any meaningful long-term jewish response to the current acceleration of the zionist genocidal project in palestine is going to need to reckon with the ways that the central texts of the rabbinic (and priestly, and, yes, priestessly) tradition actively and repeatedly call for and celebrate genocide.
i’m talking about the commandment to exterminate the amalekites and steal their land. i’m talking about the physical destruction of the bnei amram’s political opponents – specifically, the group opposed to hereditary theocratic rule whose spokesperson was korakh. i’m talking about the mass killing of the children of mitsraim. i’m talking about the supposedly pre-emptive massacre of 75,810 people (explicitly including children) in ahashevrosh’s empire.
these are genocidal acts – the extermination in whole or part of an identifiable social group, because they are members of that group. and those are just the quickest four to come to my mind. the quickest four large-scale actions, that is: i’m not even bothering to include the countless incitements to genocide, like the one in psalm 137, which begins with weeping by the rivers of babylon and ends with a blessing on those who systematically murder the infant children of peoples defined as “enemy”.
all of these actions (and more) are presented as inherently good. some are divine actions, so their positive character cannot be disputed within a rabbinic/priestly frame. some are the actions (with or without divine assistance) of moses, whose correctness is only slightly more debatable within the rabbinic/priestly tradition. some are explicitly intended to continue into the present, considered as binding positive commandments rather than mythic accounts. some are the basis of celebratory holidays.
they are what comes immediately before and after practically every mythic story that liberal and progressive religious jews love to tell as examples of heroism in the service of justice. the bravery of nakhson and crossing of the sea follows the mass murder of children and leads into the extermination of the bnei amram dynasty’s political opponents. the esther story ends with the slaughter of tens of thousands – not in self-defense, but after the danger had definitively passed. i could go on.
support for genocide is not extractable from a rabbinic/priestly approach to jewishness. it is not a subject of debate within that tradition, except in the sense that some writers pick and choose which genocides and calls for genocide they actively defend and which ones they remain silent about. it is the heart of the “prophetic tradition”, whose heroes constantly call for purification through mass murder – often the mass murder of specific groups of the people they are supposedly trying to save – and when the genocide they call for does not arrive (as in the story of jonah) they are enraged. it is woven through every prayerbook and many rituals, and through commentaries, analyses, and rulings on subjects of all kinds, generally with directly fascist implications (for example, blaming the “erev rav” – the internal diversity of the jewish people – for resistance to the hereditary theocratic rule of the bnei amram).
and it has direct, bloody consequences in the real world. we are seeing them now, as the full spectrum of zionists call for the genocide of palestinians with rhetoric and specific goals drawn from precisely this tradition. pre-emptive mass murder. the slaughter of children. massacres of those who speak against autocracy. wholesale extermination in pursuit of land theft.
after all, zionism, even when some of its advocates claim secularism, is very specifically part of the rabbinic tradition. its only justification for jewish rule in palestine – its defining political project – is the rabbinic canon: the fantasy of a divine land-grant, the fiction of a powerful ancient israelite kingdom, and the rest of the mythology zionism pretends is history come exclusively from those texts.
so it’s no wonder zionism is a movement that makes constant use of the genocidal tools celebrated in the tanakh and its religious tradition. it is pursuing a goal defined in terms taken from that tradition, through a practice modeled on the genocidal conquests the tradition celebrates as steps towards that goal.
if you want to “embrace tradition” through the rabbinic/priestly path advocated by the ‘progressive’ religious sphere – yes, including Kohenet; yes, including Svara – genocide is a pervasive part of what you’re being asked to embrace.
luckily, the rabbinic/priestly tradition is not the only way to be jewish. at the core of the jewish left for the past 150 years – from marrakesh to madras to montréal to melbourne, from buenos aires to baghdad to brooklyn, from istanbul to indianapolis, from tehran to toledo to tetuan – has been a rejection of that tradition as the defining center of jewishness. that is what has made possible a jewish politics of solidarity, a jewish ethics of liberation, a jewish practice of heterogeneity, a jewish radical diasporism – all imperfect, all evolving, but now possible. one no that leads to many yeses (as the zapatista proverb says).
that possibility has been greatly constricted over the past few decades. first by the zionist movement, which even in its allegedly progressive and allegedly secular forms has taken its goals from theological sources and its practical inspiration from the genocide warrants of the rabbinic/priestly tradition. more recently, though, by supposedly progressive jewish versions of the worldwide religious right’s call to “embrace tradition; reject modernity”. these, with no apparent awareness of the irony involved, seek “ancestral connections” and “authenticity” in exactly the same ethnoreligiously-defined terms as any RETVRNist from Identity Evropa, Shiv Sena, or the League of the South.
the idea that jewish authenticity is only achievable through the texts and practices of the rabbinic/priestly tradition is not only historically laughable (most jews before recent decades had essentially no meaningful access to those texts, and varied widely in how much their practices related to rabbinic standards), not only structurally authoritarian (even after a few decades of widened – and almost entirely zionist – participation, this is a tradition defined by the authority of a self-selected coterie of dead men with money, which runs on expertise enabled by access to resources), but a clear and tangible obstacle to seeking justice. that’s true both of its history and of what we can see of its actual effects, especially in moments of crisis like the current one.
for the history: perhaps the two most influential figures in the construction of a jewish “religious left” are michael lerner and arthur waskow, the most successful of the cluster of young zionists who entered jewish public life in the early 1970s. waskow, we can generously say, was seeking the kind of charismatic leadership role that ministers in the black church held (a less generous reading would point to jewish models from the far right like meir kahane or menachem mendel schneerson) – and has cleaved to that model, addressing few if any of the problems with it that many black radicals have pointed out (personally, i’m fond of ashon crawley’s perceptive analyses), with deep disrespect for his employees and patronizing scorn for women as groundnotes of his practice. it’s hard to be as generous to lerner, who was looking for a space where his virulent misogyny and rape apologism was less widely known than the antiauthoritarian Left zones where he’d been based – and succeeded in finding one that both welcomed his willingness to declare certain kinds of consensual sex “not acceptable” [note 1], and would turn a blind eye to his (as far as i know still ongoing) patterns of sexual harrassment and assault. i’ve written about these men’s work and legacy through its key innovation, the phrase “tikkun olam” before, so i’ll just link to it here.
for the current effects: all you have to do is look at the statements on the accelerating genocide in palestine from progressive jewish organizations, especially the ones released on or immediately after october 7th. what comes with an emphasis on religion as the primary model for jewishness is equivocation, both-sides-ing, and a refusal to so much as utter the word “solidarity”, let alone “zionism” or “colonialism”.
Svara (“a traditionally radical yeshiva”) endorsed a call for a fast (classically associated with the rabbinic tradition’s genocide warrants, from esther to the prophets) that did not so much as acknowledge violence against palestinians. JFREJ, which is nominally anti-Occupation and has concentrated on synagogue-anchored organizing for over a decade, announced a simkhas toyre vigil with expressions of grief, mourning, fear, and concern, but not even lip service to solidarity. and even among those willing to go further towards support for palestinian liberation, one of the first cultural responses was fundraising shirts saying “There Is No Occupation In Olam HaBa” – using a rabbinic phrase and framing that has become pervasive on the jewish left to place even an end to the 1967 extension of zionist territorial control in the messianic future (“the world to come”), rather than the world that we – and the millions of palestinians in those territories – actually live and struggle in.
i leave it to the people committed to continuing the rabbinic, priestly, and priestessly modes of jewishness to figure out how to transform their traditions to no longer provide support for genocide. that’s not my jewishness, and hasn’t been my lineage’s jewishness for generations, so i only care that they do it, not how. if it’s even possible to do, which i can’t say i fully believe.
as a cultural worker who works with ritual and myth a lot, i’ll be doing my own reckoning with the ways that rabbinic/priestly celebration of and advocacy for genocide sends tendrils into the practices and texts i work with. i can’t picture, for example, making a purimshpil that uses the esther story in the forseeable future. i’ll be looking to the other (and historically more frequently used) narratives that purimshpiln have drawn on, and focusing on the ones that come from the shared regional carnival-play traditions rather than rabbinic sources. and i’ll be looking for a story to tell at khanike that isn’t about a band of religious fanatics massacre-ing their way through a struggle to become an empire’s local proxy rulers to a victory over complex, regionally grounded, cosmopolitan visions of jewishness.
and i’ll be continuing to build homes for jewishness that isn’t centered on the rabbinic/priestly tradition. because what matters is resisting genocide. and any tradition that makes it easy to instead embrace it is a tradition that people should leave behind them – and they’ll need a jewish home when they do.
[note 1] the 2006 founding conference of lerner’s Network of Spiritual Progressives included as guiding questions for its working group on sexuality: “Are there forms of sexuality between consenting adults that are not acceptable from the standpoint of a progressive religious or spiritual community? Must sex, for example, be covenantal and not merely recreational – and what exactly should be the dimensions of such a covenant? …What kinds of limits do spiritual progressives insist upon in this sphere?” [archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20050428145404/http://www.tikkun.org/community/spiritual_activism_conference_old/]
a more relevent question for the rest of us might be at what point debating the ‘acceptability’ of sex for pleasure crosses the line from merely conservative into the realm of soliciting violence against queers, women, and other perverts. not in question is the way this approach feeds into and supports the renewed attacks on queer and trans people from the far right (with cover and support from liberals and liberal institutions), which embraces that violence wholeheartedly.