Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nisan/Pesach: Permission for Revolution

With the current “Arab spring” series of uprisings in the Middle East, including a very prominent one in, of all places, Eretz Mitzrayim itself, it seems that questions of freedom and, to quote our esteemed President, “legitimacy to rule” couldn’t be better timed.

Recently I came across a copy of the Satmarer’s Vayoel Moshe [in the possession of a friend, who was, of all things, a Lubavitcher. Talk about thinking/reading outside your “box”]. I had never actually read any of it, but from an array of various secondary sources I was vaguely familiar with the gist of the Satmarer’s main point, to wit, that the “three shevuos” derived from Shir HaShirim and discussed in the last perek of Kesubos serve as the basis for an absolute issur vis-à-vis the re-creation of a Jewish polity before bias hamoshiach, and which consequently form the backbone of Satmar’s, and others’, unyielding opposition to Zionism.

[I was also familiar—also vaguely—with arguments against the Satmarer, from the Meshech Chochma’s observation that the Balfour Declaration served as a sign that the shevuos were matir [even though the Meshech Chochma himself had a very dim view of Zionism and Zionists], from other arguments that the three shevuos were aggadic in nature and never meant to be applied in any halachic framework.]

in any case, political quietism and “shatdlanus” were certainly the order of the day until at least sometime in the mid-19th century [also a heyday of “revolutions”, starting in 1848 and never really stopping afterward]. Which raises an interesting question: is “revolution” a “goyishe” concept?

We can start with one common thread between what happened in Egypt then and what happened in Egypt now: someone spoke truth to power. In the case of the Exodus, Moshe and Aharon were speaking on behalf of a whole nation [not to mention G-d]; in the more contemporary case, a large portion of the Egyptian citizenry did the job. Not to raise Tahrir square to a prophetic madrega, but it definitely qualified as a legitimate affliction of the comfortable, regardless of the eventual political outcome in Cairo. That kind of revolution does not have to be labeled as “goyish”.

The interesting thing about the “revolution” of yitzias mitzraim, however, is that it had this in common with the Zionist “revolution”: both of them involved the Jews basically asking for permission to revolt! Moshe basically asked Pharaoh [at least] ten times to “Let my people go”; he never said “We’re leaving” [though he did insist, as the posuk in Bo [Shmos 10:9] relates, that Pharaoh would have to give permission for EVERYONE to leave]. Similarly, the original [secular, anyway] Zionists asked “nicely” if they could have their land back—twice: once at the time of the Balfour Declaration, and the other time at the Lake Success UN vote in 1947—and were answered in the affirmative both times [though both the British and the UN tried—or are still trying—to take it back in both cases]. The Satmarer would have said that it wasn’t our place to even ask, but as shown, not everyone agrees.

[Also, as interesting technical aside, before the makas bechoros, G-d gave the Jews the mitzvah of “haChodesh haZeh”, which according to the first Rashi in the Torah, should be the firstposuk in the Torah because it is the first mitzvah in the Torah given to the Jews as a nation. Once G-d gave that commandment, the Jews could no longer be classified as a rebellious slave minority; they were now state actors and a legitimate political entity [albeit still landless]. This was their [lhavdil] Declaration of Independence and possibly the preamble to their Constitution.]

Is “asking for permission” any way to sustain a revolution? Might depend how you define a “revolution”. The Russian anarcho-revolutionaries who both preceded and were contemporaries of Lenin were advocates of what almost might be termed “revolution lishma”—that is, violent uprisings for their own sake with the ultimate aim to upend society and leave nothing in its wake. Needless to say Judaism has no truck with this type of revolution.

A less sanguine, but still rather sanguine, view of revolution was articulated by Thomas Jefferson, who thought that violence in the course of revolutionary activity was not necessarily a bad thing. With all due respect Jefferson, several successful and long lasting revolutions succeeded without a shot being fired, notably much of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that raised the Iron Curtain from most of Central Europe and Asia [though the century and a half lead in from the time of the original Communist revolutions certainly exercised a heavy cost in lives]. In a similar vein, while the Israeli and Indian states were not created without some [considerable] spilling of blood, the fact that stable democracies emerged from the smoke of various wars indicates that the aforementioned Jeffersonian “ideal” is a sometimes inevitable byproduct, but by no means a necessary or desirable one.

Are the Arab revolts engaged in asking for permission? Some of the Arab revolts are actually aping the more positive aspects of revolt; witness the non-violence on the part of the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain [despite the fact that in all these cases there has been often brutal official reprisals]. In the one exception to the current cases, the fact that the international community has given help [albeit limited] to the armed Libyan rebels indicates that, somewhere, someone believed that permission had to be granted from someone, whether the EU or UN or US; they practically begged for it and got it.

There are many Biblical and Talmudic bon mots that seem to militate against any kind of serious anti-governmental agitation [ones that don’t involve prophets admonishing wayward kings at G-d’s direct behest, anyway]. One is Ecclesiastes 8:4--4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, “What are you doing?” Which is exactly what’s happening now. Also is the Pirkei Avos’ [3:2] admonition “Pray for the welfare of the government, for if not for fear of it, each man would swallow his fellow alive”…and, rightfully, is the fear that anarchy will follow in areas where there is no tradition of a truly civil society to fill a power vacuum [especially in Yemen and Libya]. Plus, the last thing the Arabs—even the well-meaning ones who actually want democracy and the rule of law—want to hear is ‘Do things the way the Jews [should] do them”. Plus, there is the more obvious question on everyone’s mind is, of course, is this good for the Jews/Israel? Already there are rumblings about treaty abrogations and siding with Gazans from some Egyptian notables, plus there is the ever-looming spectre of Islamist takeovers everywhere there is even a momentary power vacuum.

Still, it seems that the idea of just revolutions has some basis—however limited—within a classical Judaic framework, and we can only hope that, in this season of the first Jewish revolution, that framework is followed.