9/11 as a Hurban

I wrote the following paper in 2002 as a participant in a Carnegie Endowment conference on peace in faith traditions. Along with our presentation at the conference, each of us was invited to write an essay for publication in a book. I was only onew of two participants who submitted an essay (the other was Rabbi Arthur Waskow) so this paper has never been published until now. Rabbi Marc Angel posted the opening section, which is appropriate to Tisha b’Av (today as I write this). You can find this at

https://www.jewishideas.org/article/hurban-lessons-jewish-history-and-tradition

For those interested, here is the entire 8000-word essay.

9-11 as a Hurban:

Lessons from Jewish History and Tradition

            Catastrophes like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9-11) are all too well known in Jewish history and therefore in the Jewish psyche and in the Jewish faith. There is even a Hebrew word for such an event: urban.  This word comes from a verb that means “to destroy” and is related to the Hebrew word for sword.  It means destruction and it is used primarily to refer to the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.  By extension it can refer to any of the catastrophes in Jewish history: the Crusades (during which many Jewish communities in Europe were massacred), the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the Holocaust among others. There is an entire literature on the subject.  I will look at some of these events and the responses to them by those who witnessed them.  Then I will use them as models for what is happening in Israel today.  Finally I will use them to suggest the best reaction to the 9-11 attacks.

            I would divide the kinds of responses into three categories: lamentation, destruction (the desire for revenge or power), and construction (acts of faith and building for the future).  The second and third are two sides of the same coin, as each is a way of seeking empowerment in the wake of being overwhelmed by violence or oppression.  It is the choice between these two that is most crucial in drawing lessons from the catastrophes in Jewish history.

The Destruction of the First Temple

            The Temple of Solomon, known to Jews as the First Temple, was built at the point in Jewish history which is regarded as the ideal, the high point of our history.  Our borders were at their greatest extent, there were no wars, and the kingdom was prosperous, engaging in trade perhaps as far away as India.  As with most peoples in that part of the ancient world, the Jewish kingdom considered the temple to its G-d as the symbol of the power and welfare of the entire nation.  When one nation defeated another the loser’s G-d’s temple was often destroyed.  In 586 BCE the Babylonians attacked and besieged Jerusalem because of repeated rebellions against their empire.  They destroyed the city and the Temple with it.  The people were forced into exile as was often the case with rebellious subject nations.

            The book of Lamentations in the Bible, usually ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, is a lamentation over the destroyed city.  It begins

Alas!

Lonely sits the city

Once great with people!

She that was great among nations

Is become like a widow… [1]

This powerful elegy does much more than weep and wail, however.  It does describe the horrors of the Destruction and what followed and Jeremiah howls with grief.  However Lamentations also tells of why G-d allowed this urban to occur.  It was the just punishment for a people that had strayed from faithfulness to its covenant with G-d.  Many prophets had warned that this would happen, beginning with Moses in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  Jeremiah calls on the Eternal to forgive the people and to restore them to their land and to allow the city to be rebuilt.  Jeremiah calls on the people to repent.

                        Let us search and examine our ways.

                        And turn back to the Eternal.

                        Let us lift up our hearts with our hands

                        To G-d in Heaven.

                        We have transgressed and rebelled.

                        And you have not forgiven.[2]

The justification of Divine Justice (theodicy) and the appeals for repentance represent a revolutionary departure from the thinking of the time.  Most nations that suffered this kind of destruction simply disappeared from history, their very identities obliterated.  Jeremiah affirmed that there is only one G-d and that G-d is sovereign over all nations.  The covenant made at Mount Sinai is eternal and still stands.  If the people will repent it will be restored.  Against all the rules of history the Jewish people survived destruction and exile because they were made to see beyond themselves and beyond the present moment.

            Jeremiah himself performed an act shortly before the destruction, which he foresaw.  Following a legal obligation he wrote a contract that would redeem a piece of family property in the future.[3]  After following the most traditional form of the transaction he said to G-d,

…the city, because of sword and famine and pestilence, is at the mercy of the Chaldeans who are attacking it.  What You threatened has come to pass – as You see.  Yet You, Eternal One, O G-d, said to me, ‘buy the land for money and call in witnesses – when the city is at the mercy of the Chaldeans.’

Like many things Jeremiah did during his life, this was a symbolic act expressing faith that in the future what had been destroyed would be rebuilt and the people would return from their exile. 

The Destruction of the Second Temple

                After only seventy years the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and returned all of the exiled peoples to their homelands.  A contingent of Jews did go back and rebuilt Jerusalem.  The Majority, who remained in Babylonia and elsewhere became the beginning of the Diaspora community.  From that time until this a majority of the Jewish people, but never all the Jewish people, has lived outside of the Land of Israel.  The task of creating a national existence outside of the Land of Israel was successful. For example, it is believed that the synagogue was created in the Babylonian exile as a center for meeting both spiritual and social needs.

            It would be too much to recount the history of the Second Temple here, but in the year 66 CE there was a revolt by Jewish nationalists against the Roman Empire.  That war lasted four years and ended predictably with a Roman victory and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Once again this was a completely devastating event.  There is a very large literature of responses to it.[4] There were lamentations written.  These may be found within various works of Rabbinic literature that were edited and published long after this event.

            There were two primary reactions at the time.  The first was a continuing movement of rebellion against Rome.  The Zealots who started and led the revolt held out in the fortress of Masada for a few years, but were overwhelmed by the Romans.[5]   The following two generations saw Jewish revolts all over the Roman Empire –  in Alexandria and Cyprus, among other places.  None of these succeeded.  Finally there was another great revolt in the Land of Israel led by a man named Simon bar Koziba, better known as Bar Kochba.  His followers believed he was the Messiah who would drive out the Romans, restore Jewish independence and rebuild Jerusalem with its Temple.  This revolt was a spectacular and devastating failure.  The Romans were driven out, but they came back, defeated Bar Kochba, and committed such a great massacre of Jews that it was said the Mediterranean ran blood-red all the way to Cyprus.  Jewish self-government, which had been allowed after the first Great Revolt, was ended.  Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina dedicated to Jupiter.  Jews were not allowed to set foot there.  Bar Kochba has been rehabilitated as a heroic figure in modern times, but his contemporaries condemned him as an impious brute who brought destruction and exile on the Jewish people.[6]  This response was one of seeking empowerment after destruction through war and conflict.  It ignored reality and reached out for a messianic solution to the destruction of Jerusalem.  If this had been the only Jewish response, Jewish history would probably have ended there and then.

            It was, fortunately, not the only response.  There was another which was every bit as revolutionary as the one that had followed the destruction of the First Temple.  The most respected Rabbinic leader at the time was Yohanan ben Zakkai who was already eighty years old.  He pled with the Zealots who had completely taken over Jerusalem, which was then besieged by a Roman force, to offer some token of conciliation.  He wanted to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem, which he knew would occur if the Romans entered the city by force.  The Zealots’ response was to declare that anyone who went over to the Romans in any way would be executed. 

Rabbi Yohanan confided in his nephew Abba Sikra, a Zealot leader, and asked for his help.  On his advice they would give out the news that Rabbi Yohanan had become ill and then that he had died.  That meant that his body had to be carried outside the city walls, because the dead were not permitted burial within.  They got past the Zealot guards at a gate and went immediately to the Roman camp where they were taken to the general Vespasian.  Yohanan ben Zakkai greeted Vespasian, “Hail Caesar.”  The astonished general said, “I am not the Emperor.”  Just then a messenger arrived to announce that the Emperor Nero was dead and that the Roman legions had declared Vespasian his successor.  Vespasian told the Rabbi, “Since you were the first to address me as Caesar, I shall reward you.  What would you want as a reward?”  Rabbi Yohanan replied that he wanted to establish a school in the nearby town of Yavneh, which the Romans already controlled.  Vespasian granted his wish.[7]

The “school” that Yohanan ben Zakkai established was not a school in the sense of it being a place where students were educated.  Yavneh became the seat of the Jewish government that was allowed to govern after the Revolt.  At Yavneh the Rabbis created something new – a form of Judaism that could survive destruction and exile.  It would not require a central shrine or even a tribe of priests.  The practice of Judaism devolved to every Jew equally.  Rabbis would not be clergy, but teachers and judges.  The legal tradition, which existed mostly in oral form until then, was to be codified and published.  Community, family, and education, along with the synagogue would be the means of continuing the covenant tradition.  Essentially this group of scholars created Judaism as a religion.  This worked so well that it continues down to the present day, almost two millennia later.  The Dalai Lama, impressed with this history, consults with Jewish scholars to see if our history can serve as a model for Tibetans to have their identity, faith and culture survive in the long run outside of Tibet. 

There were two responses to the destruction of the Second Temple.  One was to try to recover what was lost by force.  That failed completely.  The other was to create something new.  That succeeded so well that the Jewish people far outlasted the Roman Empire.

The Diaspora

            From the mid-2nd century until the mid-20th the Jewish people lived under conditions that are unparalleled in human history.  Without territory, an army, or a national government the Jewish civilization continued in many lands around the world.  National and local communities were often granted a measure of autonomy, but they were also usually kept outside the mainstream of the host nation’s life.  Jews were sometimes forced to take on unpleasant roles such as moneylending and tax collecting.  Ownership of land and the bearing of arms by Jews were forbidden in most places and times.  There were, on the other hand, periods when Jews took an active part in national life and sometimes shared in great eras of civilization as active participants.  At other times Jews were singled out for terrible persecutions and suffered the worst that human beings can do to each other. 

            In the Midrash[8] on Lamentations there is a story that illustrates the attitude that allowed Jewish civilization and faith to continue as a living phenomenon for almost 2000 years against any precedent in human history.

Rabbi[9] sent Rabbi Assi and Rabbi Ammi on a mission to organize [religious education in] the cities of the land of Israel. They came to a city and said to the people, ‘ Bring us the guardians of the city.’ They fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The Rabbis exclaimed, ‘ These the guardians of the city? They are its destroyers!’   The people inquired, ‘Who, then, are its guardians?’ and they answered, ‘The instructors in Bible and Mishnah[10], who meditate upon, teach and preserve the Torah day and night.’ This is in accordance with what is said, You shall meditate therein day and night (Joshua 1:8); and it is similarly stated, Except the Lord build the house, they, labor in vain that build it (Psalms 127:1).[11]

In order to continue as a living civilization the Jewish people had to find a new way to respond to difficult times without resorting to violence or threats of violence.  The main instruments of survival were to be universal education and effective communal organization. [12]

            The Crusades are remembered in European history as great wars against the Muslim world that had encroached on some of Europe.  The Crusaders conquered some cities in the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem.  What is often forgotten is how, on their way from Europe to the Holy Land, especially in the Rhineland, the Crusaders sacked Jewish communities, looting, raping and murdering as they went.         Isaac bar Shalom wrote a dirge in response to the havoc wreaked in the Second Crusade (1146).  In it the poet bewails G-d’s silence echoing words from the Talmudic response to the Destruction of the Second Temple.[13] 

                                    The foe was strutting with his sword,

                                    Destroyed my precious ones, made them naught.

                                    And he slew all who did my eye delight

The year: four thousand nine hundred and seven,

                                    When trouble closely followed trouble,

                                    And for my feet they set a snare

                                                Do not be silent![14]

The Jewish memorial ritual called Yizkor was created in response to the Crusades and this martyrology was expanded to include remembrance for one’s own kin much later.

            Yet during this same period in this same region of Europe creative Jewish scholarship flourished.  The commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) on the Scriptures and the Talmud were written along with many other important works of Jewish law and tradition.  The response to catastrophe was not just understandable lamentations, but a great intellectual and spiritual creativity.

            The Jewish community of Spain dated back to Roman times.  In the 8th century, when the Moors conquered Spain for Islam, it was with the help of the Jews who had been persecuted by their Visigoth rulers.  From that time until the end of the 14th century the Jews of the Iberian peninsula played a key role in the greatest civilization in Europe at that time.  The Jewish civilization in Spain gave rise to a major branch of Jewish culture and religion, the Sephardi; just as the Jews of the Rhineland gave rise to the Ashkenazi branch of Judaism.  Even under the Christian reconquest Jews flourished in every way, although sometimes persecuted by the Church. 

The beginning of the end in Spain came in the summer of 1391 when anti-Jewish riots in several cities saw the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews and the forced conversion to Christianity of tens of thousands more.  The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church does not permit forced conversion, but once a conversion had taken place an individual could not “backslide” to his or her former faith.  An underground Jewish culture came into being.  New Christians, also known as Conversos or Marranos[15], lived publicly as Christians but maintained their Judaism in secret.  As Christians society was supposedly open to them and many became wealthy and powerful, even in the Church itself.  The Old Christians, especially those who now felt displaced, resented this.  In 1478 the Church established an office of the Holy Inquisition, an institution that dealt with heresies of all kinds, to root out what they called Judaizing among the Conversos.  The secret practice of Judaism by people who were supposed to be Christians came under severe penalties including loss of property and death by burning at the stake.  In January of 1492 the joint Christian monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, drove the Moors from their last stronghold in Granada.  A few months later they promulgated the Edict of Expulsion which proclaimed that after August 1 of that year all Jews must either convert or leave Spain.  The Expulsion of 1492 was almost as great a trauma to the Jewish people as the destruction of the two Jerusalem Temples.  The Jews of Spain fled to neighboring Portugal[16] and to may different lands around the Mediterranean Sea, especially Italy, Turkey, Greece, and Morocco. 

There were of course lamentations.  A Jewish poet, Judah ben David, in the exile community of Venice, wrote a dirge mourning the loss of Jewish life in Spain.

                        Know Judah and Israel, I am exceedingly bitter;

                        Therefore I tremble for all my sins.

                        My heart revives within me when I hear weeping;

                        On seeing laughter I recoil, yes recoil.

                        Son, brother, sister, mother, all kin –

                        Weep you your families, gash you your flesh.

                        Good uncle, all men, all women weep;

                        I, weeping, will make all men tremble, tremble.

                        Gone my song, gone my joy when I bring to my mind

                        Seville: it is lost, utterly lost.[17]

Once again lament was not the only response.  Once again there was a flowering of Jewish civilization and creativity.  The culture and traditions of Spanish Jewry were successfully replanted in many communities from the Netherlands to Ottoman Turkey.  The new state of Exile within Exile was responded to with a new form of Jewish mysticism, the Lurianic Kabbalah.  The spirit of Jewish renewal was epitomized by Solomon Ibn Verga in a famous story.

I heard tell from aged exiles of Spain that a certain ship was struck with plague and that the ship’s owner cast the passengers off onto uninhabited terrain. Most died there of hunger; only a few found the strength to proceed on foot in search of civilization.

Now among these was a certain Jew who struggled on with his wife and two sons. The wife, whose feet were untried, fainted and perished, leaving her husband, who was carrying the boys. He and his sons also fainted from hunger; when he awoke he found the two dead. In agony, he rose to his feet and cried, “Master of the Universe! You go to great lengths to force me to desert my faith. Know for a certainty that in the face of the dwellers of heaven, a Jew I am and a Jew I shall remain; all that You have brought upon me or will bring upon me shall be of no avail!” Then he gathered dirt and grasses, covered the boys, and went off in search of a settlement.[18]

            The accounts of persecutions, expulsions and massacres in the Diaspora seem endless.  Communal leaders became expert at dealing with harsh realities from seemingly powerless positions.  Even when Jews were placed in positions of evident power it was because no Jew could ever threaten the throne or the power of the Church.  Furthermore, when things went wrong the Jews could be blamed rather than the king or the Church.  The best known power fantasy in Diaspora tradition is the legend of the Golem, a powerful gigantic homunculus made by the historic Rabbi and Kabbalist Rabbi Yehudah Loew (1526-1609, also known as the Maharal).  He built the Golem in order to protect the Jews of Prague, but soon found that while this creature could protect Jews with its great physical strength, it could not be reliably controlled and had to be destroyed by its creator.[19]  Diaspora culture developed a dislike for and distrust of physical and military power.  In an important sense the Diaspora became a pacifist civilization out of necessity.

            Despite the outrageous treatment they suffered and the calamities they were forced to endure, Diaspora communities and cultures flourished.  Usually this was on their own terms, within closed-off communities, but there were times and places that brought Diaspora Jews into important local, national, and even international roles in culture, commerce, and society.  It would be very inaccurate to depict Diaspora history only in terms of powerlessness and victimhood. Salo Baron, an important 20th century Jewish historian cautioned against depicting it as a catalogue of sorrows: “I oppose the lachrymose conception of Jewish history that treats Judaism as a sheer succession of miseries and persecutions.”[20]

David Biale recently argued that Jews were not powerless, but exhibited “a wide spectrum of persistent and on-going political activism.” To survive two millennia of hostility, emerging with an undiminished sense of self-identity, required not only spiritual strength, but also a capacity for organization and for the assertion of collective interests: in other words, a capacity for politics. As Biale contends, “without some modicum of political strength and the ability to use it, the Jewish people would certainly have vanished.”[21]

The Holocaust

            The Holocaust, now usually referred to by its Hebrew name Shoah, stands in a class by itself.  This is only partly because it happened so recently in history that some of its witnesses are still alive telling their stories and influencing opinions and events.  One out of three Jews in the world were murdered and most of Jewish civilization was destroyed in its European centers.  There is an entire literature that has grown from this historic trauma.  There are laments, books of theological and political argument, histories, personal memoirs, fiction, poetry, drama, music, and dance.  Virtually every form of scholarship and art has attempted to express our feelings and to try to understand what has happened to the Jewish people and to the world. 

            The destructive responses are well-known.  Organizations like the Jewish Defense League call for arming Jews to protect their communities against anti-Semites.  These organizations do not shrink even from terrorism, even against fellow Jews who disagree with them.  Another response has been to reject the modern world.  Hasidim and other so-called Ultra-Orthodox Jews socially fence themselves off from the world, even the rest of the Jewish world.  They strive to recreate the murdered communities of Europe at some time in an idealized past.  They do not go as far as the Amish, forgoing the use of modern technology.  On the contrary, they often make strong and effective use of the best of what they find.  It is not at all hard to find them on the Internet.  They do not keep out of national secular politics, but involve themselves and sometimes even make of their communities an effective political force.  What they do is limit their contact with the outside world as much as possible.  Then they dress in distinctive costumes and speak Yiddish among themselves.  They avoid secular education along with secular entertainment and culture.  Their belief is that they are a saving remnant of Judaism’s truest form and that they are obligated to keep it alive, even if that means ghettoizing themselves from their fellow Jews as well as the rest of the modern world.

            There are also constructive responses.  Holocaust museums make it a point to depict the world that was destroyed and to find ways to pick up what threads of the fabric of that world they can.  Much of Jewish social justice activity is a response to the Shoah.  At a 25th anniversary commemoration of the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi, two of them Jewish, civil rights activist James Farmer said it very well.  “Why were these New York Jews along with many other Jews working for civil rights in Mississippi that summer?  Because six million of their people had just been lynched.”[22]  Many Jews understood that what allowed the Shoah to happen was the silence of good people who should have known better.  Nobelist Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote, “

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.
The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.
And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Peace is our gift to each other.”[23]

Even in speaking about the Holocaust and to an audience of survivors,[24] Wiesel proclaimed a wider meaning for the destruction suffered by the Jewish people.

Though uniquely Jewish, the Holocaust has universal implication.  What was done to one people affected mankind’s destiny.  Once unleashed, evil will recognize no boundaries.  Auschwitz may belong to the past, but Hiroshima is part of our future – it may be the ultimate punishment for Auschwitz.

It is often said that the main lesson from the Holocaust is “Never Again!”  The question is does that mean, “never again will this happen to us” or “never again will we allow this to happen to anyone?”  For some the Shoah is a reason to distrust the whole world and act accordingly.  For others it means that we must work together with the rest of the world to make sure this never happens again.  Both kinds of responses are still strong among the world’s Jews today.

The State of Israel

            Without doubt the single most important response to the Holocaust is the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.  There, most of all, the two kinds of responses – destructive and constructive – are expressed.

            Early Zionist settlers in Palestine a century ago used to sing a song whose words mean, “We have come to the Land to build and to be rebuilt.”  What that meant is that Diaspora Jews had been suffering because they had been weakened by living without what nationalists of the time insisted every people needs: land and a state.  These pioneers were committed to a return to the soil and to building a utopian society based on the Tolstoyan, socialist and anarchist movements principles they had embraced in Europe.[25] 

The rise of fascism, and especially Nazism, in Europe gave urgency to the Zionist movement.  Unfortunately Palestine’s British overseers wanted to placate Arab nationalists and issues a series of “white papers” that severely limited legal Jewish immigration.  Immediately after World War II the truth about the genocide committed against Europe’s Jews became known to the world.  The newly organized United Nations took on the issue of Jewish statehood and called for the establishment of a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine.  The Zionist movement accepted this partitioning of the Land of Israel, but the Arabs rejected the presence of any non-Arab state in Palestine.  The result was Israel’s War for Independence fought against the armies of six Arab states.  To the world’s amazement the new Jewish state not only survived but established itself.  The Palestinian Arabs found themselves without their promised state, forced to live under Jewish sovereignty or as refugees in UN camps.  As many as 200,000 Arabs left their homes and villages either in flight from wartime conditions or forced out by Israeli forces.  The truth about this is still a matter of bitter controversy.[26]

Now there were two traumatized peoples.  Israel took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Displaced Persons camps in post-war Europe and from such Arab states as Iraq and Yemen among others.  The latter were in flight from anti-Jewish laws and persecutions that were “the Arab street’s” reaction to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Palestinian Arab nationalism was completely frustrated and a large portion of that people lost land, houses, and communities as well as the nationhood they had rejected.

The Jews of Israel from the beginning have faced a terrible dilemma, caught between the need to feel safe in a hostile world and the need to live up to the ethical teachings that have been basic to Judaism since Biblical times.  Should Israel be “like any other nation” (k’khol ha-goiim) or, as the prophet Isaiah phrased it,[27] “a light to the nations” (l’or goiim)?  Israel’s Declaration of Independence seeks a way to include both visions of what the Jewish state would be.  In the preamble there is a call for the establishment of a new Jewish state to be a part of the world community of nations.

The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.

In the Declaration we read an affirmation of Jewish traditions of ethics as a basis for the new state.

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. [28]

The role of Jewish religion in Israel was and is problematic.  Israel was always supposed to be a secular state and most of its founders were secular people, some of whom were quite hostile to religion.  Certain religious sects even maintained that a Jewish state before the advent of the Messiah is an affront to G-d, especially a state founded by socialists and secularists.  On the other hand there have always been religious political parties in the government.  In the past three decades these have become increasingly involved in foreign affairs and security issues.

            The first dilemma leads to a second.  As soon as the State of Israel’s independence was declared the armies of five neighboring nations attacked with the explicit intention of not allowing the new Jewish State to come into existence.  Some of those nations have held to a formal state of war with Israel for the past fifty-four years.  As much as Judaism and Zionism hold up an ideal of peace, the reality of war or the threat of war has been constant all this time.  This yearning for peace and security has had to dwell side by side with the feeling that any sign of weakness could be the end.  Some even held up the image of Masada[29] to describe Israel’s situation.  Paratroopers used to be inducted into their elite corps at Masada proclaiming, “Masada shall not fall again.”   Others looked to the image of Bar Kochba, despite the terrible failure of his rebellion against Rome. 

How does Judaism in Israel respond to these two dilemmas?  Should a Jewish state be a model of what a nation could be or should it play by the rules of the “tough neighborhood” it is part of?  Should Israel see itself as always at war with implacable enemies or as constantly seeking reconciliation with them?  Since this paper’s subject is religious responses to war, I will refer to the thinking of religious thinkers and personalities only, even though discussion of these issues is found among secular Israelis as well.

Israel is haunted by the Diaspora experience in general and by the Holocaust in particular.  Many Israelis feel that for 1800 years Jews led an abnormal existence and continue to do so outside the land of Israel.  They believe that the Exile will eventually whither away through assimilation or be destroyed by persecution and only Israel will be home to a living Jewish community.  This belief gives great urgency to the issue of Israel’s physical survival and to its nature. 

Yeshayahu Liebowitz was an Orthodox Jewish philosopher known for the sharp questions he raised about the place a secular Jewish state should have in Jewish religion.  He regarded nationalism as a form of idolatry when the state becomes a sacred value in and of itself.  In 1953 there was a series of Arab terrorist attacks against Jewish villages in Israel.  An Israeli commando unit led by Ariel Sharon went over the armistice line to the village of Kibiyeh and in attacking it killed over fifty Arabs and destroyed about forty houses.  There was a public outcry and the UN issued a resolution of condemnation of Israel.  Liebowitz wrote, at the time, about the moral implications of the attack.

Kibiyeh, its causes, implications, and the action itself are part of the great test to which we as a nation are put as a result of our national liberation, political independence, and our military power – for we were bearers of a culture which, for many generations, derived certain spiritual benefits from the conditions of exile, foreign rule and political impotence.  Our morality and conscience were conditioned by an insulated existence in which we could cultivate values and sensibilities that did not have to be tested in the crucible of reality.[30]

Judaism, as the religion of a people with a unique history, was first forced to learn in exile and then to create a new independent national existence.  The debate about what the nature of a modern Jewish state would be and its relationship to Jewish religious traditions and laws has now gone on for over a century.

For some the challenge of survival means “whatever it takes.”  For others it means creating a Jewish society that will learn how to survive as part of a region that has been mostly hostile up until now.  For some the lesson of the Holocaust is that the Jewish people is alone in the world and must become self-reliant and as powerful as possible.  For others the lesson of the Holocaust is that we must be among the first to protest injustice and must never be guilty of injustice.

In the context of Jewish existence today, what does it mean to preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel? Does it mean preserving a Jewish demographic majority through any means and continued Jewish domination of the Palestinian people and their land? What is the narrative that we as a people are creating, and what kind of voice are we seeking? What sort of meaning do we as Jews derive from the debasement and humiliation of Palestinians? What is at the center of our moral and ethical discourse? What is the source of our moral and spiritual legacy? What is the source of our redemption? Has the process of creating and rebuilding ended for us?[31]

            The following two quotes are from Orthodox Jews who are very personally involved in the meaning of the conflict with the Palestinians.  The first is by Shamai Liebowitz, an attorney[32]; and the second is by Yitzchak Frankenthal, the father of a victim of Arab terrorism and a founder of Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace, an organization of those who have suffered the deaths of family members in the conflict and who believe that their best response is to work for peace.

I am an Orthodox Jew and a criminal defense attorney in Tel Aviv. I am also a tank gunner in reserve duty, and part of a group of 1000 soldiers who have refused to serve in the occupied territories.  Our Jewish sources teach us that where there is no justice, there is no peace. The idea behind the Oslo accords, namely that we could “negotiate” a peace agreement while remaining the Occupying Power, has proven to be romantic nonsense.  Can you expect a rape victim to negotiate with her attacker?  Can you expect a slave to negotiate with his master a “contract of freedom”?[33]

It is unethical to kill innocent Israeli or Palestinian women and children. It is also unethical to control another nation and to lead it to lose its humane-ness. It is patently unethical to drop a bomb that kills innocent Palestinians. It is blatantly unethical to wreak vengeance upon innocent bystanders. It is, on the other hand, supremely ethical to prevent the death of any human being. But if such prevention causes the futile death of others, the ethical foundation for such prevention is lost.[34]

These questions are studied by many scholars and rabbis in Israel with an existential urgency.  Netivot Shalom / Oz v’Shalom (NS/OS)[35] is an Orthodox Jewish organization in Israel that supports reconciliation with the Palestinians on religious grounds.  In order to defend their position they must first respond to those in the Israeli Orthodox community who hold to a nationalist territorial stand.  That stand is characterized by such opinions as there being a prohibition in Jewish law against a Jewish landowner in the Land of Israel selling any property to a non-Jew.  Many publications by NS/OS rebut such assertions in the technical manner necessary in the rabbinic world.  Other publications grapple with the philosophical issues.  Since most of this literature is unknown outside of Israel, I will let these thinkers speak for themselves.

Aviezer Ravitzky comments on the problem of Zionism as a kind of secular messianism.[36] 

In the past generation, the difference of opinion has widened, and the ideological extremes have grown further apart (while in between them have developed various middle-ground opinions). What appears to one group as the fulfillment of the sought-after goal, appears to the other as a betrayal of the goal; what appears to one as the Messiah, appears to the other as the anti-Messiah. This is so because, on the one hand, many elements of the Zionist vision and fulfillment bordered on Messianic anticipations: the ingathering of the exiles, the end of our subjugation by the nations, sociological progress, the blossoming of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, many other elements in the Zionist dream and enterprise threatened to shake the foundations of the Messianic expectations: the secular basis of the State, the “forcing of the End of Days,” a gradual and non-miraculous redemption process.

Messianism has been a problem in Judaism since Biblical days.  Originally it was the vision of the Prophets, especially Isaiah, that a descendant of King David would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people as in the time of King David and King Solomon.  This idea evolved to embrace a world-wide eschatology in the later prophets (Ezekiel and Zechariah).  Over the past two millennia dozens of Jews have either claimed to be the Messiah or the forerunner of the Messiah.  Their followers often engaged in extreme activities because of a belief that the end of history had come.  Ravitzky shows how peace is considered an unattainable goal by those who think the Jewish State in messianic terms.

The concept of “peace” is also understood in the Biblical sense – prophetic, final, absolute. Any other peace is liable to be viewed as insignificant, worthless. It is worth noting that the Hebrew words for peace (shalom) and completeness (shlemut) come from the same root. On the one hand, this phenomenon has ethical clout: it establishes a noble goal, and encourages us not to let up, even in the hardest conditions, from seeking the highest social perfection that we can. On the other hand, though, the translation of this way of thinking into political and diplomatic terms may very well hinder and forestall any realistic attempt to achieve political, earthy, historical peace. For such a peace will leave smoldering tensions; it will not beat swords into plowshares, and it will not lead to idyllic harmony. Such a peace is not more than an illusory bluff, whereas true peace is an absolute. Paradoxically, it could very well be that the maximalist quest for the true peace, the love of complete harmony, is that which will neutralize the value of any real arrangement for here-and-now peace. “Such a peace,” say the proponents of the absolute, “will be based on a balance of interests and not on a love of truth, and is therefore transient, while we are on the path towards the fulfillment of the ideal and the eternal.”

The practical result of such beliefs is that the peace movement is engaged in an impossible task, one that may even thwart the divine will.  Peace for a messianic enterprise must be perfect, therefore its enemies are much more than ordinary enemies.

Herein lies an additional danger: the enemy will no longer be viewed as a political, here-and-now enemy, but as a mythological, demonic, eternal enemy; the enemy of the Divine Messianic scheme, the final obstacle before the Redemption. He is not only the temporary enemy of the Jewish people, but also the enemy of G-d, who stands as a Satan against the perfection of the nation, mankind, and the entire world. In other words, he is Amalek, and “the L-rd will have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Exodus 17).” There is no compromising or making peace with such an enemy, under any circumstances.

            Uriel Simone posits a different view of the nature and purpose of the Zionist movement. [37]  The relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is that we are privileged to live there in peace and security so long as we fulfill the terms of our covenant with G-d.  For those who see the Jewish State in messianic terms that means it should be a theocracy ruled by Orthodox authorities.  For Simone it means creating a society based on the high social ideals demanded by the Torah.

It seems that it would be very difficult to deny that the adherence of some to the concept of the wholeness of the Land has already severely affected their loyalty to the People and to the Nation. The objective of the Zionist movement is not merely to enable the aliyah of Jews to the Land, in order that they may fulfill the Land-related commandments and exercise their personal and communal freedoms, just as do their brethren in Brooklyn; but also “to be a free nation in our Land” (as we sing in Hatikvah). Our goal is to establish an independent Jewish society that is responsible – under the aegis of our sovereign State – for all areas of life. The State is an indispensable tool for the realization of our national goals, and it is the required framework for the maximal implementation of our unique values.

“A kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19,6) will be established only in the Holy Land. The holiness of the Land is an integral part of the holiness of our society, but under no circumstances can the former override the latter. On the contrary, it is our obligation to ensure that our intense adherence to the ideal of the integrity of the Land does not affect our fulfillment of the dictate, “Your camp shall be holy” (Deut. 23,15). It is engraved upon our consciousness that “because of our sins we were exiled from our Land,” and Jeremiah’s prophecy of the “Temple of the L-rd” (Jeremiah 7) was set down in writing as a constant reminder against the false reliance upon a protective sanctity, that may cause us to err and to sin. The Torah, too, repeats often that our hold upon the Land is contingent upon the sanctity of the camp, as is written: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue, that thou may live and inherit the Land which the L-rd thy G-d gives you.” (Deut. 16,20).

            The intensity and immediacy of this debate have been heightened by the current violent situation in Israel.  There are some who support the settlers in the Occupied Territories who hold that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people as a grant from G-d.  Some even call for a theocracy in which non-Jews must accept a secondary status if they are to live in the Jewish State.  There are also many Israelis who believe that if the choice is between an undemocratic state in all of the Land of Israel or a democratic Jewish state in part of the Land, the choice is clear.  The people that came up from slavery and suffered every outrage humans visit on each other must never become an oppressor of other peoples.  Israel and the Jewish people must choose between these two options.  Both choices involve risks.  Neither one assures the future for Israel.  Only the choice that frees Israel from its domination of another people will be true to our history of survival through proactive and creative solutions to our dilemmas.

A Jewish Response to  9-11

            Like Israel, The United States was founded with the vision of creating an ideal society.  As in Israel, America has to respond to the internal contradictions of its ideals over against the realities of society and history.  Just as the Jewish people went for many generations without having to deal with the practicalities of national government, our nation has not suffered war on its soil for almost a century and a half or a serious foreign invasion for almost 200 years.  The attacks on September 11, 2001 were thus a double trauma.  Being the greatest military power in human history did not spare us from attack.  There are people in the world who regard us as so evil as a nation that they think it right to kill thousands of us and attempt to destroy symbols of our society and our nationhood.

            Our most obvious response has been to declare war on terrorism and to place our entire society under restrictions that run counter to our democratic traditions.  Fear and anger have been the primary responses of our government and our people.  However these have not been the only responses.  In New York City there is a focus on rebuilding and renewing the area where the World Trade Center stood.  American Arabs and American Muslims have begun to engage in much more dialogue with others.  September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was organized by survivors of victims of the terrorist attacks to counter the trend toward war and oppressive security measures.  Grassroots movements for peace, civil rights and political reform seem to have risen from the ashes. 

            When the First Temple was destroyed and the people were exiled, the synagogue was created along with a Jewish community that could persist in foreign exile.  When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and national life for Jews in the Land of Israel was ended, the Rabbis recreated Judaism so that it would continue not only to survive but to be a living tradition wherever Jewish communities would live.  When we suffered persecutions we mourned our dead and recreated our lives, sometimes in new places.  If the story of the Jewish faith and people teaches us anything, it teaches us that real strength lies not in the power to destroy, but in the power to create.

            The choice is before us.  On one side we could declare war on all who oppose us as a nation or crawl into a self-protective shell and abandon the openness that marks our society and culture.  On the other side we could learn from Jewish history and tradition how to use catastrophe as an occasion for creativity and progress.  It is as simple and basic a choice as that offered in the Torah.

I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse, therefore choose like, that you and your offspring may live.[38]


[1] Lamentations 1:1

[2] ibid. 3:40-42

[3] Jeremiah 32:6-25

[4] The author’s Rabbinic thesis, entitled “Tannaitic Reactions to Persecution”, deals with some of this literature, especially the Midrash on Lamentations, Eykhah Rabbati.  That work is available at the HUC-JIR library in New York City.

[5] For reasons far too complex to go into here the author does not believe that the famous mass suicide actually occurred.

[6] This historic lesson is discussed and applied to modern Israel by Yehoshfat Harkabi in The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Politics, Rossel Books, Chappequa NY 1983.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56a and Lamentations Rabbah I:33

[8] The Midrash is a body of exegetical Rabbinic literature built on the scriptures.  It often reflects the time and place of its composition.

[9] Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah (see following note) and President of the Sanhedrin at the beginning of the 3rd century CE.  He was the premier leader of Judaism at the time that the center of Jewish life was moving from the Land of Israel to the Diaspora centered in Babylonia (modern Iraq).

[10] The Mishnah is the codification of the Oral Law that was 200 years in its preparation and was edited by Rabbi (see previous note).

[11] Lamentations Rabbah, Proem 2.

[12] In our day the Dalai Lama studies Judaism and Jewish history to see if the same approach will save Tibetan civilization in exile over the long term.

[13] Gittin, Ibid.

[14] as translated by Jacob Petuchowski and published in The Literature of Destruction, David Roskies, Editor, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1988, p. 84

[15] The descendants of these people prefer the term Converso, which means simply Convert, as opposed to the better known but insulting Marrano, which means swine.

[16] Where they suffered a similar edict of Expulsion in 1498, but most were forced to convert rather than go into exile.

[17] As translated by David S. Segal and published in Roskies, op.cit, p. 104

[18] Ibid., p. 98

[19] The Golem stories include some that are very similar to the well-known Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  It is also believed that Mary Shelley knew of this legend and it was the basis for her novel “Frankenstein.”

[20] “Ghetto and Emancipation,” Menorah Journal, 14 (1928) 515-26) on p. 211

[21] Alan Dowty, “Zionism’s Greatest Conceit, Israel Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 quoting from Biale’s Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, Schocken Books, Tel-Aviv, 1986

[22] The  quote is as remembered by the author, who was there.

[23]New York, October 1986

[24] Second International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, 1983

[25] Jewish participation in these movements is discussed in Nora Levin’s While Messiah Tarried, Schocken Books, New York  1977.

[26] A reasonably objective account of this period may be found online at <http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/History/refugees.html&gt;

[27] Isaiah 42:6 “I, the LORD, in My grace, have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand.  I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations.” Also 49:6 “I will make you a light of nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

[28] Emphasis by the author

[29] see above

[30] Yeshayahu Liebowitz Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA 1992, p. 185

[31] Sara Roy, “Living with the Holocaust: The Journey of a Child of Holocaust Survivors” ; lecture published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Volume 32, Number 1, Autumn 2002, pp. 5-12]

[32] Shamai Liebowitz is a grandson of Yeshayahu Liebowitz.

[33] The complete text of the statement, entitled “An Israeli Refusnik Replies to President Bush” (June 27, 2002) may be found online at http://www.seruv.org.il/MoreArticles/English/ShamaiLeibowitz_Bush.htm&nbsp; This is part of the site http://www.seruv.org which is the home page of the Israelis who refuse to serve in military operations in the Occupied Territories.

[34] The complete statement, “The Ethics of Revenge,”  (July 27, 2002) and many others may be found online at http://www.theparentscircle.com

[35] The name is a combination of the names of two similar groups that chose to unite: Paths of Peace / Strength and Peace.  Their website, which is the source of several quotes in this paper, is at http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/&nbsp;

[36] The extracts are from “The Redemption and the Covenant” posted in full on the NS/OS site.

[37] The extracts are from “The Land of Israel and the State of Israel” posted in full on the NS/OS site.

[38] Deuteronomy 30:19

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