Destroying Heresy From Within


Mor Altshuler

Gnosis moderni ve-tzionut: mashber hatarbut, philosophiat hachaim vehagut le'umit yehudit (Modern Gnosis and Zionism: The Crisis of Culture, Life Philosophy and Jewish National Thought) by Yotam Hotam, Magnes Press, Hebrew, 260 pages.

Gnosis in Greek means knowledge, to know; metaphorically, it denotes a a life-altering internal knowledge. The Gnostics - those who know - believed in two authorities: the kingdom of the Demiurge, the evil god who created the material world and ruled it through cruelty and deception, and the celestial kingdom of the unseen god of the good. The road to salvation lies in gnosis - that is, in knowledge of the truth, which allows human beings to rebel against the evil god and evade his grasp.

In early Christian writing, the Gnostics are described as heretics. Some scholars identify them with the minim, Jews who had adopted subversive ideas and earned the opprobrium of the Jewish sages; others with the Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient religion of Persia, or the Ophites, ancient snake worshipers, or maybe the Mandaeists ("knowers" in Aramaic), a small cult in southern Iraq. Then again, they may be related to the Coptic manuscripts discovered in the ancient library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, which portrayed the God of the Jews as the god of evil.

Whatever the case, gnosis was and remains a vague concept, not denoting any specific people, territory or language. Therefore, it became the black box of Jewish and Christian studies, a box whose discovery is supposed to resolve varied and distant mysteries, such as the interface between Judaism and Christianity in the ancient world, or the roots of the kabbalah, as it emerged in the Middle Ages. Yotam Hotam, a historian of modern European thought at the Hebrew University, begins his book by agreeing with those who believe that the academic study of gnosis from the mid-19th century on, "has interpreted, understood and one might say invented the 'original' gnosis of the early centuries of the Common Era as part of the attempt ... to understand its own sources."

Modern Gnosis and Zionism, therefore, explores not the mystery of gnosis in the ancient world, but rather gnosis as a type of modern thinking that developed among Europe's educated bourgeoisie, the stratum from which the scholars of the subject emerged. The distinguishing mark of this type of thought is not a simple heresy against God, but rather a sophisticated heresy that relies on what Hotam calls an "eschatological dualism" - a conception of religious faith as belief in an evil god, that is, as heresy, and a paradoxical idea of inverted redemption.

This inverted redemption is achieved by disguising oneself and accessing the realm of heresy in order to destroy it from within. Therefore, an embrace of heresy and the appropriation of values from the heretical faith in order to empty them from within - that is modern gnosis.

Most of the book is devoted to a novel description of Zionism as a modern Gnostic movement. In the process, the author offers some interesting insights into secularism, now the subject of a heated debate among Israeli scholars. Is secularism necessarily a heresy? Did Zionism grow out of a heretical denunciation of Jewish history, or out of faith in it?

Hotam's point of departure is the belief among central Zionist groups that Judaism had become distorted under the pressure of exile and that its existence in the Diaspora was barren, and devoid of roots and vitality. The return to Eretz Israel, these thinkers believed, would solve nothing if it did not go hand in hand with a tikkun (correction or reform) through secularization, which would free Jews from the false religion of exile and restore them to a healthy Judaism.

Tikkun is an essentially religious concept, and Hotam stresses that the Zionist version of secularism does not abandon religion, but rather transfers its values to a national framework, in the spirit of Baruch Spinoza's philosophy. That legendary thinker, excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam in 1656, did not describe Judaism as an abstract religion with its own believers; rather, he described the Jews as a "political collective" with its own constitution.

The fact that he did not convert to Christianity and chose instead to abandon the halakha (Jewish religious law) without abandoning Hebrew nationalism enabled him to create what Hotam describes as "a different realm, ex nihilo, a secular framework of existence," in which religious faith was translated into a nationalist-political frame. The new "Zionist" framework emphasized the continuity between the ancient past and the modern State of Israel, and it won Spinoza the admiration of many, including our own Ata Turk, David Ben-Gurion.

Having defined secularization as a replacement of the theological by the political, Hotam moves to the inner layer of secular Zionism. In its simpler, less symbolic sense, secularization refers to the belief that liberation from a degenerate Judaism of exile would enable Jews to return to the source of vitality and inner power: "Revival means a return to the natural source... to the true Jewish self," he writes. Hotam calls the secular-messianic model "modern gnosis," which contains an inverted redemption achieved through heresy against the accepted faith, and he attributes it to the influence of "Life Philosophy," which emerged in Europe in the early 20th century.

One locus of "Life Philosophy" was the close circle of poet Stefan George (1868-1933) in Munich, which also included poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and the anti-Semitic handwriting analyst Ludwig Klages. The members of this circle denounced liberalism as self-destruction and sought a remedy to it in mythology, mysticism and the irrational. According to Klages, for example, paganism was the natural state of the self, whereas Christianity had for generations been poisoned by a corrupt spiritual element that originated in the abstract Jewish God, who commanded and reprimanded, judged and passed sentence.

Arguing that Judaism was the distinct agent of the spirit and that the Jew was the enemy of life, Klages preached a ritual immersion in earthly, sensual life as a way of obtaining salvation. Although Klages did not use the term "gnosis," Hotam finds a gnostic pattern in the inner contents of his philosophy, especially in the idea of inverted redemption.

The fourth and fascinating chapter of Modern Gnosis and Zionism deals, then, with exposing a similar pattern in the work of central Zionist thinkers, from the Socialist left to the Revisionist right, and from secular writers to men of faith, "From A.D. Gordon's conception of nature to the mysticism of Martin Buber, and from Nordau's nationalism to the philosophy of Berdyczewski and the historiography of Kaufmann and Dinur." Thus, for example, "gnosis" is defined in Ze'ev Jabotinsky's case as "an anti-liberal orientation," the identification of the nation with race, and the encouragement of a cult of power.

For Martin Buber, however, "gnosis" is reflected in the worship of life (vitalism) and the passion to merge with an authentic religious experience minus the burden of Jewish law, a kind of religious anarchism that Buber found - or invented - in Hassidic Judaism. In the writing of Dov Ber Borochov, exile is perceived as bourgeois degeneration, and the rejection of exile (Zionism) is tied to a rejection of the bourgeoisie (Marxism), creating a longing for an authentic life in the Land of Israel and nourishing the Marxist ideology. Borochov, then, forms a "gnostic" connection between socialist theory and vitalist argumentation.

The weakness of the book's thesis is that the concept of "gnosis" appears in it with multiple meanings: In some cases it denotes esoteric writing, and in others it is a synonym for secularism; sometimes it is religious anarchism, and elsewhere - nationalism or religious messianism. The author seems to be trying to expose a "Gnostic underground" that allegedly hides within all strains and schools of Zionist thinking.

I've borrowed the phrase "Gnostic underground" from Joseph Dan's 1997 book On Sanctity (Magnes Press, Hebrew), which describes with irony the tendency to attribute the adjective "Gnostic" to different and distant texts "as though for centuries there has been a Gnostic underground within human culture, manifesting itself in different forms in different generations."

True, Hotam is aware of the overuse to which previous generations have put the concept of gnosis. "The term 'Gnostic' became a universal category of the human spirit," he writes, "a kind of empty vessel that could be filled with different translations. In this, the concept of 'gnosis' may have rendered itself unnecessary, since the abstractness of such a dualistic-eschatological pattern of thinking allows it to serve as a metaphor for practically any phenomenon." Nevertheless, he does not refrain from a generalization that suggests that all Zionist thinking is a kind of modern gnosis, thus turning gnosis into a hanger on which all ideas and methods might be draped.

Hotam, therefore, ends up using the very method against which he cautions. However, the weak spot of the thesis is also the source of its power, because it illuminates the depths of Zionist consciousness as seeking a way back to God even before it has finished rejecting Him. The unconventional connections and surprising associations demonstrate the impossibility of separating the Jewish religion from the Jewish nation. After all, the Jewish people does not have two histories, but one, and both secular and religious Jews share a historical memory, although the historiosophic explanation might differ from group to group. Likewise, Hebrew writing is never entirely secular, because the words cannot be separated from their original context in the Bible, in Jewish prayer books, in homiletics and liturgy.

Modern Gnosis and Zionism proves that the reverse is also true: Jewish sanctity cannot be separated from the realm of the secular, because if everything is holy, everything is also secular and mundane; and if there is no separation between the theological and the political, then everything is political and everything is theological, since both are aspects of a single entity.

Laying aside the scholarly disputes, I went back to the book and reread it. I found it fascinating, convoluted and ambiguous. It describes Zionism as a national movement struggling with problems of faith, not as a colonialist movement looking for an excuse to steal the land of others. Similarly, Hotam presents the leap from the passivity of Diaspora life to the high-paced activity of aliyah and settlement, that famous return of the Jewish people into history, as a paradoxical move.

On the one hand, the pioneers went to the land of Israel because they renounced the old belief that divine providence would someday restore them to Zion. At the same time, this is a sacred heresy, since it does not connect the past to the present, but rather ties the present to the eternal, to "divine time." Therefore, it seems that Zionism undercuts its own secular agenda when it poses religious-messianic goals, and at the same time it undercuts religious salvation in its pursuit of a secular existence.

In the process, Zionist thinking emerges as a sophisticated space, not nearly as simplistic as it is often said to be. Moreover, the spiritual world of the secular Jew that Zionism brought into being is depicted as a fenced-off and guarded world, into which God sneaks only in disguise. There is no denying that the way to discovering the disguised God becomes an extraordinarily compelling journey.


Dr. Mor Altshuler is a scholar of Jewish mysticism.