What Shall I Do with This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism by Milton Viorst

Article excerpt

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 by Yigal Amir, an Orthodox law student, presented a kind of shattered mirror for Jews in Israel and around the world. Suddenly they saw in their reflection a frightening warp. The violent removal of a duly elected leader by Jewish hands was bad enough. But as American Jewish journalist Milton Viorst observes in this immensely readable book, it "was not just the crime but the popular support behind it that raised the question of whether Jews, having created the state, possessed the civility they needed to preserve it" (p. 215). While most Jews were appalled by the murder, some in the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox camps, including rabbis, thought it justified given the political and territorial stakes. Viorst detects in the Rabin assassination deepening divisions between religious and other Jews that will tear the "Jewish family" asunder if they are not checked. What Shall I Do With This People? is not so much a work of scholarship as a selective review of some 3,250 years of Jewish history in a quest to explain how Jews have reached such a dire point today.

The title question comes from Moses' exasperated cry to God at the Israelites' incessant complaints on their desert journey. But it is God's assessment of the Israelites as a "stiff-necked people" that Viorst employs throughout the book as a trait that explains "causeless hatred" (a Talmudic phrase) among Jews and a propensity for religious zealotry and self-inflicted disaster.

The discussion is organized into three historical parts. The first, "Building a Nation, Losing a State," treats the Exodus account of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the rise and fall of the two biblical commonwealths, and rabbinic Judaism's "successful revolution" in overthrowing the Priestly order by 70 C.E. Viorst sees in God's offer of covenant to the Israelites and their embrace of the golden calf an enduring problematic relationship between God, the Jews, and the law. Just as portentously, he reads the experience of the two biblical commonwealths as showing that the Israelites had "no particular aptitude for statehood" (p. 42).

The second part, "Adjusting to Exile," examines the exilic development of rabbinic Judaism after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, the challenges of Shabbateanism in the seventeenth century and Hasidism in the eighteenth, the latter's own dispute with Mitnaggedism, the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment, and the revolution of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century. Viorst suggests that the propensity for political disaster that Jews displayed when they were politically independent, and for the deadly religious intolerance they display today in Israel, was largely tempered during the long centuries of diasporic Jewish life for two reasons. First, their "foreign relations" (my term) were more or less successfully negotiated through observance of "three oaths" formulated by the rabbis: no collective return to the Holy Land, loyalty to the nations in which they lived, and a request not to be unduly oppressed. Second, it was only with the Enlightenment that Jewish law began to base Jewish identity on religious observance rather than on kinship. …