The Almost Forgotten History of Revolutionary Judaism
If anarchists know Jewish history at all, it is likely the role of Jewish radicalism in the political battles of the early 20th century. Jews made up huge portions of the anarchist and socialist movement as Ashkenazi immigrants flooded New York City’s Lower East Side or London’s East End, working with other immigrant communities on factory floors, building up anticapitalist newspapers, and pushing the labor movement in an even more revolutionary direction. The Jewish participation in radical movements became such a cliché that the role of “Jewish communism” became foundational in the myths of the far-right, particularly in the violence of the Third Reich or the post-war white nationalist movement. The real Jewish story did not need conspiracies or flights of eugenic fancy: Jews were an oppressed class and so they participated at higher rates in movements to unseat society. Jewish labor unions were the core of the Socialist Party, which created its own Yiddish speaking section. As of 1938, about thirty-two percent of surveyed Americans believed Jews to be more radical than the rest of America. In Britain, Jews made up a sizable portion of the Communist Party of Great Britain, organizing antifascist committees to fight the British Union of Fascists, where the interests of Jews and the interests of the working class East End were often synonymous. Jews were so important in these early struggles that anarchist figures like Rudolph Rocker, though not Jewish himself, still learned Yiddish so he could communicate with the vanguard of this new groundswell.
While most radicals are familiar with the stories of Jewish anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, they know them as Jewish ethnics, not as propagators of the tradition of Judaism. Jewish anarchism and socialism emerged from the secularizing wave of Jews who were leaving the shtetls, the village communities that they had lived in for centuries in Eastern Europe, and finding their way into cosmopolitan urban centers. This process was called the haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, where newly emancipated Jews, now working towards legal citizenship in 19th century Central Europe, were discovering what it meant to be Jewish in this entirely new context. ” This was the historical era when race science began to dominate imperial thinking, and Jews went from being a nation defined by religion to one defined as an ethnic group. This was part of what was so distinctly lethal about modern antisemitism: Jews were accused of malevolence in their genes;no conversion was possible.
Jews took on this challenge a number of ways. There was Zionism, interpreted at the time as a “national liberation” movement to build a Jewish state as a safe haven. This became especially prominent after the waves of pogroms starting in the 1880s and culminating in the grotesque 1903 Kishinev Pogrom. There were also many anti-Zionist figures on the left, such as the Jewish Labor Bund, who focused on the concept of “Doi'kayt” (literally “hereness”) that tried to keep Jewish identity present while existing as diasporic rather than building a new legally validated state. Many Jews were caught up in the atheism of the emerging Marxist and anarchist Left, which saw the rabbis as just one other site of tyranny. No gods, no masters. It was not unheard of to see those same Jewish radicals positioning themselves in front of a synagogue on Yom Kippur, ham sandwich in hand to mock what they now saw as a repressive tradition in its own right. “[Jews] found in Marxism a solution to their identity dilemmas,” writes Enzo Traverso, “Against Judaism and anti-Semitism, Marxism offered them a post-national, cosmopolitan and universalistic perspective.” Anarchism was a part of this move as well, particularly when the Marxists were too doctrinaire, did not adequately deal with antisemitism in their own ranks, or reproduced social hierarchies. So while we see Jews as prominent figures throughout anarchist histories, we rarely encounter Judaism.
Hayyim Rothman’s new book No Masters But God: Portraits of Anarcho-Judaism takes an entirely different approach by highlighting Jewish religious anarchists: those radicals who stayed close to their interpretation of an authentic Torah tradition. Rothman, a rabbi and Jewish Studies scholar, calls this tendency “anarcho-Judaism'' to distinguish it, and his book highlights eight particularly relevant figures. He names these the “anarchist minyan,” an interesting phrasing since minyan is the grouping needed for certain Jewish prayers (usually requiring a quorum of ten Jewish men). This is part of the throughline of the book: that these rebellious figures were taking their critique from within Judaism, not against it, even when almost every piece of the Jewish establishment saw their ideas as blasphemy.
The book is broken down into profiles of two activists, Yaakov Maleir Zalkind and Titshak Nahman Steinbre; two mystics, Shmuel Alexandrov and Yehudah Ashlag; and four figures defined by their pacifism, Yehuda-Leyb Don-Yahiya, Avraham Yehudah Heyn, Natan Hofshi, and Aaron Shmuel Tamaret. These names will likely not ring any bells for anyone outside of a university’s Jewish Studies department, and that is precisely the point: these figures have largely been forgotten in their own communities, which gives their ideas their iconoclastic power today. Their mere existence reconciles multiple strands into one critique, reminding us that those Jewish leftists today trying to revive radical halakhic traditions are not inventing this idea from whole cloth, but instead are reviving a sincere and traditional (in some fashion) read on Judaism. Rothman situates these perspectives in the same cauldron of crisis that produced the atheistic Jewish anarchism, the concluding decades of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century that were marked by bloody antisemitic attacks that accelerated into the Holocaust. These Jews saw the cruelty that the accumulated power of the state could create, and their own unique synthesis pushed them away from Zionism as a solution into something they saw as more holistic.
While there is diversity between them, the figures sketched in the book have some shared perspectives that create a picture of how religious life, particularly Jewish mysticism, can influence an anti-authoritarian philosophical streak. Rothman focuses on their writings; some of them were more authors and religious figures than they were any type of on-the-ground organizers, but they shared an equal distrust of secular authorities. This is something that many of the anarchists had in common with Christian anarchists of the Tolstoyian tradition: that secular rulership was inherently oppressive and in conflict with the divine governance of God. This comes, in part, from the diverse way that God is understood by a lot of these figures. Shmuel Alexandrov came from the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic tradition and, building on hasidic works like the Tanya, saw God as emanating through all of existence. This God was not separate from their creation; instead we are all a part of it, a type of cosmic harmony that is looking for a way to repair itself from its inherent state of brokenness. Building on the Lurianic Kabbalah of the 16th century, the notion was that God had damaged themselves in building the world, shattering their essence and scattering it across the universe. We then work in concert with God to repair the world, both God and ourselves, into a more perfect messianic age. At this moment the divisions between the sacred and the profane could break down, bringing all life and experience into divinity, a perfect unity with God. While this is understood with greater and lesser degrees of literalism, it influenced the distinction between the authority of God and the authority of monarchs, presidents, and capitalists.
As most contemporary readers would expect, Zionism plays its own character in this story since it defined Jewish politics of that period just as Israel inhabits a centerpiece of Jewish political debates today. Rothman accepts this expectation and builds each chapter around each writer’s relationship to the Zionist question. All of them started writing before the 1948 founding of the State of Israel (and many of them never saw its creation). Because some of these commentaries on Zionism were so early, the discussions are often framed at what “could” happen if a state was to be formed, and so it would be wrong to project backwards what we know about Israel’s history today. It is easy to critique Zionism from a contemporary vantage point, but these writers’ repudiation of Zionism is distinct in that the nationalist movement violated an ethical and strategic vision they all had before its consequences could ever have been visible.
The critique of Zionism alternates between a celebration of what is known as Cultural Zionism, a return to Hebrew culture and Eretz Yisrael in a binational region of Palestine; or a celebration of the Diaspora itself. Yaakov Meir Zalkind took up the earlier call by Cultural Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am to create a cultural revival of Jewish life in Jerusalem and the historical Land of Israel, but believed the political Zionists were “chauvanist charlatans who dream of a state with all the fixings of Jewish imperialism.” (58) He actually tried to trace a congruency between Zionism and anarchism in the same way that people like Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin did, a concept which seems absurd when looking at the modern State of Israel as the result of Zionist colonies in the Yishuv. No Masters But God opens up a sort of counter-history of Zionism, of people who celebrated pieces of the Jewish renewal and yet repudiated the colonialist enterprise that resulted. Alexandrov shared much of the Orthodox rabbinate’s view at the time that Zionism was idolatrous because it negated religious identity for a de-Judaized ethnic political one. Yeehuda-Leyh Don-Yahiya saw the Holy Land as a place well suited for a spiritual renaissance, and he believed that “the essential message of Judaism is faith in God the creator, which is taken to imply the irreducible sanctity of human life.” (160) This had little in common with the militarized forces that ushered in the Israeli state, an institution which contradicted his core understanding of what Jewishness was, “a universal message of human solidarity in an authentically Jewish language.” (ibid) As Zalkind said, the problem of Jewish refugees from antisemitism could not be adequately solved by displacing Arabs and “turning them into refugees,” (57) which would only work to corrode the moral center of Jewish communities.
This was not a new concept, and a large portion of the early kibbutzim was founded by anarchist Cultural Zionists, who, while problematic when looking backwards, created communes based on Jewish self-sufficiency after years of a mobile existence that robbed them of the ability to do things like farm land and build up long-term communities founded on an explicitly Hebrew character. A.D. Gordon and others who came to the Yishuv during the Second Aliyah had an agrarian political and spiritual ideal that sought refuge and society-building separate from the state building, though the kibbutz they built became much of the infrastructure that was necessary for the State of Israel’s formation and survival. The revolutionary tradition of the kibbutz was the result of Jewish anarchist and socialist forces attempting to build a separate Jewish institution from the religiously dominated life, one that tried to share all decision-making, labor, and property equally. “[The] kibbutz is actually as close to a full democracy as there is,” said Noam Chomsky about his early experiences living in a kibbutz during Israel’s first days. Yet he now reflects on some of the unsettling features of these communes such as their disallowance of Arabs, and its vulnerability to erode to nationalism, capitalism, and ethnic chauvinism. Part of what Rothman does in the text is open up the idea that how Jewish immigrants related to the area of Israel was in some ways undefined, and there were both incredibly radical ideas and reactionary colonial ones competing for how this piece of land could be interpreted, sometimes existing as both inspired and reactionary in the same moment.
The twin for this alt-Zionism is a celebration of the diaspora, something which clashed directly with the shlilat ha'galut, “negation of the diaspora,” that was central to Zionist narratives. In many Zionist writings of this period there was a caricature made of Jewish history, almost to the point of reproducing antisemitic tropes about Jewish weakness and victimhood, proposing the idea that Jews could be cleansed of these disastrous qualities by being plucked out of exile and replaced into the soil of a homeland. It is not uncommon to find Zionist writing of the time that borders on antisemitic constructs about the role of diasporic Jewish life, whereby national revolutionaries could cleanse the Jewish people of their supposedly pernicious attributes. “Because the Yid is ugly, sickly and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty,” wrote far-right “Revisionist” Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, reflecting the idea that galut has poisoned the Jew with weak indecision and cowardice, so to be purged by the Zionist return to power, the reclamation of the true Jewish warrior kingship. “The Yid has accepted submission and t, therefore, the Hebrew out to learn to command.” While some in the Orthodox world opposed Zionism since it was taking an active hand in God’s work (the Kingdom of Israel would only be re-established after the arrival of mashiach, the messiah), the anarchist minyan saw additional benefits to the diaspora. For one, it allows Jews to be a “light unto the nations” by spreading the sparks of God’s light throughout the world. Jews are understood, from this perspective, to be essentially composed as a minority population, one that is defined by its subalternity to the surrounding populations. This is an idea that has been revived by writers like Judith Butler, who see something essential about the diaspora in their interpretation of Judaism and Jewishness. To sacrifice the tools of diasporic survival to become a “nation like all others” would be to sacrifice our whole being. Instead, to be chosen is to be dispersed, to share that lesson with the world.
Alexandrov did not see the diaspora as exile, but actually the expression of Israel becoming ‘a citizen of the earth,’ (Quoted on 121), showing that God and the creation were complete and undivided. “[On]” the day the temple was destroyed, the messiah was born,” (Ibid) which could be the Jewish people and their diaspora, which is their method of dispersal: they were shattered and scattered amongst the nations only to let their light shine and presage healing. The diaspora, or ‘galut,’ was part of what Tamaret located as redemption itself, free from idolatries like state and political power. (214) This certainly put these figures at odds with many in the Jewish community who saw exile either as punishment to be undone by redemption, or a cruelty once endured and now to be concluded through the establishment of a national homeland.
One of the tactical centers of anarcho-judaism was pacifism, shared by almost all of those discussed in the book, and part of the resistance to the creation of a Jewish state was that states exist only as the most crystallized and potent form of institutionalized violence. Natan Hofshi is interesting as the most contemporary of the minyan (he died in 1980) and the only one to work closely with Palestinians, while the rest, as Rothman notes, still existed from inside the colonial framework. Hofshi was a vegan (before it was cool) and exercised a radical form of religious pacifism of the Tolystoyian variety, offering a pragmatic vision of flourishing human relationships and their ability to inspire revolutionary change. Zelkind saw pacifism as having both a tactical and halakhic benefit, such as the “passive resistance” of the General Strike (where you stop “doing” something).
Pacifism is where many of these writers’ different ideas intersected: in the religious argument against power and tyranny, but also the inherent focus on the individual and morality. They all saw the transformation of the individual as an essential component of the changing society, some to the point that focusing on moral transformations was an inherent precondition of revolution. Steinberg put the moral distinctions as the center of what makes humans unique, so we had to both make a moral change and learn from the words delivered on Mount Sinai for direction. There is a sort of “idealism” here that acts as a critique of materialism and of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which they repudiate for its limited focus on “material conditions.” Revolutionaries who were depending only on vague materialism would fail to “keep the revolution within moral bounds” (66) and their “determinism” (75) undermined the moral center of decision making and society building. This process of moral discovery was mystical for Avraham Yehuda Heyn, and finding “goodness” (167) was about uncovering one’s true self. Because of the principles found in Judaism, Heyn (and most of the rest) found that the “ends never justify the means” and that “the individual is irreducible to the collective.” (165) Humans have the ability to intervene in their surroundings in a way that animals cannot, so choices are at the center of this revolutionary process.
There are hints of a larger debate between idealism and materialism, and these authors challenge the assumptions that ideologies are merely the superstructure built on the base of economic conditions. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness,” wrote Karl Marx. This is implicit to what Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote on the assumption that the “ideas of the ruling class in every epoch the ruling ideas…is at the same time the intellectual force.” The revolutionary assumptions of this have been called into question by anarchists who suggest that this perspective can steal agency from the revolutionary and strips out the role of the individual. If revolutions happen at multiple levels, the personal, the communal, the intellectual, and perhaps the spiritual, then it is not enough to change the base because what was identified as the superstructure (in this case, the ideologies and internal faculties of those involved) could simply reify old systems of power. The revolutionary would have to “kill the cop in their head,” as the Situationists would say, so there has to be a personal revolution coinciding with the material one. There is a lot of implicit critique within this, particularly the notion that a post-revolutionary society is one built on material conditions rather than on the ideas and intentions of people, but there is also the critique that is central to spiritual anarchism and its ideas of transcendence: it is not merely concerned with the material world.
This is something that, ironically, brought them in concert with more conventional anarchists. This is, in essence, the role of Judaism in this formulation: Jewish law, which was not conventionally enforced through state strictures, could still continue to enforce moral customs. As Samuel H. Dresner discusses in his introduction to Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, what sets Judaism apart from other religious systems is that the world is neither holy (as with paganism) nor unholy (as with Christianity), but in need of the application of holiness. We apply rituals to make something that was once profane into something sacred, such as the act of eating kosher, which relies on our choice: we choose to transform the world, even up to the most profound revolutionary and messianic changes. This is a part of our brokenness, the exile of God and the creation of boundaries, which define a pre-messianic period.
Yehudah Ashlag, who is now best known for creating the literature used (perhaps crudely and inappropriately) by the “new age” Kabbalah Centre, thought that in the absence of coercion that people would rely on what Kropotkin had located as customs. This would help to bring out the holy nature of the individual (which Ashlag understands as part of zimzum, the expression of the present God in kabbalah), and saw this a a “interplay of wills.” (132) His salvation through giving acts was fully expressed as a type of communism, which exemplified the healing process whereby we express the “will to give” and the “will to receive.” (133-134) He opposed state communism for the same reasons many of his contemporaries did, because it failed to transform the individuals to make them ready for the revolutionary changes. He also saw Jews as a potentially “revolutionary vanguard” (148) because of the influence of Torah that “enjoin them to achieve deveku [closeness to God] by imitating God’s attributes of mercy and kindness. (Ibid)
Most people familiar to anarchism will find the ideas in No Masters But God almost completely foreign, yet they echo debates familiar to anarchist history. The community versus the individual, moral and material transformation, the role of violence, and the conflicted way spirituality is seen as both inspired and regressive. Each of these figures see something transcendent about letting God inform our expectations for social organization and human behavior towards one another and believe that seeding spirituality gives people the kind of inspiration and drive they often simply lack in social movements. They try to locate a congruence between the commandments of Torah and an ethical life, and their interpretations are based on a long rabbinical tradition that debates where Jewish morality starts and stops in relation to Jewish law and which commandment should supersede another.
The debates on Zionism in this book will also seem remote to those embedded in Palestinian solidarity organizing. All the represented authors embraced a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood while opposing the violent self-aggrandizement that accompanies political nationalism. Because of that, the diaspora offered an alternative model of maintaining a peoplehood, though unlike the Bund, this was maintained through the covenant of Torah. Because the critique of Zionism is largely presented separate from, for example, discussion about the Occupation, even the founding of Israel (and certainly before the emerging understanding of what actually happened in 1948 with the scholarship of the New Historians), it actually allows a certain universality to their ideas. The critique of Zionism is the critique of nationalism and statehood, as inherently problematic concepts even when wielded by an oppressed class, as Jews were. The Torah tradition is, from this framework, the story and method of Jewish liberation from oppression, so what is to be gained from becoming a nation like all others?
“In its heart, Judaism is a proclamation to the world that the way things are is not the way things have to be,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner in his book about the Jewish Renewal movement, where he places the story of liberation and the challenge to power at the heart of Jewish tradition. “The capacity to transform our world into one of justice and kindness, a world in which our own ability to embody an ethical/spiritual unity is nurtured and enhanced, is a constituent element in how God created the world. Hence, the center story of Judaism is the story of a people who are enslaved and who, because of the principle of freedom that governs the universe, are enabled to become free and to embody the unity of our ethical and spiritual natures.” This it the tradition of Judaism that emerged in the colloquial Jewish Left, sometimes interpreting these in largely secular or activist frameworks (such as the Liberation Seder, which uses a Jewish ritual as a protest tactics), or by choosing what to focus on. Halakha itself is phrased as an eternal law of God, but it is as malleable as the people who actually wrote it are. There is a constant balance that has to be made, between the different commandments that come from Torah and are clarified in the Talmud and other rabbinical texts (there are a whole 613, after all) and use a series of preferences to designate priorities. This is not a wishful reimagining of Judaism, but a realization of how the religion works: it is interpreted by people trying to do the best for the largest number of their communities. The activists of the modern Jewish Renewal movement or emerging neo-Hasidic and post-Denominational Judaism are not just taking modern ideas and grafting them on top of an illiberal tradition; they are reviving the real conversation that has been present in Judaism for centuries. The anarchist minyan are essentially in a Torah dialogue, debating law and ethics in the same way as any rabbi did, but only walking away with the kind of radical conclusions that many believe was at the heart of the liberatory message of Judaism in the first place. The diasporic role of Jews in this story constantly presents them as the inherent enemies of the empire (that’s right, we were a fifth column after all) with a “confederation of difference” as their operative concept: Jews can remain themselves while joining a larger community of equals. Zionism challenged this mission, and therefore it was anathema to their reading of halakha and tradition. In this way, they actually do share some crossover with the radical theology of people like Satmar rebbe Moshe Teitelbaum, who opposed the earthly creation of the State of Israel as alien from the covenant of Sinai. The anarchist minyan may agree–only a spiritual Kingdom of Israel could be promised in prophecy–though it's doubtful they would have carried Teitelbaum’s teachings on every issue.
This is something that is challenging to the modern intersectional Left, whereby agreement on one issue is assumed to be stemming from a rooted ideology of shared struggle. Instead, these ideas emerge out of Biblical piety, not always an enlightened and coherent politic, though many of these authors find their way to real-world organizing and anarchist community along the way. This creates a lot of complications for the modern Left, which cannot (and should not) look the other way at reactionary interpersonal ideas simply because you hold a couple of shared goals. But it also means that there are different starting points, ones that feel alien to most radicals and which we have to rediscover. As the radical Left has started to see the value in reviving spiritual and ancestral traditions, this wall of non-empathic rationalism is starting to quiver, and hopefully looking at these deeply religious traditions as possible allies can help the boundaries break apart.
The other piece of this is the agency of the individual in radical spaces, and whether or not personal transformation is a relevant part of this. “If liberation is to begin with the freeing of our minds, removing the blinders that limit our awareness, we need to engage in convincing ourselves that we can indeed be free,” says Rabbi Arthur Green, echoing the hasidic parables that saw Egypt as a state of mind, a psychological unfreeness that could keep us in prison. “Now that we have reached this freedom – and the narrative [of the Passover story] assures us that this is the case – our task is one of carrying its torch forward, passing its vision on to our children and extending its reach to others.” Freedom and liberation are not just a benefit, they grant responsibility, the responsibility of lighting a fire and existing in permanent revolution: never resting until the freedom of all people.
The real lesson here may be the plurality of inspiration, the integration of contemporary political ideas and the archaic, traditional, or even anti-modern. Judaism has existed, in one form or another, for thousands of years, and so its relevance is in its ability to adapt while maintaining some idea of an ancient, perennial core. Those traditions are a contested space, one that is often captured by the right and capital because, as is easily demonstrated, they can move people in often irrational and stirring ways. But what No Masters But God reminds us is that the merger of radical ideas and these traditions (not vague and consequence-free “spirituality,” but hard traditions that demand something of us) can give us a revolutionary push that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
While the book weaves together a lot of complicated pieces of Jewish history, it is interesting what it doesn’t discuss. Yiddish, the language of many of these texts and the defining language of the diaspora, gets almost no reference in the book. While Rothman does bring in an impressive number of disciplines and ideas from outside of the Jewish Studies world, it is still centered on the study of Judaica and because of that there could be hurdles for the uninitiated. But Rothman still works to simplify incredibly complicated topics, particularly around Jewish mysticism, so that people less steeped in those texts could wrap their heads around the ideas. What would have been interesting is to see comparisons with other religious anarchists that take a mystical bend, such as the influence of Sufi Islam or Buddhist anarchism. Like many academic works, Rothman focuses on what he can do best by keeping the topic reasonably narrow.
It is a difficult task to take arcane religious writings and re-center them to contemporary political discussions, a context they simply were not written in, and so No Masters But God should be celebrated for what it is able to achieve. I would like to hope that this is a part of a new revival of Jewish anarchism that refuses to discard Judaism, Cindy Milstein’s recent anthology Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart is another great example of this. Milstein’s book takes a different approach entirely by bringing together contemporary authors with vastly different styles, approaches, and ideological backgrounds. This means we get bouts of fiction and poetry, political travelogs, visual art, and many expositions on projects that combine radicalism and Jewishness. What was unique about her book was not that it was filled with Jewish anarchists (we’ve always had those), but that it was filled with Judaism itself. Gillian Goldberg and Benjamin Case talk about Purim drag shows and Jordan Rosenfeld discusses joining the New Community Chevra Kadisha, the society that does ritual preparedness of the dead. These carry on a long tradition of politicization of Jewish ritual life, such as Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder, which has the ability to not just connect spirituality and organizing, but to inject a visceral immediacy into Jewish ritual. What’s unique about Milstein’s book, and where it meets Rothman’s, is that we go a step beyond that. It is not uncommon to find Jewish anarchist cultures that stop at the point of an actual spiritual metaphysics: traditions may be celebrated and utilized, but where is the actual belief in God? While (as you would expect) the perspectives of the contributors are all over the map, there is a sincere engagement with Jewish spirituality in a way that seeks to rebuild that tradition. Eliui Damm and Xava De Cordova’s stories ring of the classic hasidic parables of people like Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and the neo-hasidic approach found on the edges of Jewish Renewal seem to be taken a step even further. What you find in the pages is what Renewal founder Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi called the “new Yavneh,” a new covenant being created in a new era of Judaism. What Renewal did was help to bring in other types of spiritual consciousness, particularly about the universality of the experience of God, into the rubric of Jewish tradition. This was done by a turn towards kabbalah and hasidism specifically, and yet much of Renewal today feels a little dated to when it was founded. There is, however, a radical “independent minyan” forming under the same inspiration, and I hear echoes of this trend through Milstein’s book. The hope is that this will lead to a duality, a sincere commitment to Jewish education and spirituality and an anarchistic rebelliousness that takes it far past the confines of religious institutions, the state and capitalism. In doing so, it brings the people Rothman discusses back into focus: they are our ancestors, theirs is in a lineage that leads to our own Judaism.
This comes at a time when there is not so much a re-appraisal of traditional Judaism, but a re-integration of it into a new Jewish paradigm. Figures like Arthur Green, long on the edges of the Jewish world, are releasing compelling work that helps to build up a challenging canon that smashes traditional wisdom with radical implications. His recent collection Judaism for the World, paraphrasing a sentiment from Reb Zalman, and the first comprehensive translation (and commentary) of Me’or Enyanim, is helping to integrate hasidic ideas more fully into Jewish life. Recent studies like Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature try to remind us about the liberatory potential of some of the most entrenched elements of Jewish law, not because re-imagining them without their problematic baggage is necessary, but to highlight the competing traditions inside the Jewish story. More than books about turn of the century Jewihs anarchists, No Masters But God brought to mind the 2009 AK Press title Living Revolution, about anarchist trends in the kibbutz, which themselves had a complex interweaving of Jewish religious and secular (or even anti-religious) life, a reminder that those things were, at one time, not apart from one another. Jewish life as governed by Jewish law is itself defined outside of the bounds that we usually consider as religion (a discussion that comes from the prominence of Christianity in Western countries) and so breaking down the boundaries between radical politics of the spiritual and materialist realm seems to emerge more authentically from the Jewish tradition. In this way, No Masters But God again preferences the Jewish frame, assessing textual history not from the bifurcation that Western radicals typically do, but from the way it might be experienced in Jewish circles.
On March 27th I joined a session of what was called the Jewish Anarchist Forum, a series of discussions put together by a network of Jewish anarchists coalescing around digital communication channels and “IRL” spaces like Ratzon: Center for Healing and Resistance, a radical Jewish space, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My talk was billed as on antisemitism and antifascism, but I shifted it to the question of what a distinctly Jewish antifascism would look like. I tapped into a rebellious Jewish history (including much from No Masters But God) to find that Jewish subjectivities are always placed into proximity to non-Jews. While Jewishness may be presented often as insular (even by Jewish institutions), the reality is that Jewishness is defined by its proximity to the rest of the world. The Jewish critique on the rest of the left is about its ability to truly realize intersectionality, to see how oppressions are both different and operating as an entangled mess, with antisemitism a key part of the false explanation for power in the world. When I arrived I was met by people discussing the tzaddik, the leadership concept that underskirts the hasidic rebbe, and how kabbalistic immanence created a kind of Jewish animism in connection with the natural world. While there were certainly some older folks in attendance who connected mostly with the secular Jewish world of radical politics, the younger the folks I spoke with, the more they were integrating an explicitly spiritual identity of Jewishness. Ratzon, for example, is not the Workers’ Circle: they hold Kabbalat shabbat services, are tied to Hebrew and Jewish learning, and are tied together by some interpretation of halakha and Jewish ritual tradition. There were young punks with payot, queer and non-binary xasidism, and mystic anarchists quoting parsha: a revolutionary world with G-d at the center. It reminded me of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s assertion that “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive,” and perhaps that extends to the notion of G-d in the first place. By rejecting the definitive boundaries of what G-d is, then it opens up an expanding ocean of what we mean when we say hashem. It could be argued that this is, perhaps, one of the most authentically Jewish ways to understand our revolutionary spirit, the force that causes change in the world and moves us towards healing. This is a story told from within Jewish tradition, one that is qualified, limited, contained, and paraphrased by those outside, yet rarely allowed to linger on its own as a well of wisdom.
The anarchist critique of religion is, itself, wrapped up in a historical period, one in which church and state were mutually reinforcing institutions and from which people could not always envision how to decouple the mythology and the powerful who manipulate it. Is there something beyond the stories used to control mass politics? Does the Jewish story tell us something about ourselves? By interweaving the lessons, the radical deconstructions of anarchism and the generational wisdom of Jewish tradition, people are building something bigger than the sum of its parts. This does, in a way, answer some of the most persistent questions coming from Jewish institutional life: namely, how to keep a sense of Jewish continuity. You do it in the same way the Pharisees did, but rebuilding something that is alive to new generations of people who want to identify as Jewish. In that story we have the opportunity to intervene, to focus on the pieces of the tradition that can become tools for something bigger, to define what Jewishness will be for the future.
In a world where secular Jewishness is often wrapped up in Zionist politics, a return to religion as the prime locus of what it means to be Jewish is becoming its own kind of radical alternative. Maybe this will shine a light about how transcendence can be a part of discovering the possibilities for a new world, little pieces of fragmented light showing a new way forward.