The Atomic Bomb and Zionism: unleashing the genie from the bottle

Atomic Bomb and Zionism: unleashing the genie from the bottle

Rabbi Michael Graetz

I have come to understand that the most shocking and the most profound theology revealed of all prophetic Biblical texts is one verse in the prophet Isaiah: “Who creates light and spawns darkness, who makes peace and spawns evil, I, the Lord, do all of this” (Isa. 45:7). [I translate the Hebrew word ‘borei’ as ‘spawn’ for that verb has embedded the overtone of generation.] The ramifications of a prophet revealing the character of God in this way are astounding. The meaning is clear that the Lord’s “image”, God’s “likeness”, one characteristic of Divinity is non-other than as the progenitor of both good and evil.

Humans, created in God’s “image”, are thus partners of God in spawning good and evil. Indeed, the context of this verse is the works of kings, in this case God’s Messiah [verse 1], Cyrus, who is praised for spawning good, returning the people Israel, God’s chosen, to the land  promised to them by God.

ישעיהו פרק מה

(א) כֹּה־אָמַר ה’ לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְכוֹרֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־הֶחֱזַקְתִּי בִימִינוֹ לְרַד־לְפָנָיו גּוֹיִם וּמָתְנֵי מְלָכִים אֲפַתֵּחַ לִפְתֹּחַ לְפָנָיו דְּלָתַיִם וּשְׁעָרִים לֹא יִסָּגֵרוּ:

(ב) אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֵלֵךְ וַהֲדוּרִים אושר אֲיַשֵּׁר דַּלְתוֹת נְחוּשָׁה אֲשַׁבֵּר וּבְרִיחֵי בַרְזֶל אֲגַדֵּעַ:

(ג) וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ אוֹצְרוֹת חֹשֶׁךְ וּמַטְמֻנֵי מִסְתָּרִים לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי־אֲנִי ה’ הַקּוֹרֵא בְשִׁמְךָ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

(ד) לְמַעַן עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב וְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחִירִי וָאֶקְרָא לְךָ בִּשְׁמֶךָ אֲכַנְּךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּנִי:

(ה) אֲנִי ה’ וְאֵין עוֹד זוּלָתִי אֵין אֱלֹהִים אֲאַזֶּרְךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּנִי:

(ו) לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ מִמִּזְרַח־שֶׁמֶשׁ וּמִמַּעֲרָבָה כִּי־אֶפֶס בִּלְעָדָי אֲנִי ה’ וְאֵין עוֹד:

(ז) יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע אֲנִי ה’ עֹשֶׂה כָל־אֵלֶּה:

But more importantly this theology clearly implies that all human enterprises, including religions, aimed at expressing the Divine dimension of the world to all nations, will be composed of a spectrum which runs from pure good to pure evil. There is no way around it. If God’s character includes that spectrum, and human character is made of that same combination, ergo human actions will also include that spectrum from good to evil.

Now, some claim that this is one of the main theological points of all of Biblical literature from the Creation story, Genesis 1, and on. In the main early rabbinic text, Midrash Rabbah on Genesis, this idea is clearly expressed. Modern scholars have also found this doctrine in the Biblical text by comparing with ancient near eastern context. Most notably Prof. Jon Levenson in his book “Creation and the Persistence of Evil”, who goes to great lengths to show that the whole Bible, among other things, explains how it is that God did not vanquish evil, but let it persist.

From the Bible, I draw a general definition of good as any thought or action that exhibits compassion, and that is meant to grant and/or enhance life; and evil is any thought or action that exhibits the desire to control or anger and is meant to rule over or take life.

The conclusion of this philosophical idea must be that humans, operating on the same principles as their creator, will always exhibit a spectrum of positions and decisions on any part of their experience, a spectrum that will run the gamut from pure good to pure evil and all the possible combinations in between. Since one of the ancient and traditional enterprises of humans is religion, religions will perforce also include such a spectrum.

The great task is to study and spell out this spectrum in every religious tradition, as well as other areas of human activity, so that there can be a widespread cognizance of the spectrum. Whoever claims that there is only one approach in any given religion is far from the truth by any standard. The great challenge for every human being is to choose his/her place on the spectrum out of understanding and knowledge.

How does this work?

I cannot believe that anyone who studies the same text over and over cannot avoid taking it literally to some extent, some people may take it more literally, and others less literally. This seems even more certain to me if the text in question comes with a label of being Divine, or divinely inspired, or authoritative, prescriptive for living, in a word with a halo of religious or even national tradition. No matter how open minded and ‘progressive’ one is, there is no way to avoid some sense of literalness and there is no way to avoid having this text influence how one sees the world, or at the very least, one’s sense of truth and reality, and perhaps influence how one acts and the decisions one makes to act upon.

Our sense of relationships, our judgments of people’s actions, role models are all influenced by the narratives of our sacred texts concerning the heroes and heroines of those stories. We tend to frame our own judgments of people in terms of those who are real and alive for us in the tales from the Bible. One line from the movie “Me and the Colonel” is when Danny Kaye tells his son “the Nazis are Amalek”, and the son asks, so who are the “Jews”, and Kaye replies “the Jews are always the Jews”. But, so much of what passes for our judgments about enemies and heroes is based on Biblical stories. Throughout the ages Jews have interpreted every event in terms of Biblical tales and the characteristics of the players.

The point of all this is that the spectrum of understanding and defining good and evil in the world is based not only on the inherent ability, Divine in origin, of doing good and/or evil; but also on how we interpret the sacred stories of our tradition in those terms. Even though there exists a plurality of interpretations in Jewish texts, including within the Bible itself, still certain interpretations ‘stick’ and become the overwhelming norm. Perhaps, as Rabbi Soloveichick once stated, some Midrashim have luck, ‘mazal’, or perhaps they so cogently served the existential needs of Jews, that those specific interpretations became ingrained in what we call ‘tradition’ or ‘kabbalah’, literally the ‘received wisdom’.

So, once Amalek, to take our example from the movie, is branded as irredeemably evil, any foe of Jews will be so identified; even though the tradition includes a demur about Amalek’s ‘evilness’ and states that Israel’s actions contributed to Amalek’s enmity, and perhaps it could have been avoided if Israel would have acted differently. [“A propos, what is the purpose of [writing], And Lotan’s sister was Timna? — Timna was a royal princess, as it is written, alluf [duke] Lotan, alluf [duke] Timna; and by ‘alluf’ an uncrowned ruler is meant. Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz the son of Esau, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because they should not have repulsed her.” Sanhedrin 99b ]   This opinion is rarely mentioned, and then only in study groups who basically promptly forget it.

In an article about the political skirmishes over climate change George Marshall writes in the Guardian about “proof of the power of cognitive frames“. He explains: “Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm. Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Philip Pullman puts it “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”.” [emphasis mine]

For Jews those stories are from the Bible, Midrash and Jewish commentary on the Bible. For members of other religions those stories are from their respective library of sacred texts.

To the extent that our stories, our sacred texts, combine to create ‘normative interpretations’, our default mentality state will be to process whatever we encounter in the world in terms of, in the frame of, those interpretations. Despite the existence of competing alternative interpretations, within the scope of the ‘normative interpretations’, and in spite of the possibility of alternative interpretation of the sacred text itself on our own, most, if not almost all, of a particular culture will always return to the interpretation sanctioned by tradition within a span of say the preceding 200 – 300 years or so. [This is just an approximation based on historical changes within Jewish history.]

For example take the relation to Amalek mentioned above, or the relation to Esau, Edom, in Jewish culture. In terms of Marshall’s points above any person or group whom a Jewish group identifies as reincarnations or progeny of those Biblical characters will automatically be perceived an enemy and a threat which must be dealt with.

Witness the doctorate by Yaakov Tzur on Tabenkin, the united kibbutz movement, and the whole land of Israel idea. Even Ben Gurion, who was culturally a man of the world, open minded and liberal, studied the Bible in a way that would make Protestant fundamentalists proud, and founded an NGO to spread Bible study around Israel and the Jewish world. Although his decisions were always tempered with his assessment of reality, he was still a Biblical fundamentalist to a certain degree, and in his one decision which was oblivious to other assessments of reality, the declaration of the state of Israel, he was under the influence of that fundamentalist side of himself.

Marshall goes on to write: “Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us, and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target, and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats….  Narratives need to be about co-operation on common ground – and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people.

To the degree that we are under the influence of these constitutive texts, they constitute part of our view of reality and influence the decision making process in our actions, we are all fundamentalists to that degree. That means that the majority of a given society will agree on who is an enemy, and eschew narratives of co-operation. The Jewish idea of a lonely nation separate from other nations of the world inherently makes it harder to conceive of co-operation narratives, and this idea is enhanced and emboldened by the doctrine of being ‘chosen’ by God out of Divine favor.

Even though that in the Prophetic books, and others, there is a clear doctrine of God’s choice being a favor given to Israel in making them a nation, like all other nations, these passages are not in the mainstream of Jewish narrative as it developed after the destruction of the second Temple. They did find expression in Jewish prayer texts in the land of Israel, but those have also disappeared for the last 1,000 years. Now that they have been ‘rediscovered’, mainly in the treasure known as the Cairo Genizah, we are slowly gaining insight into an alternative path to explaining God’s ‘choice’ of Israel. However, that path is a long way from being part of the normal discourse of Jewish culture at the present time.

In the book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” the author, Richard Rhodes, reports Oppenheimer reaction upon seeing the first atomic bomb test at Los Alamos “what have we done, we’ve released the genie of destruction from the bottle”. It was that moment that turned Oppenheimer into the crusader trying to suppress and hide away the creation of nuclear weapons.

Social equivalents such as allowing free speech or democratic election of governments also contain an inherent quality of releasing the genie, all frustrations, insults, wild ideas are possible, and protected by society. The ability to think and perpetrate pure evil is now possible as a political outcome in any given democratic society. If free speech is central, then we must learn how to cope with the genies released. See the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 11 on zaken mamre, which attempts to define the fine line between freedom of speech and sedition.

Zionism was to create a Jewish state, that is, return the Jewish people to a status of equality among all the peoples of the world, in a political mode. That is, power and status on a level playing field with all other nations. The miscalculation was not to factor in the centuries of anti-Judaism, and to think that restoring political status to the Jewish nation would somehow ‘solve’ the centuries of prejudice and enmity, even racist hatred, inculcated in so much of the world against Jews. We now see clearly that centuries of indoctrination, education to despise, and permission to injure cannot be easily eradicated or even significantly reduced by changes in other areas of status.

But, there was another miscalculation. That was an internal one, not related to the age old problem of Jewish status among anti-Jewish societies. That is that once Judaism is now the major cultural focus of a political sovereign state, ALL of Jewish sources are grounds for policy, for action of groups who believe in them and accept them as authoritative for their own personal lives. Until now each Jewish group could define ‘Judaism’ in a selective and eclectic way, choosing those items in Jewish tradition that fit its own worldview of what Judaism should be. But, once there is a state which is based on Jewish sources, one must now take into account ALL of the possibilities that exist in Jewish sources, which is a very broad spectrum of ideas and regulations.

For example, one cannot be ‘shocked’ at Torat ha-Melekh, or any  of the groups wishing to destroy the mosques on the temple mount and rebuild the Temple, because all of those ideas and halakhot are in Jewish sources, and thus, now legitimate to be acted upon. One cannot be ‘shocked’ that people acted upon the halakha that it was permissible to murder a prime minister who was violating Torah law, as they understood it, in such a basic way as giving up parts of the land of Israel.

Indeed, after 65 years of Jewish statehood we can now say that we are beginning to understand that one of the consequences will be that Jews will be able to organize and act on passages that were suppressed for generations in Jewish life.

Our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, had a vision for Judaism in a democratic state. Heschel moved beyond a simple view of halakha and aggada in the fashion of Bialik. In Torah Min ha-Shamayim [TMS] he deepens and enriches the relationship of halakha and aggada to talk about “wholeness” between two different and, in some sense opposing, forces. I believe that he was beginning to develop a vision for how to relate to Judaism, all of it, in the Jewish state. I believe that this began in his writing about Israel after the 6 day war. In his book Israel: an echo of eternity, Heschel includes at the beginning a short philosophical passage, which to my mind, is the key to understanding his work that appeared after that book, in particular TMS.

Here is the passage: “The Intimation Of An Answer

A necessary condition affecting human beliefs in philosophy and religion is the paradox. The source of their paradoxical character has its origin in the essential polarity of human being, e.g., in the opposition between unconditional truth and man’s necessarily conditional perception of truth, in the opposition of unity and multiplicity, of the general and the particular, of the universal and the individual.

All men are created equal, yet no two faces are alike. All days can be defined in the same way – the period of the earth’s revolution around its axis – yet the Sabbath is conceived in a special way. We are called upon to respect all human beings, yet are also called upon to revere our parents in a special way.

The chief difference between common sense and philosophical doctrine may be said to be “that the philosopher by his finer analysis, reveals the paradoxes which our everyday consciousness veils by means of a more or less thoughtless traditional phraseology. The philosopher is more frank with his antithesis. He does not invent the paradoxes; he confesses them.”  [Josiah Royce, Lectures on Modern Idealism (Yale, 1919 p. 93)] To ignore paradox is to miss the truth.”

Clearly Heschel here is grappling with the paradox of particularity and universality, which is a central problem in Jewish life, but in exile did not have to be grappled with directly. In free societies it was even possible to choose one or the other sides of the paradox and mold your own personal life according to it, awarding significance to the other pole as you wished. But, in the Jewish  state, it was clear to AJH that this would not be possible.

Indeed, one could sketch a broad outline of Jewish history in terms of Israel as a nation among the nations. In the beginning it was singled out by God to become a nation, through the election of individuals who in the end constituted an enlarged clan of tribal families. This whole group became enslaved, but was freed from slavery by God, in order to become a nation among the nation, and to live in the land God had promised to the individuals. But, now they were to express their particular culture as a nation by living by laws and codes of conduct that were revealed to them as a result of their ongoing encounter with God.

After a while, this nation did not follow those laws and codes, indeed they trampled upon them, and the nation was exiled in order to learn how to live with other nations. This same process occurred a second time. This second exile lasted until 1948 or our own lifetimes.

Now, the nation was given another opportunity to learn to live with other nations. The great kindness that God had showed them, God’s love was to take a group of people and raise them to the status of nation. Not as a superior nation, or a ruler of nations, rather, that status was to be appreciated and used in efforts to enable all nations to feel beloved by God, and thus to achieve a world without war.

This is foretold by the prophet Micah 4:

  1. But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow to it.
  2. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
  3. And he shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning far away strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.
  4. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.
  5. For let all people walk everyone in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.

Isaiah’s words “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56, 7) reflects the vision of Micah that every nation will continue to follow their god, just as Israel will be loyal to the Lord.

In order for these visions to be translated into reality the people of Israel must be able to reshape ideas and the prayer texts which form and mold those ideas into mentalities. Given that no one approach will ever, or can ever, be agreed upon by all Jews; it is enough if a significant group of Jews engages in the enterprise suggested here. It is enough if this group will discuss, learn, teach and spell out exactly how Jews are to maintain their acceptance of having been chosen to receive God’s love; exactly in order so that they can see themselves as part of God’s love for all nations. There is no contradiction between these two ideas. Indeed, if God’s love is infinite, there is no point, or even ability, to distinguish quality of love between different groups. In human love there may be differences in force and quality of love between say, a parent and children, but to apply that understanding of love to God’s love for nations is clearly a distortion of the basic notion of God’s love. God’s disapproval of certain actions applies even to those whom God loves. That is appropriate, but in no measure could one think that God’s love is greater or more qualitative for one nation over another.

My plea is to begin the study and the discussion of this issue within the vast literature of Jewish sources. As it is written: “…for it is time to favor her, the set time has come” [Psalm 102, 14].