Judaism: A Movement of Rebellion throughout History

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On the eve of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau, head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project, shares thoughts on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Bar-Kokhba revolt, and the tension between Judaism as a nationality and Judaism as a religion.

On the eve of Passover 1943, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising broke out. Seventy years of history separate us from that event—seventy years during which the Nazi villain tried to exterminate the Jewish people and the Jewish people rose from the ashes and founded the State of Israel. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising became a symbol of heroism in the eyes of Israel's leaders. Its message for Israeli-born youth was that we are not Jews who are "led like lambs to the slaughter"; rather, we are freedom fighters. The state's official Holocaust Memorial Day—called Yom HaShoah V'HaGevura—commemorates not only the destruction but also the heroism of that period. The leaders of the uprising, members of the socialist Hashomer Hatzair, at one end of the political spectrum, and members of the Beitar Revisionist movement at the other, were Zionist Jews who were also rebelling against the Torah and its commandments. In their eyes, Judaism meant surrendering to history and submitting to destiny. Defending religious principles was not part of this uprising and did not play an active role in it.

This gap between the Jewish resistance movement and the movement for Jewish survival exposed the tension between Judaism as a nationality and Judaism as a religion.

This tension was not born in the war torn years of World War II or even during the infancy of Zionism at the end of the 19th century. Some 200 years after the demise of the Hasmonean kingdom, the Bar-Kokhba revolt broke out (132 CE). The revolt's military commander is extolled by classical Zionism, yet rejected in the Talmudic tradition. No one disputes the bravery of Shimon Bar-Kokhba, whom Jewish tradition depicts as a valiant warrior. But Bar-Kokhba's reliance on military force and rebellion explicitly relegated G-d to the sidelines of history. In the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi:


When he went out to battle he would say: "Master of the universe: Neither support nor hinder. For you, O G-d, abandoned us and will not go out with our troops." 

—TY Ta'anit 4:5,68d


When the Second Temple was destroyed less than 70 years earlier, Bar-Kokhba felt that G-d had forsaken the Jewish people. Consequently, he wanted no divine intervention, either in favor of or against the Jewish revolt.

This was the epitome of arrogance—the sin of believing by "my own strength and the might of my own hand have won this" (Deut. 8:17). Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of the generation, reacted enthusiastically to Bar-Kokhba's heroism:

"Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught: "Akiva my master expounded as follows: 'A star (kokhav) will go forth from Jacob' (Num. 28:17) –'Kosiba [Bar-Kokhba's name: Shimon ben Kosiba] has come forth from Jacob.' When Rabbi Akiva would see Bar Kosiba he would say, 'This is the King Messiah!'" —Ibid.


Rabbi Akiva saw Bar-Kokhba's courage and strength and identified the potential for the redemption of Israel. He looked far beyond the political situation of his time and saw the messianic era. He was not put off by Bar-Kokhba's irreverent, uncouth style. As Rabbi Akiva saw it, his own role was spiritual, while the military leader's was to wage war. For Rabbi Akiva, the combination of the two represented an ideal for the Kingdom of Israel.

After the revolt, and especially after Emperor Hadrian's repressive edicts against the Jews in the Land of Israel, the Jews gave up their dreams of rebellion. Bar-Kokhba came to be reviled as "Bar-Kozeba," the "man of lies." Generations of Jews in the Diaspora suppressed the story of his rebellion and hid it from their children. It was only the wind of Zionism that reignited the fire of his rebellion and made the man beloved by his people once again. The bonfires of his freedom fighters served as symbols for the life of soldiers in the field, and the kumzitz campfire became the symbol of the Palmach, the pre-state Jewish defense force.

As a consequence, the fissure between Zionist Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society widened. The ultra-Orthodox religious sector which is not linked to the Zionist movement adhered to the Talmudic tradition—in which the Sages reject Bar-Kokhba as the messiah—while young Israelis of different backgrounds sat around an alternative campfire and sang about this Jewish hero. On the holiday of Lag BaOmer, these young people celebrated the mighty hero who rode against the Romans on a lion's back. They sang Levin Kipnis's lyrics lauding the bold and courageous freedom fighter: "He was a hero / He called for freedom / The whole nation loved him." Israel's national dream was woven in the light of the valiant warrior Bar-Kokhba.

The Passover story, too, was told in two voices. Religious Judaism strongly emphasized tradition and the determination of the Jews to observe the festival at any cost. Heroic stories of eating matzah in impossible conditions were a symbol of national survival and triumph of the spirit. It was only with the dawn of Zionism that people began speaking about the revolt of Rabbi Akiva and Bar-Kokhba as a continuation of the Exodus from Egypt. Zionist readings were inserted into the Haggadah, creating a culture that circumvented traditional Jewish submissiveness. This reinforced the split between the Judaism of tradition and the Judaism of revolt, Judaism as a religion and Judaism as a nationality. Only religious Zionism tried to weave these two threads into a single fabric. But it was a minority movement, which held that the Jewish tradition encompasses both survival and rebellion. The political structure of the Israeli society at the time was dominated by the Labor movement; the strictly Zionist ethos was sacred—none dared profane it.

The Six-Day War was a turning point that gave the religious community the sense that God's hand was openly intervening in history. But this was followed by the Yom Kippur War, which exposed the first cracks in the consciousness of the Jew who rebels against history. Maj. Gen. (res.) Yehoshafat Harkabi, former head of Military Intelligence, instigated this reevaluation. In a detailed study of the Bar-Kokhba revolt undertaken soon after he left the IDF in the late 1970s, Harkabi tried to separate fact from fantasy. He was the first representative of the Zionist establishment to maintain that Bar-Kokhba, far from being a prophetic visionary, had led his people to disaster. Yisrael Eldad, a leader of the Zionist right, attacked Harkabi's thesis. Their debate can be seen as one of the early signs of the crumbling of secular Zionism's national pride and of the rallying of religious Zionism to the political right. Revisionism lost its luster in the swamp of Israeli politics; few today remember it and bear its banner with pride. Yet sectors of religious Zionism find themselves following the path and dream of the Revisionists of old.

In Israel's political mix, it is the national camp that unites around this ethos and prepares its ranks for the battle against the camp of compromise: the cultural heroes of the national camp are the Revisionists who stood proud and tall and led the revolt, the fighters of the underground, and the poets of national rebirth. The nationalist disciples of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook of blessed memory are wont to quote his lectures, in which he justified Rabbi Akiva's acclaim of Bar-Kokhba as the "Messiah, son of Joseph."

Over thirty years have passed since the debate between Harkabi and Eldad. Israeli society has turned its back on ideological polemics. Some rejoice at this, arguing that grand ideologies never brought benefit to Israeli society. And yet, "For lack of vision, a people lose restraint" (Prov. 29:18). It is not possible to maintain a society without substantive content. What is the substance of the Israeli tribal campfire? Is there some alternative narrative to the Bar-Kokhba story?

Israel's new coalition government has stated, loud and clear, that Israeli society has chosen Zionism. All its members are affiliated with the Zionist revolt. Now we can go back and reexamine the question of the attitude toward the revolt and its costs. This discussion does not begin in the corridors of the Knesset; rather, it begins in conversations between parents and children at home, in discussions between teachers and students in schools, and in our social-cultural discourse. Our choice to exist is a Zionist choice. But what is the significance of our choice to be part of the family of nations? What is the desire of the Jewish soul that strives to be a free people in its land? Is rebellion the hallmark of our people or is it, perhaps, the integration into the family of nations and concern for our survival as a people?

The coming days, the days of transition from Passover to Israel's Independence Day, combine memories of the Holocaust and the resistance, memories of the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces and the underground, and memories of Israel's victims of terror. These memories, taken together, usher us into Israel's celebrations of independence. These days are seared into the pulse of Israeli-Jewish life. They cannot be faked nor can they be replaced. They beat the pulse of our lives as a collective and require us to fulfill the commandment of "and you shall tell your child," instructing us to tell our future generations the story of our past and to begin thinking with the next generation about the days that lie ahead.


Rabbi Dr. Benjamin "Benny" Lau is head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project and is the rabbi of Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue.

A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine during Passover of 2013.