Gaza and the end of Orthodox Judaism

JEWISH TALMUD Tosefta. Aboda Zara B, 5:

“If a goy kills a goy or a Jew, he is
responsible; but if a Jew kills a goy, he is NOT responsible.”

A whole world, formerly one of faith, thought, and virtue, is coming to an end. And that world is not Palestine. Palestinians are being martyred, but the world that is dying is a Jewish world. And it’s being killed by Jews.


An event held by Agudath Israel on October 30, 2023, in Holmdel, New Jersey, offering support of Israel. According to a report on the Agudath Israel website, Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum, "noted that the words of Torah are our weapon: 'Every blatt gemara is a missile; every Tosfos is a rocket; and every kapitel Tehillim is a bomb.'" (Photo: Agudath Israel)AN EVENT HELD BY AGUDATH ISRAEL ON OCTOBER 30, 2023, IN HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY, OFFERING SUPPORT OF ISRAEL. ACCORDING TO A REPORT ON THE AGUDATH ISRAEL WEBSITE, RABBI NOACH ISAAC OELBAUM, “NOTED THAT THE WORDS OF TORAH ARE OUR WEAPON: ‘EVERY BLATT GEMARA IS A MISSILE; EVERY TOSFOS IS A ROCKET; AND EVERY KAPITEL TEHILLIM IS A BOMB.’” (PHOTO: AGUDATH ISRAEL)

Over the last week or so, some of my friends – horrified, as I am, by the near-universal support of prominent Jewish organizations for Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza – have shared with me their attempts to understand how something like this can be happening. Since I am an Orthodox Jew, I’ve been asked about the role played by “religious Zionists” in the current degradation of Judaism. And anyone who listens to the rabid fascism-cum-mysticism articulated by Jewish “settler” fanatics in support of literally any crime Israel commits can only be bewildered and appalled.

But I take a somewhat different view of the problem – in part, no doubt, because Judaism is my religion, and I see Judaism from the perspective of what is often called the “Orthodox right-wing” or “yeshiva” community. And the following is what burst out of me when I was asked (on Facebook) how the great majority of Orthodox Jews can publicly celebrate genocide and ethnic cleansing – the worst crimes in the canon of international humanitarian law – while actually watching them unfold in real time on their television sets and computer screens. These are my own personal observations of the religious world around me; I’m not yet prepared to back them up with sociological scholarship. But they’ve been building inside me for many years, and I want to share them.

Here’s the point – which I’ll state as briefly as I can. First of all, much of the easily-recognized extremism among lawless Orthodox fanatics in the West Bank is actually foreign to the “yeshivish” or “haredi” environment that, at bottom, is my own intellectual and spiritual milieu. To take an obvious instance, Rabbi Meir Kahane was despised in the yeshivoth. I can’t remember ever hearing a good word about him or his disciples in my own experience – except from people who rebelled against the haredi culture. (I describe one such person in my memoir Turning Back, which gives as good a picture as I’m capable of giving of my own journey into traditional Judaism.) I was living in the intensely Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York when Kahane was murdered, and the only people I heard even mention the news said, more or less, that he got what he asked for.

Likewise, Zionism – and the hysterical identification with Israel that is its modern counterpart outside Israel – meets with little but hostility or derision among the leadership of the more traditional Orthodox community. Agudath Israel (the right-wing Orthodox organization that takes its marching orders from old-style Talmudists like the late Moshe Feinstein, Elya Svei, Yaakov Kaminetzky, etc.) will tell you emphatically that it rejects Zionism.

And yet it proudly “stands with Israel” precisely in its most ghastly crimes. I’ve just received an email about an effort backed by Agudath Israel to get 100,000 signatures on a petition to Congress to give more support to Israel in its genocidal slaughter, and to “do something” about “anti-Semitism” that is supposedly rife in the U.S. – a palpable fiction designed to give propaganda cover for Israel’s crimes.

And that, to me, is the real problem. It’s less about an “extremist” ideology – a sort of Jewish nationalism modeled on the romantic German nationalism of the late 19th century – than about a kind of withering away at the moral core, a dulling of the collective mind and heart, a sort of willed infantilism that has reduced the Orthodox Jewish tradition to a kind of mindless cult of rabbi-worship and fear and hatred of everyone else.

I will concede that these tendencies have long been present to some extent among the Orthodox. And I know some people will claim (though I disagree) that they are dominant and that today’s ugly efflorescence of violent stupidity was inevitable. I won’t argue the point except to say that if I believed that I wouldn’t be living the religious Jewish life I am still living.

But right now, the victory of senseless hatred in my religious community is absolutely unmistakable. I don’t call it “extremism” because that implies a conscious point of view, at the very least, a kind of religious ideology, and in my opinion that would be giving the mainstream Orthodox too much credit. They and their rabbis don’t support Israel because they are Zionists. They support it because Israel enacts, in their eyes, the only outward manifestation of religious faith that their infantilized minds can still grasp: a perpetual Manichean violence in which our side, the Jews, is always right, always innocent, always victimized, and the other side is always entirely evil and subhuman.

They support it because they have been trained, first through the Orthodox educational system and then by living in Orthodox communities, to efface themselves as individuals, to have no backbone, to do as they’re told and never to question rabbinic authority – and because this training makes them admire a state which seems to have militarized an entire Jewish public and which has no doubts about its own superiority and its right to dominate.

They support it because they have been taught to regard with suspicion anything that promotes truth, accuracy, subtlety, intellectual sophistication, and above all the aesthetic dimensions without which a genuinely cultivated morality is impossible. Instead, they have been taught that all that matters is which side you’re on, and that lying to promote “our side” is infinitely preferable to truth for truth’s sake.

They have reached that fatal point of spiritual degradation at which they are genuinely incapable of knowing whether their emotions are being driven by angels or demons, much as a man, below a certain depth, cannot tell whether he is swimming toward the surface or away from it.

They support Israel most of all (I think) because murder, torture, and cruelty are the only things that can stir souls that are nearly dead from the lack of any real nourishment. They have reached that fatal point of spiritual degradation at which they are genuinely incapable of knowing whether their emotions are being driven by angels or demons, much as a man, below a certain depth, cannot tell whether he is swimming toward the surface or away from it.

Most of us know what it is to be jolted by a terrible thought and, paradoxically, to be tempted by it in some way; but most of us immediately recoil from something we know to be repulsive. The great bulk of Orthodox Jews today (though of course there are some very honorable exceptions), and virtually all of the dominant rabbinate, is unable to make this distinction because these Jews have cut out of themselves, slowly but surely, the kind of human faculties that instinctively recoil from what is ugly and welcome what is beautiful and sweet and true.

I know I am writing very generally and somewhat apocalyptically. And I apologize for what is bound to sound like over-simplification. But I’ve been seeing this for years – for decades, to be honest – and I’ve always feared that the right set of circumstances would bring out the very worst of these tendencies in a way so blatantly vile that the rest of humanity, if shown accurately what was being espoused in Orthodox Jewish circles, would probably react with a universal gasp of horror.

And now I am seeing exactly what I feared. So forgive me if I strike notes appropriate to a modern Jeremiah: I can’t help feeling as though such words should be screamed into the ears of the Orthodox Jewish world today, again and again, if not to awaken some consciences then at least to remind oneself that the voice of God cannot be silenced – to cry out, in other words, in an effort to set up echoes of the inescapable divine judgment that I feel must roll through our streets and cloud our skies and waver over the desert, to howl to heaven, as Jeremiah did, simply to show that there is a heaven, and that nothing the evildoers can say will ever replace it.

In my own small way, I’ve been trying to do that lately. And the results have justified my worst fears. The Orthodox Jews to whom I’ve written aren’t moved by my questions or challenges; they don’t even seem to understand what I am saying, though I do my best to use their own language and to limit myself to the simplest moral propositions. (Such as: genocide and torture are bad things. Killing children and destroying hospitals are bad things…) They literally don’t hear me. Invariably they respond as if I had taken sides against them, joined with the “enemy” – right now they call that enemy “Hamas,” but a year ago it would have been a different label and before long it will be something else again. And then they either denounce or disregard me, literally incapable of seeing, let alone acknowledging, the enormity of what they themselves are supporting at the moment of our exchange. 

Lately the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer about the connection between Nazi crimes and a kind of willed public infantilism have been circulating on social media. They’ve also been much on my own mind. And they’re painfully apt as a description of current Orthodox Jewish culture. The kind of moral blindness Bonhoeffer described among the Germans of his own time – a feature of people who have become the unthinking tools of some sort of powerful group or institution – can only be described in terms of a kind of deep and at least half-voluntary stupidity. As Bonhoeffer wrote, you don’t encounter a human intelligence when you debate these Jews: you hear slogans, catch-phrases, labels. This is all they seem to have left, all that they have retained of a rich tradition that once produced…but thinking along those lines will only stir up too much grief to allow me to continue.

I have long believed that Orthodox Judaism – I mean the thing as we know it now, as a sort of culture or institutional reality – is a house of cards ready to collapse in the first wind. And I’ve also believed, for years, that this grim future for Orthodoxy is really a good thing. Because the structure as it stands now is a cruel fraud: an imposing edifice, yes, but built on fakery and lies, a religious “economy” that is at bottom a mere swindle, headed by a rabbinate long on the details of abstruse Talmudic scholarship but utterly unable to consider even the most basic of moral questions, no matter how urgently the question looms right before the rabbis’ eyes.

For example, in the book I’ve written on the Israel-Palestine problem (which nobody knows because I haven’t been able to publish it), I describe in some detail the decision of my own former yeshiva (Ohr Somayach) to buy a new building in Sheikh Jarrah, inside occupied East Jerusalem. I say “decision,” but that is giving the rabbis too much credit. I do not believe they could even grasp the moral significance of buying stolen property (at a very attractive price, no doubt) in order to give the Israeli government a perfect pretext for accelerating its ethnic cleansing campaign in that already tormented town. Of course, when I first learned of the situation, I tried to call Ohr Somayach’s attention to the problem, but the only answer I received for my trouble was that a former teacher of mine from Ohr Somayach, when our paths happened to cross at a funeral a few years ago, refused to acknowledge my presence.

I don’t know if someone who hasn’t labored to make Torah study a central activity of his or her life can fully appreciate how awful it is to me, how ugly a sin, how painful a betrayal, that the institution where I did my first Talmud study will not only be a participant in crimes against humanity but will implicate at least a generation of eager young students in those same crimes, tarnishing everything it touches with a curse that will inevitably sully all it will claim to have achieved. And yet Ohr Somayach’s unexplained and inexplicable depravity has gone completely unnoticed in the Orthodox Jewish world. Apart from me, no one seems even to have noticed how this yeshiva is deliberately maiming the religion it claims to adore.

In my view, the evil we face among the religious Jews today – and we must not let this community off the hook with bromides like “Zionism isn’t Judaism” – is not simply, or even fundamentally, about a particular religious ideology or some lunatic romantic nationalism masquerading as a religious creed. Our problem is broader and deeper than that. Those responsible for preserving an ancient teaching have corrupted it to such a level – and have dragged down the minds and consciences of their followers to such a level in the process – that it doesn’t really matter what they believe. For, in truth, they don’t believe in anything. They have sacrificed their independence, have surrendered their souls, and are more or less mindless tools of the rabbinic and lay elites that govern their lives.

And that is why, at a word from the thugs who govern Israel, they are prepared to say anything – absolutely anything, any lie at all, no matter how false or vile or degrading or stupid – in order to be on what they think is the right side of power.

That is why a rabbi here in Passaic could write proudly of having joined a rally in Washington, D.C. for the express purpose of supporting a genocidal slaughter – and call it “standing with the Jewish people.” That is why a local synagogue is circulating a list of the Hebrew names of community members who are now serving in the IDF terrorist militia decimating Gaza and exterminating thousands of its inhabitants, together with an appeal to think of them when reciting certain blessings. These Judeo-Nazi sympathizers wouldn’t know a genuine blessing – or the real “Jewish people” – if it whacked them over the head. But they are so sunk in moral stupor that they cannot even perceive that the evil they do is evil, and that those they slander are only telling them the truth.

Though it horrifies me to say it, I believe that a whole world, formerly one of profound faith and thought and feeling and virtue, is literally coming to an end. And that world is not Palestine (heaven forbid). Palestinians are being martyred, yes – there are no words sufficient to howl one’s grief and outrage over what is being done to them. But the world that is dying is a Jewish world. And it’s being killed by Jews: the same Jews who claim to be its heart and soul.

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