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Portraits of anarcho-Judaism
Author: Hayyim Rothman

The previously unexplored legacy of religious anarchism in traditional Jewish theology is examined for the first time in this book. Probing the life and thought of figures whose writings have gone largely unread since they were first published, Hayyim Rothman makes, in the first place, a case for the existence of this heritage. He shows that there existed, from the late nineteenth though the mid-twentieth century, a loosely connected group of rabbis and traditionalist thinkers who explicitly appealed to anarchist ideas in articulating the meaning of the Torah, of traditional practice, of Jewish life, and the mission of modern Jewry. Supported by close readings of the Yiddish and Hebrew writings of Yaakov Meir Zalkind, Yitshak Nahman Steinberg, Yehuda Leyb Don-Yahiya, Avraham Yehudah Hen, Natah Hofshi, Shmuel Alexandrov, and Yehudah Ashlag this book traces a complicated story about the intersection, not only of religion and anarchism, but also of pacifism and Zionism, prophetic anti-authoritarianism, and mystical antinomianism. Bringing to light, not merely fresh source material, but uncovering a train of modern Jewish political thought that has scarcely been imagined, much less studied, No masters but God is a groundbreaking contribution.

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Hayyim Rothman

This chapter frames the intersection of anarchism and Jewish tradition by appeal to a literary anecdote. Then, the conflict between religious and anti-religious trends in anarchist thought is addressed. This conflict is then brought into the Jewish fold and an overview of the state of research on the topic of Jewish radicalism generally and Jewish anarchism in particular is provided. The aim of this review is to explain how the present volume intervenes by putting in question the supposed dichotomy between Jewish radicalism or anarchism and Jewish traditionalism. The issue of canon and canonization is then discussed; the purpose of this book being both to expand the anarchist canon and to begin the process of creating a canon of World War I. The limits of this provisional canon as it exists in this book are then addressed: these include gender, geography, and culture. The degree to which the figures discussed in this book can be described as a ‘group’ is then considered. Finally, an overview of the remainder of the book is provided.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter begins by situating the development of World War I chronologically and geographically: the nineteenth century in the Russian Pale of Settlement. It is argued that antisemitic persecution disappointed hopes for Jewish integration into European society such that former Enlightenment assimilationists returned to the Jewish fold. This is said to have influenced both the rise of Jewish nationalism and Jewish anarchism, both of which intersected in the Hibbat Zion movement as centered in the Valozyn Yeshiva (seminary). Narodnik influence is discussed at length and used to compare World War I to the Bund on the one hand and to ultra-orthodox isolationism on the other. The theological background of World War I is then examined on five fronts: the idea of man as made in the image of God; the mandate to neighborly love; the legal and moral status of the ancient Hebrew monarchy; the prophetic tradition as a voice of justice; and messianic traditions involving the eventual abrogation of Jewish law.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter discusses the life and thought of R. Yaakov Meir Zalkind. His journey led through the elite institutions of Eastern European rabbinic learning, the Western European university, the ferment of London’s East End, and finally to British Mandate Palestine. In these wanderings, R. Zalkind accumulated the ideological material — Zionism, pacifism, communism, and anarchism — with which he progressively constructed his own unique worldview. Both the theoretical content of that view and also how he applied it in his career as an activist, journalist, translator, and communal rabbi are considered. It is argued that in spite of his apparent eclecticism, Zalkind’s fundamental commitments remained consistent and that he drew on various ideologies to defend them.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter discusses the life and thought of Isaac Nahman Steinberg. The scion of an enlightened rabbinic family, steeped in traditional learning, he went on to study law in Western Europe. Ultimately returning to Russia, he participated in the 1917 Russian revolution and, as a member of the Left-Socialist Revolutionaries assumed — prior to the Bolshevik coup — the position of Commissar of Justice as an openly observant Jew. Recent scholarly interest has alighted on his later leadership of the Territorialist movement, but here focus is placed on his largely anarchistic vision for what Jewish autonomy would look like. The chapter begins by examining his efforts to formulate a concept of Jewish tradition that is both authentic and mutable, such that it is able to inform efforts to synthesize morality and politics. Steinberg’s views on revolution are then addressed, followed by a discussion of his approach to revolutionary violence and his critique of Bolshevik and Tolstoyan camps alike. This is followed by an analysis of his views on the link between socialism and anarchism, the anarchization of the Jewish world, and the idea of the Jews as a vanguard people. Finally, his reflections on Zionism are considered.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter considers the life and work of R. Samuel Alexandrov. Raised in a Habad hasidic home and having attended elite institutions of rabbinic learning, this fascinating figure played a leading, and often notorious, role in the great debates of his day. Both maskil and mystic, he developed an idiosyncratic religious philosophy, combining hasidic thought, kabbalistic tradition, and cultural Zionism with German idealism, the Russian sophiology of Vladimir Solovyov, and Proudhon’s anarchism. The chapter begins with a discussion of Schellingian influences on Alexandrov’s thought and proceeds to an analysis of Alexandrov’s Spinoza/Schelling-inspired epistemology. It then proceeds to trace his ideas as to the fall and redemption of mankind and the way he synthesizes kabbalistic and Schellingian sources to articulate it. In essence, it involves the shattering and eventual restoration of the individual ego and the Absolute. His understanding of this process is then used to frame his notions of cosmopolitan nationalism, the mission of Israel, the abrogation of the law, pacifism, and diasporism. The chapter concludes by examining the way such ideas shaped Alexendrov’s Zionism.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter considers the life and work of R. Judah Ashlag. Well known for his voluminous commentaries on the Zohar, Ashlag has, until recently, been largely dismissed by the scholarly community. The chapter begins with discussion of recent scholarly efforts to rehabilitate his image. It then proceeds to examine less appreciated elements of Ashlag’s thought. Namely, the libertarian socialism that he defended on religious grounds. Analysis begins with a discussion of Schopenahauer’s influence on Ashlag and the way that the kabbalist addressed Shopenhauerian pessimism by introducing a dichotomy of wills. Not merely a directionless force, will is subject to a dialectic: a divine will to give, a creaturely will to receive. This distinction leads to a moral division between egoism and altruism. Like Schopenhauer, who envisioned a mystical or mythical overcoming of the ego, Ashlag advocates mystical connection to God. Ashlag’s use of the dichotomy between egoism and altruism to critique state socialism and to promote libertarian socialism grounded in religious insight and practice is then addressed. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Ashlag’s understanding of Jewish nationalism and the Jewish mission as informed by his theology.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter discusses the nexus of Tolstoyan anarcho-pacifism and Jewish tradition in the life and thought of R. Yehuda-Leyb Don-Yahiya. Beginning with a discussion of his biography and role in the foundation of Mizrahi, the religious branch of the Zionist movement, it proceeds to discuss his belief that the value of non-violence constitutes the core and essence of Judaism and of Jewish identity. The centrality of faith both as a mode for articulating human fraternity, and also for supplying it with firm existential foundations, is then examined. Don-Yahiya’s sympathy with the revolutionary cause and his insistence that this much came about via a revolution of the heart is then addressed. The chapter closes with analysis of Don-Yahiya’s efforts to ground the Tolstoyan prescription for social and political change through passive resistance in Jewish sources.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter discusses the nexus of Tolstoyan anarcho-pacifism and Jewish tradition in the life and thought of Rabbi Avraham Yehudah Heyn, an orthodox rabbi of prestigious Habad hasidic lineage, who served several communities throughout Europe and in Palestine/Israel. Responding to the infamous Beilis trails, in which the ancient blood libel was revived in Russia, he promoted a hermeneutic of resistance, interpreting Jewish tradition as the foil of the state and of state-sanctioned violence — indeed, all violence. This chapter considers five themes. First, the notion that the essence of Judaism consists in a conviction as to the absolute sanctity of human life. Second, the implications this has for a pacifist vision for human society reminiscent of Tolstoy's but articulated in a distinctively Jewish manner. Third, the way that the idea of human sanctity grounds both Heyn’s socialism and his anarchism, including his approach to building a libertarian Jewish society cognizant of and authentically bound to but not bound by tradition. Fourth, his vision for a morally sound revolution of the heart. Finally, his complex and in some ways contradictory reflections on Zionism.

in No masters but God
Hayyim Rothman

This chapter discusses the nexus of Tolstoyan anarcho-pacifism and Jewish tradition in the life and thought of Natan Hofshi. Raised in a Polish shtetl, where his pious family owned and ran a small farm, Hofshi entered Zionist circles at an early age and eventually joined the prestigious Second Aliyah to Palestine. Working as a farm-laborer and activist in ha-Poel ha-Zair under the tutelage of A. D. Gordon, Hofshi absorbed Tolstoyan ideals of manual labor, simplicity of living, and especially pacifism. He helped to establish Brit Shalom — a movement seeking to ensure peaceful coexistence by renunciation of the Zionist aim of creating a Jewish state — and also the Palestinian (and later Israeli) branch of the War Resisters' International. This chapter first addresses the personal experiences that led Hofshi to his pacifism. It then examines his notion of ‘religious feeling,’ which he defines as a sense of human sanctity and fraternity. The chapter then discusses the way that this grounds his pacifism and his special critique of Jewish militarism. It proceeds to consider his reflections on the Palestinian nakba and its implications for Judaism and Zionism, which led him to reject Zionist statism and to promote a return to the agrarian anarcho-socialism of the early Zionist pioneers.

in No masters but God