Jewish Anarchism: The Forgotten Legacy of Orthodoxy’s Radical Politics

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Book review of Hayyim Rothman, No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021)

Hayyim Rothman’s recent book, No Masters but God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism, offers the reader an opportunity to engage with a stream of thought within the Orthodox spectrum which he calls “anarcho-Judaism.” Starting from the latter part of the 19th century and continuing through the interwar period, Rothman offers a thought-provoking portrait of a group of thinkers that challenged the boundaries of political systems, Orthodoxy, rabbinic literature, and the religious experience itself. These thinkers saw Jewish texts as promoting a notion of anarchy as the proper political order and believed that rabbinic literature, if read through the correct prism, deplores government intervention and celebrates freedom of faith and conscience. The book surveys the intellectual legacy of ten different Orthodox thinkers and discusses how they justified the integration of religious faith and practice with their adherence to political anarchism with its critique of religion, and how they saw the role of the Jewish people in light of anarchism and its critique of nationalism. 

The eight thinkers discussed in this book as representing anarcho-Judaism are pointedly dubbed “the minyan.” This “minyan” is composed of Yaakov Meir Zalkind, Yitshak Nahman Steinberg, Yehudah-Leyb Don-Yahiya, Avraham Yehudah Heyn, Natan Hofshi, Shmuel Alexandrov, Yehudah Ashlag and Aaron Shmuel Tamaret. Rothman argues that all the members of this group pointed to a unique element in Judaism that sets it apart from other religious groups, and that gives it space even in the anarchic vision of the future after the abolishment of governments and nation states. 

Each chapter is devoted to one of these figures, offering a biographical sketch and a dive into the ideas they espoused. Within the context of the interwar period, the book explores how these writers who grew in the sphere of the shtetl read anarchism into their religious tradition and how they envisioned the world to look. Because most of the names are quite obscure, the book offers a necessary introduction to the forgotten legacy of these religious Jewish anarchists. The thorough analysis of each thinker shows how anarchist ideas brought them to reinterpret the Torah, traditional practices, and, most importantly, the mission of modern Jewry.

The panoramic view of these thinkers over the course of the book’s ten chapters is an especially important contribution for the English reader since it fills a noticeable gap in scholarship by offering first-ever English translations of Hebrew and Yiddish texts and lays the foundation for future research. This is particularly the case with the chapters on Yitshak Nahman Steinberg and Yehudah Ashlag, to whom I will devote the rest of this essay. Both of them have been the topic of some scholarly work in the past, but this is the first time there is a comprehensive look at their writings that serves as an introduction to interested readers and allows further exploration of their work. 

Yitshak Nahman Steinberg

In the case of Yitshak Nahman Steinberg, a thorough introduction has been long overdue. Steinberg was the Minister of Justice in the first government of Russia established after the 1917 revolution. As a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary party, he was a monumental figure in the revolution and played an important part in the toppling of the Czar and the establishment of the first democratic government in Russia. He wrote extensively in Russian and Yiddish, and after fleeing to the U.S. soon after the Bolshevik revolution he was a vocal proponent of the establishment of a Jewish autonomy outside of Israel. 

He was only recently the topic of scholarly interest when German historian Tobis Grill published several articles on Steinberg, but those didn’t explore Steinberg’s connection to Judaism, and were published in German. Rothman’s chapter therefore serves an important addition since it gives a much-needed overview of Steinberg’s thought to the English reader. Most significantly, he convincingly argues that even though Steinberg spent his political career as a socialist, a close reading of his work reveals that his interest in socialism should be seen as a phase in the progress towards anarchism. This point of view helps to explain many of the ideological questions Steinberg discussed through the years. 

A subject which I found most telling was Steinberg’s approach to violence. The use of violence, which is integral to the Marxist narrative, necessarily presents a challenge to a person of faith. Steinberg had to justify the use of violence both as a person of faith and as a jurist. In doing so, Steinberg argued that a minimal amount of violence is needed for the success of the revolution, and as long as violence is employed in the smallest yet effective manner, it is morally justifiable for the greater good (65-74). Still, Steinberg struggled with this dissonance; as Rothman shows, he critiqued Marxism because he viewed its violence as morally deviant: “Every deviation from the party line is also a deviation from the ‘dictates of history’ that ‘must be removed unhesitatingly and ruthlessly’” (74). Steinberg’s critique of the Marxian infatuation with violence did not make him a pacifist, however: he accepted the need for violence in the context of the revolution but was quick to acknowledge that there is a real risk that the Marxist use of violence will deteriorate to a dictatorship.   

Judaism played an ambiguous role in Steinberg’s writings. Rothman’s analysis of his writing notes references to religious texts, and argues based on these references that Steinberg’s anarchism stems from his religious belief. However, based on Rothman’s own exposition, I come to the opposite conclusion. In the texts Steinberg produced, Jewish sources are referenced only rudimentarily; they evoke biblical and rabbinic axioms as catchphrases and slogans but do not offer a fundamental analysis of Jewish texts, especially rabbinic literature. Steinberg quotes Proverbs 3:18, which states that Torah is the tree of life, and therefore asserts that Jewish spirituality is an “organic permeation of human life and human community with religious value…pairing prosaic needs and duties with eternal life” (68). This is only one of many other examples of this kind of discourse which barely exceeds a tenuous sermon-like connection between Jewish sources and anarchism. For Steinberg, the relationship between Judaism and anarchism manifested in an anarchist reading of Judaism, and so he superimposed his ideology on Jewish texts rather than vice versa. Notwithstanding Steinberg’s doctoral dissertation on criminal law in rabbinic literature, which was not discussed at length in this chapter, Steinberg does not deeply engage with rabbinic literature but appeals to individual verses and broad ideas. This is of course far from surprising; it is hard to see an anarchic legacy in rabbinic literature. (There was an attempt for such a reinterpretation of rabbinic texts by Amnon Shapira, a current Israeli academic whose research focuses on religious Jewish anarchism. His work is referenced elsewhere by Rothman, but Rothman chose not to include a discussion about it here since it falls outside of the geographical and historical boundaries of this project.) 

This weak association between anarchism and Judaism becomes apparent when reading several of the chapters of the book as well, including the chapter on Yaakov Meir Zalkind. Zalkind is perhaps the most prominent member of the anarchist minyan, as the London-based editor of the important anarchist Yiddish newspaper Arbeter Fraynd. Reading this chapter left me with the impression that Zalkind’s interest in radical politics was not confined to or dependent on Jewish texts and traditions: Zalkind saw nationalism as having a role in the future of humanity to one degree or another, but this was true for all nations with no particularistic interest in Judaism as a religion. While the figures discussed in the book themselves were religiously observant, their use of rabbinic texts seems to suggest they forced anarchist ideas onto Jewish texts; they used rabbinic texts as a foundation, knowing full well they are being taken out of context. At least one chapter, however, depicts a different trajectory, to which I will now turn.

Yehudah Leib Ashlag 

The story of Yehudah Leib Ashlag (1885-1954) is different from the other thinkers in the book, since, unlike the others, he became a better-known figure and a prolific writer. His work of popularizing Kabbalah and its literature evolved to many facets in the past century and his interpretation to the Zohar titled “Sulam” became very popular in enabling public access to the Zohar. Ashlag was born in Poland in the Hasidic sphere and after assuming a rabbinic position moved to Jerusalem in the 1920s. There has been previous scholarly attention to his work; for example, scholars Boaz Huss and Yonatan Garb analyze his many texts that intended to introduce the Zohar and other works from the Ari to the masses. In contrast, this chapter serves as an overview to Ashlag’s political and religious works that puts him in historical and ideological context. Since there is so much to say about Ashlag and the movement he created, it is easy to lose focus, and so this chapter offers an important and comprehensive overview. 

Rothman portrays Ashlag not as a socialist as other scholars characterize him, but rather as an anarcho-socialist. This is an important distinction, since the political strategy of anarcho-socialism is quite different from socialist tactics. While socialism calls for a state mechanism that will govern all aspects of social needs and will navigate the economy for that reason, the anarcho-socialist agenda envisages communal social responsibility in which the close and immediate community satisfies the social needs of each individual. Ashlag wrote about political visions that were well beyond the reality of political narratives in the 1940s and 1950s in Israel. He envisaged a Jewish-Arab coexistence founded on a shared monotheistic legacy and an economic regime where private property is abolished and consumerism is vanquished by spirituality. Rothman’s account of Ashlag as an anarchist portrays him as a religious leader who believed that a political revolution will be the result of spiritual growth rather than political struggles. 

Another unique aspect of this intellectual biography is the fact that Ashlag presented a political vision that is grounded in text in a much more pronounced way than the other members of the anarchist minyan. A striking example is found in his use of tzimtzum and hishtavut, central concepts in Kabbalist and Hasidic texts. The first, tzimtzum, refers to the Lurianic concept of creation: to allow for the creation of separate beings, the world was not created by diluting divine presence, but rather through a process of divine contraction. In the Lurianic understanding of creation, there was a paradigmatic shift that occurred during the divine detachment from creation, but that process is countered and is in equilibrium with the construct of “God fills and surrounds all worlds” (ממלא כל עלמין וסובב כל עלמין). These terms refer to elements of the divine that are separated from reality and influence it like a light that hovers above the creation; this light is both internal to creation and maintains a connection with reality. Rothman connects that with the second term, hishtavut, usually defined as a state of equanimity: “The secret of the light is the fact that in it, light and darkness shine as one. I would venture to suggest that this refers to the idea of hishtavut. That is, the transformation by dint of which the will to receive becomes akin, and therefore achieves devekut, to the will to give by receiving in order to give. The whole of Ashlag’s socio-political doctrine is contained in this passage” (149).

Indeed, he took this esoteric vision of the future and portrayed it as an achievable goal—though in a spiritual more than political sense. His texts suggest that through spiritual endeavors the ego may be transformed and enable what Rothman terms “libertarian communism” (139-145). The term, Rothman explains, refers to a system that is based on mutualism and a distribution of wealth based on altruism. While Ashlag did not promote a total abrogation of private property, he limited the ability to derive profit from it. The anarchic element in this vision comes from the total lack of physical compulsion. Altruism is celebrated and lack of it is chastised in public opinion—but there is no compulsion. 

This utopian vision included a role for the Jewish people. Ashlag saw the Jews as destined to relay the message of international solidarity via their national solidarity. However, these texts should be viewed in a context of a utopian religious narrative that envisages the eschaton, and not as political documents that need to be translated to actual political action plans. This consideration, in my opinion, underscores all of his writings: the texts alone seem to offer very little in the way of real-world political value. To further evaluate the political elements of Ashlag’s work, it would be worthwhile to investigate how others in his circle who continued the quest to introduce Kabbalah to the masses saw their role in the political arena, if at all.

Anarcho-Judaism and Jewish Peoplehood

When looking at the biographies of the anarchist minyan from a panoramic view, it becomes clear that on the whole, these thinkers viewed Jewish peoplehood as a positive characteristic that has a necessary place even in a post-nationalistic future. Each of these thinkers had a very different approach towards the core of peoplehood, from biology through culture to faith, but regardless of their definitions, most of these thinkers saw a role for a Jewish homeland in the process of world history that liberates humanity and ends with global freedom (230-231). Even in an anarchic world, most (though not all) singled out the Jewish people and justified the need for a homeland, since they saw Judaism as carrying an anti-particularistic message. A Jewish homeland does not necessarily negate the vision of human unity since Judaism called for a sense of siblinghood for all mankind. Furthermore, the anarchist minyan saw the kehilah and its institutions, mainly the beit din, as the core of the organic community that will create the commonwealth they envisaged, and at least in theory they saw Jewish law and its lack of administrative hierarchy as a blueprint for a future political system (232).   

Rothman concludes the book by juxtaposing Zionism and anarcho-Judaism. He characterizes Zionism as utopian in its core. Indeed, some scholars have dubbed it as utopian, but for Rothman Zionism became an ideology once the state was established, and is at its core a utopian narrative that enables one to critique the reality of Israel with all of its problems. In this context, he suggests Anarcho-Judaism can offer useful concepts of Jewish peoplehood and identity that can enrich the Jewish identity discourse so central to Israel and its political process. For example, he suggests that the anarchist minyan’s message of a homeland as a spiritual center focused on return to the land rather than political sovereignty can serve as a useful political terminology that will release both Jews and Arabs from the impasse of the one/two-state solution. However, leaving utopia aside, it is hard to see how this can be the case in the current political reality. As I’ve shown throughout this essay, these ideas were then as now completely disconnected from the realpolitik of the period and from the foundational elements of identity for most Jews—be it religious Jews or, perhaps even more so, secular Jews. These ideas also overlook the constructs of Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian identities that have little to no connection to these narratives. Be it as it may, this book is an achievement and a contribution to the study of Jewish politics that will serve as a foundation for future scholarship in many other fields.

Ilan Fuchs maintains an active research agenda focusing on the history of Jewish education and the intersection of gender and Halakhah. Holding a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University, Ilan is currently a Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute where he is completing a book on twentieth century Orthodox discourse concerning socialism.