Commentary | God’s anarchists

Religion and political activism coexist

I am both a leftist and a religious person – a fairly traditional adherent of the Jewish faith. To me these two facets of my intellectual life have always supported and strengthened one another. Nevertheless, I have grown quite accustomed to rhetoric which casually lumps religious belief alongside vile forms of oppression. This sort of thinking has unfortunately been standard among many on the left for more than a century. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin laid the groundwork for the standard leftist critique of religion in God and the State, writing that “the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, in theory and practice.”

This assumption is fundamentally mistaken. Religious politics can be perverted and become oppressive, to be sure, just as easily as secular politics can be. But it is important to recognize that there is a strong tradition of religious anti-authoritarianism, and that some of these forces have been among the most successful at creating real change during the 20th century. Because this tradition is so neglected – in our classrooms and at our demonstrations – I’d like to examine the thought of two people who provide outstanding examples of what this sort of politics can look like: the Hasidic rabbi Yehudah Ashlag and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Ashlag is well-known in Judaism for his commentary on the mystical text the Zohar, but his social thought remains underappreciated. He envisioned a libertarian socialist society, one that can be described as both communist, in advocating collective ownership, and anarchist, in seeking to abolish state control. In addition, Ashlag was a strident internationalist, who wrote that “the entire world is one family,” and  hence that “there must be no discrimination among…all the nations of the world,” because “as long as there are differences, war will not end.”

Ashlag developed this vision for society based on the esoteric Jewish teachings of Kabbalah, the basic principle of which is that God, who is all-good, is always giving to the creatures, and never takes. Human society, Ashlag concluded, should model itself on this standard of absolute selflessness.

Another source of Ashlag’s ideas on altruism is the rabbinic work Pirkei Avot, which, in addressing the issues of property and interpersonal relations condemns “the one who says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours,’” declaring that the pious person is one who says instead that “Mine is yours and yours is yours.” The society which can call itself pious is one in which all give all to all.

Another important source of Ashlag’s vision, a pair of Biblical verses, also happen to form the basis of Tolstoy’s Christian anarcho-pacifism. The first of these is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” The second is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” The love of God and imitation of God’s self-giving should ground all the believer’s actions. The basic social relation according to this vision is the act of empathy toward the other, which in turn is made possible by God’s empathy for all things.

In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth declares that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” and it was from these principles, as well as from literal interpretations of certain injunctions from the Sermon on the Mount – namely to “give to whoever asks you” and to “turn the other cheek” against violence – that Tolstoy derived his anarcho-pacifist philosophy.

Tolstoy’s Christianity was universalist in that it required the believer to give all for the welfare of others, with no distinctions by race or class. But his Christianity was also radically individualist: Tolstoy taught that a Christian, if guided by the commands to love God and the neighbour, had no need of either Church or State (he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church for this belief). The pacifism demanded of the believer by this philosophy is absolute, and does not permit even the killing of animals for food.

The most important part of Tolstoy’s religious legacy is his writing on nonviolent resistance. These teachings had a profound impact on the young Mohandas Gandhi, who for a time lived on a Tolstoyan farm in South Africa. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also deeply moved by Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence, which he in turn learned from Gandhi.

These individuals proved that faith can inspire people to place their bodies on the gears of the political machine when it becomes an affront to human dignity. Their lives and work prove that religious faith does not have to be an accessory to the preservation of hierarchy in society, and has in fact been among the most potent forces in the last century’s political struggles. It is important that secularists recognize the religious contribution to leftist political causes; it is also imperative that religious people listen to the voice of their tradition, which demands that they spend their lives struggling for the oppressed.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, a portion of the book of Isaiah is read at the morning service in which the children of Israel are described crying to Isaiah that their fasting and self-denial has not garnered them divine favour. But Isaiah has a different idea of what will bring about redemption, declaring, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn.”

The religious left must not rest until these issues – rather than say, pigheaded opposition to abortion and homosexuality – are the ones associated in the public mind with “religious values.”

Vincent Calabrese is a U3 English and Philosophy student. He can be reached at

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