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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