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Dialogue with Hayyim Rothman

Hayyim Rothman @Ashekenazium, Michael Chighel
Hayyim Rothman @Ashekenazium, Michael Chighel

Hayyim Rothman is a rabbi, a philosopher, specialist of Spinoza who published, in 2021, No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism and joins The Ashkenazium Symposium organized by Michael Chighel, from November 20th to 28th 2023, in Budapest (Hungary).

Who are Yaakov Meir Zalkind, Yitshak Nahman Steinberg, Shmuel Alexandrov, Yehuda Ashlag, Yehuda Leyb Don Yahiya, Avraham Yehuda Heyn, Natan Hofshi, and Aaron Shmuel Tamaret?

Hayyim Rothman: A comprehensive answer to this question that also supplies a biography of each of these figures lies far beyond the scope of an interview. Therefore, I think it is better to explain briefly who they are as a group. These individuals were a loosely connected network of religious thinkers who came of age in the Russian Empire toward the end of the 19th century and remained active through the early 20th century (Hofshi, who died in 1980 being the outlier). They sought — in different ways, and for different reasons — to synthesize aspects of anarchist thought (mainly but not exclusively that of Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy) into their conceptions of Judaism, of Jewish national identity, and of the Jewish mission. Their engagement with anarchist thought was shaped not only by sources like the bible, the talmud and midrashim, medieval philosophy and kabbalah, and hasidism, but also by the work of modern Jewish thinkers — Ahad Ha’am especially. Wading through a heady mixture of traditional religion, anarchism, Tolstoyan pacifism, and Zionism, they articulated a form of Jewish modernity that does not fit well into contemporary categories, but cuts across them in ways I find challenging and refreshing (this being my primary interest in them).

Who are their followers today?

Hayyim Rothman: There are straightforward answers to this question and also answers that are a bit more convoluted. I’ll begin with the straightforward answers. Of the figures I have written about, only Natan Hofshi and Yehuda Ashlag have left a living legacy that can be traced directly back to them.

Ashlag had a significant impact on modern Jewish spirituality. The Kabbalah Centre movement, which has locations throughout the world (and which attracted a number of celebrities, Madonna most notably), traces its lineage to Ashlag and his teachings. To the best of my knowledge, however, Ashlag’s social teachings do not play an important role in this branch of his legacy. Another group, Bnei Baruch (named after Ashlag’s son and successor), founded by Michael Laitman, has devoted considerable attention to the social aspect of Ashlag’s teaching; Laitman himself has translated many of the relevant texts into English. Within the ultra-orthodox world, Ashlag laid the foundations for a hasidic-style “dynasty” that lives on. Members of this hasidic group also founded Or HaGanuz, a village in the Galilee that strives to organize its communal life according to the Ashlagian social vision. Natan Hofshi’s legacy is considerably more modest. Besides some of his descendents, who have published some information about him online, it is mainly limited to a handful of people who came of age in the late 1970’s, were involved in the nascent peace movement at that time, and reached out to Hofshi as the last survivor of peace efforts dating back to the pre-state era — Rabbi Moshe Yehudai, one of the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights, being the most prominent of these.

The legacy of other figures I have written about is more indirect. For one, Yehuda Leyb Don-Yahiya played a role in the foundation of the Mizrachi (religious Zionism) movement, composing one of the first texts intended to defend Zionism on religious grounds against ultra-orthodox critiques. In this respect, every religious Zionist today owes something to his efforts. Shmuel Alexandrov had a significant impact on the thought of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine); arguably, Kook’s approach to negotiating secularism and religiosity within the Zionist movement can be traced to ideas developed in conversation with Alexandrov. Thus, anyone influenced by Kook’s brand of Zionism has, in part at least, been indirectly influenced by Alexandrov’s work. Finally, Avraham Heyn was a formative influence on the Israel Prize winning author Adin Steinzaltz, whose early writings on Habad hasidism were first articulated within the framework of a study circle the leadership of which he inherited from Heyn. Through Steinzaltz then, the Jewish masses have — again, indirectly — gained from Heyn’s contributions.

About the Author
Alexandre Gilbert is the director of the Chappe gallery.
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