Struggle to achieve the Olympian ideal

The JC Essay

By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, July 15, 2012

Picture a Jew. Do we look pale and weedy, or perhaps overweight - probably not too Olympian. Or maybe you picture a "Chalutz" - a pioneer from the early Zionist period, muscles gleaming, a heavy farm implement slung lightly over the shoulder?

The history of the Jewish relationship with muscle, power and might, or in Olympian terms, "Faster, Higher, Stronger", has ebbed and flowed throughout Jewish history. Indeed, it is a lens through which we can understand much about our own culture, religious imagination and national story.

Abraham was tough. In a biblical passage that is often overlooked, he leads a 300-strong army to destroy those who had kidnapped his brother, stamping his authority on territory stretching from Dan to Damascus. Other local kings come to pay obeisance to the strong man of his day.

But, as we move through the patriarchal period, it becomes less clear that physical strength is part of the Divine plan. Esau - the hunter - is the tough guy, but Jacob "sits in tents" and receives the blessing. A generation later it is Joseph, accountant and planner, who saves the family from famine, while Shimon and Levi, tough uncompromising fighters, are cursed for their acts of violence.

Divine muscle is, however, a touchstone of Exodus. God's mighty hand and outstretched arm smash the Egyptians, "hurling horse and rider into the sea". We sing praises to God, "a Man of War", and a preoccupation with muscularity continues during the conquest of the land of Israel in the early Prophetic period.

Anything, Bialik insists, was better than allowing ourselves to be beaten up again and offering nothing in response

Those biblical "heroes" who don't utterly impose themselves on their opposition are castigated. Saul fails to obliterate the Agagites and has the kingdom torn away from him. The Israelite general Barak baulks at the prospect of taking on Sisera. He is mocked by Deborah, who, to his shame, metaphorically holds his hand during the battles that follow.

Physical prowess and power are certainly admired but there is also praise and veneration for a certain subtlety that seems in part a characteristic of a Jewish attitude towards muscle. David defeats tough-guy Goliath with a sling-shot, having eschewed the heavy armour and sword. Ehud uses his left-handedness to get in a crafty dagger-strike against the mighty Moabite, King Eglon.

Samson, a genuine tough guy, is never fully accepted as a mainstream Israelite hero. He feels more like an exception that proves a rule. It's as if, forced to pick between Olympic disciplines or football positions, the ideal Israelite physical competitor would be a technically accomplished fencer, not a heavyweight slugger, a midfield playmaker rather than a bruising centre-forward.

Things change as the Israelites suffer at the hands of other nations in the lead-up to the destruction of the First Temple. Some 2,700 years ago, the mighty Assyrian King, Sennacharib, kicks sand into the face of the Israelite King Hezekiah, who is forced to use gold taken from the Temple doors to pay off his oppressor.

Rabshakeh, Sennacharib's jester, taunts and flaunts Assyrian muscle in the face of the weedy Jews who have been brought low by military defeat. It marks the beginning of the end of a Jewish interest in physical strength. As first one Temple and then another is destroyed, as physical survival increasingly depends not on Jewish muscle, but on the say-so of other nations, so Jews abandon an interest in muscle and increasingly place their faith in matters non-corporeal.

The extent of the abandonment of the physical is radical and complete. Even in those rare moments where Jews do indeed demonstrate physical prowess, notably the Chanucah story, religious observance emphasises not the extraordinary military triumph, but a miraculous flask of oil. A key song for the Festival, taken from the book of Zechariah, is: "Not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone."

Not only do the rabbis abstain from venerating acts of muscle, they even explain them away, stripping physical bravado from the accomplishments of biblical heroes. The book of Samuel calls David "a brave fighter and man of war". The rabbis of the Talmud explain that this means he knew how to argue his case in the "war of Torah" - David, the giant-killer, is recast as a Yeshivah bocher.

"Who is mighty?" ask the rabbis in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). "One who conquers their inclinations to do wrong," comes the answer. Rabbinic might is an internal psychological achievement, not an act of physical heroism. Arguably, this abnegation of the physical even reaches our theology. While Ezekiel seems quite comfortable depicting God as a warrior with a drawn sword, by the time we reach the medieval period theologians emphasise the incorporeality of God who, as Rambam stresses, has no physical form at all.

The most desperate articulations of Jews entirely lacking the will and ability to take on enemies in tests of physical strength comes in the middle of the 12th century as crusading armies storm across Europe crushing Jewish communities in their path.

The Crusade chronicle of Bar Shimshon tells of the once great Jewish community of Mayence watching the "gangs and bands sweeping through like a flood". The Jewish inhabitants, surrounded in the synagogue they used for sanctuary, decide to take their own lives in a mass suicide-cum-proclamation of faith in a Jewish God.

They even check that the knives that they are to use in this pact are free of blemish and so suitable for this heartbreaking act of self-shechitah. Of course this tragic self-sacrifice is not performed against a backdrop of a plethora of other options available. What other chance did the Jews have? No arms, no training, struggling for even basic subsistence. But the sense, reading this and other texts of the time, is that the Jews of medieval northern Europe had become a people whose entire body was vestigial - simply not part of their essential sense of self.

T his abnegation of the physical is part of other well-known Jewish stories; why did Jews go into finance and not farming? Why did Jews invest so heavily in education, in matters of the mind? It's even part of the story of Jewish humour. When the realm of matters physical is closed, other realms need to be cultivated, nurtured and perfected. And, for over 2,000 years, that is exactly what we did. The pendulum, however, begins to swing back at the dawn of the last century.

T he Kishinev pogroms, beginning in April 1903, following the Dreyfus Trial which took place in France nine years earlier, captivated the imagination of European Jewry. More precisely, it was the portrayal of these riots by one very special rapporteur which kicked Judaism out of its disembodiment.

Chaim Nachman Bialik was a poet, dispatched by the Jewish Historical Commission of Odessa to interview survivors of the pogroms and prepare a report. He came back with a poem, which he called, In The City of Slaughter. The report of violent rioting against the Jews is intensely distressing but Bialik's fiercest commendation isn't directed against the rioters, the Church or any of those non-Jews who might have been held responsible.

Instead, Bialik attacks the Jews, particularly the Jewish men who, while their wives were raped, crouched and hid and then crept to the rabbis' house to see if they were permitted to return to their violated wives. Bialik calls these Jews insects and declares that they should have stood up and fought, even if it brought their own demise. Anything, Bialik insists, was better than allowing ourselves, again and again, to be beaten up, offering nothing in response other than prayer and messianic hope.

A few years previously, the Zionist essayist Max Nordau wrote Muskeljudentum - Muscle-Jewry - and made a similar point. For too long, Nordau wrote, Jews "engaged in the mortification of our own flesh. Or rather, to put it more precisely - others did the killing for us".

Nordau reminded his readers that in ancient times Jews were a physical, muscular people. "Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men," he urged.

From its earliest days, partly inspired by a Socialist veneration of honest physical labour, partly born of necessity and certainly as a rejection of the disembodied Judaism of the medieval period, Zionism flexed its muscles. The earth was worked, the desert was made to bloom and the land was protected with might and power, not spirit alone.

The return to muscle has not only been a Zionist preoccupation. Across Europe, and into North and South America, memories of Hasmonean might were awakened as Jews set up Jewish sporting clubs - the Maccabi movement. Twentieth-century Jewish photographic archives show Jewish swimmers, wrestlers and gymnasts performing acts of physical endeavour that would have amazed - and horrified - the disembodied Jews of earlier centuries.

Certainly, gymnastics was worthless in the face of Nazi barbarism but there were Jews who fought and - as Jewry emerged from the ashes of the Shoah - the notion that physicality should be abnegated had disappeared.

Today, there are Israelis who are expected to win Olympic medals and Israel's army is no one's idea of a pushover. Even the historically weedy Jews of the diaspora have found muscle-bound heroes. The six-foot-four and 285-pound Jewish wrestler Bill Goldberg headlined enormous American sporting arenas, winning match after match and belt after belt.

But we have not quite left our non-physical past behind. Bill Goldberg's own father, an obstetrician, suggested that the term "'Jewish wrestler' is as oxymoronic as "fresh frozen jumbo shrimp" and Goldberg became tagged with the epithet, "A David in Goliath's Shoes". A muscular Jew branded a shrimp and a Goliath!

There is ambivalence in the true sense of the word - we are pulled in two conflicting directions, both valuing physicality and being wary of it. This certainly pervades much contemporary discourse around Israel.

In 1953, a terrorist attack was launched against Israel from Kibiyeh in the then Jordanian-controlled West Bank. A mother and two children were killed as they slept. The Israeli military retaliated, 69 inhabitants of the village were killed. Right-wing religious thinkers, chief among them Rav Shaul Yisraeli, defended the retaliations, including the death of those who had played no part in the provocation.

"Those who are unruly are responsible for any damage that comes to them, their sympathisers, or their children. They must bear their sin. There is no obligation to refrain from reprisal for fear that it might harm innocent people, for we did not cause it," he insisted.

For Yisraeli, if the non-Jews come for us, we should come for them. The victor will be the one who fights hardest and equivocates least. But other thinkers, most notably Yeshayahu Leibowitz, refused to attempt to justify bloodshed.

"Once the 'craft of Esau' has been granted legitimacy", Leibowitz wrote in an influential and contentious response to the Kibiyeh reprisals, "the distinction between the permissible and the forbidden, between the justified and the blameworthy, is very subtle - it is like the 'handbreadth between heaven and hell'." We must constantly examine whether we have transgressed and crossed that fine dividing line."

In the 60 years since the destruction of Kibiyeh, tension between the desire to justify muscle and fear of granting legitimacy to "the craft of Esau" has plagued politicians, generals and all who recognise Israel's right to exist.

After 5,000 years of encountering muscle largely in the context of war and pogrom we would so much rather beat swords and spears into fencers' foils and athletes' javelins.

We would rather celebrate not war but Olympian ideals of peaceful competition and international comradeship.

Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Synagogue (Masorti)

Last updated: 11:45am, July 15 2012