Herzl, Chutzpah & Heresy (Ideas #49)

The Jewish people sometimes take pride in its chutzpah. Still, other times our chutzpah even surprises ourselves. The clearest examples are in the Bible which portrays several examples of our heroes arguing with G-d Himself. And as if this was not enough chutzpah, rabbinic literature takes the scope of these arguments even further.

The following midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1:56) is a good example of this uniquely Jewish endeavor. The midrash speaks about a king who forbids his wife from seeing any of her old friends. She listens to her husband, only to get into an unrelated dispute with him and subsequently have him throw her out of the palace. When she seeks to go back to her old friends they understandably want nothing to do with her. At this point, she goes back to the palace and meets her husband's great surprise and anger. She, however, has the last word by telling her husband that, since he caused her to lose all her friends, he has no choice but to take her back. The midrash says that the Jews can be compared to the forlorn wife whom the King will have to allow back into his palace.

Many people have branded Herzl a heretic for wanting to go against the Divine will which decided to put us into exile. Even though this is an old debate, it sometimes takes the over hundred years that have passed since his death to gain the proper perspective needed to properly evaluate his work.

It is interesting to note that Herzl's entire motivation in starting the modern Zionist movement dovetails the narrative of the above midrash. Herzl was precisely one of those Jews who went to back to our old (pre-Judaism) gentile friends. Like many other Jews trying to assimilate at that time, Herzl was surprised by gentile society's continued antagonism to even the most assimilated Jews. What Herzl experienced was that these old friends did not quickly forget or forgive the hundreds of years when the Jews had listened to G-d and separated themselves from the rest of mankind While the separation may have been benevolent – not meant to hurt anyone else – it was rarely taken that way and may well have been a major contributing cause to anti-Semitism throughout the generations.

Indeed, this theme of being different, aloof and anti-social, predates even the earliest Christian anti-Semitism. Whether in the Book of Esther or in the accusations of Apion, the Greek leader of ancient Alexandria, Jewish separatism seems to be the most central objection to the Jewish people.

Neither is this limited to the past. A good gentile friend of mine in college was offended by the fact that I was against intermarriage. Kashrut didn't bother him, Shabbat didn't bother him, but when it came to the prohibition against intermarriage, he could not accept it. This, he told me, was an insult to him and all other gentiles.

The above midrash seems to point out that anti-Semitism is really to be expected. When the king asked his wife to separate from her old friends, their dislike for her is a natural consequence. The Torah gives us laws to keep us a nation apart. Though we can have cordial – even pleasant – relations with the gentile world, so long as Jews keep Torah we will be viewed as connected to the King and not to our human peers. Torah creates distance between the Jews and the rest of mankind. What the midrash teaches us is that once this is the case there is no going back on it. This is what Herzl found out at the Dreyfus trial. This is what we see to this day.

And though Herzl did not know it, his response to the anti-Semitism he did not expect, was anticipated by the midrash – since Jews were not accepted outside the palace, Herzl decided to take them back to the palace. And against all odds, he succeeded. Because once the Jews tell G-d that He is the cause of our inability to assimilate, as the midrash points out, He has "no choice" but to take us back.

It is interesting that it took two thousand years for the Jews to rediscover this powerful argument. It is also interesting that we had to wait for Herzl "the heretic" to take us back. But perhaps it is really no coincidence. Perhaps the chutzpah required for this argument could only be found in a "heretic." Perhaps the rest of us have become too reverent to argue with G-d.

Yet the midrash's approbation indicates that chutzpah in defense of the Jewish people is not really heresy at all. Not only is it not heresy – it appears that G-d Himself creates the arguments for us. A similar theme runs through a different midrashic text (Berachot 32a) in which Moshe blames G-d for the incident of the golden calf by pointing out that it was G-d's idea to take out large amounts of gold from Egypt – an item which was essentially useless in the desert. In this midrash, Moshe compares G-d to a father who gives his son a bag of gold and leaves him in front of a house of ill-repute. Who can help but be surprised by the cleverness of this argument?


Indeed, G-d could have found a more fortuitous way to give the Jews the physical blessings that they would need once they reached the land of Israel. The point of this midrash is that, if the Jews would succumb to the sin of idolatry, G-d actually wanted them to have an excuse. He wanted Moshe to find this excuse and seek the exoneration of the Jewish people.

It appears that the reason the surprising arguments found in the above midrashim are not heretical is because they are designed to reunify the Jewish people with G-d. When the Jews tell G-d that He has to allow us home, or when Moshe tells G-d that He should forgive the Jewish people and accept their repentance, this brings the Jewish people closer to G-d. By bringing the Jews closer to G-d, these arguments further G-d's will. These arguments are in marked contrast to the acceptance of exile and the acceptance of separation from G-d, as the inevitable punishments which we deserve for our sins. By distancing us from G-d, the latter attitude does not further

G-d's will.

In the weeks after Tisha be’Av, we need a little chutzpah. On Tisha be'Av, we focused on our shortcomings and understood why G-d severed His relationship with us. Such reflection is necessary and can be helpful – but only as a point of departure.

In the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we need chutzpah to defend ourselves and reclaim our connection to G-d. We have to have chutzpah, because this is what G-d seems to want from us. If He was willing to listen to Herzl, the assimilated Jew, I imagine he will be willing to listen to us as well.