Friday, 1 August 2008

On Jews and Physical Prowess - Part One

It's a quiet couple of weeks in terms of Torah narrative,

We are held between the steady advancing of the rituals of 9th of Av and, in the world out there, the Olympics are starting.


I thought I would take the opportunity over this Shabbat and next to do something a little different, less a sermon, more a look at the relationship of Jews and sport, or more specifically the question of the physical vitality, the strength and the power of the Jewish male, particularly in the face of the sorts of destructions we commemorate in these three weeks.

It's a chance for me to unpack an element of Jewish culture, through some 3000 years.

I hope you will enjoy coming on the journey with me.


In the red corner –

A little overweight from all the fatty food, a little puny from all the sitting and studying Talmud sits the stereotype of Jew as weakling. Emasculated, lacking in vigour, soft, pallid.


Like any powerful stereotype it has mah lismoch alav – that on which to rely.

We are in the midst of the Three Weeks where we commemorate the destruction of our Temple.

The big, tough Babylonians and then the big tough Romans came and kicked down our house and the prime liturgical response to this act of physical aggression perpetrated against us is to sit on the floor and read poems of lament.


Blayl zeh -  On this night weep and wail my children, for on this night my Holy Dwelling

Eli Zion varreyha – Wail O Zion and her cities.


Our prime theological, liturgical, halachic response to this archetypal moment of violence is to sit and weep, like a small child who has had too much sand kicked in their face.


But I want to go back even further, into the myths of our foundation. I want to suggest that the emasculated stereotype of the Jewish male has powerful Biblical roots.


Howard Eilberg Schwartz suggests the root of the problem is none other than God a God we imagine most often in the role of male, indeed that is the true meaning of the preferred Rabbinic name of God – hakadosh baruch hu – the holy blessed one blessed be He.

There are of course other names, most equally, or even more obviously macho-male, in the Song of the Sea we cheer on – adonai ish milchamah – God, Man of war.


And the problem with this very male, testosterone bursting macho God, Says Eilberg-Schwartz, is that 'when a man confronts a male God, he is put into the female position, so as to be intimate with [him]... The defining traits of what it meant to be a man were called into question.'[1]


This is perhaps most clear with God's greatest partner, Moses.

Moses who sees God 'face to face,' (Num 14:13)

who God speaks to 'mouth to mouth' (Num 12:8)

It's an intimate relationship. But what is Moses' role, or more precisely, what is the role Moses thins he is playing.

At one point the Children of Israel complain to their leader and Moses turns to God who seems to expect him to sort out the problems of the disgruntled children of Israel.

אָנֹכִי יְלִדְתִּיהוּ  כִּי-תֹאמַר אֵלַי שָׂאֵהוּ בְחֵיקֶךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשָּׂא הָאֹמֵן אֶת-הַיֹּנֵק

Did I give birth to this people that you should tell me 'carry them in your breast' like a nursemaid carries a suckling child. (Num 11:14) says Moses employing one of the more startling images in Biblical literature.

Moses sees himself as a wetnurse.

No prizes for guessing who wears the trousers.


And what of Abraham – Abraham who God commands to self-circumcise – self-emasculate perhaps, the Freudians amongst us are already having a field day, but listen to the language of the Midrash.

Listen to how the Rabbis, one Rabbi in particular, understands God's relationship with Abraham.


There is a problem in the verse where God calls to Abraham and demands

הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים

Walk before me and be whole.

How, wonder the Rabbis, can the Bible say such a thing when God is just about to order the mitzvah of circumcision.

How, wonder the Rabbis, can circumcision, be seen as making a person tamim – whole.


Amar Rabbi Levi

Rabi Levi said, this is like a noble lady who the King comands, 'Walk before me.' She walked before him and her face went pale, for, thought maybe there is some defect in me?

The King said, 'You have no defect, but the nail of your little finger is slightly too long; pare it and the defect will be gone.'

Similarly, God said to Abraham, 'Thou hast no other defect but this foreskin: remove it and the defect will be gone.[2]


In this Midrash from Genesis Rabba Abraham becomes the female, the matrona, the noble lady to God's virile and slightly Svengali-esque male.


Indeed this pattern of reading men who wish to be in relationship with God as women is at the heart of what is probably the most single-minded Rabbinic read in all Midarshic literature – the treatment of the Song of Songs.


The Song of Songs is a love poem, a conversation between a male lover and his female beloved.

There are damsels without number, but only one is my dove, my perfect one, the only one of her mother, the delight of her who bore her. Maidens see and acclaim her, queens and concubines praise her.  (Song 6:8-9)

But in an extraordinarily systematic hermeneutic engagement the Rabbis turn this erotic poetry into a paean about the love between a masculine God and, yes, a female people of Israel.

only one is my dove, my perfect one

This, say the Rabbis, is Abraham

 the only one of her mother,

This, say the Rabbis is Isaac who was his mother's only son[3]

the delight of her who bore her.

This, say the Rabbis, is Jacob who was choice to his mother

Maidens see and acclaim her, queens and concubines praise her.

The tribal ancestors and the children of Jacob.[4]


In one fabulous moment of failure of nerve the ultra-pious translators of the Artscroll edition of the Song of Songs actually go as far as to translate

שְׁנֵי שָׁדַיִךְ כִּשְׁנֵי עֳפָרִים

Your breasts are like two fawns

As 'Moses and Aron are like two fawns.'

The good translators are admittedly relying on a fine Midrash[5]

But it would no doubt rather crush any masculine pretentions of Moses and Aron to know they have been compared to breasts.


The Rabbis just don't seem to prize physical vigour – certainly they don't pride themselves on masculine physical vigour.

The great scholars are all applauded.

The great men of might less so.

Nowhere is this clearer than in an important passage in Baba Metzia where Rabbi Yochanan is seen bathing in the Jordan river by Reish Lakish.[6]

Reish Lakish is mighty man, we have a story of him selling his soul to the a school of gladiator trainers[7], only to then kill his masters with a makeshift knuckle-duster and make an escape – Russell Crowe eat your heart out.

But through his encounter with Rabbi Yochanan he is weakened.

He tries to pole-vault his way across the Jordan River using his lance, and can't.

Again, the Freudians amongst us don't have to stretch too far to see what might be being suggested.

Reish Lakish becomes a great scholar, a mighty warrior in the arguments of the Bet Midrash, no longer a man capable of wreaking havoc with a knuckle duster.


Daniel Boyarin, in his extraordinary contemporary work, Unheroic Conduct, suggests there is something deliberate in all this emasculation.

The Rabbis, seeing the destruction of their physical property and the physical Commonwealth of the Jewish Nation State by the Romans decided not to fight the Romans at their own game, but instead to invent a different – non-violent, non-sporty, non-physical game – the game of Talmud Torah, intellectual sophistry.

We Jews might not be able to beat the Romans of the Hellenists at war, or wrestling, or javelin tossing, or whatever the Romans or Hellenists are getting up to in their Olympian dreams, but we can run rings around them whenever there is an intellectual argument to be had.


This is the Talmud in 'funny mode' perhaps you had to be there.


"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania went to Athens to dispute with the philosophers. 'Where is the centre of the earth?' they ask him. He points at a spot and says, 'Here.' 'How can you prove it?' they ask. 'Bring ropes and measure it yourself'" (Bechorot 8b).
'There is a pit in the field, can you bring it to town.'  - make some ropes from bran flour and I'll do it, the Rabbi responds.


As I say, it was probably funnier back in the days, but the intention is clear.

The Jew is the smart witted one, able to triumph as long as the contest is conversational.


Indeed that model of smart Jew running intellectual rings around the non-Jews is a motif of Jewish tales right through into the modern period.

One of the great classic Jewish jokes of the early 1900s tells of an old man travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express. The train stops and an officer in the czar's army gets on. He and the jew travel for a while in silence.
Suddenly the officer grabs the jew by the lapels and demands. 'Tell me, why are Jews so clever.'

The Jew is silent for a while and eventually responds, 'It is because of the herring we eat.'

The carriage goes silent again until, ten minutes later the Jews takes out a piece of herring, makes a bracha and starts to munch.

The office grabs the Jew by the lapels again – How many pieces of herring do you have?

'A dozen'

'How much do you want for them?'

'Twenty Rubles' – it's a small fortune. The office hands over the money, takes a bite from the herring and starts to chew.

Suddenly he stops, 'Twenty rubles, that's ridiculous, I could have bought all this herring for five kopecs.'

'You see,' said the Jew, 'it's working already.'[8]


It's working already.

And for sure something worked.

Somehow between the impositions of the Babylonians and the Romans, and this lot of Jew-haters and that lot of Crusaders, something worked.

We survived and we got on as Jews, valuing what we value, turning our back on the values of baron Pierre de Coubertin – no "Citius, Altius, Fortius," 'no faster, higher, stronger' for us.


But there has been another voice.

A voice which railed against all this prizing of the intellectual at the expense of the physical,

There has been a voice which has decried the emasculated response to the physicality of the world, especially at times when the physicality of the world tipped over into violence against the Jews.

Who are we kidding as we sit here and weep, getting our skulls crushed and our children hacked in pieces.


I want to share from probably the greatest work of probably the greatest of all Hebrew poets, Chaim Nahum Bialik.

It is a disturbing response, suitable only for sharing in these three weeks.

He is writing in the aftermath of the destruction of Kishinev.

In a tremendous act of bravery Bialik writes this poem as God, criticising the people for their standard, non-physical response to the violence of the anti-semite.

Of course Bialik has no sympathy for the perpetrators of violence against the Jews, but his most sharpened critique is directed against his own people.


Look in their hearts – behold a dreary waste

Where even vengeance can revive no growth

And yet upon their lips no mighty malediction

Rises, no blasphemous oath.

Are they not real, their bruises?

Why is their prayer false?

Whu, in the day of their trials

Approach me with pious ruses,

Afflict me with denials?

Regard them now in their woes:

Ululating lachrymose

Crying from their throes

Ashamnu Bagadnu

Their hearts however do not believe their lips…

Speak to them, bid them rage!

Let them against me raise the outraged hand –

Let them demand!

Demand the retribution for the shamed

Of all centuries and every age!

Let fists be flung like stone

Against the heavens and heavenly Throne.

And thou, too, son of man, be part of these.[9]


By the time of the darkest days of Jewish history sitting and weeping in the face of physical aggression was no longer the only accepted Jewish response.

By the time of Holocaust, Zionism was already in full flight – Jews, at least some Jews, were embracing the physical, the corporeal, Mr Tough Guy.

And not just in the Land of Israel, and not just because of threats of violence as brutal as the pogroms of Kishinev and the Holocaust. We have Daniel Mendoza, Mendoza the Jew as he was known – greatest pugilist of his day, in the late eighteenth century.

But the turn to the physical, the embrace of the body, of might and corporeal strength is new – its modern.


Indeed, turning the clock right up to date there is a Jewish state.
A Jewish army and Jews are called upon to deal with the challenges of their own strength.

And next week, we'll look at these challenges a little more closely.


Shabbat shalom,

[1] God's Phallus p. 137-8

[2] Gen Rabba 64:4

[3] Clearly a reference to Gen

[4] Gen Rabba 94:1

[5] Shir Rabba 5:5,1

[6] BM 84a

[7] See Jastrow, Dictionary,  695, see also Boyarin loc cit p.128 f3 where Rabbi Bun's remark in Talmud Yerushalmi Kilayim 27a, 'and here Rav Kahana spread his net over Reish Lakish and caught him' is understood to refer to the fighting style of the rearius.

[8] This version is based on Telushkin, Jewish Humour p. 44

[9] Trans Roskies, From Literature of Destruction p165 pp. lines 227-251

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...