What are the biggest mistakes in Jewish history? We asked Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, senior editor at the Shalom Hartman Institute and author, to describe regrettable moments in Jewish history where a do-over might have been helpful. Part 1 of our Regrettable Moments series ran a few weeks ago and we received great feedback. Here is Part 2. What do you think? Any regrets on our regrets? E-mail us at email@example.com.
About 150 years after being expelled from Spain … which was already after about 100 years of humiliation, torture, execution, and imprisonment under the Inquisition…which was a few centuries after being expelled from England, then France … in the direct aftermath of the Cossack massacre of around 100,000 Ukranian Jews … the Chosen People had had just about had enough with Europe, and goyim, and history. As if on cue, an exit-strategy presented itself in the form of Shabbetai Zvi, a Turkish-born kabbalist whose Messianic claims captivated the suffering masses with promises of a new Kingdom of Israel, headquartered (where else?) in Jerusalem. When he converted to Islam under threat of death, he left countless despairing disciples and a deep, lasting tear in the fabric of European Jewish life. Much of traditional Judaism’s wary, insular orientation toward modernity, expressive spirituality and utopian promise can be traced to the disillusionment burned into the communal consciousness by Shabbetai Zvi.
Who can we blame? It’s hard to come down too hard on our battered predecessors for this —let’s be honest — major lapse in judgment, responsibility, and common sense. It’s the kind of massive systemic breakdown that, given the long-simmering confluence of intense pressures at work, seems almost unavoidable even in retrospect. What we can do, though, to honor its legacy, is strive to care for the health and security of people at the community’s margins, refusing to abandon our struggling neighbors to the kinds of material depredations and social degradations that lead some to false messiahs.
Modern Denominational Politics
Remember Germany back in the 1700’s, when everyone wore top hats and monocles and read philosophy instead of watching TV, and the authority of religion was not taken for granted? Things change, and it was natural that Jewish theology would change too. But as we know, there are different ways of relating to difference. The religious movements that have arisen over the past three centuries too often have chosen to stake their own legitimacy on the invalidation of alternate perspectives and vilification of anyone stepping outside their party line. This fractious trend has had an asphyxiating effect for modern Jewish culture, snuffing out the kind of constructive, enriching conversations that unify and strengthen diverse communities. The stunning amount of energy that has been wasted to uphold this pathetic cage match, and the general attitude of suspicion and hostility it has tended to foster, has proved one of the most potent, and least discussed, sources of distaste and estrangement for the modern Jewish masses.
The Allon Plan
In the elation after the Six Day War, with Israel abuzz about the question of what to do with its newly captured territory in the West Bank, then Deputy Prime Minister (and iconic state-founding general) Yigal Allon stepped forward with an idea novel in its sobriety. Let’s do … something. Let’s make a decision. The Allon Plan, as it came to be known, proposed returning much of the captured West Bank territory to Jordan, while maintaining a strip of sovereignty along the Jordanian border and through the north of Jerusalem. This would have allowed for the possibility of a clear, defensible border, and – who knows? – maybe a version of history with less depressing headlines. But after Allon’s proposal, someone apparently made a stronger case for Plan B: “Do Nothing and Hope for the Best,” and the government went with that one instead. The Allon Plan was neither rejected nor adopted and languishes in a Knesset slush pile to this day—a historical footnote about a government unable to make a decision about making a decision. Which, come to think of it, pretty much brings us up to date.
Stay tuned. More Jewish Regrets in an upcoming column. Also, please submit your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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