeemer had also to become impure so as to be able to
purify the impure and to defeat the cosmic root of
evil. Sabbatai Zwi's anti-law behaviour - including
his apostasy: in 1666 he converted to Islam - were
seen by his followers as a descent into the abyss of
negativity which would enable him to free the
particles of divine light imprisoned in the dark.
Animated by a strong religious nihilism the
Sabbatianists interpreted the talmudic saying "an
intentional transgression weighs more than the
unintended fulfilment of a precept" (Nazir, 23b) in
line with their conceptions and held that a sinner is good in God's eyes because impurity brings the spirit to holiness. The doctrine
of the holiness of sin was not limited to the
violation of certain precepts but extended to all the
prohibitions of the Torah, and the followers of the
movement formulated the following law violating
blessing: "Blessed be You, Lord our God, who allow
what is prohibited". Some went so far as to affirm
that henceforth everything was pure because Sabbatai
Zwi had definitively defeated evil.

In the course of the 18th century frankism, the
movement developed around the person of Jacob Frank
(1726-1791) took over the teachings of Sabbatai
Zwi and developed them further. Jacob ben Judah Leib,
as his real name was, was born near the border
separating Podolia and Bucovina [now parts of
Rumania]. He was a nihilist of a rare authenticity.
Initiated into the secrets of Sabbatianism he became a
guide for numerous followers and finally claimed an
almost divine status as possessor of Sabbatai Zwi's
soul. He proclaimed that man should free himself from
all laws, all conventions and all religions. Authentic
life meant rejecting all religious acts and every
positive belief. Franks belief in the redeeming force
of destruction knew no borders: "Wherever Adam came a
city was built, but where I go everything will be
destroyed, because I have come only to destroy
everything - but whatever I will build, will last
forever", one can read in the collection of aforisms
which he published under the title Sliwa Panskie
(Words of the Lord). This catastrophic-revolutionary view of emancipation is
also clear in Mikhail Bakunin's saying "a passion for
destruction is a creative passion". A merciless war
was to be waged against the inadequate laws that
govern the world: "And I say to you that all the
fighters should be without religion. That is to say,
they will have to conquer freedom by their own
forces..". This fight will affect all the layers of
the soul that descends into the abysses in order to
ascend: "In order to go up one must first go down.
Nobody can climb over a mountain without having been
at its foot. We have to go down to the lowest point if
we want to attain the infinite. That is the mystical
principle of Jacob's Ladder which I have seen and
which has the shape of a V. I have not come into this world to lift you up
but to throw you into the abyss. You can't go lower.
We can't get out of there by our own forces alone
because the Lord alone can pull us from those depths
by the power of his arm". Man can only become truly
free when he has been able to live a truly anarchic
life: "The place where we go doesn't allow any law
because all laws come from death whereas we go to
life". How can one again think of Bakunin and his
famous formula: "I don't believe in constitutions or
laws... We need something different. Passion,
vitality, a new world without laws and, so, truly
free"? The expectations and teachings of these last
sabbatianists played a decisive role in the opening up
of their souls to the apocaliptic wind of the time.
They then came close to the spirit of the Haskalah,
the Jewish enlightenment, and when the fire of faith
weakened they became maskilim, enlightened people,
religious reformers, indifferent prophets and true

In the beginning of the 18th century, while the wind
of sabbatian and frankian messianic madness was still
blowing, chassidismo started developing among the
Jewish masses of Poland and Russia. This popular
religious movement was started by Israel ben Eliezer
(around 1700-1760), better known as Baal Shem Tov
(master of the good name) or Besht (by the initials of
this name). While not significantly innovating
doctrine and writings [???] chassidism was,
nevertheless, an explosion of creative religious
energy against the old values that had become
meaningless. The following story characterises
chassidism: "Baal Shem Tov had changed the traditional
order of prayers. Some protested: "This order has been
established by the great men of our generation". To
which Baal Shem answered: "And who has said that those
great men have gone to paradise?". With study and
erudition not considered central chasidism took an
anti-elitist character and made the simplest acts of
daily life holy, faith became democratic and popular,
libertarian, a gigantic social revolution. The great
importance attributed to intention, even if remained
ineffective, and the fact that evil and sins were
attributed some holiness, freed the humble and the
weak from all guilt and allowed them to have their
imperfections. There is chassidism, writes Marc-Alain
Ouaknin, "when a society remembers that it is not
enough to be but that we have to exist, that, if we
want to live really, we must continually find new ways
of life, invent ourselves continually..".

In chassidism each person becomes the redeemer of the
world which he is himself, that is one of the aspects
of the great chassidic revolution. Man leaves the
collective anonymity and becomes a subject in the
strongest sense of this word. We may quote here a
famous saying of rabbi Menachem Mendel from Kotzk: "If
I am I because you are you, then I am not I and you
are not you. But if I am I because I am I and you are
you because you are you, then am I I and you are you".

In chassidism, Martin Buber wrote, every human
being represents something new that has never existed
before. Everybody has to recognise that this
particular person is unique in this world because of
his particular character and that there has never been
somebody like him, for, if there had already been
somebody like him there would have been no need for
him to come in the world. Every person is a new
creature in this world called to fill it with his
particularity. Every person has the task to realise
his unique, unprecented, never replicated
possibilities, not to repeat things done already by
others be they the greatest of all. Rabbi Sussja from
Hanipol illustrated this idea shortly before his death
saying "In the other world I won't be asked: "Why
haven't you become Moses?" but I will be asked: "Why
haven't you become Sussja?"" . The difference
between the kabbalah of Isaac Luria and the chassidic
doctrine is the difference between the
ontological-metaphysical and the psychological and
personal. In this way the kabbalistic concepts became
meaningful for individual life and accessible for
everybody without distinction, whereas in rabbinic
Judaism the kabbalah was reserved for the few elected,
in Hebrew yechidei seguld, who had fulfilled the
strict requirements for access to the esoteric aspect
of the Torah considered extremely dangerous.

Chassidic mysticism seeks to make man take part in the
divine life become history and to shorten the
distances between heaven and earth. For God who has
put limits upon himself in order to make room for the created man has the task to free the sparks hidden in all aspects of life. In this way simple and
insignificant acts also become fundamental and universally relevant. Chassidism puts an ethics of the deed into practice that has to do with the human
faculty to start things, to undertake things, to take
initiatives. Chassidic action is the opposite of
repetition, of lack of innovation. Chassidic ethics of
the deed is interruption of the flow of life that
leads to death, it's continuous being born anew. It is
freedom. Because we were born we are doomed to be
free. Life ought, moreover, to be lived in the sign of
concrete love for all human beings including those at
the bottom, the am ha-aretz, the simple minds and the
sinners. Rabbi Jakob Jizchak from Lublin [Poland] used
to say: "I prefer a sinner admitting he is one to a
saint conscious of his saintness. The sinner admitting
the truth passes his days in Truth. And Truth is God.
So, the sinner lives in God too. But he who thinks he
is a perfect saint lives in untruth, and God hates
untruth. Nobody is perfect".

The chassidic word is also an ethics of the word, the
rejection of the instituted word, of what has been
said already. The chassidic word laughs, dances, it's
joy, the opposite of the prefabricated language of the
cliché, of publicity, of politics. The reasonings of
the institutions and of public opinion correspond to
prearranged models. They are incomprehensible because
the institutions are committed to creating opinions,
i.e. non-words and non-thoughts. As Marc-Alain Ouaknin
says: chassidism is against the
"we-all-say-the-same-and together". Chassidic
people are people of the Chidush, of the new, they
have the task to seek freedom, to invent other forms
of life. Chassidism is doing things every day but not
just repeating the things done the previous day, in
the language of rabbi Nachman: "it's forbidden to be

Historically, chassidism was a critique of the
official rabbinic institutions of the time but this
criticism can very well be extended to institutions in
general. But the greatest contribution of chassidism
is the democratisation of study, the possibility for
everybody to start interpreting. As says rabbi Nachman: "a simple person who
takes the time to read, to look at the words of the
Torah can also see new things, new meanings; if one
looks at the sayings intensely they begin to "make
light", to blend, to combine (Yoma, 73b) and one can
see new combinations of sayings, new words, things of
which one hasn't thought at all. All this is also
possible for simple people, without effort...".

This subjective relationship with the text existed
already in the talmudic tradition but later on study
became reserved for an elite and the thinking became
dogmatic and ideological. The changes introduced by
chassidism can be seen in the following story, that
can be considered a paradigm of the cultural and
existential revolution brought by chassidism: "A
disciple sees his teacher, who asks him: "What have
you studied?" The disciple answers: "I've gone three
times through the Talmud", whereupon the Teacher says:
"But has the Talmud gone through you?"". Study is a
political act because the freedom to interpret is also
a freedom that affects life. In this sense study is
revolution, an attitude of contestating tradition and
the main obstacle to accepting the stereotypes of
ideological thinking. But - a point on which rabbi
Nachman insists repeatedly - one should not innovate
with new laws that reinforce institutional thinking.
Integrative laws are rejected because they strengthen
the institutions and the custodians of ideologies
instead of weakening and destroying them. As the
individual affirms himself continuously by
interpretation his task is not to repeat or to
paraphrase verses [e.g. of the Torah] but, as Emmanuel
Lévinas would say, to go beyond them, to go from the
text to one's own text. This is, so to say, the whole
political dimension and function of chassidism, its
anti-ideological and revolutionary aspect "in respect
of an order in which nothing, neither words, nor
people, nor people's bodies or looks are allowed to
communicate directly, but as values they have to go
through models that generate and reproduce them in
total "estrangement" of each other... Revolution is
wherever there is a beginning of a change that makes
models meaningless - whether that change is a minute
change in appearances, a change of syllables in a poem, or the fact that
thousands of people talk to each other in an insurgent

Chassidism showed again what Jewishness is basically
about: lived religiosity, a religion of doing free
from precepts. Life, man, community became supreme
again in Jewish life. Unfortunately, this libertarian
movement has turned into a despotic power. Singing,
dancing, sacred gestures have become ceremonial acts
and a reactionary spirit has taken the place of
democracy. But in spite of the abuses and the
degeneration of the movement, writes Gershom Scholem,
the chassidim "as mystic moralists.. have found the
way to social organising", which is their main

I would like to end my essay with a chassidic parable
of rabbi Uri from Strelice that seems most
appropriate: "When I was still a boy and my teacher
started teaching me how to read, he once showed me
two minute letters in the book of prayers, which
looked like square dots, saying: "Uri, do you see
those two letters one beside the other? They are the
monogramme of the name of God, and each time they
appear together in a prayer you should pronounce the
name of God, although the name is not written in
full". I read on together with the teacher till we
found the two letters at the end of a sentence. They
were also two square dots, yet not beside each other
but over each other. I thought they were the
monogramme of God and pronounced his name. But the
teacher said: "No, no, Uri, this sign doesn't indicate
the name of God. Only where the dots are beside each
other, where each sees the other as a friend equal to
himself is the name of God; where one dot is under the
other and the other dot is over the former, there the
name of God is not"...".

Religious Anarchism Newsletter nr.2. Salvaged from
Geocitiessite Christianarchy, which has a date of execution: Oct. 26th 2009