The Last Holy Rebel

By Yehudah Mirsky
Thursday, June 21, 2012

Some years ago, a friend asked what I thought was the more impressive title: "Rabbi," "Doctor," or (the often unwittingly self-parodying) "Rabbi Dr."  You know, I said, there's a man in Israel who's one of the most impressive talmidei hakhamim and moral authorities I've ever known—and he's not "Rabbi" or "Doctor," he doesn't go by Yoseph or even Yossi, but Yoske. And you're as likely to find him working in the kitchen of his kibbutz as in the beit midrash.

One of Judaism and Israel's most precious lights went out recently, with the death at age 79 of Yoske (Yoseph) Achituv.  A longtime member of Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, Yoske was far from a household name. But he was revered by the moderate wing of Religious Zionism, and may have been its last great tribune. He was one of the last, perhaps the very last, veterans of the religious kibbutz movement (ha-kibbutz ha-dati), in whose presence one felt the mered ha-kadosh, that movement's vision of sacred rebellion.

Religious Zionism has, by and large, been shaped by two major currents: the Mizrachi/National Religious Party, historically statist, moderate and middle class; and the redemptive, Emuni stream, driven by its interpretation of the teachings of Rav Kook.  But alongside them churned the Religious Workers Party and its companion movement of religious kibbutzim, which drew on different cultural and spiritual sources: the fiery individualism of Polish Hasidism and the moral pathos of the founder of German neo-Orthodoxy, Samson Rafael Hirsch. Kibbutz Ha-Dati struck its own course, creating communities aiming for social justice and religious renewal in the framework of Zionist settlement.  

The founding ideologue was the firebrand Shmuel Haim Landau, known by his acronym "Shachal" ("young lion"). Landau, a descendant of the Kotzker Rebbe, inherited that figure's intensity and drive for authenticity, and his early death at age 36, in 1928, only added to his legend. He called for "sacred rebellion" against bourgeois society and religion—coining the term "Torah va-Avodah," which synthesized the classic Rabbinic cadence of study with the new Zionist teaching of redemption through productive labor. He was joined by another Hasidic scion, Yeshayahu Shapira, a disciple of Rav Kook (and brother of Kalonymous Shapira, a rabbinic leader of the Warsaw Ghetto) who was known as the "Admor He-Halutz," the pioneering Rebbe.

The leading Kibbutz Ha-Dati thinkers in the following decades, Moshe Unna and Tzuriel Admanit, were more in the Hirschian mold, fusing individual moral growth and national renewal with religious community and, of course, socialism. They were followed by the American-born, neo-Maimonidean rationalist Eliezer Goldman, a careful scholar and original thinker, who brought to the passions of the kibbutz a decidedly analytic bent. 

Yoske's writing and teaching contained echoes of all these thinkers along with his own ideas, which he delivered with an indelible mix of gentleness, humility, and courage, without ever raising his voice or drawing attention to himself.

Born in Germany in 1933, he came on aliyah as an infant with his family, and lived in poverty in Holon. After studying in an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, he left for a religious Zionist school in Tel Aviv, and during his army service came in the early 1950s to Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Ashkelon, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Aside from his work on the kibbutz he quickly emerged as a gifted educator, teacher and high school principal. Yoske was instrumental in the creation of Yeshivat Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Dati and the Herzog Center in Ein Tzurim, and was a fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to which he trekked once a week. He exemplified a distinctively Israeli type of educator, found particularly on the kibbutzim, whose moral authority derives as much from their life in community as from learning and ideas.

Yoske laid out his basic credo in the introduction to his volume of studies, 'Al G'vul Ha-Temurah ("On the Cusp of Change"). Its elements: The aspiration to infuse the working life with spirituality and an ethos of labor; commitments to human equality, Jewish national identity, and traditional halakhah; and a critical stance towards all power structures, political and rabbinic. The dialogue here with Western culture is obvious; but in that same essay, he advocated genuine dialogue with ultra-Orthodoxy, especially on religious experience, and ethics. The bedrock for all these engagements was the mitzvah of Torah study, which, he wrote in that volume's preface, stamps the distinctive character of Jewishness on individuals and communities.

A key feature of Yoske's writing and teaching was that he saw Judaism, community building, and education in terms of one another.  Judaism, he thought, was about creating dynamic communities that offer alternative spaces within society—fostering individual flourishing while countering atomization, alienation, and the cheap arousals of marketing. His commitment to the individual was also key to his commitments to tolerance and to humanistic education, as only a robust sense of community could give the individual the inner resources to withstand the easy comforts of dogmatic and simplistic thinking, and the material and sexual temptations of contemporary life: "The essence of community is its self-consciousness, the conversation it carries on with the soul of each and every individual with it," and with the surrounding society. 

This dimension, which he preferred to characterize less as "collectivism" and more as "mutual responsibility," was also woven into the fabric of his religious ideas. The creation of religious community went hand-in-hand with his conception of theology: "Religious language does not presume at all to assert truths about the world . . . its essence is to create the human atmosphere befitting the ability to serve God and keep His mitzvot."  Thus his critique of Conservative Judaism was precisely that its halakhic innovation did not emerge from the ongoing life of communities but was rather the product of meta-reflection by the movement's intellectuals, inorganically grafted onto the halakhic process.

A friendly critic of other movements, he was a steadfast internal critic of Religious Zionism. He rebuked his community in light of its own ideals, arguing that while Religious Zionism proclaims the historical uniqueness of the State as a matter of theology and even metaphysics, it hasn't integrated that awareness of this unprecedented historical moment into the halakhah in any but the most technical ways. 

To be sure, much Religious Zionism reads current events through a metaphysical prism but that, for Yoske, was the problem. He considered the inevitable essentialism of abstract categories to be at odds with the acutely realistic, contextual, and morally attentive thinking that had characterized halakhah through the ages. In particular, he thought that the treatment of the people and land of Israel as metaphysical abstractions come to life, rather than as flesh and blood, frail and finite, redefines ethics as identification with absolutes, rather than care for people suffering in the here and now.

In recent years he became an outspoken critic of the mounting discourse around sexual modesty (tzniut), in Orthodoxy in general and Religious Zionism in particular.  Here too, he saw the perils of metaphysics, with rabbis citing abstractions like "Jewish sanctity" alongside nationalist concepts to enjoin ordinary teenagers to assume the ascetic regimens of medieval pietists. But Yoske's critique of the new tzniut went deeper. For decades, he wrote, Kibbutz Ha-Dati had already been preaching tzniut, precisely as an alternative to consumerism, mindless and conspicuous consumption, and extravagantly extroverted religiosity—and now all these meanings were being swallowed up by the new obsession with sleeve-lengths and sinful thoughts. 

As one of the contributors to the large volume published in his honor a decade ago noted, Yoske's thought was inseparable from his personality: the lucidity, gentleness, and humility with which he tried to reconcile seeming irreconcilables, the genuine good cheer and concern he easily bestowed on most everyone he spoke to—and the courage and compassion with which he met great personal tragedy and suffering. 

Like most Israeli moderates, Yoske's non-dogmatic stance and unwillingness to go on the attack were no match for the endless donnybrook of Israeli polemics and politics. Yet his moderation was not wishy-washyness, but the reflection of a deep conviction that found voice in powerful, lifelong commitments. Perhaps that kind of principled attempt to find the golden mean is, in an age wracked by the terrible certainties of dogmatism, and the equally terrible uncertainty of dime-store postmodernism, a holy rebellion all its own. 

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