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Religious anti-Zionism and the ‘Three Oaths’

In the past year, many protests led by extreme members of the ultra-Orthodox community have displayed fervent anti-Zionism. These demonstrations go beyond protesting army conscription to display antagonism toward the state, sentiments which are not shared by large segments of the non-Zionist haredi community. For Zionists, religious and non-religious alike, such displays of anti-Zionism are mystifying and objectionable.

In this column, we’ll try to explain the alleged theological roots of this anti-Zionism, even as there are obviously additional religious and social factors at play.

In a well-known Talmud passage, the Sages record three vows taken when the Jews went into exile in the post-Temple era. “One, that Israel not ascend the wall; another, that the Holy One adjured Israel not to rebel against the nations of the world; and another, that the Holy One adjured the idolaters not to oppress Israel too much.” The latter two oaths seem reciprocal: the Jews should not rebel against the nations amongst whom they live, and the gentiles in turn should not harshly subjugate the Jews. The first oath (against “ascending the wall”) was interpreted as “going up by force” or as “en masse.” Additional passages also discuss not trying to “force the end,” i.e., hasten the messianic redemption, while citing a tale of how the tribe of Ephraim prematurely rebelled against the Egyptians and were killed. Taken together, the passages expresses a general opposition to collective political activism and premature messianic pretenses.

Yet should this seemingly homiletic (aggadic) passage be understood as legally binding? If so, what activity is precluded because of it? As Prof. Aviezer Ravitzky has documented, the earliest references to it in post-Talmudic literature are found in Geonic poetry used to encourage people to accept the yoke of exile and wait patiently for the Messianic era. Maimonides did not record anything about the oaths in his legal code, but he did mention them in his famous “Epistle to Yemen” (1172) in which he sought to discourage Jews from following a false Messianic movement. 18th-century figures like Rabbi Yaakov Emden similarly invoked them to discourage followers of the Sabbatean messianic movement.

One of the interesting questions is whether the oaths were meant to prohibit individual (as opposed to collective) emigration. The Talmud, in the same broader passage cited above, extols living in the land of Israel. Such sentiments seem to have inspired groups of 13th century scholars to emigrate to Israel. In contrast, one German contemporary, R. Eliezer of Wurzburg, condemned individual immigration to Israel as a violation of these oaths. While Maimonides cited the Talmud’s praise of living in Israel in his codes, he did not explicitly state that emigration to Israel was a commandment (even as he himself ultimately emigrated toward the end of his life). One 16th century commentator attributed this position to the “Three Oaths,” thereby asserting that even individual Jews were not require to emigrate.

Nachmanides, in contrast, asserted that aliyah was a commandment, and he, too, emigrated to the land of Israel. However, other Spanish scholars in the 14th and 15th centuries, such as Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet, explicitly asserted that emigration against the will of the nations, and certainly on a collective level, remained forbidden. Many mystics, including the Maharal of Prague, attributed to the vows metaphysical symbolism that connoted a cosmic order of exile that was unbreachable until the messianic era.

HOWEVER IT was understood historically, mass emigration to the land of Israel did not become practically relevant until the advent of nationalism in the 19th century. Some anti-Zionist leaders, like the Satmar rebbe Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, declared that Zionism was a violation of the oaths. This belief, in part, led to their vehement opposition to all Zionist activities.

Yet as Rabbis Menachem Kasher and Shlomo Aviner argued, many religious Zionist figures claimed that these vows are irrelevant. Some asserted that the entire passage was a homiletic statement, not a legal prescription, and that the medieval figures who spoke about them in legal contexts ultimately understood the passage as a philosophical strategy for living in Exile. Others believed these oaths were never meant to be permanent, citing the 16th century mystic Rabbi Chayim Vital, who limited their standing to 1,000 years.

Beyond weakening the normative status of the oaths, others claimed that the Zionist movement did not violate any of the vows. The 19th century proto-Zionists, Rabbis Yehuda Alkalai and Zvi Kalischer, stated that a gradual process of emigration does not constitute storming the wall or hastening the end. Later, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk argued that following the 1920 San Remo affirmation by world powers of the Balfour Declaration, permission was granted to the Jews to move to Israel. This idea was further enforced after the 1947 UN partition plan was passed. (Indeed, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously quipped in 1956 that he’s not sure the UN accomplished anything else besides establishing Israel…). Others asserted that gentile nations didn’t keep up their end of the deal when they harshly subjugated the Jewish people; accordingly, Jews are no longer bound by this arrangement.

Underlying these diverse answers, I believe, is the sentiment that this theological homiletic statement made over 1,600 years ago cannot genuinely be invoked in the face of the best attempt to provide Jewish self-determination after millennia of subjugation. The error of anti-Zionism is particularly egregious in light of the Holocaust, as well as the obvious blessings that have come from the State of Israel. It’s a distortion of the Talmud – and Jewish theology – to cite the Three Oaths as the basis for such vehement anti-Zionism.

The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and recently received his doctorate from Bar Ilan University Law School.

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