With Yom Kippur coming up tonight, here's a piece I wrote that will appear (radically revised, I'm told) in publication—but here's the bloggy version:
Recently I read a book published just a few short years ago, called Tough Jews, written by a guy named Rich Cohen. It's the story of New York City's Jewish gangsters, and a colorful story it is. The book is peppered with names like Tick-Tock Tannenbaum, Abe "Kid Twist" Reles, Gurrah Shapiro, for good measure even two Bugsys (Siegel and Goldstein). Even Larry King figures in this story, not as a gangster but as a friend of the author's father. It's the story of an era gone by, but the author takes away a lesson.
Maybe we wouldn't want to be around these guys, and no one's suggesting that brutal cold-blooded murder is good, but there is a part of the lives of the gangsters that says one thing: Jews can be tough. We don't have to be the victims. We can dish it out. The "spiritual" descendants of these gangsters? Modern Israel, maybe. The Israeli army. One thought resurfaces a couple of times in the book—the image of somebody in one of the ghettos of Europe, nobody knows who it was or exactly when, telling his co-descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: stand up and fight, Jews! If you stand up and fight, they will run. It's no accident that when neo-Nazis started up in America, the government sometimes called on the Jewish gangsters, on Murder, Incorporated, to break them up.
After 2000 years of exile, of being bumped around country to country, of being victims of pogroms and Inquisitions and a whole gamut of anti-Semitism, could anyone blame Jews for wanting to be tough? Sure, some say, it was Torah study and faithfulness to God's covenant that kept us alive all that time. But even the Orthodox, many of them anyway, look for a tough Messiah. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
We all have images of the tough Jews in history, the exact opposite of the ghetto Jews meekly marching off to be exterminated. The Maccabees are probably some of the first tough Jews we Jewish kids heard about in Hebrew school. Five warriors against an army of Greeks and Syrians. Ergo, Hanukkah. We also learned about Masada, Bar Kochba (I remember hearing a legend that unless you could ride on a horse through a forest and pull up the trees as you went along, you couldn't join Bar Kochba's army)—jump ahead centuries—the guys who held out in the Warsaw Ghetto, the invincible (it seemed at the time) Israeli army.
And, for Rich Cohen and others, the Jewish gangsters of the 20s, the 30s, the 40s.
If you had asked your grandfather or your great-grandfather what they believed about the Messiah, you would have heard about another tough Jew. The Messiah? He will be a warrior. He will destroy the enemies of Israel. He will rebuild the Temple, not a modern idea of what being tough is about, but after all, a way of saying, "I'll show you" to the Romans, who destroyed it in the first place. Even though Bar Kochba wasn't the Messiah—as the famous Rabbi Akiva claimed him to be—we at least remember his toughness in the war against Rome.
Maybe these warrior-images of the Messiah are a kind of extension of the gangsters—take down our enemies, whip them good, make the world safe for Jews. Not the Orthodox take on the Messiah, maybe, but the reflection in the eyes of some secularized Jews of two or three generations back, who themselves lived in the era of The Kid and the two Bugsys, and maybe saw in their vision of the Messiah a larger version of the guys who hung out on the corners in Bensonhurst.
For a lot of Jews, the Messiah—even if they never used those words—was whatever they put their hope in, and that hope often involved tough Jews.
For the Jews of 175 BCE, hope lay in the Maccabees, a little band of five. To be honest, a whole lot of Jews weren't looking for hope. The problem wasn't that Jews were being taken down by the Greeks and Syrians. If you remember your Hebrew school history, Antiochus Epiphanes had a radical program of assimilation rather than physical annihilation. Jews were changing their names left and right. Jacob became Jason, maybe Simeon became Symmachus. They were enjoying their secularized life. Then Antiochus entered the Temple and killed a pig on the altar. That goaded some Jews who were no fans of assimilation. For others who enjoyed their secularized life, it was another step on the road. Not for the Maccabees. They beat the Syrian-Greek army, took back the Temple, and recleansed it for God's service. Today when Jews celebrate Hanukkah, it doesn't really matter if we are traditional or not, the story of the Maccabees resonates. For many it becomes a generic symbol of freedom, especially Jewish freedom. What matters, for a lot of Jews, is not that the Temple was dedicated back to God, but that it was taken back from the Greeks and the Syrians.
The Maccabees were tough. Jews can be free.
Jump ahead to 66 CE. The first War Against Rome. Jews fed up with oppression, not meekly submitting, but fighting back. The ultimate symbol of that first War is Masada, the great fortress on the mountain, still accessible and still visited by tourists year in and year out, trekking up the stairs, imagining what it was like to be holed up at the top, sweating it out, the last refuge in the War, holding out stubbornly till the very last. We didn't win the war that time, not like the Maccabees, but we fought till the bitter end. That's what tough Jews do. If you can't beat 'em, at least hold 'em back as long as you can.
We tried again in 132 CE. The Second War Against Rome. Bar Kochba, the general. Rabbi Akiva, the spiritual guide. And a cast of thousands. Akiva declares Bar Kochba to be the Messiah. His given name was Shimon bar Kosiba, but like Kid Twist and Tick-Tock and Inky and Who-Ha, his nickname stuck and defined him. Bar Kochba, meaning "Son of the Star," a reflection of a couple of verses in the Torah, Numbers 24:17 and 18: "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel. He will crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of all the sons of Sheth. Edom will be conquered; Seir, his enemy, will be conquered, but Israel will grow strong." Bar Kochba, the star out of Jacob. Bar Kocbha, the crusher. Bar Kochba, the Messiah. Bar Kochba, killed and dead in the Second War Against Rome. It was a defeat, not even a Masada this time, but in legend the general grew to mythic proportions. A tough guy, and you had to be real tough to fight alongside him. A false Messiah, too, but not a lot of people remember him for that.
Over the next millennium and a half, there must have been Jews who toughed it out, maybe in Torah study and sheer survival, but they don't resonate with modern Jews the way soldiers and warriors do. My grandfather's idea of the Messiah probably had a lot more to do with military prowess than Torah study. The Messiah? Not just a guy who survives through donning tefillin and praying three times a day. No, he's going to be a guy who demolishes our enemies.
The more modern idea of the tough Jew resurfaces with Zionism. We're not going to take it any more from the goyim in Europe. We're going to have a land of our own. So we fought for it, diplomatically, by physically going there, politically, in song and dream and vision. And after the Holocaust, when Israel was finally reborn, it was the allure of the pioneers, the halutzim, and the skill and daring and ability of the Israeli army that captured the imagination of Jews, and, we liked to think, the envy of others. Reclaim the desert. Knock down six Arab armies at once. The Six-Day War. Entebbe.
Israel in 2004 is nothing like Israel in 1948 or 1967. But we remember the glory days of Israel like some remember the days of Bugsy Siegel. And we think: those were tough Jews.
And if we couldn't live it, we could create it. Superman was the creation of Jews. So were most of the comic book characters of the mid-20th century. Superman's real name—Kal-El—used the Hebrew word for God, "El." During the Second World War, the comic book guys even fought Nazis in their pages, much as the gangsters handled American neo-Nazis for real. Some see in the Hulk, that misunderstood giant of a creature with the green skin, a resemblance to the golem of Jewish legend. Sometimes we need to invent a messiah, which is what Superman essentially was. He beat up the bad guys without the murder and mayhem.
Tough Jews. Messiahs. For secular Jews in the 1880s and later on in 1948, Zionism was the Messiah. It was their ultimate hope. For Jewish kids growing up in Long Island in the 60s, Superman and Captain America were other Messiahs. In 132 and 135 CE, Bar Kochba was the Messiah, for a short time, because he too was their ultimate hope. Jews who still expect a real, living, tangible breathing Messiah still describe him largely as the warrior who redeems Israel from all its enemies.
No wonder Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, Y'shua min Natzeret, however you call him, never figured as the Messiah of most Jews. Sure, Jews have dismissed him on account of anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the tough goyim (!) who beat up some of our grandparents and great-grandparents and called them Christ-killers.
But I wonder. I wonder if deep in the Jewish psyche, the modern Jewish psyche anyway, there is a need for a Messiah who wins by being tough. After 2000 years of ghettos, who would want it any differently? And Jesus? A man alone, OK, maybe with a band of twelve, who talks a lot, heals people, sure that's good, but doesn't take up a sword, doesn't take out Rome, dies by Roman execution on a cross, and then what? That's it? No fighting? No army? This is maybe a Messiah for goyim, but we Jews need something more.
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. (Enter Tevya: "one the one hand…on the other hand…") There is toughness, and then there is toughness. In their sunset years, the Louis Lepkes and the Abe Releses and all the others were to one degree or another, broken men. How could it be otherwise? And even for them, their toughness showed in ways apart from guns and getaway cars. To the end, Lepke kept the gangster code of honor—he didn't sing, he didn't talk, he didn't rat, and he took the consequences and went to the chair. Sure, it wasn't honor alone. After all, a rat would likely be killed. But still, it took a toughness of another sort to stick to your figurative guns.
Our grandfathers may have hoped for a Messiah who would take down the enemies of the Jews. What it interesting is that long before our grandfathers were born, Jewish tradition saw two Messiahs. One they called the Messiah Son of David. He was tough the way the Maccabees and the holdouts at the Warsaw Ghetto were tough, but more so. He would be Superman come to life, destroyer of the enemies, liberator of the Jews, rebuilder of the Temple.
Then they saw the other Messiah, who they called Messiah Son of Joseph. He'd fight too, but he would die in battle. He would come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He would be humble, lowly, an ancient equivalent of a Jewish accountant, foil to the Messiah Son of David the soldier.
What was with the two Messiahs? Mostly, the rabbis who came up with this picture pulled it out of the Bible. Sometimes the Bible pictured a Messiah who was for all intents and purposes, Superman, the victor. But other times, he was the victim, the one killed, the one nobody thinks about, the one nobody notices. [See accompanying chart.]
But here's the thing. There's tough, and then there's tough. There's a kind of toughness that says I'm going to stand my ground, even if it kills me. Even more, I'm going to stand my ground so that it doesn't kill you. Even more, I'm going to deliberately take my stand so that you don't get killed. I'm going to give up my life for you, and I'm going to do it because I want to do it.
And there's a lesson to take away from this about the Messiah, about our ultimate hopes and dreams. If you read about Jesus and his life and his death, you come away with one thing that Christians believe about him. "He died for our sins." This is quintessential Bible Belt material, seen on billboards alongside the highway in the desolate middle of a million American nowheres, recited by street preachers in the tumult of urban bus stations and seedy downtown corners. You've seen it and heard it, but if you are Jewish, what you haven't done, probably, is relate to it. Jesus died for my sins? Sin—this is off our radar, except maybe on Yom Kippur, the one day when Jews think about sin, or think about the fact that we're supposed to be thinking about sin. As far as Jesus is concerned, we maybe picture someone in a white robe, "meek and mild," wimped out and washed up. Movie versions of Jesus' life don't help either. I once heard someone say that when Jeffrey Hunter played Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, he looked like he was drying his nails. No, thanks. We'll take tough any day compared to that.
But there's tough, and there's tough. If you dip into the New Testament to read about Jesus, you don't find a guy drying his nails or being someone's doormat. On the other hand, you don't find him taking out contracts on the Romans, either. If one reason Jews find it hard to believe Jesus could be the Messiah even in our wildest dreams is that we have a need to have our heroes be tough, then consider. Jesus was tough, the other kind of tough, the way that's even harder to be than by breaking heads. It's the way that says,
I'm going to stand my ground, even if it kills me.
"As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51).
"From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life" (Matthew 16:21)
Even more, I'm going to stand my ground so that it doesn't kill you.
"Greater love has no-one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
Even more, I'm going to deliberately take my stand so that you don't get killed.
"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
I'm going to give up my life for you, and I'm going to do it because I want to do it.
"The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (John 10:17-18).
At bottom, Jesus was tough. No helpless victim here, but a man whose mission in life was to stand his ground till he died.
And what was it all for? What did it mean, to lay down his life for his friends? To give his life as a ransom? That this is why he came into the world, why he was born?
This takes us back to other part of the equation. Remember that Bible Belt sign about Jesus dying for our sins? For Jews, Yom Kippur is the time to think about sin. Sin that drove the Greeks and Syrians to oppress Jews. That drove Rome to oppress Jews. That drove Hitler, and Haman before him, and Pharaoh before that. That drives anti-Semitism today on the streets of Europe and even America. That drives you and me in our worst moments, and sometimes in our best moments. On Yom Kippur we confess our sins and fast and pray.
Sin can be tough, too.
"If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it" (Genesis 4:7).
In the old days, before the Romans trashed the Temple in 70 CE, Jews knew that sin was in fact crouching at our door, not just the sin of the Romans but our own sin too, and the way to forgiveness for ourselves was a repentant heart and someone, something to take on themselves, itself, the judgment for our sins. Ergo, the animal sacrifices (today the three main synagogue services are done at the same time, supposedly, that the sacrifices used to happen). The "scapegoat" that ran off into the desert on Yom Kippur, symbolically carrying our sins away. Even today, a few of the Hasidim do the "kapparot" ceremony where they declare that a rooster (for men) or a chicken (for women) is going to death for our sins.
After 70, the rabbis tried to rebuild from the ashes, and without the Temple, they did away with the scapegoat, the animals, the sacrifices, the taking of the judgment and placing it onto something else. It's understandable that they would do that, but the other choice was to believe that Jesus, this carpenter from Nazareth and then from Galilee (the Bensonhurst of ancient Israel to the Scarsdale that was Jerusalem), was the Messiah. Not Messiah the warrior—that would come later. But Messiah the lowly, Messiah the humble, Messiah the tough one who took his stand and died as the ultimate sin-bearer for us.
And why believe that this Messiah was Jesus? That's where you come in. Jewish tradition has said, Jesus is not for us. The New Testament is not for us. Jews who believe in Jesus are traitors, meshummedim our grandparents would say. There are good reasons for considering Jesus, and a good place to start is by reading the New Testament. But doing that requires toughness, the ability to say, I'm going to think for myself no matter the consequences, no matter what my family or friends or rabbis say, I'm going to think it through, check out why people claim him, this Jesus, as the Messiah.
Maybe you aren't a gangster—but are you a tough Jew?
(c) 2004 Rich Robinson