by Dr. Arnold Lustiger
A Reassessment of the “Fourth Knock” in Kol Dodi Dofek
First presented as an address by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University on Yom HaAtzmaut in 1956 which was later published, Kol Dodi Dofek has become a classic text of religious Zionist philosophy. Kol Dodi Dofek discusses theodicy and the Holocaust as well as the dual theological nature of a Jewish people governed by both fate and destiny.
In the most popular portion of this essay, the Rav argued that the State of Israel was an instrument to demonstrate the end of Divine concealment in the wake of the Holocaust. The Rav described six “knocks” by God, the Beloved of Shir Hashirim, on the door of His people, to demonstrate the return of God’s providence and love:1
- Political: “First, the knock of opportunity was heard in the political arena… the establishment of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence.”
- Military: “Second, the knocking of the Beloved could be heard on the battlefield. The small Israeli Defense Forces defeated the mighty armies of the Arab countries.”
- Theological: “Third, the Beloved began to knock as well on the door of the theological tent …All the claims of Christian theologians that God deprived the Jewish people of its rights in the land of Israel, and that all the biblical promises regarding Zion and Jerusalem refer, in an allegorical sense, to Christianity and the Christian Church, have been publicly refuted by the establishment of the State of Israel…
- Assimilation: “Fourth, the Beloved is knocking in the hearts of the perplexed and assimilated youths. Many of those who…were alienated from the Jewish People are now tied to the Jewish State by a sense of pride in its outstanding achievements”
- Self-defense: “The fifth knock of the Beloved is perhaps the most important of all. For the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking, is not hefker!”
- Refuge: “The sixth knock…was heard when the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from a hostile country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors…
Sixty-two years later, most of these knocks resonate even more powerfully than they did in 1956. In regard to the first, second and fifth knocks, Israel has grown into a political, technological and military superpower, with former sworn enemies establishing substantial, if covert, relations with it. With regard to the third knock, evangelical Christians have become Israel’s strongest supporters. The Rav must be posthumously laughing at the irony of a revised Evangelical Christian theology that now sees the Jewish people as the legitimate inheritors of the Land of Israel. Furthermore, for the Rav, who often railed against Communism and the Iron Curtain behind which millions of Jews were trapped, the fall of the Soviet Union and mass aliya of Russian Jewry was a realization of the sixth knock that he could not have even conceived.
However, assessing the fourth knock in light of the present day is a more complex exercise. In a shiur originally presented in Yiddish at the Moriah Synagogue on Yom Haatzmaut 1957, the Rav greatly expanded on how he understood the fourth knock as it was then manifest among American Jews. The following is an edited transcript of a portion of that shiur.
As a result of the reticence of American Jews to express their unique identity, the gentiles had no perception of the Jews’ uniqueness. The non-Jew considered Judaism as nothing more than another religious denomination in an American melting pot.
An acquaintance of mine was in Cape Cod for the summer vacationing near a gentile neighbor. The gentile knew that his neighbor was Jewish, that he donned tefillin, and that he kept Shabbat. Yet, one Sunday, the non-Jew, dressed in his finery, asked his Jewish neighbor if he would like to accompany him to church. When the surprised Jew inquired why, the non-Jew answered, “Since you have no synagogue here, why not go to church?”
If a Presbyterian does not have a local church affiliated with his denomination, an Episcopal church will fulfill his religious need in a pinch. Why should a Jew be unwilling to similarly substitute his place of worship? As a result of the Jews’ reticence to publicly display their religion, the non-Jew has no concept of the Jewish people’s separateness. He has no understanding that Judaism is not simply another religious denomination.
So what did Divine Providence do to rectify this situation? It saw to the creation of the State of Israel. The State of Israel showed the entire world the stubbornness of the Jew, and his insistence on being different. The American Council for Judaism [this organization will be discussed later in this essay] was terrified by the implications. Their entire raison d’etre had been to deny unique Jewish aspirations and destiny, the Jews’ singular historical outlook, the Jew’s different way of life.
Here the gentile picks up the old refrain: “Return, return O Shulamite, and let me gaze upon you.” He confronts us by saying: “As an American Jew, what precisely do you want? You enjoy all the opportunities, all the privileges, all the rights, all the freedoms of an American citizen. Why do you need a State of Israel? What do you lack that America does not provide?”
In response, the Jew answers that he will never give up his individuality, his uniqueness, his independence. He will never become assimilated. For if the Jew was truly assimilated, if the only difference between him and the gentile was church versus synagogue, then he would not identify so strongly with the State of Israel.
So Divine Providence, whether in accord with or against the Jews’ will, has, through the State of Israel, restored the sense of gevurah to the American Jew. It has restored the blessing of ozer Yisrael bigevurah to the liturgy. Anti-Semitic literature fulminates with accusations that, because we stand in solidarity with the State of Israel, we are not true citizens of the United States. Although this is a lie, anti-Semites can sense the deep relationship between American Jews and Israel. Willingly or not, the American Jew proclaims that he identifies with Israel.
We remain loyal citizens of this country, we participate in all its institutions, but at the same time we assert, just as Abraham did, that: “A stranger and a sojourner I am with you” (Genesis 23:4). The American Jew acknowledges, “I am indeed a sojourner: I participate in the economy, I serve in the armed forces, I am involved in all aspects of American citizenship. Yet at the same time I am a stranger. I have a mysterious compulsion to identify with a small country across the ocean.” Initially, American Jews did not want to admit this connection; they identified only as sojourners. The State of Israel reinstated the “stranger” relationship with our host country.2
It is painful to consider how the pride most Jews of the 1950’s took in the State of Israel has today been replaced by a feeling of shame. Here is a brief quote from an article appearing one year ago in Mosaic Magazine by Daniel Gordis titled Why Many American Jews Are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel3 (May 17, 2017), where he presents a sharp contrast to the situation as described by the Rav sixty-one years earlier:
Increasingly, the orientation of many American Jews toward Israel is one neither of instinctive loyalty nor of pride but of indifference, embarrassment, or hostility. To this phenomenon, the findings of the 2013 Pew Center study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans—the survey research cited by all serious observers—bear sober witness…Barring a radical change in their political, cultural, and moral dispositions, sizable proportions of American Jews will continue to bristle not only at what Israel does but at what, to their minds, Israel represents and is.
The assimilated Jew no longer observes events in the Jewish State through a Jewish lens. From J-Street to Peter Beinart, Israel is relentlessly demonized. Liberal Jewish opinion mirrors that of liberal media outlets such as the New York Times and the Forward where Israel’s infractions are magnified, the withdrawals and risks it has taken for peace dismissed, and the incitement/anti-Semitism/ terrorism of its putative peace partner ignored, rationalized or justified. The rampant assimilation that the State of Israel was expected to help arrest now adds Jewish voices to those who would delegitimize the Jewish State. In this sense, the Rav’s “fourth knock” seems tragically outdated.
Perversely, the relentless assimilation of the liberal American Jewish community portends a time when the problem may solve itself. Gordis continues:
Could the widening gap between American Jews and Israel slowly shrink if, as seems quite possible, most of the still-affiliated American Jewish community soon becomes composed of those who already share ethnically particularist and religiously traditionalist commitments?
The evidence here is demographic. Largely because of falling birthrates and related factors among secular and non-Orthodox American Jews, the second half of this century, notes Steven M. Cohen, is likely to see “a sharply declining non-Orthodox population . . . and a rising fraction of Jews who are Orthodox.” Putting flesh on this statement, two researchers have tracked the potential number of descendants from 100 Jews in each of five categories: secular, Reform, Conservative, centrist Orthodox, and right-wing Orthodox. After four generations, they project, and assuming current trends continue, 100 secular Jews today will yield only four progeny. From 100 Reform Jews, the number in four generations will have fallen to 13; from 100 Conservative Jews, to 52. By contrast, 100 centrist-Orthodox Jews today will yield 337 Jews at the end of the same time span, while the Jewish descendants of 100 right-wing Orthodox Jews will number 3,398. And for that combined Orthodox total, as the Pew data on “attachment” confirm, much about Israel will seem less foreign and less problematic.
In sum, our ironists might conclude, demography could solve a problem that we have found no other way to address.
It is very tempting for us as Orthodox Jews to adopt this triumphalist position. The Rav, however, seems to reject this approach. In Kol Dodi Dofek, the fourth knock has a flip side:
…those who are opposed to the State of Israel—and there are such Jews… loudly proclaim, day in day out, that they have no share in the Holy Land. It is good for a Jew not to be able to hide from his Jewishness, but to be compelled to keep on answering the question “Who art thou? and what is thine occupation?” (cf. Jonah 1:8), even if, overcome by cowardice, he lacks the strength and courage to answer proudly: “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven” (Jonah 1:9). This persistent question, “Who art thou?” binds him to the Jewish people. The very fact that people are always talking about Israel serves to remind the Jew in flight that he cannot run away from the Jewish community with which he has been intertwined from birth. Wherever we turn we encounter the word “Israel”; whether we listen to the radio, read the newspaper, participate in symposia about current affairs, we find the question of Israel always being publicly discussed.
This fact is of particular importance for Jews who are afflicted with self-hatred and wish to escape from Judaism and flee for their lives. They, like Jonah, seek to hide in the innermost part of the ship and wish to slumber, but the shipmaster does not allow them to ignore their fate.
The Rav’s reference to Jews who oppose the State of Israel almost certainly refers to the American Council for Judaism, as he discussed in his 1957 derashah. The following is some background on this organization:
After the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a pro-Zionist resolution at its national conference, ninety reform rabbis and lay leaders established the American Council for Judaism (ACJ) as an anti-Zionist backlash. The ACJ had many local chapters and regional offices, and addressed letters to various government officials expressing their opposition to the establishment of the State of Israel. At the height of its influence in the 1950’s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would regularly consult with the ACJ on matters pertaining to Israel. Criticized as being more anti-Zionist than pro-Jewish, the organization lost virtually all its support after the Six-Day War of 1967, although the organization still exists in name even today.
In 1955, the leader of the ACJ, Rabbi Elmer Berger, advocated the complete assimilation of Jews into American life. This would take place through a program which called for the establishment of Sunday as the official Jewish day of worship, the design of a new menorah which would “reflect the appreciation of American Jews of the freedom of life in the United States,” and for the theme of the holiday of Sukkot to be broadened “to take on meaning to all citizens of an industrial society”. In this way, the ACJ made use of Jewish symbols and holidays to promote their anti-Zionist agenda.
There is a strong parallel between the ACJ and the present-day anti-Zionist organization known as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Established earlier in this decade, JVP supports the BDS movement, allies itself with left-wing organizations that deny Israel’s right to exist, supports Hamas and Hezbollah and compares Israel to Nazi Germany.4
JVP itself notes that the group’s Jewish credentials gives it a “particular legitimacy in voicing an alternative view of American and Israeli actions and policies”. Their “Rabbinical Council” even published a Passover Haggadah that dedicated one of the traditional cups of wine to BDS and added an olive to the Seder plate in honor of the Palestinian struggle. Like the ACJ before it, JVP exploits Jewish culture and rituals to reassure its supporters that opposition to Israel does not contradict Jewish values.
Self-loathing most certainly animates much of JVP’s antipathy towards Israel. Like the ACJ, it is far more anti-Zionist than pro-Jewish. Yet, ironically, it is their very hatred of the Jewish State which forces them to publicly identify as Jews. Were its members to abandon their Jewish identity, JVP would not exist; its members would instead dissolve into the left-wing intersectionalist muddle, where anti-Zionism is but one cause among many. In the words of the Rav, “It is good for a Jew not to be able to hide from his Jewishness…”
The Rav concludes his description of the “fourth knock” this way:
The shadow of Israel pursues them [i.e., those Jews who hate Israel] unceasingly. Buried, hidden thoughts and paradoxical reflections emerge from the depths of the souls of even the most avowed assimilationists. And once a Jew begins to think and contemplate, once his sleep is disturbed—who knows where his thoughts will take him, what form of expression his doubts and queries will assume? It is the voice of my Beloved that knocketh!
Even on their door, the Dod is still knocking.
All quotes in this article from Kol Dodi Dofek are taken from Dr. Lawrence Kaplan’s meticulous English translation: “Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the Voice of My Beloved that Knocketh” in Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust. Bernhard H. Rosenberg, Ed. Hoboken, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 1992. ↩
A. Lustiger, Derashot Harav: Selected Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Edison, NJ: Ohr Publishing, 2003. ↩