And when the Rebbe dances...


The lyrics emphasized how the “Hassidim” did everything the Rebbe told them to do without questioning; it was a direct attack to the charismatic nature of Hassidic Judaism, which was the prevalent expression of Judaism in XIX Century Eastern Europe. While making fun of your opponents is indeed a time honored tradition (and not just in Judaism), today we would consider it in bad taste.


The song, however, makes a point beyond the internal fight among Jews in those days. It is a rejection of the idea of blindly following anyone or anything. Being a blind follower is simply “not Jewish” - that is why they applied it as a stereotype to the Hassidim. But today there are indeed many Jews, Hassidim, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Zionist and plain Jews, who do indeed blindly follow what they are told without understanding the reasons and/or without questioning. This is the biggest failure of our Jewish communal system.


As a Zionist secular Jew I believe strongly in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, yet that doesn't prevent me from being critical of some Israeli moves which I believe endanger the future of the Jewish State. On the religious side of Jewish identity, this blind following is more likely because most Jews don't have or don't take the time to truly learn the sources and think about them. They tend to adopt the interpretations of those who are “like them”, be it their Rabbi, or somebody they believe is a “learned Jew”. But true Judaism demands that we all read the Torah and other sources in our own way and reach our own conclusions. One thing I was always told is that “it takes many Jews to read the Torah”, an idea reinforced by the concept of never studying a text on your own, and the Talmudic saying stating that “Many rivers feed the sea of Halachah”, implying that the true meaning of a text can only be discovered when we confront many interpretations.


On the secular Zionist front, things are not that different. Many people just assume that whatever their favorite writer says about a subject matter must be the truth because those who take the time to read and analyze the actual sources are a distinct minority. Everybody knows that Hertzl wrote “The Jewish State” many people actually read it? Same with Leon Pinsker's “Autoemancipation” or the writings of Aaron David Gordon or Dov Ber Borochov or Jabotinsky or so many other Zionist thinkers.


This kind of attitude leads us to a situation of “black and white” ideas (or “right and wrong”), when in fact the reality is that ideas come in a wide variety of grays. As so many embrace the black and white approach, the concepts of black and white will change depending how we grew up and what appeals to us. So we can have two people saying the same word but meaning very different things. Take the word “Zionism”


For many years, since the Babylonian Exile, “Zionism” was understood as the yearning for and love of the Land of Israel. After the destruction of the Temple and the beginning of the Big Diaspora, this idea of Zionism subsisted and became entangled with the idea of the Messianic times. It became for many a symbolic love for God as expressed in the love for the Land. It did not imply any need to take proactive action. Making “Aliyah” or going to live in the land of Israel was a Mitzvah, but it was meant to emphasize learning of the Torah in Israel – not redemption of the land through labor neither the intention of National redemption through political action.


As the European Enlightement began to fail and the integration of Jews into XIX Century European society was proving illusory, the idea of proactive political action to bring about the National redemption of the Jewish people through the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel began to grow – and that is what we call “Political Zionism”; it still comes in many have Religious Zionist, Socialist Zionists, Revisionist Zionists, Territorialists, etc. And within each of those subgroups there are of course multiple interpretations. All political Zionists, however, subscribe to the ideas of redemption of the land through labor, proactive political action for the restoration of sovereignty (and since 1948 for the defense of that hard-won sovereignty) and the idea of a Jewish Nation with the right to self-determination. That is what sets them apart from the traditional Zionists of past eras or their contemporary followers.


So one simple word, “Zionism”, can be used to define the rich diversity of Jewish life and the profound differences in our personal interpretations of what it means to be Jewish. But we also have, as Jews, an important common denominator: “Ahavat Israel”, the love for the Jewish people; the embracing of our collective identity – even if we define that commonality different, we still see each other as “mischpoche” (“Family”). And that means that all the rules of family well as the intensity of passions.


Personally, I see Judaism and Jewish identity as the true embodiment of the etymological meaning of the word University: “Unity in Diversity”... may we one day learn to see in others the reflection of ourselves and see only strength, not weakness, in our differences. As a secular Jew I should probably not say “Amen”, but it really fits...


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