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Are Revolutions legitimate in Judaism?


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Nisan 18, 5776
As Jews and as Americans (or Israelis) should we view George Washington and Menachem Begin as great men who fought for honorable causes, or as misguided criminals who wrongly rebelled against legal authority? For example, would it have been justifiable or perhaps even meritorious, i.e., a mitzva, to overthrow the government of King Ahab, which supported idolatry on Israel and forcefully suppressed opposition?
Being that we don’t have prophets around like in the time of Achav (Ahab), today Judaism turns for the answer to all such issues to the current Torah and world-recognized rabbinic authorities in each generation who (and this is important!) specialize in each particular field, to define what revolution and action is “kosher”, and which is not. On one hand, Rabbi A. Y. Kook, the father of religious Zionism, wrote very fondly, even admirably, about the greatness of youthful idealism and “unadulterated” (pun intended!) objectivity, especially in the context of the Zionist-socialist revolution, which basically developed in the youth movements of Europe (Ma’amarei HaReIya p. 230 Arpiley Tohar p. 136). On the other hand, he points out that youthful idealism must be led and directed by the wisdom of experienced leaders, who have not lost the idealism of their youth, are not power or money-hungry, still speak on their wavelength, but benefit from the insight of life and previous generations, as gleaned from our age-old and eternal Torah sources, as well as having access to the means or positions necessary (Orot HaKodesh III, p. 361 ; Igrot HaReIya 753). In general, the true hope and solution to most big problems is not in trying to “teach old dogs, new tricks”, but in idealistic adults educating the youth of the next generation to make the necessary changes. Secondly, Rav Kook warns that most revolutions do more harm than good and are artificial and counterproductive, as he explicitly foresaw at the beginning of the socialist revolution in Russia (Ein Aya, Shabbat I, 32), which overthrew the tyrannical Czar, but brought the Soviet Union, which was even worse! The physical, spiritual, and social development of both the microcosm (the individual child) and the macrocosm (mankind) is through slow, but sure, evolution, and not through “overnight” immediate revolutions (Orot HaTshuva 5, 3). There are occasional “leaps”, like the Exodus from Egypt, the Israeli War of Independence or the Six Day War, where history is clearly changed significantly as a result of a particular event, but those incidents generally result from the complex of many combined factors, orchestrated together by the G-d of history (Orot haKodesh III, intro. 8). Thirdly, the belief that a loving G-d runs the world, and that He insures the eternity of the Jewish people, encourages us to act confidently (“He’s behind us and we can make the change”) and without panic, as His “partners”, according to His ideals in the Torah, which enable level-headed and patient actions, and discourage desperate, overnight revolutions. Unfortunately, 2,000 years of exile, without Jewish independence, politics, an army nor an economy, brought many religious people (and not a few rabbis) to passivity, waiting for G-d and messiah to save the show, and that’s what Karl Marx, correctly disliked in that type of exile-Judaism (“the opiate of the masses”). Nevertheless, an honest and objective reading of the Bible and rabbinic literature clearly show the proper balance between man’s action and revolution, when necessary, and G-d’s guidance and veto, when needed. Practically speaking, we know that Begin’s mentors, including Jabotinsky, David Raziel,and other leaders of the underground, were in direct consultation with Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi of the time, regarding the extent and severity of at least some of the reprisal actions. In addition, today when we, thank God, have a Jewish State, the picture is totally different. In short, just as we wouldn’t open a new mikva, eruv or Kosher pizza without expert rabbinic supervision, how much more so, all revolutions must be carried out carefully and similarly. “There is a time for everything” (Eccl. 3, 1), including revolutions, yet they are seen as an exception (!) to be carried out carefully and with expert and responsible supervision, as opposed to the normal track which brings about change through education and slower, and more calculated ways, which are more natural, less dangerous and longer-lasting.
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