Rav Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi, also known as “Manitou” (the word comes from indigenous North American mythology, and means “Great Spirit”; he acquired the nickname whilst in the Scouts youth movement), was a rabbi, educator, kabbalist, and philosopher. Over the last few years there has been a revival of interest in his life and teachings, far surpassing the attention he received during his lifetime. A new generation looks to him for answers to the major questions of the day. Why is this? As Manitou himself once observed, there is a correlation between his ideas and his biography. So it is with the latter that we will start.
Rav Ashkenazi was born and raised in Algeria. He described his upbringing thus: “We would pray in Hebrew, and that way we were connected to the tradition of our fathers and the past of our Jewish-Torah nation. Our emotional world was connected to our Arabic homelands and to Sephardi folklore, and our language of education and culture was French.” He studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Algiers; he also joined the Scouts. In 1941, Manitou traveled to Morocco to teach Kabbalah, which he had learned from his grandfather, before joining the Free French Forces in 1943.
After World War II he moved to France, and met Shoah survivors for the first time. This left a tremendous impression on him: “After the Allied invasion in 1942, the consciousness of Algerian Jewry began to awaken; we began to comprehend in depth the cracks in our relationship with French identity…this brought me to Israeli identity.”
The transition between identities was to become a central theme in Rav Ashkenazi’s thought. In France he studied at the Sorbonne, specializing in philosophy, sociology, ethnography, and anthropology. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1947, he married Esther Pfefferman. During this period he became one of the founders of the Orsay High School for Leadership Training, established after World War II as part of a drive to rehabilitate the French-Jewish community with learning and activities. He met Monsieur Yaakov Gordon, an outstanding student, kabbalist and philosopher, who taught him the importance of integrating Jewish and universal thought through Torah.
Over the next 11 years, Rav Ashkenazi became one of the main leaders and educators in the French-Jewish community. He was one of the leaders of the Scouts and of the Jewish Youth Education department, organized Jewish students, and taught at the Orsay leadership school. In 1954 he began to organize trips to Israel for his students. During one of these trips, he met Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, head of the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva, and learned for the first time about the teachings of Rav Tzvi’s father, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. This changed him forever: “In one night I transformed from Jew to Hebrew. The Torah of Jews in exile changed to the Torah of Hebrews…Rav Tzvi Yehuda brought the Torah down to the earth of the Land of Israel.”
Following in Rav Kook’s footsteps, Rav Ashkenazi came to the conclusion that Judaism was first of all a national identity, and only then a religion; and that the return to Zion, and the establishment of Israel, were the elements which allowed the consolidation of this identity. After the Six Day War of 1967 he made Aliyah, explaining: “I was increasingly certain that it would be madness not to join the shared mission of the Jewish people, the messianic hope that had become a reality.”
In Israel, he continued to lead French Jews in both Israel and France, and continued his educational activities. Between 1967 and 1969 he ran the Mesivta Yeshiva; in 1972 he founded the Mayanot Beit Midrash (a center for young French Jewish leadership); and in 1982 he founded the Yair Center, successor to Mayanot. Rav Ashkenazi died in Jerusalem in 1996.
Over the last decade, there has been an unprecedented flowering of interest in the thought of Rav Ashkenazi, both in the yeshiva world and in the academy. Much of this is down to the success of the Manitou Institute in publishing his works and promoting them through intensive public activities. Their YouTube channel has 240 clips, which received over 100,000 views in the first three years after its establishment. These films serve as a catalyst, encouraging viewers to enter the Manitou Institute website and view the full lectures. Midreshet Yehuda and Mechinat Hemda Yehuda, both named after Manitou, have also played a key role in promoting his ideas. In parallel, academic research about Manitou ranges from Israeli Thought to Modern Jewish History and the area of education.
The main factor in this revival of interest in Rav Yehuda, though, is surely the uniqueness of his life and thought. Manitou was a direct descendant of Rav Yosef Ibn Touboul (16th century) a student of Isaac Luria (1534-1572), often called HaAri (the lion), one of the greatest Kabbalist in Jewish history. Manitou followed in his ancestor’s path. He drew inspiration from Rav Yosef Gikatilla’s Shaarei Orah (“The Gates of Light”); a 13th-century text which Luria called the “key to the hidden Torah,” studied the Bible and Midrash (biblical commentaries) with Monsieur Gordin (1896-1947), and even attended lessons with the mysterious teacher Monsieur Chouchani (1895-1968), an enigmatic and eccentric genius who taught for a year at the Orsay leadership school under Manitou. At the university Manitou studied philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and ethnography with such renowned figures as Claude Levi Strauss. He took from the rabbi and kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag (1884-1954) the idea of the importance of the mental shift from the will to receive to the will to give. The most influential figure, though, was Rav Kook, even though Manitou disagreed strongly with the views of “yeshivot hakav,” the more ultra-Orthodox and statist faction of the students of Merkaz Harav.
In 1990, Manitou declared, on the basis of historical and kabbalistic analysis, that we were at the beginning of a new era, known in scripture as the era of Messiah ben David. He considered the division between Messiah ben Yosef and Messiah ben David (Ben Yosef comes at a time of destruction and turmoil, paving the way for the peaceful era of ben David), which has been well developed by the Vilna Gaon and Rav Kook; analyzed the national and global processes that had ensued since the Six Day War, reaching a peak with the fall of the Soviet Union; and concluded that we had reached the time of Messiah ben David.
Manitou believed in the redemption Torah of Rav Kook, and both of them looked at the Torah from a historical perspective. Like Rav Kook, Manitou claimed that the redemption had already begun and considered the national revival of Zionism to have a holy basis. However, in contrast to Rav Kook and his students, who dealt with general and abstract historical processes, Manitou had a more concrete and tangible approach. He believed that the Jewish people needed to wean themselves away from self-absorption, and to accept the universal mission of being a “Light Unto the Nations.” Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s students accepted this in principal, but contended that the time was not yet ripe to deviate from particularism. Another difference relates to their attitudes to non-Jews. The existence of righteous gentiles, the view that all gentiles can and should serve God and follow basic moral laws, and the option of conversion to Judaism are universally accepted principles among all strands of Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, at Mercaz HaRav, there are rabbis who view righteous gentiles and gentile converts to Judaism as the exception and consider most gentiles and most gentile cultures as inferior emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even going as far as saying that the difference between most Jews and most non-Jews is bigger than the difference between humans and beasts. Manitou considered this to be untrue and racist. He held a more positive view of most non-Jews and non-Jewish cultures. He considered Jews and gentiles to be identical in body, in emotions, and in mind. And even though, in keeping with the classical Jewish tradition, he considered Jews and gentiles to be different spiritually – a difference that could be erased through conversion to Judaism—he emphasized the value and importance of gentile wisdom and the gentile spiritual mission on earth of performing the Seven Noahide Laws. When he met with the President of Cameroon or the Dalai Lama, he asked them to be emissaries of the Hebrew message to the world, not to convert.
One of Manitou’s innovations, particularly attractive to seekers of Jewish renewal, is his language. The Baal Shem Tov renewed the psychological language; Rav Kook the collective national language; Rav Ashlag the social language; and Manitou the anthropological language. He identified archetypes in key figures across history who influenced large groups. He signified identities and indicated collective psychological processes. Like the Ramban, he also believed that “the acts of the fathers are a sign for the children.” In telling us about Isaac and Ishmael, the Torah wants to tell us that the patterns we identify in them will repeat themselves over the course of history. So, for example, Isaac and Ishmael quarreled over the land, while Jacob and Esau fought for their father’s blessing. Look at what followed: the war between Israel and Islam is over land, while the struggle with Christianity is about the question of the chosen people—who are the real children of Israel in spirit?
The big issues of the twentieth century did not pass Manitou by. In his writings, he frequently examined the nature of nationalism and the tension between particularism and universalism, from both a Torah and an anthropological perspective. For Manitou, universal nationalism came down bound with the world. The creation of the world was an “exile” from intimacy with infinity. The purpose of this exile is to found a world that includes the infiniteness within it—which can only happen when the Jews internalize their universal mission. When the now President of Cameroon Paul Biya wanted to convert to Judaism in the 1970s, Israel sent Manitou and Shimon Peres to speak with him. Manitou told him to spread the gospel of unity of the children of Abraham, but not to convert.
The Dalai Lama asked him if he could influence Israel to work for the good of the Tibetans living under Chinese occupation. This request amazed Manitou. At the time the Chinese had no diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, and Israel was a small country. In response to the Dalai Lama’s request he asked: “Do you place the Chinese and us on the same plain?” The Dali Lama answered: “No – if you speak like this, you don’t understand what the people of Israel are.” Manitou was deeply influenced by this meeting. He understood from it that the Dali Lama viewed the Jewish people sitting in Zion as the carrier of a universal spiritual mission it needed to fulfill.
Manitou didn’t just look at Jewish influence on nations of the world. He also noted that non-Jews have qualities that Jews don’t have, which is why Jethro, a priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law, is also called abundance (yeter). If there had only been Abraham the man of kindness, then Judaism would have been like Christianity; if there had only been Isaac the man of bravery, then Judaism would have been like Islam. During the Oslo era, Manitou claimed that Peace Now was Abraham and the Moledet (Homeland) party was Sarah. He was strongly opposed to the Oslo Accords, because of their damage to the integrity of the Land of Israel, and in particular because of the fact that the government that carried out the agreement was not elected by a Jewish majority. He attacked Mercaz HaRav for not opposing them as strongly as Rav Tzvi Yehuda would have wanted them to had he still been alive.
“Once a Jew was walking on Shabbat and he saw a pioneer working the land. “Shabbes!” he shouted at him. The pioneer replied: “Speak Hebrew, Goy!” Manitou told this story in order to illustrate the tragedy in which we have found ourselves for the last hundred years. Rav Ashkenazi believed that the secular Jews in Israel understood the idea of redemption better than the religious themselves, because the secular were influenced by nationalism, which had a redemptive element. The religious, however, came from an apolitical tradition which prevented them from understanding the concept.
Rav Ashkenazi said that the history of the Jewish people, testifies that there is no time that the Jews existed without Torah. But the tribes of Israel, i.e. the Kingdom of Israel after the split with Judah during the First Temple period, was able to exist without it, because they seemingly belonged to the “body” of Jewish identity and not its “head.” This means that the Kingdom of Israel was responsible for the general and political development of the nation, while the Kingdom of Judah was responsible for developing the spirit, the religion and the culture. Because of this, the measure and the condition for the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel is the unity of the nation while for the Kingdom of Judah it’s keeping the Torah. On this basis he originally explained the mishnah in Sanhedrin which says that the kings of Israel don’t have the authority to judge the nation and there is no court with the authority to judge them:
Rav Ashkenazi claims that the history of the people of Israel demonstrates that there was no situation during which the Jews existed without the Torah. Yet the tribes of Israel, meaning the Kingdom of Israel which came into being after the split following the death of Solomon, were able to exist without Torah because they allegedly belonged to the “Body” of Jewish identity and not its “Head.” This means that the Kingdom of Israel (with its ten tribes) was responsible for the political and financial development of the nation while the Kingdom of Judah (with its two tribes) was responsible for the cultivation of the spirit, culture, and religion.
As a result, the condition for the ongoing existence of the Kingdom of Israel was the unity of the nation (the ten tribes), while the existence of the Kingdom of Judah was dependent on the people observing the laws of the Torah.
This is how Manitou explained, in a highly original way, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (2:2) which explains that the kings of Israel may not judge the actions of the people in court and the courts may not judge the kings. The ways in which the secular Zionist society in Israel lives are against the Jewish law of the Kingdom of Judah but they are the descendants of the Kingdom of Israel. Towards the end of his life he said: There are rabbis who teach that being called Israel is dependent on performing mitzvot, but this is a mistake. As it says in Sanhedrin 44:71, Israel, “even if they sinned, are Israel.”
Manitou brings a new message to the Israeli public: Judaism with Sephardi and Ashkenazi elements, French Judaism and Zionism, nationalism bound up with universalism. His vision of a Jewish State that is a light to the nations is still far away, but as long as the thought of Manitou is taught and researched, the dream may yet become a reality.