Karl Marx’s Warped Jewish Ideal
Karl Marx statue in Trier, Germany, commemorating his 200th birthday (Image credit: Berthold Werner [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons)
Last month marked the 200th anniversary of German economist Karl Marx’s birthday. Communist China celebrated by erecting a massive statue of him in his hometown of Trier, Germany. In a surprising testament to his impact on youth in the West, Teen Vogue also ran a glowing piece on Marx for the occasion.
The adoration should be cause for consternation. After all, communism, Marx’s brainchild, has proven to be perhaps the most lethal ideology in history, leaving approximately 100 million victims in its wake over the course of a century of implementation.
Marx was a self-hating Jew, the descendant of a long line of rabbis and son of a convert to Christianity. And yet his documented antagonism towards Jews and Judaism, which received clear expression in his writing and his ideology’s ban on religion as a factor that undermines conformity, shows his Jewish heritage left an indelible—albeit corrupted—mark upon Marx.
Is there anything in Judaism that could have informed Marx’s communist vision, synonymous with an all-powerful totalitarian state providing everything to its populace in return for absolute power over them? Do any potential parallels exist?
One need look no further than the Exodus from Egypt to find material from which he could have woven his thesis into a warped patchwork pattern, in which a merciless all-powerful state, ostensibly doling out necessities, is perversely spun out of the image of an omnipotent G-d rescuing His people from bondage and providing for their every need.
During the nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Torah recounts how G-d provided the Jewish people with manna, which tradition teaches tasted like whatever the one eating it wished. Not only were their culinary needs taken care of by their omniscient overseer; Moses’ words to the people in Deuteronomy 29:4 attest that their clothing was also a matter of divine providence: “I led you through the desert for forty years; your garments did not wear out from upon you, nor did your shoes wear out from upon your feet.”
G-d even provided them with shade from the scorching desert sun by day, in the form of the pillar of cloud, and with light by night through the pillar of fire, as noted in Exodus 13:21. The Mekhilta emphasizes the extent of the miraculous care giving that G-d arranged for the Jews in the desert, in its discussion of that same verse in Exodus:
Seven clouds: four on four sides, one above, one below, and one going before them, lifting what was low, and lowering what was high, as it is written (Isaiah 40:4) "Let every valley be raised, and every mountain and hill be lowered. Let the rugged ground become level and the ridges become a plain." And it would kill the snakes and scorpions before them and sweep and sprinkle before them.
With all of their food and clothes provided for them—together with shade, light, and even flat land to walk along with all dangers removed from their path—the Jews were under G-d’s all-encompassing protection. Their status was akin to that of a fetus in the womb.
The concept of a beneficent all-powerful protector, furnishing all needs in return for loyalty, finds a distorted reflection in Marx’s philosophy of communism. Communism picks up on the idea that the state, while it can be patient and caring when looking after its citizens, can also be harsh and immediate in exacting judgement and executing punishment for betrayal of its patronage.
The heavy, though justifiable, punishments for the various sins in the desert—such as of those who worshiped the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), of those who demanded meat to eat (Numbers 11), the episode of the sin of the spies (Numbers 13), of Korach and his followers (Numbers 16-17), and those who went after the Moabite and Midianite women and Ba’al Pe’or (Numbers 25)—all indicate divine punishment was meted out directly, most notably when the entire generation of soldier-aged males that refused to enter Israel (during the sin of the spies) was punished by dying in the desert.
However, while the betrayal during the Exodus was against the revealed word of the living G-d who had freed His people from bondage, communism murdered millions while demanding slavish obedience to the draconian whims of its flesh and blood leaders.
A Warped Ideal
Marx’s philosophy may contain highly warped versions of aspects of the relationship between G-d and His people in the relationship Marx imagined between the state—his tawdry substitute for G-d—and the proletariat. But it cannot be overemphasized that Judaism does not view the reality of the desert as its ideal.
G-d explicitly ordered the Jewish people to ascend and go up, to enter the Land of Israel, to conquer it from its inhabitants who were undeserving and living in the portion G-d promised the Jews, and to establish their own commonwealth there. As noted above, in the episode of the sin of the spies, the entire generation of men old enough for battle were punished with death in the desert over their refusal to leave the Exodus reality.
This first Jewish polity in Israel was to enjoy Divine protection and providence, with victory in war and rain in its proper time all determined by whether the people were living in accordance with G-d’s will. But it was established to become an independent man-made enterprise built through human efforts and acts of faith, and crowned by its ultimate expression in the Holy Temple—a place where the Jew was to serve G-d with “pleasing aromas” rather than to be served and waited on by Him.
Put another way, the Jewish ideal is not what the state—which exists to sanctify G-d—can do for you, but rather what you can do for it and thereby for Him.
For the Jewish nation, the time in the desert created a free enlightened people out of a group of slaves, and instilled in them the values of faith and confidence in G-d and loyalty to His will. This was a necessary step in order to prepare them to exist as an empowered entity on the stage of world history, actively asserting themselves and representing G-d.
Communism, by contrast, has proven itself to breed infantile dependence on the ruler, and make the way wide open for totalitarian despotism devaluing the life of the individual, who is relegated to being a mere cog in the well-oiled wheels of the state machinery.
Judaism does not view the Exodus stage of existence as the ideal, but rather envisions a much loftier reality. As a final point, consider that the Jewish sages teach that the first redemption from Egypt is a sign for the last redemption, which is to be even more magnificent (see commentators on Jeremiah 16:14-15).
For whereas in the period after the first redemption the Jews were passively dependent upon G-d to provide all their needs while they shuffled from stop to stop on their pre-flattened path, after the final redemption the sages teach in Sanhedrin (92b) that G-d will elevate us to a far more miraculous existence, in which He will provide us with the energy to actively soar over water and mountains while exalting His name:
And if you say: During those years when the Holy One, Blessed be He, is destined to renew His world, as it is stated: “And the Lord alone shall be exalted on that day”(Isaiah 2:11), what are the righteous to do? How will they survive? The Holy One, Blessed be He, will make wings like eagles for them and they will fly over the surface of the water, as it is stated: “Therefore, we will not fear when God changes the land, and when the mountains are moved in the midst of the sea” (Psalms 46:3). Although God will renew the land, they will not fear, because they will be in the sky over the sea at that time. And lest you say that they will endure suffering from flying uninterrupted for an extended period, the verse states: “But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not tire” (Isaiah 40:31).