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A Reply to Shaul Magid on Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum’s Anti-Zionist Theology

Strategic omission of key details undermines the presentation of Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism as a serious theological alternative

James A. Diamond,
Menachem Kellner,
Shaul Magid
June 16, 2020
Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Shooki Lerer via Getty Images

James A. Diamond and Menachem Kellner write:

In his recent essay for Tablet, professor Shaul Magid, a prominent scholar of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, calls for “serious engagement” with Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionist theology. In assessing the essay’s credibility, it is important that readers understand what is at stake in order to properly decide whether to take up his clarion call for “serious engagement” with Yoel Teitelbaum’s demonization of Zionism. It should not be confused with any left-wing critique of Zionism or territorial claims, or relationship with its neighbors. To be clear, Rabbi Teitelbaum could not have cared less about Israel’s economic or foreign policy or about Palestinian rights—his anti-Zionism was directed at the very heart of the notion of a Jewish homeland. Magid’s sympathetic presentation of Teitelbaum’s doctrines strategically omits key details that would undermine his presentation of Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism as a serious theological alternative.

Firstly, although Magid argues for the centrality of the Holocaust in Teitelbaum’s thinking about Zionism, he conspicuously ignores Teitelbaum’s justification of the Holocaust as divine punishment for the sin of Zionism itself. The only lengthy quote Magid selectively includes from Teitelbaum’s work is silent on this question, despite Teitelbaum’s repeated insistence that the Shoah was in fact divine recompense for the cardinal sin of Zionism. More pertinent to the cogency of Magid’s point about the Holocaust playing a central role in Teitelbaum’s thought would have been something like the following quote from VaYoel Moshe, the very same treatise Magid cites (and many more like it):

“No one takes note of the fact that six million Jews were killed because of these [Zionist] groups, who drew the hearts of the nation [to their cause] and violated the oath of hastening the end by claiming sovereignty and freedom before the time. For aside from this being the bitter punishment set forth in the Gemara for [violating the oaths]—‘I shall abandon your flesh …’—and by oath they and the whole world are punished, and no punishment comes to the world except on account of the wicked, nor does it begin except with the righteous.”

Of course, there is an obvious reason for Magid’s oversight. How many of Tablet’s readers would be comfortable with a theology whose cornerstones include the idea that God murdered millions of human beings to make a point against Zionism? What kind of monstrous God would contemplate such a method of argument? This requires graphic language on our part because the gravity of this theology needs to be fully understood. The logical consequence of Teitelbaum’s reasoning is that God dropped the gas into the chamber that indiscriminately suffocated men, women, and children in retaliation for Herzl’s—and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s—sins.

Teitelbaum’s idea of the Holocaust as divine punishment is not tangential to his “Antichrist” theology, as Magid calls it. It is an essential part of it. One cannot concede Zionism as satanic without accepting Teitelbaum’s Holocaust theology anchored in his warped notion of divine justice. Even the book of Job, cited by Magid in support of his argument, is an entire book in the Tanakh that militates against this kind of shallow theological causality. The readers can decide whether that is a theology worth reconsidering—or “caring” about, in Magid’s language.

Theodicies that justify God’s imposition of innocent suffering for whatever one considers to be a particularly heinous sin can no longer be maintained in the shadow of a million murdered children. This theology is no different than religious voices attributing the current viral pandemic to God’s wrath against the sin of homosexuality. It equally parallels those who “justify” the Holocaust on the grounds that it made the creation of the State of Israel possible.

Secondly, Magid also minimizes a critical biographical detail of Teitelbaum’s rescue from the Nazis by bracketing the word “Zionists” when briefly mentioning those credited with Teitelbaum’s survival during the Nazi genocide of Eastern European Jews. A detailed study of Teitelbaum’s subsequent defense and whitewashing of this apparent hypocritical part of his biography can be read in the pages of Tablet.

The biographical details of Teitelbaum’s own physical survival are critical here—because if Zionism is satanic, indeed the Antichrist as Magid describes Satmar’s theology, then Teitelbaum himself entered into a Faustian pact with the devil for his own survival. This of course undermines Magid’s further claim that “Teitelbaum rejected the largely pragmatic acquiescence to Zionism by other ultra-Orthodox groups such as Agudat Yisrael.” In fact, Teitelbaum, when put to the crucial test of his ideological commitments, “acquiesced pragmatically” to the very movement he theologically blamed for the Shoah for the purpose of saving himself from that same catastrophic event. This inescapable detail on its face refutes what Magid surely intends for readers to see as Teitelbaum’s consistency and intellectual honesty.

Thirdly, Magid asserts as a given that “religious Zionist readings of the sources are often forced, and frequently require stretching the elasticity of traditional sources beyond credulity ...” This is a claim that belies much scholarship on the evolution of Jewish thought and Halacha throughout Judaism’s history. What does it mean for Teitelbaum to claim he “works strictly from within midrashic and legal canonical sources”? Midrash by definition is an “elastic” form of rabbinic exegesis that Teitelbaum ingeniously employs as well. For that matter, every major turning point in the evolution of rabbinic theology and law does the same.

Indeed, the rabbinic tradition itself emerged similarly as a thoroughly radical response to the catastrophic events of the first century that left Jews without the Temple, or their spiritual center. Can one so easily dismiss Maimonides’ revolutionary introduction of a legal code or his definition of a Jew as conditional on belief in a set of 13 dogmas, by the claim that he stretched the tradition “beyond credulity”? Is the entire kabbalistic tradition guilty of the same offence? By the same token, Hasidic theology itself with its emphasis on the rebbe as the axis mundi, which Elijah, the great Gaon of Vilna inveighed against, also could be described as “stretching the elasticity of traditional sources beyond credulity.”

With respect to Teitelbaum’s own supposed rabbinic wizardry, a starting point would be his construction of an entire anti-Zionist theological edifice on the foundations of an aggadic passage in the Talmud concerning three oaths. Here too Magid completely glosses the fact that not only is Aggadah in general not authoritative, the central one Teitelbaum adopts to underpin his theology is far from clear and subject to interpretation. Rabbi Kook was certainly as steeped in the rabbinic/talmudic tradition as was Teitelbaum. In fact, Kook’s own teacher, Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the dean of the famed Volozhin rabbinic academy, himself supported the Hovevei Tzion movement encouraging the resettlement of the Land of Israel. We are certain that everyone would agree that his rabbinic credentials measure up, if not tower over, Teitelbaum’s. At the very least Magid should have presented his admiring reading of Teitelbaum’s opinion as a slam-dunk as his own opinion, just as he prefaces other arguments in his essay with the words “I believe” or “I suggest.” To do otherwise is to mislead readers unfamiliar with the texts he analyzes that the evaluation of religious Zionism as a stretching of the “traditional sources” is beyond dispute, when many, many scholars, both secular and religious, would disagree.

There is also the matter of Teitelbaum’s self-serving use of history to corroborate his theology. In the case of the Holocaust, he took Jewish suffering as divine retribution for the sin of Zionism. However, the establishment of the State of Israel, its extraordinary successes in both nation-building and defeating its enemies should, by the same logic, have demonstrated God’s endorsement of the Zionist project. Indeed, the third of the “three oaths” which play such a central role in Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionist polemic is that God will “adjure the nations not to oppress Israel too much.” Religious Zionists, who feel obligated to take the “three oaths” seriously, argue that the three are a package. Since the third of the three was clearly abrogated by the Holocaust, the first two would no longer reasonably apply.

Teitlbaum and Magid both ignore this reasonable reading of what are clearly nonbinding aggadic sources. Instead of admitting theological error, Teitelbaum shapes history to conform to his ideology, rather than the other way around, by developing his “Zionism as Satan” theology designed to snare Jews into the vise of its perverse and arguably self-aggrandizing theology. The great Maimonides was repulsed by precisely this kind of theologian who manipulates all that exists to conform to his opinions rather than formulating correct opinions in conformity with that which exists.

Maimonides, the halachist every rabbinic authority including Teitelbaum would want on their side, not only never mentions these “oaths,” on which Teitelbaum builds his theological anti- Zionism, in his halachic code, but rather his detailed rationalist program for the Jewish return to Zion and the ultimate messianic period depends totally on human initiative. It constitutes a political and spiritual transformation of the Jewish diaspora and subjugation to foreign powers into self-governing statehood by an ingathering of all Jewish exiles into the Land of Israel, all by naturalistic means. In fact, there is simply no plausible reading of Maimonides’ activist realization of the Jewish return to and settlement of Israel as a necessary stage in bringing about the messianic period that would not run afoul of Teitelbaum’s “oaths” argument. And yet, once again, evidence matters little when one insists on the correctness of one’s ideology. Teitelbaum responds tortuously that Maimonides’ silence on the oaths in his all-encompassing halachic code is precisely because the oaths are of such cardinal importance that he need not mention them. Thus, just as he distorted the historical evidence to fit his position, what Maimonides actually said could never get in the way of what Teitelbaum wished he said. Circular reasoning does not a convincing argument make, neither in theology nor in Halacha. Teitelbaum’s true consistency was his unwillingness to surrender his own ideology no matter what clearly refuted it.

Finally, one wonders what the point is of dredging up well-worn arguments from those pre-Shoah debates regarding the vices of Zionism. Before 1948, rejecting Zionism as a danger to the Jewish people may have theoretically made a certain amount of sense. But what do “new diasporists” propose to do with the State of Israel in 2020, which is not 1920 or 1948?

Consider the practical consequences of Teitelbaum’s theology. There is in fact now a Jewish state with close to 9 million citizens, of which approximately 7 million are Jews. To accept Teitelbaum’s as a viable theology would be to identify that state as in league with the devil. Consequently, all its citizens, soldiers, language, culture, and spiritual life are the devil’s weapons, all devised to seduce Jews into a demonic embrace. There is only one solution to this problem, which is of course Israel’s demise.

Just as the ancient rabbis accommodated the reality of irreparable loss of their spiritual center, and just as hasidut addressed the reality of a pervasive spiritual impoverishment, any theology that cannot deal with the reality of a vibrant Jewish state other than literally demonizing it, is bankrupt as a Jewish theology. With what exactly does Magid want Jews to “engage seriously,” after one cuts through Teitelbaum’s prodigious and “dense” rabbinic acuity?

It is quite ironic that Magid analogizes Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionist theology to Luther’s consideration of the papacy as the Antichrist. Firstly, Luther was a dogmatically vicious anti-Semite whose agenda for the Jews included burning synagogues, expropriating all rabbinic texts, and forbidding rabbis to teach Torah. If Magid’s analogy captures the full import of Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism, then perhaps there is a lesson there as to its acceptability.

Yet, even more telling is that, if Magid is correct, then he has offered us a historical precedent for where such a theology might lead. The violence, massacres, persecutions, bloodshed, and endless war associated with the reformation Luther launched teaches a sober lesson of where Antichrist theology most certainly would lead. Considering Israel’s precarious geopolitical predicament and relatively tiny population, bloodshed would be the only result—minus whatever lasting cultural and intellectual benefits accrued to mankind from the Reformation.

Magid closes his essay with a comment that can only be characterized as blasphemous if we are talking theology: After drawing another contrast between the Zionism of Rabbi Kook and the anti-Zionism of Rabbi Teitelbaum, he writes, “But the chapter on who gets the last laugh has yet to be written.”

The “last laugh” for Rabbi Teitelbaum would entail nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish state and all the apocalyptic implications that would have for Jewish physical and spiritual life. The Nazis in fact did have the “last laugh” in their war against the Jews, having murdered two-thirds of Eastern European Jewry. For Teitelbaum’s theology to be resurrected and vindicated would be to entertain more of the same. That is certainly no laughing matter.

Shaul Magid replies:

I want to thank James Diamond and Menachem Kellner, both prominent scholars of Judaism, for taking the time to write a critique of my essay on Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar’s political theology in Vayoel Moshe. I will offer brief responses to some of the details in their essay below. But I want to begin with what I find the most puzzling, and indeed troubling, aspect of their response. It can be found in one sentence toward the end of their critique. They write, “Finally one wonders what the point is in dredging up well-worn arguments from those of pre-Shoah debates regarding the vices of Zionism.” In other words, they are asking me, “to what end?”

Aside from the fact that Vayoel Moshe was published in 1959, after the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel, I find this a very curious response of scholars toward a subject—any subject—of scholarship. Does choosing a subject of scholarly inquiry require that it “have an end,” that is, that it somehow conform to some normative boundaries of acceptable discourse? Does Jewish studies have boundaries that must be policed and its subjects scrutinized as to their “end”? If so, Jewish studies in not an academic discipline at all. Can one ask, indeed would one ask, what is the “end” of expounding on Maimonides’ outdated metaphysics, or the “end” of a study on the Zohar’s demonization of the gentile? Or the Sabbatean or Frankist heresies? Is Teitelbaum’s theology now “bankrupt” because of “the reality of a vibrant Jewish state”? Am I guilty of “blasphemy” because I remain agnostic about the theological certainty of any position, be it Teitelbaum or Kook? Is “blasphemy” a term that scholars should even be using about scholarly pursuits? Wouldn’t that itself gesture toward a normative claim of what is legitimate and illegitimate theology, or, more importantly, a legitimate or illegitimate research agenda? Blasphemy, as we know, requires normativity. I think this line of critique is very troubling for a new generation of scholars who will have to choose their scholarly subjects. Will they be policed by Diamonds and Kellners? And, if so, “to what end?”

What is most interesting in their reply is that it is not a critique of my reading of Teitelbaum at all, in fact the very correctness of my reading—with small criticisms, omissions, and context—is the basis for their intervention. It seems clear from their response that they have not read much of Vayoel Moshe but are relying on common understandings of his argument using well-known citations. This is fine. The critique is essentially, “why would anyone ask readers to take this seriously and isn’t the very claim that we do so illegitimate, even blasphemous?” The reason: Because “the reality of the State of Israel,” and, in their minds, the success of Zionism, should be sufficient to expunge such an anti-Zionist theology, or at least relegate it to the dustbin of history. A political theology, mind you, that was quite popular a century ago, and still remains popular in some circles today.

But I will respectfully take their bait and offer two responses to the question: “to what end?” The first is scholarly, the second political. From a scholarly perspective, what I find troubling about the present debates about Zionism as a subject of scholarly inquiry is that “the reality of the State of Israel” as Diamond and Kellner put it, has apparently created boundaries within which one must investigate. It is precisely the political theology which Teitelbaum represents (and he is certainly not the only one) that exists outside those boundaries and thus raise their question “to what end?” No one would respond to a study of Rav Kook with “to what end?” because “to what end?” is a question only relevant for that which inhabits the space “outside” of normative legitimacy. And this is precisely why I think we need to take Teitelbaum “seriously.” Not because I think he is right. My essay makes no normative claims either way. Teitelbaum is worth taking seriously precisely because he presents a cogent political theology deeply rooted in traditional sources that scholars should attend to and that the larger readership should be aware of. Nothing more is needed. To question that is a serious curtailing of scholarly activity that seems to have afflicted some corners of Jewish studies. What does it mean, for example, to treat historical inquires that don’t conform to presentist concerns, or realities, as “dredging up”?

As to my political response, I reach back to my teacher Aviezer Ravitzky, who wrote extensively on Teitelbaum. As a liberal religious Zionist, Ravitzsky was deeply troubled by the trajectory of his community in the 1980s, premonitions that have regrettably materialized. As I understand Ravitzky, Teitelbaum’s alternative theology, which he did not agree with but which he took very seriously, served for him, perhaps, as a warning for his community that what Teitelbaum feared—in Teitelbaum’s view, the “satanic” nature of Zionism—could easily come to pass in the religious Zionist camp Ravitzky inhabited. “Forcing the end” is a precarious project indeed. Ravitzky knew that. So did Teitelbaum. Gershom Scholem put it well when he said in his interview with Muki Tsur, “Zionism was a calculated risk in that it brought about the destruction of the reality of exile. The foes of Zionism certainly saw the risk more clearly than the Zionists.”

Thirty years later as I work on a larger study of Teitelbaum’s political theology, we are witnessing a very disturbing turn in Israel, a turn away from humanism, a turn toward annexation, apartheid, and the demise of Israel as a beacon of democracy. If that view is considered “extreme” then I own it fully and proudly. Thus for me Teitelbaum offers an alternative rendering, certainly an alternative “extreme” theological template, born from the sources of tradition. I am not asking readers to agree with it, or adopt it, but I am certainly asking readers to “take it seriously” at a time where many of us think we are witnessed the unmasking of the darker side of Zionism as an ethnonational project.

Below I offer some brief responses to some of the other issues raised by Diamond and Kellner:

The Holocaust: Diamond and Kellner are certainly correct that Teitelbaum claimed Zionism unleashed divine wrath against the Jews in Europe. But he certainly was not alone in playing the theological blame game. R. Zvi Yehuda Kook blamed the Holocaust on Jews who refused to leave Europe, calling the Holocaust a “divine surgery”; God murdered Jews for refusing to hear the call of Zionism (Kook, Sihot on the 17th of Tammuz). On Kook’s reading, 6 million Jews had to be murdered for Israel to be established. Like cutting off a limb to save the body. If one would think this is a “bankrupt Jewish theology,” R. Shlomo Aviner wrote an entire book explaining and justifying Kook’s claim titled Orot M’Ofel in 2009. I am sure Diamond and Kellner would repudiate Kook here as well.

My point is that Diamond and Kellner, and many of our readers, live in a “Post-Holocaust Theology” orbit where making such theological claims is considered blasphemous. But Teitelbaum and many from his world, and Kook, and many from his world, do not live in such an orbit. They take covenantal theology very seriously such that claiming that the Holocaust simply does not, cannot, fit into any covenantal paradigm is unacceptable, even more strongly, it is “blasphemous.” The work of Gershon Greenberg and the forthcoming book by my student Barbara Krawcowicz make this quite clear. So the accusation here against Teitelbaum is not exclusive to him but rather makes a normative claim about what we can, and cannot, say about the Holocaust in 2020. I don’t agree that the role of the scholar in Jewish studies is to police such claims.

The Three Oaths: Diamond and Kellner are certainly correct that Teitelbaum views “the three oaths” at the end of the talmudic Tractate Ketubot (110b) as central to his argument. But his argument extends far beyond that. His 150-page densely argued “Essay on Dwelling in the Land of Israel” and his 1967 work ‘Al Ha-Geulah ve al Ha-Temurah barely mention “the three oaths.” The question of the aggadic versus the halachic intent of that talmudic discussion is well-worn and Teitelbaum devotes dozens of pages on precisely that debate. In his essay, Teitelbaum argues that even if the “three oaths” are aggadic, they bear considerable theological weight.

On Maimonides: Diamond and Kellner, both scholars of Maimonides, are correct in pointing to Teitelbaum’s tendentious reading of Maimonides on “the three oaths.” But Teitelbaum uses Maimonides elsewhere quite often in support of his basic argument. For example, he uses Maimonides against Moses Nahmanides’ claim that there is a mitzvah of “dwelling in the land” by noting that such a mitzvah is absent in Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot.

Martin Luther: I deployed Martin Luther’s critique of the papacy as the Antichrist as a structural parallel to Teitebaum’s claim of Zionism’s “satanic” (Antichrist) roots, to say that the papacy was for Luther what Zionism was for Teitelbaum. Diamond and Kellner take me to task for my use of Luther, not because of the structural analogy but because Luther was a “dogmatically vicious anti-Semite.” This is certainly true, although Luther’s attitude toward the Jews was far more complicated than they say. But my comment had nothing whatsoever to do with Luther’s attitude toward the Jews but rather his hatred of the papacy. I am thus confused why Luther being an anti-Semite has anything to do with his views on the papacy.

The Kastner Transports: Diamond and Kellner are certainly correct that Teitelbaum’s inclusion in the (Zionist) Kastner Transports to Palestine that saved his life is a stain on his legacy. I am not sure whether either Diamond or Kellner looked at Y.S. Gelbman’s 10-volume biography/hagiography of Teitelbaum, Moshian Shel Yisrael, where Gelbman argues that the transport in question was first organized by the Orthodox community in Budapest and only later taken over by Kastner. And even if it is the case that Gelbman’s view is an apologetic whitewashing of the affair, I am not sure what this has to do with my essay. Yes, Teitelbaum likely tried to save himself from facing almost certain death. And yes, it is deeply ironic that he may have been able to so through a Zionism agency. But I never claimed Teitelbaum was a zaddik. To suggest his political theology collapses, or is “bankrupt,” because of what he did in a dire situation the likes of which few of us have ever, or will ever, encounter, seems a bit self-serving to me. No one, certainly not I, asked Diamond or Kellner to like him.

Theology: Diamond and Kellner are offering a theological and not a historical critique of Teitelbaum’s political theology, or my reading of it. In this light I find it somewhat curious that they so confidently discount one political theology for another. They can certainly prefer one to another, as I do. Unlike them I am not making a normative claim in the essay about who is “right” but only who should be taken “seriously.” Teitelbaum was certainly making a normative claim, as was Abraham Kook. As a scholar of theology and not a theologian, at least not here, I remain agnostic about both. I am struck at the confidence of Diamond and Kellner to deem Teitelbaum’s thought “bankrupt as a Jewish theology.” I am also unclear what the italics of Jewish is meant to imply if not to make a normative claim of what is, and is not, Jewish?

In my essay I noted that settler Rabbi Shlomo Aviner wrote an extensive study on Vayoel Moshe in 2011. I assume that he would not spend his precious time if he thought it was a “bankrupt Jewish theology.” Ironically, then, it seems that Diamond and Kellner are on the side of the yeshiva students in the occupied West Bank laughing as they mock Vayoel Moshe (which evokes its own “satanic” imagery), whereas I am on the side of Aviner. He and I likely agree on very little, except, perhaps, that Vayoel Moshe is not a “bankrupt Jewish theology.”

James A. Diamond is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo and co-author of Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019).

Menachem Kellner is the chair of the Philosophy and Jewish Thought Department at Shalem College and co-author of Reinventing Maimonides in Contemporary Jewish Thought (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2019).

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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