The De-Evolution of the Jewish Warrior: Self-Identity as a ‘Warrior’


The De-Evolution of the Jewish Warrior: Self-Identity as a ‘Warrior’

This thesis is a diachronic study of the Jewish self-view as ‘warrior,’ covering selected Jewish literature from about 200 B.C.E to 200 C.E.  The premise of this thesis is that such a study of Jewish literature in its historical context might enable the historian to understand better the Jewish self-identity as ‘warrior’ in those four centuries…

In some ways, the desire to explore this idea of Jewish self-identity as warrior has been mulling around my mind for many years. Growing up in a secular family who flirted with Reform Jewish education, I was raised with the Holocaust as the central Jewish event, and subsequent reason for maintaining Jewish identity.  This premise, along with other cultural factors, led me to conclude before I was a teen that Jews were weak and victims.  After all, unlike many other cultures amalgamated within the American melting pot, Jews were not in professional sports# and Jewish stereotypes made Jews into people with brains but without brawn.  More poignantly, as schoolchildren we were taught that, en masse the Jews, even the men, had passively been herded into the Nazi gas chambers without ever attempting to fight.  The death of 6 million, including 1.5 million children was protested, but rarely physically. The Jews did not lose a war, for there was never even a battle.  There was no mass uprising, for there was barely even armed-resistance.#  For various reasons that are retrospectively understandable even as they remain inexcusable, the Jews of Europe# allowed themselves to be murdered.  Studies of Jewish history, including the conclusions of this thesis, suggest that by the time the Nazis began the ‘final solution,’ the Jewish community was unable to even conceive of physical resistance, even when their lives (and those of their children) depended on it.

A few years later at age thirteen, that image that I had of the Jew as victim was sharply jolted upon my first visit to the state of Israel. A country full of Jews who were not just the accountants and bankers of the familiar stereotype, but also were the bus drivers, farmers, policemen and soldiers.  Men and women, of all ages, went about their lives in military uniforms, with muscles, guns, and most importantly, pride.  Instantly I understood that these Israelis were a type of ‘new Jew,’ who would never have let their families be led to the slaughter, and would shed blood to make sure that ‘never again’ was more than just words

In the years that followed, my experiences and studies enlightened me to the fact that there were many Jews outside of Israel who shared the machismo of their Israeli-‘cousins,’ but the questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ still continued to nag me.  Why did it take the Holocaust to guilt the world into allowing the Jews a place of their own?  How did we, as a people, ever get to the collective state of mind that we needed the gifts of others in order to have permission to defend our lives against those who would take them?  Were we always like this?  Was the situation always thus… or had something happened to make us like this…to put us in such a compromising situation?

Once I began studying Torah these questions became even more pronounced.  It does not take a scholar to realize that the Israelites of the Bible are almost constantly engaged in war, and even the most revered biblical figures led the Israelite armies into battle.  Add to this confusion the mythical lore of the Maccabees, after which are dubbed the Israeli Olympics and Israeli International sports teams, these modern examples of physical Jews who can physically compete in a physical world.  I often wondered how the Jews went from the conquering and victorious people of the Bible or the heroes of Judah Maccabee to a people who could not, or would not, defend themselves against the Nazi death machine.  It is the friction of contemporary Jewish self-identity, the conflation of ‘victim’ and ‘warrior,’ which gave rise to this thesis, which is aptly titled ‘the de-evolution of the Jewish warrior.’

…As this thesis will demonstrate, the Jewish literature of each age reflected the political and social realities of the day; while at the same time it refracted an idealized Jewish self-image.# When war was a viable option for the Jews, which it was from the Hasmonean period# through the Bar Kochba war, # some Jewish literature championed the Jewish warrior.

However, after Bar Kochba’s stunning defeat by Rome, there was a distinct change in the collective Jewish psyche from ‘warrior’ to ‘war-averse;’  specifically, the Jews of Judaea# went from being a people ‘comfortable’ engaging in war to a people distinctly averse to, and fearful of, both war and violence.  I label this latter attitude as ‘pacifist’ and ‘accommodationist.’  In the same manner as it did in the preceding centuries, Jewish literature post Bar Kochba demonstrated this morphed Jewish self-identity dictated by the post-Bar Kochba reality. With the shattered Bar Kochba revolt went much of the Jewish aspiration to actively reclaim their former glory through war.

As war ceased to be a viable option for Jews, the Jewish self-image as warrior underwent a radical paradigmatic shift towards accommodationism.  Once again, mirroring the social and political realities of their day, the Jewish warrior-hero was replaced with a demilitarized pacifist identity, who in turn served as both model and exemplar to the Jewish masses.  Although this change was not overtly acknowledged by the rabbinic authority, examples such as the rabbinic treatment of the Maccabean victories or their ‘annulment’ of Megillat Ta’anit indicate that such change did occur.

One might surmise that this change was either a conscious departure from, or the result of a pragmatic self-reprioritization of, both the existing religious texts and the messianic vision; and thus of the very religion itself.  History indicates that an accommodationist stance behooved the rabbinic authorities after Bar Kochba’s demise because their very existence, and certainly their ‘authorized power,’ was permitted only through the grace of the Roman authority.  The Rabbinic authorities needed only to look at the Bar Kochba debacle as a reminder of the price for Jewish armed resistance. The rabbis likely realized that violent national confrontation with the Romans could only lead to more Jewish bloodshed, defeat, and increased Jewish restrictions.#  Essentially, 70 years of failed Jewish revolt led the rabbinic authorities to realize that further military engagement literally would risk Jewish survival; however security might be achieved through accommodationism….

The De-Evolution of the Jewish Warrior: Self-Identity as a ‘Warrior’

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Keeping the Dream Alive

Praying with your feet Heschel MLK

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walk together for Civil Rights.

“No,” said my High School Administration. “No, we have never done it that way”; “No, it would be too complicated”; “No, everyone is too busy!” So

there was a certain amount of fear (of reprisal) as we ignored protocol and approached the headmaster’s office at our boarding school in Pennsylvania. We were three friends not yet 16 years old: one African-American, one Puerto-Rican, and one Jew (me).

We were poised to demand that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should not just be a regular day of school, but rather a special day devoted to Dr. King’s ideals, through civil rights speakers and inspiration activities designed to promote contemporary social justice. To our headmaster’s credit, he listened to our proposal, thought for a long moment, and then said, “Okay, on the condition that the students do the work to make it a success”. And with that, a MLK commemorative day was established at our school, which still occurs annually more than 20 years later. Indeed, January 15 is MLK Jr.’s birthday. Across the United States, we pause to remember all that Dr. King helped America achieve through civil rights and civil disobedience, and to gird ourselves for the work that we know still needs to be done.

We Jews remember Dr. King as an essential personality who helped move our country out of a metaphorical “Egypt”, and towards a metaphorical “Promised Land” where “children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.1” In the 1960s, the Jewish community had a close relationship with Dr. King, and hundreds of rabbis and Jews everywhere stood with Dr. King at every major juncture from St. Augustine, Florida to Washington, D.C. Many of our people realized that the African-American plight was our own, and so, it was our moral imperative to march, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and, in some cases, even go to jail in order to promote justice.

Many times, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked, “Why did you march with Reverend King?” To which, he famously replied, “I was praying with my feet.” From the midwives Shifra and Puah who defied Pharaoh’s immoral decree, to Moses speaking truth to power, to Judah Maccabee’s fight for the freedom to be different; we, as Jews, have a legacy of promoting justice in the world, even at the risk of great personal cost. In this spirit, I find it interesting that the modern State of Israel is the only country outside of the United States that commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day annually with a special session in parliament.

By doing this, Israel, and Jews everywhere, make the statement that we embrace Dr. King’s values of hope and peaceful co-existence between neighbors who are different. As we enter into this secular New Year, let us keep Dr. King’s dream alive, and continue to do our part to make our world the righteous place that we pray it has the potential to be.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.

1 “I Have a Dream” speech

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Finding Your Life’s Purpose

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Eternal his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting.…
(Exodus 35:21)

Who am I? What is my place in the universe? What does God expect of me?

We might say that the purpose of Judaism is to help us ask these questions and to begin to answer them in a way that gives each Jewish life both meaning and purpose.

Now, right away, let’s point out that when it comes to these big questions, Judaism holds certain assumptions: you matter, even on a cosmic level; your place in the universe is important, and God does expect certain things from you that will help you realize your potential as a human being. This is a major statement! And Judaism makes these truths clear to us through our sacred stories.

Vayakhel takes place when our ancestors
were not feeling good about themselves, because they had made some pretty major mistakes. Mainly, they had really offended God by worshipping the Golden Calf, despite all that God had done for them to free them from Egyptian slavery.

Even more than this: our ancestors were feeling really lost. They were having a crisis of identity and purpose because they did not know who they really were or what they were supposed to do with their collective lives. Until recently, all they had known was slavery and how to be a slave. With every crack of a whip and harsh word, they relearned that they were worthless and that their life’s purpose was to benefit their slave masters.

Once they were free, all of those delusions fell away, but what should take their place?

And so, God gave our ancestors a task.
Its purpose was to redeem their sense of self-worth and confidence. It would help them understand who they really were and what God wanted from each and every one of them.

The task was to construct a portable sanctuary (the mishkan), where our people could come together to worship God. If and when the Israelites completed the mishkan exactly as God instructed, then God promised to “dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). God gave them exact instructions of how to build the mishkan, right down to the blueprints and materials.

God made it clear that to be successful, everyone needed to work together, and each person would have to think hard about what he or she could do to help make this project a success.

People used the skills that they already had, and they brought the best of those skills to their work. For example: if you were a carpenter, then you could bring the best of your skills to carving the doorways; if you were a weaver, you could donate your best works for the curtains; and if you were a laborer, then you could commit to carrying the sanctuary from place to place.

By working together, each one bringing the best of who he or she was to the effort, they were able to build the mishkan, and God came to dwell among them. So here are the questions you need to ponder:

What might be our modern equivalent of our ancestors’ mishkan—the place where people could come together and where God would dwell? Hint: it could be your community, your synagogue, or your family home.

If God asks that we each bring the very best of who we are to this modern mishkan, then what will you bring? What is really special about you? How can you use that for a higher purpose?

Those are the big questions.
Now, go find the big answers.

Excerpt from Text Messages: A Torah
Commentary for Teens © 2012 Jeffrey Salkin.
$24.99. Permission granted by Jewish Lights
Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT

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Celebrations That Defy Human Comprehension

…The Stories of Passover to Yom Ha’atzma-ut

Israels Independence Day

Our people sang this Song of the Sea, not just to celebrate that they were alive as individuals (dayeinu), and not just that they had survived as a people (dayeinu). For the first time in centuries, our people could hope for more than survival – we finally would have a chance to flourish! What could we accomplish now free from chains and degradation? This was the promise that became a hope; the dream that was eventually willed into a reality. But it took a while…

For the past 2,000 years, since the fall of Bar Kochba (136 CE), we Jews had existed in forced exile from our land, Israel (although there always was a Jewish presence living there). Across the globe we have been scattered. Although there have been ”golden ages” throughout the millennia, for the most part, our history has been one similar to our ”slave days” in Egypt, where we were at the mercy of the gentile rulers, masses, and mob.
Daily, we faced Jerusalem and prayed for a time when we would again return to Israel, where our people would be reunited from the four corners of the earth, when we Jews would rule ourselves rather than be at the mercy of ”the world.” In the late 19th century, on the heels of renewed anti-Semitism and European pogroms, this religious Zionism morphed into a political Zionism. No longer would we wait for God to bring us out of bondage by parting the sea, but rather, we would have to take the steps ourselves. Only when we Jews took our destiny into our own hands would we have a safe haven, and a place where we could express ourselves authentically and without fear.

Our recent history is truly miraculous, with wave after wave of Jewish youth paving the way towards a modern State of Israel, each one taking a step, which led to another, and another. Along the way, these Jews reinvented themselves despite the negative stereotypes that we had lived with for thousands of years. These pioneers were the “new Jews”, and they were brave and strong, physical and expressive in a way that our people had not seen in a very long time.

When Israel declared independence on May
14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), once again, our people experienced the extreme celebration that almost defies human comprehension. Once again, we could hope for more than just survival. Once again we had a chance to truly flourish!

Let us all join together in celebration of Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut) and how far we have come on Sunday, April 29 with a day-long festival at Stephen S. Wise Temple – From Israel to L.A. The day will feature activities centered around Israeli culture, Jewish athleticism, and, most of all, our thriving Jewish community. Whether it’s our 3-on-3 basketball tournament, Israeli art show, or interactive preschool activities, there will be something for everyone who wants to partake in this joyous day celebrating one of the most pivotal moments in our Jewish history (see below and page 8 for additional details). I hope to share in it with you.

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In The Shelter of the Sukkah

Rabbi Spike during Sukkah

Rabbi Spike during Sukkah

The day was brutally hot. Hot! The thick air seemed to beg for a breeze, the sidewalk shimmered with the heat, and the sun pounded relentlessly. But, we had friends over and the children (toddlers, really) wanted to play outside. So, I unrolled the garden-hose and filled the plastic kiddy-pool with cool water up to their knees. And then, the kids jumped in and began to splash and laugh as if the kiddy-pool was their dream-come-true; and at that moment in time, in the context of the day’s insistent heat, it was.

Good simple fun; not the kind that costs a lot of money or that comes with a dozen batteries, but the kind that reflects the purity of innocence and the joy of being alive. All three kids stepped into the pool wearing both diapers and shirts, but within seconds, all three somehow had managed to shuck their clothing and were delighting in “swimming” in their birthday suits. With some effort, similar to herding cats, we barely managed to get them covered with sunscreen before they lost themselves in the whimsical world of play. Then, somehow, it was decided that I was going to stay outside and be “in charge”, while the other adults retreated indoors to escape the heat and to talk quietly.

I figured that after a few minutes the kids would get too hot and want to go indoors, but I was wrong. Even as I melted, they continued to jump and splash in the kiddy-pool without a hint of slowing down. I began to get a bit worried. After all, even with sunscreen, that much sun must be doing something to their skin. My thoughts kept running, “What if we missed a spot? I’m sure that we must have missed a spot. Maybe I should take them out. Or, maybe I should make them put on their wet clothes for protection. But, they are having so much fun and I would hate to ruin it.”

I wanted them to have this chance to play like only children can, but I was getting really concerned about sunburn. As I debated what to do, I walked to the edge of the pool and put my body between the kids and the sun, so that my shadow, elongated by the waning hour, sheltered them while they played. I knew that this solution was temporary, but for the moment, it was good enough. They were safe. And, as I stood there, feeling that harsh heat on my back, I thought to myself, “If only it would be this easy for everything when it comes to my children. If only I could shelter them with my protective shadow, my haven of love, from everything that might harm them.”

This idea of a loving parent sheltering his or her children from the harmful elements, those forces beyond our control, is a central theological theme within Judaism. In our daily Hashkiveinu prayer, we ask God to “cover us with the shelter of Your peace” (Sukkat sh’lomeha) and to “shield us beneath the shadow of Your wings against enemies, illness, war, famine, and sorrow.” Both of these images reflect metaphors of relationship and impermanence. By nature, shadows ebb and flow with time; thus, what would certainly provide shade in the early morning will likely not at high noon.
Likewise, the image of seeking a haven under a living wing can not last forever, for eventually that wing will have to fly or we, ourselves, will have to move.

So, with Hashkiveinu, we ask that God protect us from the worst of the storm’s rage and the day’s heat, with the understanding that it cannot (and should not) be a constant and permanent protection that would last forever. We only ask that God be with us, and help us, when we are most vulnerable and when threats are the most dangerous.

No place is this idea more central than in our holiday of Sukkot, which literally means temporary shelters”. For a week, we are required to eat our meals in a sukkah (singular of Sukkot), and our sages of the Talmud (b. Succah 4b) were very specific that each sukkah was supposed to be complete enough to provide shelter, yet open enough to experience the elements. This is why the sukkah can only have three walls, and the branches that make up the roof must offer more shade than sun in the daytime, yet allow the stars to be seen at night.

Like our itinerant biblical ancestors whose nomadic lifestyle demanded collapsible shelters, and in the spirit of our agricultural past when temporary structures were erected during the harvest to escape the day’s heat and the night’s rain, we experience the sukkah as a dichotomy and a symbol for life. We are sheltered, but not fully. We are exposed, but not really. We are protected from the worst of the elements, while at the same time, we are still very much aware, and affected, by them. Yet some shelter, especially when we most need it, is sometimes the most that we can hope for; for without it, we are as vulnerable as a naked toddler under the hot Los Angeles sun. And so, we invoke the traditional Sukkot greeting for guests under the sukkah, “Be seated, be seated, exalted guests, sit in the shade of the Holy One, blessed be God.”

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