Why the rabbis worried about criticism of Israel

Prophetic diatribes against Israel did not always go down well with the rabbis.

By David Aberbach, May 14, 2009
Repent, O Israel! Paul Gustave Dore’s depiction of the prophet Micah preaching

Repent, O Israel! Paul Gustave Dore’s depiction of the prophet Micah preaching

The idea that, as William Blake put it, “opposition is true friendship”, has been one of the faint consolations in Jewish martyrology. Opposition by the ancient pagan world, by Greece and Rome, by Christian Europe and Islam, though often painfully unjust and criminally destructive, has in some ways fructified Judaism and enabled it to adapt to change, and to survive and grow.

Even the worst outbreaks of antisemitism and Jewish self-hate can have some positive repercussions. Theodor Herzl put it bluntly, in the JC of January 17 1896, in his utopian plan for a Jewish state: “The force we need is created in us by antisemitism.”

That Israel, as Alan Dershowitz and other defenders of the Jewish state have repeatedly said, is “unfairly condemned around the world” (JC May 1 2009), or that Jewish academics such as Isaiah Leibowitz, Noam Chomsky or Jacqueline Rose, have often found in Israel and the Jewish people more blackness than virtue, more psychological sickness than health (see David Hirsh, JC April 10 2009), is déjà vu all over again.

Self-criticism, even if excessive, is central in traditional Judaism: in chosenness comes moral responsibility; and this to an extent motivates some of Israel’s critics today. Already in the Hebrew Bible, Israel more than any other nation is singled out for blame. The idea of collective guilt and punishment dominates much of the book of Deuteronomy, whose curses of sinful Israel are as powerful as the bitterest prophetic diatribe in Isaiah. In prophetic and rabbinic literature, the Jewish people are accused collectively of fratricidal strife, immorality, idolatry, and love of Mammon, causing the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, in 587 BCE and 70 CE.

As Judaism spread in the ancient world and the Hebrew Bible was translated into other languages, particularly Greek, these internal Jewish self-criticisms entered the mainstream of civilisation and, as Christianity spread, were used to justify antisemitic persecution and denigration. Foreshadowing the medieval and modern periods when assimilated and baptised Jews included leading antisemites, Hellenised Jews and Judaeo-Christians in the first and second centuries CE were among the fiercest critics of their own people, and vulnerable to self-hatred.

The question how far to single Israel out for criticism was transformed by the three Jewish revolts against Rome (66-70, 115-17, 132-35 CE), when the rabbis of Israel were faced with the greatest tragedy in Jewish history before the Holocaust: the Romans destroyed the Jewish state and the Temple, synagogues, schools, houses of study, and libraries, tortured and executed teachers and scribes and enslaved or exiled many of the survivors; they ploughed Jerusalem over, wiped dozens of Jewish villages off the map, eliminated the Jewish presence in southern Palestine and replaced it with a gentile population.

Even more than previously, Hellenistic antisemites viewed Jews collectively as a band of superstitious lepers, enemies of humanity, hated by the gods, while Christians and the Church pointed to the Jewish defeats as a sign that God had abandoned his chosen people: Jewish scripture was holy but Judaism was finished and superseded by Christianity; the Jews survived only in their stiff-necked refusal to embrace Christianity; curses and denunciations in the biblical prophetic works were directed by Christians against the Jews; blessings and messages of hope and redemption were reserved for the followers of Jesus.

So painful was the loss of state and Temple and so fierce the polemics in the early Christian era — reaching its tragic climax in the Gospels with the fateful accusation of Jewish deicide — that prophetic diatribes and threats against Israel, with their divine authority, at times seemed odious. Words of comfort, hope and love were needed instead. The Midrash comments on the verse in Song of Songs, “Do not look upon me that I am black”: “The Congregation of Israel said to the prophets: do not look for blackness [moral flaws] in me.”

In their love for Israel, the rabbis recoiled from the prophetic role of “telling Israel his sin”. The Midrash attacks biblical prophets: Samuel and Elijah, for their alleged arrogance, slander, or lack of respect and compassion for Israel; Isaiah, for comparing God’s beloved people to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah and describing them as “impure of lips”; Hosea, for attacking Israel as an adulterous harlot, humiliated together with the children of her adultery; Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for slandering Israel by showing Jerusalem her “abominations”.

Even Moses is not exempt from rabbinic criticism: he should have loved God’s chosen people more, not doubted, questioned and insulted them. His complaint to God that the Israelites “will not believe in me” (Exodus 4: 1) is treated as an obnoxious slander: he is punished with leprosy and death before he reaches the Promised Land. Some rabbis went to the opposite extreme, idealising the Jews as favoured above all peoples, even above the angels.

The Talmud reflects a profound understanding of the Jewish people as a vulnerable minority exposed to a frequently hostile majority. The rabbis were not opposed to debate and constructive national self-criticism: on the contrary. But they were sensitive to the corrosive effects of loss of national morale, to which the prophets may have inadvertently contributed, of excessive self-criticism and self-estrangement, leading to a desire for assimilation, and consequent Jewish hostility to Jews and Judaism. Jewish self-hate influenced the rabbis in their efforts to improve Jewish education.

For if the enemies of the Jews could not be cured of their prejudices, if justice and fairness could not be taken for granted, the Jews could at least try to teach their own children the positive values of Judaism, to encourage them to take pride in their Jewish heritage.

David Aberbach is the author of Jewish Cultural Nationalism

Last updated: 4:10pm, July 22 2009