Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality, and Jewish Identity

Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality, and Jewish Identity

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By regaining for the Jewish people the capacity to deploy force, Zionism posed moral dilemmas for the Jews that for many generations, living in exile, they had not had to confront. The return to full political life and the use of military force involved a profound revolution in the Jewish identity and aroused deep and painful misgivings. This thought-provoking book examines how the forging of a new moral stance on the use of force has affected Jewish identity in the Land of Israel and throughout the world.
Drawing on historiography, philosophy, social commentary, ideological tracts, and belles lettres, Ehud Luz explores the ways that Zionist attitudes toward sovereignty were shaped by their Judaic heritage, in particular the prophetic literature and the halakhic (legal) tradition, which stressed the sanctity of human life and the strict prohibition against the shedding of innocent blood. Luz argues that despite secularization, Jewish tradition continues to influence the political life and national ethos of the Jews, and that the Jewish religious tradition is an important, sometimes even decisive factor in the way that political and cultural issues in Israel are resolved.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300129298
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

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Wrestling with an Angel


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09293-6

Chapter One

Power, Freedom, and Political Independence in Jewish Thought

"The Kingdom of Heaven" and "the Kingdom of Flesh and Blood" Orthodox and non-Orthodox scholars disagree about Judaism's attitude toward the creation of a Jewish state. There are those who minimize the importance of political independence in the Judaic scheme of values, while others see it as central, indeed, as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the Torah. The historian Simon Dubnow regarded the ancient Jewish commonwealth as merely a passing phase in the historical development of the Jewish people. Heinrich Graetz, on the other hand, in his early work The Structure of Jewish History, maintains that "the religious and the political are twin axes on which Jewish life turns," and "Judaism without the solid ground of a state under its feet is like a hollow, half-uprooted tree, sprouting leaves at the top but no longer able to produce branches." Martin Buber shows that the idea of the "kingdom of heaven," central to biblical literature, is based on the belief that religion and politics are inseparable: "The absolute claims of God's kingdom are recognized when the people itself declares theLord to be its king ... and the Lord accepts kingship. It is not enough for Him to be 'God' only in the conventional religious sense; He is unwilling to yield to man all that is 'not God,' the domain of secular life: it is precisely this domain that He demands and takes." The "kingdom of heaven" is a theocratic idea establishing God as the Jewish people's sole ruler (sovereign), and it is He who from time to time designates representatives to carry out His will among the people. Although this idea requires the people's independence, it rules out sovereignty in the secular, modern sense.

The stand taken by the sacred texts themselves on this question is ambiguous. In any event, they offer no proof that Judaism ever gave up the idea of statehood. The Torah addresses the Jews as a nation, not as individuals, and although it is possible to fulfill the Commandments under conditions of subjection to foreign rule, independence is the preferred condition. During the First Temple period and at certain times during the late Second Temple period (that of the Hasmoneans and that of the Roman conquest), the dominant view was that political independence was important as a matter of principle. As early as the end of the first century BCE, the Zealots, under Greek and Roman influence, took up "liberty" as a religio-political ideal, and the followers of Bar Kokhba later espoused it as well. But since the Jews were a subject people, the idea was somewhat different from its Greco-Roman antecedent: not a consciousness natural to a free people or a thing to be defended against attack, but a matter of liberation. The Jews were "chronologically, the first people who, politically subjugated, developed an ideology of liberation." This ideology was to have great influence upon Western history in medieval and modern times.

The primary meaning of "liberty" for late-first-century Jews was, then, a political one. Josephus describes the Zealots as loving freedom and regarding God alone as their ruler. Tannaitic literature is pervaded by the view that the Jewish people cannot be subject to the kingdom of heaven and a kingdom of flesh and blood at one and the same time. Subjection to human rule is seen as a consequence of throwing off divine rule. The Zealots and the followers of Bar Kokhba drew activist political conclusions from this view, but following the failure of the great revolts the idea took on a more personal, existential meaning. "'The writing inscribed on the tablets was God's writing' [Ex 32:16]-read it not as 'inscribed' (harut) but as 'freedom' (herut), for there is no free man but he who engages in the study of Torah" (Mishna, Avot 6:2). As in the Stoic philosophy of the time, freedom has to do with man's inner state: he who studies Torah and keeps the Commandments is free. Hence, accepting the rule of heaven, unlike accepting human rule, does not mean subjugation but an exodus "from slavery to freedom," as we learn from the Passover Haggada and other sources. This idea is well expressed in Yehuda Halevi's poem "Servant of the Lord": "Those who serve temporal powers are the slaves of slaves. / The servant of the Lord alone is free." Indeed, it is clear from the discussion in the Halakha of the principle that "the law of the state is the law" that medieval Jewry did not see itself as being totally subject to the states in which it lived. This notion, of freedom within slavery, was the regnant one among Jews up until the Emancipation, and it was compatible both with the prohibition against re-establishing an independent state until the coming of the Messiah and with the Jews' attitude toward the use of force.

Ambivalence Toward the Use of Force

Jewish tradition takes two different approaches to war and the use of force. This duality is already evident in the Bible. The Patriarchal narratives in Genesis and the Former Prophets see the people of Israel as destined to be "a great nation." There is the promise here of territorial aggrandizement, and greatness and honor are bound up with the defeat and expulsion of Israel's enemies, i.e., the realization of earthly political objectives. But in Deuteronomy and the Latter Prophets there appears the ideal of the "holy people," which entails the imperative to preserve the rights of the other peoples and gauges Israel's superiority, not in numbers or power but in its spiritual destiny.

At various points, scripture alludes to a necessary connection between the fulfillment of Israel's historical destiny and the wielding of military force. The Torah not only commands the destruction of the Canaanites as a precondition of the establishment of the Hebrew commonwealth, but God Himself often appears as the champion of Israel's military cause, and the conquest of Canaan and the widening of its boundaries are described as "the wars of the Lord." Furthermore, the right to use force is not only regarded as necessary for the achievement of national and religious objectives; it is sometimes even described as a reward for having achieved them.

Yet the Bible warns in various ways against turning force from a means to an end. Unlike the pagan glorification of human might, the biblical attitude toward the latter is skeptical and critical. He who uses force-especially military authorities-must always be aware of its pitfalls. Biblical monotheism, which sees God as the absolute ruler of nature and history, served to restrain human aggressiveness. Biblical law limits the cruelty that may be inflicted in wartime and the moral corruption that can result (Deut 20-21). Real pacifism is also not alien to the biblical literature and found its way from there into the Christian tradition. Unlike the Greeks, who regarded warfare as something natural and in some ways even positive, the Prophets envisaged universal peace and the abolition of war-the first thinkers in history to do so. In the Bible there is thus a tension between the Jewish people's political and spiritual values, but they certainly cannot be separated from each other.

There is an even greater ambivalence toward military power in Rabbinic literature. Talmudic law is not pacifistic, but it tends to impose severe limitations on the use of force, to ensure humane treatment of the enemy in wartime and prevent the moral corruption of soldiers. Thus Nachmanides interprets Deut 23:10-"When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward"-as follows: "Scripture warns [us] concerning situations where there is a danger of sin. And among the well-known practices of warriors is that they eat all sorts of abominable things, steal, plunder, and are not even ashamed to commit adultery or any kind of villainy. The most upright of men dons a cloak of cruelty and rage when setting out with his fellow-soldiers to make war against their foes. Therefore, scripture warns us, 'Be on your guard against anything untoward.'" Similarly, there is a notable tendency in the Halakha to limit to a particular historical period the Commandments of making war against the seven Canaanite nations and Amalek on the premise that they have "vanished." There is also a tendency to restrict the legitimate waging of "optional wars" (milhemot reshut), i.e., those aimed at extending the boundaries of Israel or glorifying its king (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Kings 5:1). In general, it is fair to say that the Sages saw warfare as a necessary evil and peace as divine.

Such ambivalence toward warfare is no less pronounced, and perhaps more so, in Christianity. On one hand, its attitudes are based on the Gospel doctrine of unqualified opposition to violence. On the other hand, Christianity came to terms with the existing political structures and was more realistic than Judaism about the need to use force. Medieval Catholic theologians were quite concerned with the legitimacy of warfare and distinguished in principle between "just" and "unjust" wars. This distinction, grounded to some extent in the Deuteronomic laws of warfare, was eventually given a legal formulation by the well-known jurist Hugo Grotius at the beginning of the seventeenth century and incorporated into the United Nations charter. At the same time, there continued to be a strong Christian tradition of radical opposition to the use of force, particularly among sects that broke with the Catholic Church.

The legal tradition in Islam sees all wars waged by Muslims against non-believers, or even against breakaway Muslim groups, as jihad, holy wars. The Muslim community as a whole is obliged to widen the territorial domain of Islam, eventually extending the rule of Muslim law throughout the world. There is thus, at least theoretically, a state of perpetual war between the Muslim state and the surrounding non-Muslim world. Nevertheless, there are, in practice, ways of putting off the obligation to extend Muslim rule, according to circumstances and the character of the infidel population in question.

In Jewish culture, unlike that of Christian Europe, there was no admiration of the military hero or the weapons of war, nor was there ever a festival commemorating a military conquest. The Temple is a symbol of the abhorrence of war and the weapons of war (see Ex 20:22). The Messiah is to arrive riding on a donkey, not a mighty horse. Characteristically, the Mishna forbids carrying weapons on the Sabbath on the grounds that they are repugnant to people, not ornamental (Shabbat 6:7). The Sages' concept of heroism is far from being a military one; it refers mainly to the moral attributes of restraint and devotion to God. "Our Sages taught: Those who are offended but do not offend, who are subjected to calumny but do not respond, who act out of love and rejoice in their tribulations-concerning them, scripture says, 'May His friends be as the rising sun in might' [Jud 5:31]" (T.B. Shabbat 88b). "Ben Zoma says: Who is the hero? He who subdues his lusts" (Mishna, Avot 4:1). "Who is the greatest of heroes? He who turns his enemy into a friend" (Avot de-Rabbi Natan [Schechter, Recension A] 23). The Sages turned many scriptural heroes into fighters of the "wars of the Torah."

At the same time, the Sages taught that God's valor too was not to be seen only in His triumph over the wicked but also in His merciful restraint toward them in hopes of their repenting. The heroism of human self-restraint is thus an imitation of divine heroism. The study of Torah is considered a way of bringing peace, as it is said: "Scholars [of the Torah] increase peace in the world" (T.B. Berakhot 64a).

According to Franz Rosenzweig, "To understand Jewish ethics we must recognize how many [norms] which for other peoples belong to the military [realm] are, in this case, part of the ethic of the study of Torah." To use William James' well-known phrase, the Sages succeeded to an amazing degree in making Torah study "the moral equivalent of war." James maintains that there are moral values vital for society, such as daring, courage, self-sacrifice, and self-denial, that develop primarily in wartime. War has the advantage of being "the only school that as yet is universally available" since it is "in the line of aboriginal instinct" But, in fact, the heroic and quasi-ascetic ethos of Torah study incorporates most of the virtues James sees as rooted in the war experience.

We thus see in the Sages a tendency to transform or sublimate the martial ethos of the Bible. This is clear from the Rabbinic notion of mahloket (legal controversy); the characterization of it by the Sages as "the war of the Torah" alludes to its origins. The Sages themselves are referred to as "shield-bearers" (T.B. Bekhorot 36a), i.e., defenders, who wrangle with one another over points of law. " 'Engage in struggle'-as in the phrase 'A man struggled with him,' which refers to military struggle, for war is a commandment, and we are permitted to fight with words and resolve questions and not show favoritism to anyone but only love truth."

This was the dominant tendency in Jewish religious thought until quite recently. Jews had internalized the value of military valor and given it a psychological and cosmic meaning: the real war is taking place in man's own heart, in the struggle with the evil impulse with the weapon God provided us. Faithfulness to the Torah and the Commandments is a kind of military service that demands suffering and heroic sacrifice, the epitome of which is martyrdom. In the story "Whither?" by Mordekhai Ze'ev Feierberg (1873-99), the hero's father gives a long sermon about the role of the people of Israel in the world. The sermon's main theme is a comparison of Israel to the army of the Lord: "More than three thousand years ago God gave us His Torah and made us His soldiers. We are the army of God and of all that is holy in this world."

The legacy of the Prophets and the Rabbis gave rise, in Jewish tradition, to repulsion toward bloodshed and toward the glorification of political and military power. The Jews see warfare, which has played such an essential role in world history, as "the craft of Esau." In Jewish history, its only significance is in the mythical past or the messianic future, not in the present. Two generations ago, Rav Kook voiced the view that the people of Israel had abandoned the sphere of world politics "under duress that was partly also a matter of inner will, until the happy time when a polity could be governed without wickedness or barbarism." He thus saw exile as a crucible, necessary to prepare the people for renewed independence.

Acceptance of Exile

It has been claimed that the Jews did not engage in warfare and were willing to accept exile and subjugation because they had no alternative. This claim was challenged early on by the medieval philosopher Yehuda Halevi, according to whom their attitude toward exile was actually somewhere "between necessity and choice." Had they wished to do so, he said, they could have joined forces with their oppressors. It was not a matter of mere passivity or lack of opposition but of a kind of nonviolent, spiritual resistance, the highest expression of which was martyrdom. Even if we accept Nietzsche's thesis that the transvaluation of values was a kind of "spiritual revenge" by the Jews against their oppressors or a rationalization of their own impotence, it cannot be denied that their faith was sustained by tremendous inner strength, which Nietzsche regarded as the dominant ethical attribute of the superman. For him, transcending suffering was the surest way to achieve power, and thus exile was the ideal school for acquiring the fortitude that made the Jews the strongest race in Europe. Kant, for his part, had distinguished between "might" and "dominion," defining might (Macht) as the ability to overcome "great hindrances." "[Might] is called dominion," he said, "if it is superior to the resistance of that which itself possesses might." Employing this distinction, we could say that the Jewish people in exile was mighty but did not dominate its situation.


Excerpted from Wrestling with an Angel by EHUD LUZ Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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