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Shattered Vessels: Zionism, Domination,
and Redemption

Aron Wander

The head of each hammer had cracked off its shaft,

and so we did our best to use each broken hammer

to hammer the other back together. We were

clearing the rubble from a Palestinian chicken

coop that the IDF had demolished, leaving dozens

of half-shattered concrete blocks embedded in the

dirt. The family wanted to reuse both the land and

the concrete, and so we had to break up the blocks

in order to pile them a few meters away. 

 

As we worked, I thought of the Mishnah’s claim

that one of the last things God made just before

twilight on the sixth day of Creation was “Tongs

made with tongs.” (Avot 5:6) The Mishnah addresses a logical issue: if one needs tongs to make tongs, how was the first set of tongs forged? By forming the first tongs, God creates the conditions for humans to someday forge their own. As we kept trying to repair our hammers with hammers, the Mishnah offered only ironic comfort: we were fixing the hammers not to create something new, but so that we could finish the destruction already wrought. We swung the broken hammers again and again, un-building the chicken coop until only a few shards of concrete and some discolored earth remained. 

Looking out on those shattered remnants, I thought, too, of the prophet Jeremiah’s words upon seeing the devastation around him wreaked by the Babylonian invasion: “I look at the earth, and it is tohu vavohu,” he cries. (Jer. 4:23) The only other biblical use of the term tohu vavohu occurs in the first chapter of Genesis, where it refers to the chaos that preceded creation: “And the earth was tohu vavohu, darkness on the face of the abyss, and the spirit of God was hovering above the water.” (Gen. 1:2) In drawing a link between the Babylonian violence and the primordial chaos, Jeremiah emphasizes the totalizing, overwhelming extent of the desolation: the Babylonians have done so much damage that it appears as if the world had never been created. [1]

The chaos of demolitions is a typical feature of life in Area C of the West Bank. [2] Palestinians there are forbidden from building without a permit from the Civil Administration, the Israeli military body that governs their lives. Since the vast majority of permit requests are rejected, virtually all Palestinians who want to add a bedroom for a new family member, expand a bathroom, or build a new house must do so without a permit. When they do, they risk the possibility that the IDF will issue a demolition order, not just against the renovated part of the building but against the entire edifice. [3] This system is part of a larger structure of violence and oppression designed to push Palestinian villagers off of their land in order to make way for new settlements, a structure that includes home raids, arrests, village closures, the refusal to connect many of the villages to the electric and water grids or to reign in wanton settler violence. [4] It is, in a sense, an effort to return the area to tohu vavovhu so that something new can be created: a land in the image of the state of Israel. As I stared at the rubble, I wondered, “What false god has demanded such devastation?” 

But as religious symbols and imagery flashed through my mind – tohu vavohu, idolatry, Mishnah, Jeremiah – I also asked myself: what are the implications of describing Palestinian oppression through Jewish language and text, when it is Jews — often with Jewish language, texts, and imagery — doing the oppressing?

On the one hand, Jewish text is the language that I speak as a religious Jew. It’s the lens through which I refract everything. When I critique Zionism, I cannot help doing so with images drawn from midrash, Talmud, and Kabbalah. But at the same time, is using such language for this purpose not self-indulgent? Does it not reproduce, in some small way, relations of domination? Does it not risk focusing our attention on the ways in which Israeli oppression “corrupts Judaism” and not on the ways in which it materially impacts Palestinians?

 

There is no simple response to these questions. And yet, I hope that articulating critiques of Israeli oppression in Jewish terms might contribute to dismantling it, even if only at the margins. For in grounding and framing our critiques of Zionism in Torah (broadly defined), we can help (re)produce forms of Jewish identity that necessarily position Jews against domination in general and in Israel/Palestine specifically. 

Beyond that, we must remember that the vast majority of Jewish texts, symbology, and ideology were formed under conditions of oppression and long before the advent of Zionism. We may therefore look to them as sources of critique in their own right, remaining open to the possibility that they may illuminate their own unique avenues of analysis and suggest alternative futures. 

In what follows, then, I want to sketch such a critique in traditional Jewish terms, focused on the themes and symbols above (idolatry, domination, and tohu vavohu), that I hope may suggest pathways for future critique and praxis. 

     

The Birth of Domination

 

The idolatrous nature of domination — i.e., the attempt by one party to seek godlike power over another — is explored in a rabbinic midrash that reimagines the story of Cain and Abel: 

 

Cain [sought] to conquer the world… [Cain and Abel;] said to each other, “Let us divide the world.” Cain said, “You take moveable property and I will take the land.” They divided it – Abel took the movable property and Cain took the land, and Cain sought to remove Abel from the world. Abel went about the world, and Cain would pursue him, saying, “Leave what is mine.” Abel went to the hills, and Cain said, “Leave what is mine,” until he stood against him and killed him. (Ex. Rabbah 31:17)

 

Cain agrees to share the world with Abel, but only in such a way as to lay the conditions for his eventual sole control of it. By taking all the world’s land, he can accuse Abel of trespassing and thereby claim the right to kill him. In a certain way, Cain’s twisted logic makes sense: if he truly owns all of the world, then perhaps he may do as he sees fit with his property. But such a conclusion underscores the immorality of the premise: if having total and complete ownership of the world would give a human such power, then such ownership must itself be immoral. This is one of the reasons that the Tanakh insists “the land and all within it belongs to God” (Ps. 24:1): the rights of such ownership also belong to God alone. 

In claiming that which truly belongs to God, Cain is ultimately seeking God’s power: to rule as he sees fit, to control the life and death of others, to be sole and final authority. While the midrash imagines Cain as seeking such power over the entirety of the world, the same could be said of anyone seeking exclusive control over any territory and, with it, over the lives of its inhabitants. In doing so, they are replicating Cain’s idolatrous pretensions, albeit on a smaller scale.

Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, an 18th-19th century commentator from what is now Belarus, connects the above midrash to another midrash that echoes Jeremiah’s lament over the Babylonian destruction. This midrash states, “Cain […] sought to return the world to tohu vavohu.” (Gen. Rabbah 2:3) [5] What does the midrash mean by claiming that Cain deliberately sought to return the world to chaos? Did Cain not just want power? 

R’ Einhorn explains that “Cain wanted the entire world for himself, and he killed Abel so that he would not have to share it. And thus he ruined the world, and returned it to tohu vavohu.” [6] By reading the second midrash in light of the first, R’ Einhorn subtly reinterprets it: according to him, Cain did not intentionally seek to return the world to chaos. But by killing his brother so that he could be sole ruler of the world — a role typically reserved for God — he somehow upended creation itself. 

What exactly does that mean, though? Is the language of returning to tohu vavohu simply a poetic way of emphasizing the immensity of the damage Cain caused? [7] Lurianic Kabbalah, the mystical tradition begun by R’ Isaac Luria (also known as “the Arizal” [8])  in the sixteenth century, offers a lens through which to understand that chaos that sheds light not only on the consequences of Cain’s actions but on Israel’s, too, and on all forms of domination. 

 

Shattered Vessels

 

Before summarizing the basic points of Lurianic Kabbalah, it is worth stating the Talmud’s dictum, quoted in the name of Ben Sira: “Do not discuss that which is beyond you” (B. Ḥagigah 13a). I am aware of the dangers of trying to summarize and apply a system whose complexities remain beyond me and which has been the subject of endless discussion and interpretation for centuries. There are perhaps endless possible interpretations of R’ Luria’s system, and I can only hope that mine is a valid one. I offer it only in the hopes that it might suggest continued paths for research, study, and application in the service of a redeemed world. 

Lurianic Kabbalah speaks of shevirat hakeilim, “the shattering of the vessels,” a central mythic motif that describes the origins of existence. In short, God, who is undifferentiated and infinite, wanted to create a differentiated, finite reality. To do so, God alternately contracted and expanded God’s “light” in order to produce differentiated lights, which began to operate as quasi-independent divine forces. As part of that process, some of those divine lights were encased in “vessels,” but their energy was too intense and most of the vessels shattered, creating tohu vavohu. [9] Whereas in its original context in Genesis, tohu vavohu is the chaos that precedes creation, for the Arizal tohu vavohu is the chaos produced during creation.

The purer elements of these vessels, and most of the divine light contained with them, were recovered and reconfigured in a process known as tikkun, “repair.” But some shards of the vessels, as well as some of the light they contained, fell to the nether realms, where their energy helped generate the forces of destruction, which then trapped them. 

Now, those divine forces and destructive forces are locked in a struggle: the divine forces want to recover those sparks in order to complete tikkun, while the destructive forces want to further shatter existence. [10] According to R’ Luria, the task of each Jew, by way of commandments and mystical actions, is to help rescue those sparks and thereby bring about earthly and cosmic redemption. [11] 

Ultimately, in Lurianic Kabbalah, the forces of destruction do not have an independent existence; [12]  they are born from divine forces, and the struggle with them is occurring within God’s infinitude. The brokenness we see around us – violence, death, oppression – is merely an outward reflection of a brokenness within the divine. As Gershom Scholem, the famed Kabbalah scholar, writes, “[S]ince the breaking of the vessels, exile is the fundamental and exclusive – albeit hidden – mode of all existence.” [13]

If the myth sounds familiar, that is because, over the past few decades and through complex historical channels, the notion of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) has become popular in liberal Jewish circles. It is often used, though, as a catch-all for everything from blood drives to sustained political organizing, without a clear political or religious framework. Part of this ambiguity stems from the disinterest in serious structural political change on the part of those who employ the term, but part of it is the result of not engaging more deeply with the details of the myth. Only by understanding why the vessels break can we develop a deeper analysis of the requisites of tikkun. 

The tradition offers a number of reasons why the vessels were unable to withstand the light: perhaps they were too weak [14] or God actually wanted them to shatter. [15] But one of the possibilities offered is that each vessel sought to “rule” over the others: each wanted a greater portion of the light, to be its sole bearer, or to even emulate or usurp God’s rule. [16] We can read this version of the myth as suggesting that what causes shevirah and shatters reality is a primordial attempt at domination, which is also an attempt by a single, finite slice of existence to claim God’s infinite power. Tikkun, by contrast, begins with egalitarianism: the vessels are re-formed in an interconnected system [17] so that they can share power, support each other and form a sustainable, if still incomplete, [18] basis for existence.

Refracted through Lurianic Kabbalah, to say that Cain’s domination of Abel threatened to return the world to tohu vavohu is to say that it re-enacted that first, primordial domination that led to the shevirah. [19] And since Cain’s actions are themselves traditionally understood to be prototypical, [20] it follows that any act of domination – any attempt by one person or people to control another – is a reproduction of the shevirah. This is not just to say that domination is “wrong”: such a stance allows for the possibility that domination might, under extreme conditions, be justified with regard to some desirable end. [21] If domination reenacts the shevirah, then it is diametrically opposed to and undoes the possibility of tikkun, the ultimate end; therefore, it can never be justified.

 

In other words, tikkun will never be built by a wrecking ball. This is not just a moral claim, but also a descriptive one. Ultimately, the chaos produced by domination will affect the dominator, too: the violence of domination undoes the foundations of the reality that the dominator seeks to control. [22] 

Zionism: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Realities     

 

Early Zionists’ views of the possibility of a better world spanned a wide range. Some saw the world as irrevocably broken. They believed that antisemitism, violence, and oppression were permanent and eternal realities and that the best Jews could hope for was to escape foreign domination and conduct themselves like any other people. Among the tragic ironies of Zionism is that alongside this decidedly dystopian stream, many of its proponents promoted a clear utopianism: Jews would return to the land of Israel and create a model society for the world. Zionism would save not only the Jews but humanity as a whole. Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the father of religious Zionism, understood this process in explicitly Lurianic terms: Zionism would be a significant act of tikkun that would initiate the final stages of redemption. “Who can describe,” he wondered, “how great is the treasure of life, tikkun of the world, salvation of souls, the immense joy and the splendid repentance that is ensconced in the revival of the nation, which is progressing and becoming incarnate in the Land of Israel.” [23] Even many of Zionism’s secular ideologists understood it in similarly redemptive terms. Nahman Syrkin, a leading Socialist Zionist, asserted, “Because Jews are placed in an unusual situation, that they are forced to find a homeland and establish a state, they therefore have been presented with the opportunity to be the first to realize the socialist vision… [The Jew’s] tragic history has resulted in a high mission. He will redeem the world which crucified him.” [24]

 

But the very goal most Zionists – both religious and secular, dystopian and utopian alike – eventually sought undermined such utopian strivings. Though some prominent Zionists initially proposed a Jewish polity that would be part of a multinational framework rather than an independent state, the movement ultimately coalesced around the objective of a European-style nation-state with a sustainable Jewish majority in a significant portion of mandatory Palestine. [25] By the late-1930s, leading Zionist thinkers were openly imagining engineering such a majority through a new act of domination and, with it, shevirah: forcibly “transferring” a significant portion of the local Palestinian population. [26] David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel’s first prime minister, wrote explicitly in a 1938 letter, “I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it.” [27] Israel took this thinking to its logical conclusion during the 1947-1949 war (referred to as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” by Palestinians) when it expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians and prevented them from returning to their homes. [28] 

Since then, the domination of Palestinians has continued to be a central feature of Israeli policy. Israel has seen those Palestinians who remained within its (expanded) borders after 1948 as a “demographic threat,” in that should they grow “too numerous,” [29] they will undermine Israel’s Jewish majority. Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, summarized this dilemma succinctly two decades ago in an interview:

 

“If there is a demographic problem, and there is, it is with the Israeli Arabs who will remain Israeli citizens,” he said […] If Israel's Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-40 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state but a bi-national one, he said. [sic] [30]

 

Though the state de jure guarantees them citizenship and its attendant rights, it necessarily has a vested interest in minimizing their population growth and political power. Accordingly, it has subjected Palestinians citizens of Israel to significant discrimination [31] and sought to suppress their electoral turnout [32] and eliminate their political parties, [33] and for decades it has continued to evict Bedouins from the Negev. [34] 

Today, Israel also rules over millions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which it has controlled since 1967, while denying them basic rights. In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are granted “permanent residency status,” which allows them to receive certain state benefits, but they have not been granted citizenship, and therefore cannot vote for the government that rules over the territory in which they reside. As in Area C of the West Bank, the government has taken steps to push Palestinians out of the area by limiting construction, carrying out demolitions, and enacting discriminatory budgeting, all while actively encouraging Jewish settlement. [35] In the West Bank, although Area C (which constitutes nearly two-thirds of the territory) is the only area in which Israel nominally exercises full civil and military control, the Israeli military conducts raids, arrests, and closures throughout Areas A and B, too, and controls the flow of population in and out. Israel even controls the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, albeit less directly. Though Hamas governs the enclave, Israel controls which people and goods are allowed to enter and leave the territory. At one point, Israel was revealed to be calculating the precise minimum number of calories that each person needed daily so that it could restrict Gazan’s food supply as much as possible without creating a full-on humanitarian catastrophe. [36] Israel will not grant citizenship to any of these populations, of course, because doing so would further imperil the maintenance of its Jewish majority. 

For decades, Zionism’s liberal proponents held out hope for a two-state solution that would grant Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem independence in their own country. But even that solution, which was designed to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority, would have necessitated all the illiberal discrimination Israel has employed since its founding in order to maintain Jewish political control of the state. [37] In any event, having killed the possibility of a two-state solution through settlement growth, Israel has made clear its intention to indefinitely perpetuate a system of ethnic supremacy and oppression. 

Domination and Redemption

Most people want to believe that their actions are contributing to tikkun. Jews’ long history of oppression, identification with the oppressed, and traditional emphasis on redemption have all reinforced such a desire among Jews in particular. For decades, most Jews have seen the state of Israel — the most significant political project of the Jewish people — as consistent with tikkun, if not the vehicle for its actualization. They remain in denial about the fact that it is instead an instrument of shevirah: the state’s founding and continued existence have depended upon and continue to depend upon domination. 

Just like Cain’s domination of Abel, the domination of Palestinians cannot be justified with respect to some other end. No other good Israel does can override it: not technological production, foreign aid, or the revival of Jewish culture. Even the material safety Israel offers Jews cannot justify domination, for by what moral calculus can one people secure their safety at the expense of another? 

To frame this domination as an act of shevirah is also a descriptive claim: the reality that such domination helps (de)construct is one whose chaos will ultimately affect Jews, too. Even Zionism’s non-utopian proponents believed that the movement would guarantee Jews’ safety. But Israel cannot indefinitely dominate Palestinians without provoking further violence. Though Palestinians will continue to be the primary victims of the political system Israel has constructed, Jews, too, will be condemned to fear, violent reprisals, and unending military service. [38] Israeli Jews will suffer in other, more indirect ways, too. Scholars Zaha Hassan and Daniel Levy argue that the Israeli right’s current authoritarian attempts to stifle the Supreme Court and dismantle Israeli civil society can be seen as a situation in which “some of the authoritarian tools forged by the Israeli state to control Palestinians are being turned on elements of the Israeli Jewish population.”[39]

Israel’s domination of Palestinians, of course, is only one piece of a much vaster array of oppressive forces premised on hierarchy: capitalism, militarism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all forms of ethnonationalism. A just, safe, and equitable world — even one that may only ever be approached asymptotically — can only be fought for in opposition to such forces. But in dominating Palestinians, Israel has necessarily placed itself ideologically and materially in coalition with these forces. That alignment also undergirds Israel’s support for other oppressive regimes and reckless arms sales. [40] All of this, too, undermines the safety Israel seeks to guarantee its Jewish inhabitants, for the violence and chaos unleashed by such forces makes the world as a whole less safe and stable, which will ultimately affect Jews as well.

Towards Tikkun

What options are there, then, for dismantling Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and ensuring a safe, secure future for both Palestinians and Jews? 

Palestinians and Israeli Jews, whether they desire it or not, are mutually entangled. Palestinian political theorist Bashir Bashir has argued that partition of Israel/Palestine, regardless of whether was ever morally justified, is no longer practical in the face of Israeli settlement construction: “[T]he lives, rights, identities, histories, and cultures of Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine have become deeply intertwined and almost inseparable.”[41] Accordingly, Bashir and Israeli political theorist Amos Goldberg propose an “egalitarian binationalism” that “accommodates the deeply rooted national affiliations of Palestinians and Israeli Jews alike, [but] rejects Jewish colonial privileges as well as claims to exclusive Jewish sovereignty over historic Palestine.”[42] 

In Lurianic Kabbalah, the interwovenness of tikkun is often described as the teleological purpose of the shevirah. [43] By contrast, I want to be careful, as Bashir and Goldberg are, not to propose a binational arrangement as an abstract ideal: in Israel/Palestine, the interweaving of Palestinians and Israeli Jews is the result of the complex, violent interplay of the Holocaust, antisemitism, colonialism, and nationalism. Absent antisemitism and genocide, many Jews would have preferred to stay in their home countries, and Palestinians would not have chosen to be dispossessed by them. We should avoid proposing a religious framework that sees that suffering as justified by a final, egalitarian result. 

But tikkun is also described as simply the best response to an unexpected, horrific catastrophe. We do not know what reality would have looked like without shevirah; we do not know what humanity would have looked like absent domination; and we do not know what the histories of Jews and Palestinians would have looked like absent antisemitism, the Holocaust, colonialism, and the Nakba. [44] All we have is the present as it is: shattered vessels, scattered sparks, and cracked hammers. I do not know what has become of those concrete blocks we helped move. Maybe they have been made into another coop, or a home. Maybe that new coop or home has been demolished once more. Tohu vavohu, again and again. 

There is no perfect, ideal way out. Building a shared society for Israelis and Palestinians – whether in a single state or federation, and whether with a joint, new national identity or as an explicitly binational enterprise – carries definite risks: what if some Palestinians, long oppressed by Israeli Jews, want revenge? What if, even in a shared society, Israeli Jews retain the majority of economic and political power, as happened with Afrikaners in post-apartheid South Africa? But the alternative is an unending oppression of Palestinians that will continue to endanger Jews, too.  

Tikkun and shevirah, as opposites, share certain characteristics: just as any particular act of shevirah reinforces shevirah in general, so too any particular act of tikkun contributes to tikkun in general. [45] Therein lies the deflated, but perhaps more realistic, pathway from Israel/Palestine to redemption: one in which Jews in Israel relinquish power over Palestinians and work with them to build a just, egalitarian society in Israel/Palestine. Doing so would not magically reshape the world, and it would not offer a single, unitive solution to the world’s ills. But it would be one more thread in the weft of tikkun that humanity might someday weave. 

Perhaps this is a less inspiring mission for Jews than to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) or a redemptive vanguard. But, at this point, anyone with grander dreams for Jews’ contribution to a better global future must be ignoring the degree to which Jews’ largest shared political project has contributed to a dystopian present. Let us shelve, for now, such visions of grandeur: the most immediate thing we can do to bring tikkun is to undo the shevirah in which we are now engaged. 

In Genesis 1:2, just after stating that the earth was tohu vavohu, the Torah declares that “the spirit of God was hovering over the water.” A midrash, commenting on this sentence, claims, “This is the spirit of the Messiah [which will arrive] by virtue of repentance” (Gen. Rabbah 2:4). [46] For millennia, Jews have awaited, prayed for, and fought for national, global, and cosmic redemption. Let us now end our role in delaying it.

Endnotes:

My deepest gratitude to Jessica Friedman, JT, Allen Lipson, and the Gashmius Editors for their helpful comments and feedback on this essay. 

[1] Another midrash, expanding upon Jeremiah’s comparison between the chaos of the Babylonian violence and tohu vavohu, connects each phrase Genesis 1:2 as prefiguring a different oppression:

“Tohu” – this is the Babylonian exile, as was said, “I look at the earth, and it is tohu vavohu” […] 

“Vohu” – this is the Persian exile […] 

“Darkness” – this is the Greek exile […] 

“On the face of this abyss” – this is the exile of the wicked kingdom [Rome].” (Gen. Rabbah 2:4)

[2]  Since the Oslo Accords, the West Bank has been broken into three areas: A, B, and C. C is under Israeli civil and military control, B is under Palestinian civil and Israeli military control, and A is under Palestinian civil and military control (though it is also ultimately under Israeli military control, as well). 

[3] For more, see B’Tselem, “Planning Policy in the West Bank, https://www.btselem.org/planning_and_building, updated February 6th, 2019.  

[4] See, for instance, Israel Debre and Sam McNeil, “Palestinians face removal as far-right Israel vows expansion,” ABC News, February 1st, 2023, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/palestinians-face-removal-israel-vows-expansion-96810050.

[5] In his comment on Exodus Rabbah 31:17, he links it to Genesis Rabbah 2:3 by way of Genesis Rabbah 2:4, cited in Endnote 1. Exodus Rabbah 31:17 says that Cain hivhil atsmo’ (“hastened himself”). Genesis Rabbah 2:4 claims that Persia is associated with vohu because the word vayavhilu (“they hastened”) – which contains all of the letters of vohu – appears in the Book of Esther in association with Persians (6:14). Hivhil and vayavhilu share the same linguistic root – BaHaL – and both Cain and Persia are associated with vohu in Genesis Rabbah 2:3 and 2:4, respectively. Thus, Cain’s actions in Exodus Rabbah 31:17 are related to Cain’s association with vohu in Genesis 2:3. 

[6]  Peirush Maharzu ad loc. The Midrash connects Cain and the word vohu. R’ Einhorn explains that the latter is a combination of the words bo hu, meaning “he [Cain] is in it,” i.e. sole ruler. 

[7]  See b. Sanhedrin 37a, which interprets the unusual language of God’s reprimand to Cain – “Your brother’s bloods [sic] cry out to me from the earth!” (Genesis 4:10) – as referring to both Abel’s blood and the blood of his would-be descendants.  

[8]  An acronym of Adoneinu Rabbi Yitsḥak zichrono livrakha (“Our Master Rabbi Yitsḥak, may his memory be a blessing”) or Elohi Rabbi Yitsḥak zichrono livrakha (“The Divine Rabbi Yitsḥak, may his memory be a blessing”).

[9]  See, for instance, Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar HaNekudim, Ch. 5 and 7. (Otzrot Ḥayyim is a summary of the Lurianic system produces by the Arizal’s most prominent pupil, Rabbi Ḥayyim Vital.) 

[10]  Or, perhaps more accurately, they seek to self-propagate, which has the consequence of further destruction. 

[11]  See Isaiah Tishby, Torat HaRa’ Vehaklipah Bekabalat Ha’Ari, Jerusalem: Magnes University Press, 1984, especially the final two chapters. 

[12]  See, for instance, R’ Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzato’s Klaḥ Pitḥei Ḥokhmah, Petaḥ 2. 

[13]  Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 34. 

[14]  See Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar HaNekudim, Ch. 2, which explains that the vessels that broke were created with less powerful light (in addition to containing light, the vessels were also themselves composed of light). 

[15]  Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar Melaḥim, Ch. 1: “The essential intention was to produce and form the external shells (klippot), whose existence in this world is necessary in order to give, in the future, reward to the righteous and punishment to the wicked… therefore the “points” emerged without tikkun so that their vessels would not be able to withstand the light and would break, for ‘in breaking, they are purified.’” In its original context, the phrase “in breaking, they are purified” is a rabbinic statement indicating that earthenware vessels cannot be made kosher once they have been impurified and must therefore be shattered; see Mishnah Keilim 2:1. Other sources describe the shevirah as a cathartic process through which God purges Godself of the forces of judgment; see, for instance, Scholem, pp. 34-35. 

[16]  The Arizal associates the shattered vessels with the description in Genesis 36 of the eight kings who “ruled in the land of Edom.” He relates the first seven, who die, with the shevirah, and the eighth, who does not, with tikkun. Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar HaNikudim, Ch. 9 and Sha’ar Orot Nitsotsot veKeilim Ch. 1, among other places, the vessels are also described as emerging one on top of the other. Later Lurianic Kabbalah more explicitly connects these two themes, and describes the decision to emerge on top of one another as an indication of the vessels’ pretension to kingship: See, for instance, Zohar HaRakiah on Sifra d’Tsniuta, Ch. 1: “For teach of them wanted to rule and receive all of the divine flow and only then apportion it to the vessels below it, but they did not succeed in receiving it all before they broke and died.” See also the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on Sifra d’Tsniuta, Ch 1: “[Each vessel was] like a king who receives everything and then apportions to his servants.”

In later Lurianic Kabbalah, particularly in Ḥasidism, a further association with biblical kingship is made. In I Kings 1:5, King David’s son Adonijah states, “I will be king!” Later Lurianic sources, particularly in Ḥasidism, describe the to-be-shattered vessels as making the same proclamation. See, for instance, the Maggid of Mezritch’s statement in Or Torah on Ki Teitsei, s.v. “When you build a new house” (Deut. 22:8): “The shevirah happened on account of ego, for each [vessel] said ‘I will rule!’” In this statement and many other Ḥasidic writings, the vessels’ attempts to rule over one another is a metaphor for the individual ego: any attempt to see oneself as separate from the all-encompassing divine unity of God is necessarily an act of idolatry that corrupts the world. The late Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (an Israeli religious Zioinist and postmodern thinker known as Rav Shagar) connects the idolatrous pretentions of the ego with Nietzsche’s will-to-power; see Rav Shagar, Pur Which is the Lot (Hebrew, Fourth Printing) (Alon Shevut: Institute for the Writings of Rav Shagar, 2021), pp. 27-42.

[17]  Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar Orot Nitsotsot veKeilim, Ch. 3: “They were connected and joined and unified together in three connected lines […] that pervade one another and enclothe one another.”

[18]  The final stage of tikkun was supposed to be enacted by Adam, but his sin led to another shattering. 

[19]  This is not a purely academic approach, since the midrash long predates Lurianic Kabbalah, and R’ Einhorn’s commentary on it is not kabbalistic. But neither is it a fully homiletical approach, since Lurianic Kabbalah and its antecedent sources do suggest associations between Cain’s actions and the shevirah. See Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Introduction 3, where the story of Cain and Abel is analogized to Adam’s sin, which is itself seen as a reenactment of the shevirah (though in this context, both Cain and Abel are described as sinning; as for Abel’s sin, see Tikunei Zohar, Tikkun 69). See also Introduction 35, which discusses Cain’s relationship to the forces of judgment, which in some versions of the shevirah are the forces that God wants to cathartically expel. (My thanks to my friend JT for noting this second source.) See also the commentary of the Sulam on the Introduction to the Zohar, pp. 151-153, which translates Cain’s domination of Abel into theogonic terms reminiscent of the shevirah. Finally, Dr. Melila Helner-Eshed argues that in the Idra Rabba, which the Arizal draws on heavily, Cain’s murder of Abel is seen as a reenactment of the “death of the seven kings” (described in Endnote 16). See Melila Helner-Eshed, Seekers of the Face: The Secrets of the Idra Rabba of the Zohar (Hebrew), Rishon LeTzion: Miskal – Yedioth Ahronot Books and Chemed Books, 2017, pp. 342. (My thanks to my hevruta, Allen Lipson, for noting this source.)

[20]  See, for instance, b. Sanhedrin 37b, p. Peah 1:1, and Genesis Rabbah 22:9; 23:3. The same could be said of Cain’s abdication of responsibility for Abel. As R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel stated, “The most wicked men must be regarded as great teachers, for they often set forth precisely an example of that which is unqualifiedly evil. Cain's question "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9) and his implied negative response must be regarded among the great fundamental evil maxims of the world.” A.J. Heschel, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997, pp. 224.

[21]  For a thoughtful deconstruction of the concept of “the lesser evil,” see Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils, London: Verso Books, 2011. 

[22]  The normative claim relies, to some degree, on the descriptive claim. Based on the normative claim alone, one might argue that some degree of shevirah could be justified by some greater degree of tikkun it would produce. Taken together, the normative and descriptive claims are stronger: an act of shevirah will always produce more shevirah than tikkun, and tikkun is the only end against which actions can be justified. 
[23]  Orot: Orot Hateḥiah 67. 

[24]  Nahman Syrkin, “The Jewish Problem and the Socialist-Jewish State” in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Herzberg, New York: Harper & Row, 1966, pp. 350. 

[25] See Dmitry Shumsky, Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. Shumsky argues that Herzl, Jabotinsky, and others seriously entertained the possibility of a Jewish autonomous entity within a multinational empire or democracy. 

Even though such a goal would doubtless have been more democratic – and less likely to lead to ethnic cleansing – than an ethno-state, Zionist proposals for Jewish autonomy also involved a necessary degree of domination. Alon Confino argues that “the political imagination that accepted some sort of a Palestinian national collectivity coexisted with an imagination that denied this very idea [...] Zionists arrived in Palestine without asking the permission of the native population and with the basic aim of making space for themselves at the Palestinians’ expense [...] There were thus two trends that coexisted in tension but without breaking until the mid-1930s, one recognizing and the other denying Arab national collective rights in Palestine. The two trends were complementary, not contradictory, in the sense that people’s values and beliefs are often, if not always, made of inconsistencies. They were in line with a variant of settler colonialism that sought not sovereignty but rather political power, in an ethnically exclusive polity at the expense of the political aspirations of the natives.” (Alon Confino, “The Nakba and the Zionist Dream of an Ethnonational State,” History Workshop Journal, Issue 95 (2023), 6) Confino adds, “On some level, the ethnonational Zionist change in the mid-1930s was more of a shift than a turning point. Even if one strand of Zionism accepted Arab national rights, it is challenging to see how the Zionists could have established an ethno-polity in Palestine without driving out Arabs from their future territory. Even if the idea of a Jewish state with fewer Palestinians was not articulated by mainstream Zionists until the late 1930s, it was one coherent conclusion of the Zionist project. Yet until the 1930s most Zionists comfortably embraced contradictory notions of Jews having an ethno-polity in Palestine and of Palestinians having national, political rights. The shift in the 1930s, then, was not so much one of finally embracing transfer thinking, as finally resolving a – perhaps the – fundamental contradiction of Zionism by acknowledging that its success depended on drastically reducing the number of Palestinians in the area of the future Jewish state.”

Gil Rubin has critiqued Shumsky’s conclusions, stating, “Shumsky portrays the interwar binationalist Zionist discourse as a moralistic vision aimed at creating a just society in Palestine. However in practice, this discourse was always subservient to, and was at times used as a direct a ploy [sic] for achieving Jewish dominance. (Gil Rubin, “Beyond the Zionist Nation-State,” Tablet Magazine, January 9th, 2019, available at https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/history/articles/beyond-the-zionist-nation-state)

[26]  See Tom Segev, One Palestine Complete, trans. Haim Watzman, Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2000, pp. 403-408. While it is true that Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition plan in 1947, which would have created a state with a small Jewish majority (somewhere between 55 and 60%), Zionist leaders knew that such a slim majority would be untenable. 

[27]  Quoted in Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, London: Oneworld Publications, 2006, pp. 5. 

[28]  See Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[29]  See Exodus 1:9. 

[30]  Gideon Alon and Aluf Benn, “Netanyahu: Israel’s Arabs Are the Real Demographic Threat,” Ha’aretz, December 18th, 2003, available online at https://www.haaretz.com/2003-12-18/ty-article/netanyahu-israels-arabs-are-the-real-demographic-threat/0000017f-e3c1-d9aa-afff-fbd9f8d50000?lts=1686932947036, quoted in Ali Abunimah, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014, 31. 

[31]  See Adalah, “The Discriminatory Laws Database,” available online at https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/7771; B’Tselem, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid,” January 12th, 2021, available online at https://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/202101_this_is_apartheid; Meirav Arlosoroff, “It’s the Israeli Government that Keeps Its Arab Citizens Poor and Powerless, Ha’aretz, January 8th, 2016, available online at  https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/business/2016-01-08/ty-article/.premium/israel-keeps-arabs-poor-and-powerless/0000017f-e9a0-dea7-adff-f9fb4d510000.

[32]  See Mitchell Plitnik, “In the US and Israel, voter suppression is the ruling parties’ game plan,” +972 Magazine, October 26th, 2020, available online at https://www.972mag.com/voter-suppression-trump-netanyahu-advisers/. 

[33]  “Israeli electoral reform ‘blocks Arab parties,’” The Jewish Chronicle, January 2nd, 2014, available online at https://www.thejc.com/news/world/israeli-electoral-reform-blocks-arab-parties-1.51761; Sawsan Zaher, “The Israeli right is planning to ban Palestinian parties. Here’s how,” +972 Magazine, March 23rd, 2023, available online at  https://www.972mag.com/israeli-right-palestinian-parties-ban/.

[34]  See Netanel Bandel, “Documents Reveal Israel’s Intent to Forcibly Expel the Bedouin From Their Lands,” Ha’aretz, January 31st, 2022, available online at  https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-01-31/ty-article-magazine/.premium/documents-reveal-israels-intent-to-forcibly-expel-bedouin-from-their-lands/0000017f-e30e-d9aa-afff-fb5e038a0000l; Adalah, “Demolition and Eviction of Bedouin Citizens of Israel in the Naqab (Negev) – The Prawer Plan,” available online at https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/7589; Human Rights Watch, “Israel: Bedouin Facing Mass Evictions From Their Land,” August 30th, 2013, available online at https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/08/30/israel-bedouin-facing-mass-evictions-their-land. 

[35]  For more, see B’Tselem, “East Jerusalem, last updated January 27th, 2019, available at https://www.btselem.org/jerusalem.

[36]  See, for instance, “Document on Calorie Figures in Gaza Blockade Stirs Dispute,” The Associated Press, October 17th, 2012, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/18/world/middleeast/israel-counted-calories-needed-for-gazans-in-blockade.html. 

[37]  And though liberal Zionists typically espouse a commitment to individual Palestinian rights, even the framing of such a commitment – “we” must guarantee rights to Palestinians living in Israel – implicitly reifies unequal power relations: Jews will remain the ones with the power to guarantee (or curtail) others’ rights. See, for instance, Donniel Harmtan, “Liberal Zionism and the Troubled Committed,” Sources Journal, Fall 2021. 

[38]  Moshe Dayan, while Chief of Staff of the IDF, admitted this shortly after Israel’s founding in a eulogy for a soldier who had been killed: “We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the canon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation. This is our life's choice - to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.” “Moshe Dayan’s Eulogy for Roi Rutenberg,” April 19th, 1956, Jewish Virtual Library, available online at https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moshe-dayan-s-eulogy-for-roi-rutenberg-april-19-1956. 

[39]  Zaha Hassan and Daniel Levy, “Liberal Israelis and the US empowered the settler right. Now it’s out of control,” Middle East Eye, March 30th, 2023, available online at https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/israel-judicial-crisis-boomerang-effect-colonisation.

[40]  On weapons sales, see: Ryan Wentz and Sahar Vardi, “Israel’s arms exports: A decade of war and new markets,” +972 Magazine, April 12th, 2018 available online at https://www.972mag.com/israels-arms-exports-a-decade-of-war-and-new-markets/. Emanuel Fabian, “Israeli arms sales hit new record of $11.3 billion in 2021 – with 7% to Gulf,” Times of Israel, April 12th, 2022, available online at https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-arms-sales-hit-new-record-of-11-3-billion-in-2021/; “Israel named world’s 8th largest arms exporter,” Times of Israel, March 13th, 2019, available online at https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-named-worlds-8th-largest-arms-exporter/. 

[41]  Bashir Bashir, “Strengths and Weaknesses of Integrative Solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Middle East Journal 70, no. 4 (Autumn 2016), 577.  I am also deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Bashir, whose analysis has deeply informed my own.  

[42] Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, The Holocaust and the Nakba, New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, 28. I do not mean to suggest that Bashir and Goldberg’s “egalitarian binationalism,” as opposed to a “one person, one vote” liberal democracy,” is necessarily more in line with tikkun. 

[43] The degree to which tikkun is seen as ab initio ideal generally depends on the degree to which the shevirah is seen as a cathartic or intentional process. For the latter, see Klaḥ Pitḥei Ḥokhmah, Petaḥ 30 and Petaḥ 37, for example. 

[44] I do not mean to draw equivalencies between these different events and systems – merely to list some of the various factors influencing the trajectories of Jews and Palestinians. 

[45] See, for instance, Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar Melaḥim, Ch. 5, which describes the reinforcing effects different aspects of tikkun have upon each other. 

[46] An earlier part of this midrash is cited in Endnote 1. Additionally, the word “hovering,” MeRaḤeFeT, is associated in Lurianic Kabbalah with the fallen sparks from the shevirah, which number 288, because 288 in gematria is RFḤ. The other letters of meraḥefet, M and T, spell out met, “dead,” and are associated with the broken vessels (see Endnote 16). That the R,F, and Ḥ are between the M and the T represents the fact that the sparks are trapped among those shards. See Otzrot Ḥayyim, Sha’ar RPḤ Nitsotsin, Ch. 1. My thanks to Rabbi Victor Reinstein for reminding me of this connection. 

Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, by Henry Rosenberg

Aron Wander

Aron Wander is a writer, organizer, and rabbinical student living in Jerusalem. More of his writing can be found at his blog, Hitnodedut

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