Downfall of Communism Herring 3_4
By Rabbi Basil Herring
George Will has called them ?the most momentous months in mankind's history.? Senator Moynihan, with just slightly less excitement, writes that it is in these very days that ?the great arguments of this century are being resolved.? Those among us who are not totally consumed by our own private lives, watch in awe as events half way around the world unfold in a scenario that was unthinkable, but a year or two ago. For in these last few months we have been witness to the beginnings of the breakup of the Communist dream, and with it, the practically universal recognition, unambiguously confirmed, that Communism as a way of life, as a system of beliefs and values, is a god that has failed. How else explain the stunning rise of Poland's non‑Communist government, the first in Eastern Europe since the end of World War II? How else comprehend the massive populist revolts in Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania ‑ all protesting in the name of autonomy and freedom from Moscow? How else make sense of the radical demands for change in Beijing, Hungary and Aijerbejan, as the masses who have lived and suffered under the icons and idols of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the rest, search for alternatives to the crumbling edifice that goes under the name of Marxist dialectical materialism? And perhaps most astounding of all, how explain that all of this should take place while the Kremlin remains largely passive, itself preoccupied with economic crisis, political turmoil, diplomatic setbacks, and natural disasters.
End of the Cold War?
There are those who say that together, these events signal the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era in superpower relations. I do not know if such is the case, given the ongoing military forces that the Soviet Union and its allies control. Indeed, it could be argued that it is precisely at such a time of turmoil and setback that rulers have been known to resort to military means to resolve their crises and rally their peoples. Are not wounded bears the most dangerous of all, requiring special vigilance and care on the part of their potential victims? But whether or not we have turned the corner as regards post‑war superpower rivalry, it is quite clear, I believe, that Communist ideology as we have known it, is a thing of the past. As a social, cultural, and historical movement, it is a doctrine in decline, its intellectual foundations discredited, its assumptions regarding human behavior proven unfounded, and ‑ most significantly for Jewish life ‑ its attitude toward religion and the spiritual life, patently dead wrong.
For from its very inception, Communism presented itself as the inevitable alternative to the religious traditions of the West. Unashamedly atheist, avowedly opposed to any public manifestation of traditional religious life, the ?proletarian revolution,? as Communism styled itself, considered itself liberated from the chains of the Biblical tradition. Yuri Gagarin in his Sputnik found no sign of Abraham's G‑d or angels in orbit; religious books and artifacts had their proper place only in museums and archives; and churches and synagogues were converted to other purposes. In their place was erected a fresh cult, according to which there was no god but Communism itself, there was no Bible other than Marx's Communist Manifesto as interpreted by Lenin or Mao; no Temple, but the Kremlin or the Forbidden City whose High Priest was the general secretary of the Communist party of the USSR or China; whose levitical families were the party nomenklatura, and where membership in the Communist party itself was the passport of a special elite blessed to enjoy divine dispensations of power and privilege. All in all, the god of Communism came to be a fully developed secular religion, with its own vaunted values, sacred symbols and required rituals, with the masses expected to bow down and genuflect before the altar of this latest embodiment of pagan idolatry.
Jews Especially Attracted
And it was the Jews, especially, who took to this new faith. Starting with Marx himself, a Jew descended of rabbis, Jews were, from the very beginning in the 19th century until relatively recently, both in the forefront and in the ranks of the movement. Communism became a major force in the lives of countless Jews, who saw in its beliefs and practices the fulfillment of their own ideas and ideals. Indeed, one could say that for many Jews, faith in Communism represented a perfect means of casting off the old ways of Jewish tradition, that baggage so burdensome, even while claiming that they remained true to the ?essence? of the prophetic messages of the Bible. Never mind that in the thirties and forties Stalin and company turned out to be viciously anti‑semitic, even allying themselves with Hitler for a while; never mind that the Communist world turned increasingly against Zionism and Israel. Still the Jews kept the faith.
Why the attraction of Jews to Communism? In the first place, I would say, it offered them the vision of equality and inclusion in the larger society. The allure of acceptance in the society of so‑called civilized men was surely a powerful magnet. But there was something more profound than that. It was the allure of messianism. It has been rightly pointed out that the very notion of universal redemption is a Jewish one. Prior to the messianic message of the Bible, history was seen as having no particular direction or purpose. For the Greeks, history was like a clock winding down; for others it was an aimless succession of events. Only for the Jews did history have a definitive fulfillment, a time to be anticipated when right would triumph over might, when the world would stand redeemed, the righteous rewarded even as the wicked would perish, when all men would share equally in the blessings of G‑d, and justice prevail. This messianic ideal was a unique contribution of the Jews to civilization ‑ and it was in part because they were armed with this hope and antici?pation, that this persecuted people could persevere over the centuries. This messianic millenarianism of redemption was the milk upon which Jews were raised and nurtured. Indeed, when in modern times so many Jews succumbed to the allure of secularism in such a way as to cast off the rest of their Jewish heritage, this faith in the future was, and is, usually the last vestige to remain. Thus the prominence of this idea in the writings of assimilated Jews such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. And thus, for so many 20th century Jews alienated from their Jewish roots, it was but a small step to substitute the egalitarian promises of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution for the prophetic vision of universal messianic redemption. Instead of the return of Gan Eden, they affirmed their faith in the Workers' Paradise; and in lieu of the Torah's Jubilee redistribution of wealth, they embraced the belief in collective ownership of all property. And on, and on, and on.
Whatever the reason, unzere yidden embraced the new god as their own, casting away the faith and the practices, the beliefs and commandments of old, to bow down before a god that today stands naked and discredited, hollow and worthless. How sad for them, and for us.
All of which brings me to a remarkably prescient passage in the Torah, one that reads as follows:
If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, And the sign or the wonder that he spoke of comes to pass, saying, ?Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them.? You shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your G‑d proves you, to know whether you love the Lord your G‑d with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your G‑d, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and you shall serve him, and cleave to him.
The Torah here says that there will arise a false prophet or a ?dreamer of dreams,? one who will present himself to the people, articulating a dream, a sublime vision that has appeal and resonance among the masses, but one that also leads its unsuspecting followers into the embrace of false idols. It is the Ramban in his commentary to these verses who tells us just what the Torah is teaching here. What makes such a man so dangerous, he says, is that together with his claims to truth, this dreamer presents a sign (ot) or a wonder (mofet).? What is the difference between these two? The Ramban explains that a sign is a ?symbol of something similar that will take place afterwards,? at some point in the future. He does some act that in some small way anticipates some larger future event. On the other hand, a ?wonder? represents a change in the natural order of things, like a miracle. And when a man can do such things, Jews have got to be careful ‑ for indeed, says Ramban, we are a people with a special spiritual propensity, and such a test will serve to bring out our true belief.
Hence, to the Torah, such a man represents a special challenge for the Jewish people, to ?test us to know whether we love G‑d with all our heart and all our soul,? or instead, G‑d forbid, run after other gods and worship at their altars.
I would submit that we have in the instance of 20th century Communism, the contemporary embodiment of precisely this phenomenon. For there did, indeed, arise among us such dreamers, such visionaries, such false prophets, to lead us astray after another god. They gave signs symbolic of things to come, when they created supposedly classless societies and redistributions of wealth, in anticipation of universal equality. And they also did things that went against nature, prevailing upon their hapless citizens to suspend their natural faith in the G‑d of the Bible, making them go against the G‑d‑given instincts and interests that motivate people to engage in the productive labors that make the world go around. In so doing, they, too, postulated a new theology, a new god to be worshipped, a god by the name of Communism, a god built on promises of things to come, and a brave new world. And sad to tell, many Jews followed them down that road paved with good intentions, replaying the ancient patterns of idolatrous behavior.
?Today, as we contemplate the epochal events of Eastern Europe signifying as they do, the demise of yet another idol, in the events in Warsaw and in Bucharest, in Beijing and in Moscow, in Budapest and in Vilnius, there are many reasons to rejoice, as members of the human race, as Americans, as believers in democracy, and as lovers of freedom. But it is as Jews that we have special cause to celebrate, most notably for the debunking of yet another idol, in the long line of pagan challenges to the validity of the G‑d of Abraham, and of Toras Moshe, that living legacy of truth and beauty, goodness and justice, that tree of life that has served so well to provide our eternal people with the means to prevail over the occasional claims of the gods who would be our master.
Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the? Atlantic Beach Jewish Center. His latest book, published by Ktav, is entitled The Jewish Imagination: Discourses on Contemporary Jewish Life. The volume includes close to 50 acclaimed essays, including some that have appeared in the pages of The New York Jewish Review. It is available in Judaica stores everywhere, or directly from Rabbi Herring c/o The Jewish Review, P.O. Box 172, Brooklyn, NY 11215. ($20, plus $1.50 for postage and handling)