Insanity and Hope

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Warren Zev Harvey

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in Or Eḥad: An Anthology of Thoughts on the War and on the Day after It, ed. Arik Solomon (Mitzpeh-Ilan: January 2024), 6-7,[1] and it is published here with permission. English translation by the author.

One of the well-known sources of old-time religious Zionism is the treatise by R. Joseph Kaspi (1280-1345) on the future Third Temple in his book Tam ha-Kesef (discourse 8).[2] Kaspi argues there that the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel is a “natural” thing and a “likely possibility.” It is very possible because history consists of unexpected events. “Who does not know, or who does not see, the continual and ever-changing rise and fall of nations?” History displays no apparent direction. The Christians conquered the entire Kingdom of Aragon and the island of Mallorca from the Muslims in 1231, while the Muslims conquered the Galilee, Syria, and Acre from the Christians in 1291. “Who can give a reason for this?” Not us mortals; God alone knows. “Can there be such insanity, I mean, that it should occur to us to try to determine a reason or cause for the actions of God in these events?… Discussion of all of this is extreme insanity [shigga’on muflag].” History knows no scientific rules (“covering laws”). The future is unpredictable. “If so, why should it be a miracle in anyone’s eyes for the Land of Israel to return to us from the hands of the Muslims?” Since history makes no sense but is “extreme insanity,” everything is possible, including the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

Kaspi’s conception of history as “extreme insanity” is the exact opposite of the deterministic or “stychic” doctrine of Hegel, Borochov, and R. Abraham Isaac Kook, which has dominated religious Zionism in recent years. However, the hope of Zionism is based, according to Kaspi, not on the faith in historical determinism but precisely on the negation of this faith. The future is not predetermined but is wide open and surprising. If everything is possible, there is hope.

The horrific events which took place on this year’s Simhat Torah holiday exemplify in a chilling way Kaspi’s anti-deterministic view of world affairs.

On the eve of Simhat Torah this year, the situation in Israel was rather good. Despite many months of extremely turbulent social conflicts that raged among us following the government’s controversial “legal reform,” there was reason for optimism. As part of the successful Abraham Accords, United States President Joe Biden led a new political move that promised to secure peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel and to improve significantly the situation of the Palestinians. The Prime Minister of Israel delivered a very optimistic speech at the United Nations on September 22, declaring that “we are at the cusp of an historic peace with Saudi Arabia” which will “create a new Middle East.” A few days after this speech, two Israeli ministers visited Saudi Arabia as part of two different official delegations and were received with all due honors. Israeli tourism to Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, had grown greatly in the past three years, reaching approximately two million visitors per year. Similarly, the business ties between Israel and these Muslim countries developed impressively. Indeed, on the eve of Simhat Torah this year, the situation in Israel was rather good.

The hideous success of the attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists on Simhat Torah was neither expected nor inevitable. The IDF is a strong, intelligent, and rich army, which has all the means necessary to protect its borders. The army had very detailed information about Hamas’s attack plans, and one would think that it could have known how to thwart any plot. It is true that the Israeli government harbored an irresponsible illusion that Hamas was not interested in carrying out its attack plans in the near future, but this illusion in itself could not be a sufficient condition for the defensive failure. After all, even someone who believes that the chances of war are low should fortify one’s line of defense adequately. On Simhat Torah, Israel’s line of defense on the Gaza border was not in a satisfactory state of readiness. Various partial explanations have been given for this dereliction (e.g., soldiers were home for the holiday, vital tactical reserve forces were transferred from positions on the Gaza border to policing activity in Judea and Samaria, or tanks and other armored vehicles were being repaired). Whatever the reasons, the failure was not inevitable. Senior military commentators all over the world were amazed and wondered how such a catastrophe could have befallen a formidable army like the IDF. In places along the border where there was a sufficient order of forces, the terrorists were repelled or killed. If there had been a sufficient order of forces along the entire separation fence, the attack would have been foiled; the atrocities would have been avoided; the captives would not have been captured; the abductees would not have been abducted; the long, bloody war with Hamas would not have happened; and antisemitism throughout the world would not have skyrocketed. And maybe we would now be celebrating the peace agreement with Saudi Arabia and speaking about a “new Middle East.”

In short, the abysmal difference between our situation on the eve of Simhat Torah and our situation after the morning of the holiday corroborates Kaspi’s anti-deterministic view of world affairs. History is extreme insanity.

I thought of Kaspi’s words when I saw the editors’ guiding question for this anthology. They wrote: “We… seek to produce a booklet… named Or Eḥad [‘One Light’] with articles… outlining… the direction in which we are going. If, as of today, it is difficult to understand where everything that is happening around us is taking us, then we seek to propose the goal, the ideal, to which one should strive.”

Now, I admit that I do not understand the direction in which we are going, and I do not know how we can get out of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. I certainly do not think that anything good can come out of the grave failure on the morning of Simhat Torah this year. I do not identify with those who say, “We will come out of this stronger than ever.” True, Nietzsche did say: “What doesn’t kill me, strengthens me” (Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker).[3] But death does not strengthen me. No good can ever come from mass murders.

Well, what should we do? I can think of only one thing. After the return of all the hostages and the end of the war, we must work very hard to try to restore all that was destroyed, as much as possible. Beyond that, I find some hope in Kaspi’s view. Just as we came into this darkness unexpectedly, so can we unexpectedly come into the light. Everything is possible.

[1] Available at

[2] Text and translation in Adrian Sackson, Joseph ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Hebrew Philosopher in Medieval Provence (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 295-317. Compare, e.g., Menachem M. Kasher, ed., Israel Passover Haggadah (New York: Torah Shelemah Committee, 1950), 133. See also Alexander Green, Power and Progress: Joseph Ibn Kaspi and the Meaning of History (Albany: SUNY Press, 2019).

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, I, Aphorism 8.

Warren Zev Harvey is professor emeritus in the Department of Jewish Thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.