Talking Occupation and Ethics with R. Berkovits

Last year, while reading and processing Faith and Freedom, the recently published haggadah based on Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ writings, I was struck anew by the deep ambivalence towards political power at the heart of his theology.  On the backdrop of the pervasive discussion about Israel’s use of power, it was hard not to think about the relevance of this theology for us today. I also noticed that beyond relevance, his ideology presented a unique challenge to us. His overall positions cannot be pigeonholed into the typical ideological camps that dominate our discourse about Israel. His unconventional perspective can enrich our discourse and sharpen our ideas about Israel, power, and the conflict. Perhaps his ideas are particularly important amid the current debate about annexation.

Unlike the typical Zionist negation of the exile (in both their religious and secular iterations), R Berkovits conceives the experience of Galut as a vital, positive, and formative ingredient for the shaping of an authentic Judaism. For R. Berkovits, powerlessness, exile, and therefore suffering inhere in the covenant from its inception. “When the father of the nation-to-be was still childless, it was already decreed and revealed to him ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years’ … even before there was a Jewish people there was already Exile.” (Faith and Freedom Passover Haggadah pg. 53-54)

This experience of exile and powerlessness finds a double purpose in R. Berkovits’ thought. For the Israelites, the experience refines, ennobles and sensitizes them. It teaches kindness, social justice and humility. (pg. 84; 93-95) For the world, Israel’s unlikely survival in exile provides a counterpoint to a world otherwise dominated by brute force and points to an otherwise hidden Divine hand in history.

The centrality of exile and vulnerability in R. Berkovits’ historiosophy is evocative of certain strains of antizionist thought. In isolation, the ideas above might lead one to imagine that R. Berkovits would recoil from Zionism’s mission to reclaim Jewish autonomy and sovereignty and all that they entail. Indeed, R. Berkovits explicitly expresses gratitude for the exile because “it has freed us from the guilt of national existence in a world in which national existence meant guilt. We have been oppressed, but we were not oppressors. We have been killed and slaughtered, but we were not among the killers and slaughterers (pg. 63).” We might expect to find R. Berkovits among those critics of Zionism who see in it the undoing of that which is good and right in Jewish tradition.

Yet, R. Berkovits’ writings are staunchly Zionist. Moreover, he finds redemptive meaning in Israel’s return to the Biblical heartland in the wake of the Six Day War. Criticism of Israeli policy in the west bank is understated if not muted. Instead, the target of R. Berkovits’ political scorn is the Peace Now movement and other left wing critics of the occupation. How can R. Berkovits’ veneration of Jewish powerlessness be reconciled with his support for a return to Jewish sovereignty? Why didn’t R. Berkovits join the chorus of those who saw in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank a betrayal of Jewish anti-power ethics?

It might be tempting for some to write off, R. Berkovits’ positive appraisal of Israel as a blind spot — most of his writing predates the reevaluation of Israel by its new historians, the occupation has deteriorated and become worse and more protracted in the 3 decades since R. Berkovits left this world, his experience of loss and displacement during the Holocaust skewed his views… While there may be a degree of truth in claims like these, they fail to appreciate the broader scope of R. Berkovits’s thought. The fullness of his thought goes beyond his ambivalence towards political power. It creates a more nuanced and complex appreciation of Israel’s place in modern politics and its conflict in the region. Much of the relevant material to this discussion is in portions of R. Berkovits’ work that have been largely overlooked. After being struck by R. Berkovits radical embrace of the powerlessness and vulnerability of Jewish history, I went back to reexamine those passages in his writings that call for realization of Jewish power and express sympathy towards Israeli policy post 1967.

Halakhah calls out for a National Platform

Halakhah plays a central role in R. Berkovits’ thought. For R. Berkovits, halakhah — the embodiment of the Torah’s precepts into the real world — demands a national platform for its full implementation. “The structuring of the whole of life, personal and communal, economic, civic, social and political, that the Torah prescribes, the all-comprehensive deed which is required can ideally be achieved only by a community that is in control of its daily life.” And so for R. Berkovits, as formative as the exilic experience is, it is not the ideal state. Ultimately, at the right time, Israel must return to its homeland and build a society based upon the lessons and by the light of its experience of exile.

Realpolitik Ain’t What it Used to Be

Like Rav Kook, R. Berkovits interpreted Jewish retreat from politics as appropriate for the pre-redemptive era. While Machiavellian politics dominated the world stage, there was no place for Jewish sovereignty. For Rav Kook that period was coming to a close with the anticipated peace of a post-World War I age. For R. Berkovits, post-World War II, the shadow of nuclear mutual destruction created an era of restraint where the power politics of earlier times were no longer the standard. In this new era, the Jewish people could move towards fulfilling its ultimate destiny of a manifestation of the Torah on a national scale. (Faith after the Holocaust pg. 139) The recalibration of the place of power in global politics repositioned the Jewish people’s relationship to them.

Legitimacy of Jewish Claims to the Land

Berkovits insists that the Jewish people has a legitimate claim on the land. The insistence of the Jewish people throughout the years of exile that we would return demonstrates that the Jewish people never relinquished its claim on the land from the myriad of foreign conquerors who ruled over the land. (“The Jewish Claim to the Jewish Land,” Sh’ma September, 1978) One of R. Berkovits’ severest criticisms of left wing secular Zionism is that its abandonment of Jewish history and thought left it uncertain about its connection to the land. (see the articles in Sh’ma referenced here and the opening and closing of his Crisis of Judaism in the State of the Jews) In Faith After the Holocaust, R. Berkovits celebrates the theological significance of the Jewish return to (East) Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. In his Hebrew work, Crisis of Judaism in the State of the Jews, he goes so far as to lament the government’s reticence to recreate a Jewish presence in Hebron, the burial plot of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, David’s first capitol, and a symbol of longing in Jewish liturgy for centuries. (pg. 133-34) R. Berkovits calls for a deep awareness of Jewish rootedness in the land as a prerequisite for beginning to reconcile with the Palestinians. “We have to seek peace with our Arab neighbors. It must be a just peace, based not only on the legitimate rights of the Palestinian Arabs but also on the legitimate rights of the Jewish people.” (“Peace Now: A Response to my Critics,” Sh’ma March, 1980) Rabbi Berkovits’ position in this regard seem to foreshadow the distinction that I have heard from Yossi Klein Halevi’s between the occupation of Palestinian land vs. occupation of the Palestinian people. While Halevi admits the absence of political rights for West Bank Palestinians amounts to an occupation of the Palestinian people, the land itself cannot be “occupied” by Jews, for this territory is legitimately their homeland.

There is a moral price to pay for opting out of political power

As mentioned above, R. Berkovits expressed gratitude for the experience of Jewish political powerlessness. In one of his early works, he wrote, “let us be grateful to the Galut; it has freed us from the guilt of national existence in a world in which national existence menat guilt.” (Towards Historic Judaism pg. 44-45)  The establishment of the state of Israel undermined that moral high ground and R. Berkovits admits as much, “unfortunately, a measure of human suffering has been involved in the Jew’s return to the land of his fathers.” (“The Jewish Claim”) However, R. Berkovits then suggests that guilt is more complex than his initial formulation. He suggests that the people Israel share in the guilt of Jewish suffering at the hands of the nations that persecuted them. “For, the extent that they might have educated and trained themselves to resist the crimes committed against them and did not do so, they too share in the guilt of the nations. The toleration of evil is also guilt. It makes no difference whether the evil is done to others or to oneself. In each case its toleration strengthens the hand of the evildoer and encourages him to greater crimes.” (“The Jewish Claim”) With this statement, R. Berkovits’ thought about political power becomes much more complicated. The retreat from engaging in realpolitik for moral reasons is at the essence of Jewish identity but it is also morally flawed. Both the engagement in political power and the retreat from it are ethically problematic.  The Jewish people are now called upon to live in the tension between these two imperfect postures.

Jewish Vulnerability and its Enemies’ Culpability

In the closing setion of R. Berkovits’ Faith After the Holocaust, he addresses the state of Israel’s position in geopolitics in the wake of the Six-Day War. He notes the hypocrisy of many of Israel’s critics, the malicious intentions and discourse of many of its enemies, its struggle to maintain restraint and fairness in an extremely hostile environment, its international isolation, and its imbalanced treatment in the United Nations. While the research of the new historians and Israel’s diplomatic, military and economic development in the past fifty years mitigate to a greater of lesser extent against R. Berkovits’ analysis there, nevertheless, Israel still must deal on an ongoing basis with international isolation, malevolent neighbors, and vulnerability. These all are important context through which to understand Israel’s use of political and military power.

A Complex Approach for a Complex World

After acknowledging all the reasons for R. Berkovits staunch Zionism and his celebration of Jewish return after 1967, are the lessons of exile and victimhood that are otherwise so central in Berkovits’ thought relevant for him in the discussion of Israel’s political situation today? Do they find a voice in R. Berkovits’ writing on this subject? Admittedly this piece of R. Berkovits’ theology is typically muted when he writes about the conflict. However, in at least two passages about the conflict, this aspect of R. Berkovits ideology comes to the fore and receives a powerful articulation.

At the end of Crisis of Judaism, R. Berkovits writes, “It could be that the hand of history, which has led us back to the land of our forefathers, destined us to find a just solution to the problem of real peace with our neighbors. In the end, who can understand the soul of a nation, or even a portion thereof, that lives under foreign rule better than we Jews who suffered so much from persecution and oppression. Because of the very experiences that we endured throughout human history, we are called upon to implement ideals of righteousness and justice with our Arab neighbors.” (pg. 136-37 my translation) Here R. Berkovits draws a direct parallel between our historical experience of political powerlessness and its charge to us in realizing a just political resolution to our conflict.

In articulating a direction for how to conceptualize terms for an accommodation, R. Berkovits writes: “If Israel’s return to the borders of 1967 will, indeed, reduce the sum total of human suffering, Jewish as well as Arab, it is ethically right; if not, it is unethical. If, on the other hand, Jewish settlements and military presence in Judea and Samaria are the means for reducing the danger of war and thus limiting the extent of human suffering, it will be such action that will reduce also the sum total of human guilt, Jewish and Arab, in the area.” (“The Jewish Claim”) In this poignant passage, R Berkovits turns the discussion away from whose claim is more legitimate, towards alleviating human suffering. While I imagine some will read this passage cynically and have a hard time imagining that Israeli presence in the West Bank can produce the least amount of suffering, given the complexities that are beyond this discussion, I am not at all sure. In any event, the formulation of the issue in this fashion is profound. It is a restatement of R. Berkovits’ sense that the experience of Jewish suffering in exile is its dominant and formative experience.

This emphasis on sensitivity to human suffering is typical of R. Berkovits’ philosophy in Jewish law. He notes that the Talmud’s conclusion that the law follows Beit Hillel over Beit Shamai was not based on any intellectual criteria, for the Talmud attributes superior sharpness to Beit Shamai. Rather, it was Beit Hillel’s greater sensitivity to others that proved decisive in fixing the law according to their faction. (Crisis of Judaism pg. 119) Similarly, here in R. Berkovits’ writings about the conflict and the use of power by the modern State of Israel, Hillel may be a useful prism through which to understand his positions.

Perhaps Hillel’s most famous saying is his threefold adage: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? And if not now when?”  (Avot 1:13) A Zionism that has no sensitivity to the other, that refuses to draw upon Jewish history to appreciate the suffering of others will produce an embarrassing answer to the question of if I am only for myself what am I. Indeed, Rabbi Berkovits calls upon us to see the suffering of our neighbors through the prism of our historical experience. He calls upon us give the matter of human suffering predominance in our thoughts about addressing the conflict. However, he reminds us and emphasizes over and again Hillel’s opening, if I am not for myself who will be for me. R. Berkovits refuses to deny Jewish rights, to ignore Jewish history, and to overlook existential threats. We must be for and true to ourselves.

Hillel’s final statement in this triad too seems to be relevant. In a critique of Peace Now, Rabbi Berkovits focuses his disapproval the “now” of its moniker. In the absence of any acceptable “reliable long-range commitment as to the terms of the peace… (that won’t threaten) Israeli survival… Peace Now can only mean one thing: peace at any price.” (“He Called them God’s Cossacks,” Sh’ma Dec. 1979) Rabbi Berkovits’ answer to Hillel’s question, if not now when? Not before we can take care of “being for ourselves” or just being at all, for that matter.

In our days, we have voices calling from both sides of the political divide to act immediately, either only for ourselves or with no concern for who will be for us. To act in a fashion that respects the complexity of Hillel, we may have to answer the question of “when?” with, not quite yet.

Note: It should go without saying that I cannot speak authoritatively in the name of Rabbi Berkovits. I never had the pleasure of meeting him or studying with him directly. I have dedicated many hours to studying his writings and have been deeply inspired and enriched by what I found there. These thoughts should be understood as one dedicated reader’s meditations and interpretations – not necessarily their author’s precise conclusions. I pray that I have not misrepresented R. Berkovits.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide and educator.
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