Rabbi Akiba, Bar Kokhba, and the State of Israel
The Jewish calendar is more than a catechism of our faith. It is also a synopsis of our history. The biblical festivals of Pesah and Shavuot frame the period of the Omer, which is laden with days of commemoration of events that are all post-biblical, indeed largely set in the twentieth century. We move quickly on an emotional roller coaster from Yom Hashoah five days after the end of Pesah (27 Nisan) to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzma’ut the following week (4 and 5 Iyar) to Lag Baomer thirteen days later (18 Iyar). The linkage between the Holocaust and Israel, embodied in the first three commemoratives, is surely warranted. As Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar) states unequivocally, the annihilation of six million European Jews made the creation of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland an overriding necessity. Some 6,000 Israeli soldiers died defending it in the War of Independence and nearly another 3,000 twenty-five years later in the Yom Kippur War.
For the last half century, the celebration of Israel Independence Day has served to alter the generally somber mood of the forty-nine days connecting Shavuot with Pesah. Several factors had converged over time to freight the period with angst. Agriculturally, the barley harvest in ancient Israel was at risk from the hot, dry winds blowing from the east (the hamseen). Theologically, the redemption from slavery was incomplete without the revelation at Mount Sinai. Freedom needed to be harnessed by constraint and purpose to be constructive. And historically, since the First Crusade in 1096, Jewish communities in medieval Europe, which survived on sufferance, feared springtime for its recurring pogroms. In consequence, men would refrain from cutting their hair, as if in mourning, and weddings would be delayed till after Shavuot.
This year, however, the traditional pall of the Omer period weighs on us more heavily than ever. Israel is again at war, a war of attrition without front lines against an enemy for whom all is fair and permissible. The conventions of war do not govern terrorists or freedom fighters. For them, the end justifies every conceivable means. The mantle of martyrdom exonerates a suicide bomber from the depravity of murdering Jews gathered for a Passover seder while garnering for his family a bounty of $25,000. Even though Israel avoids indiscriminate killing of civilians in exercising its right of self-defense, it sadly reaps only the denunciation of Arabs and Europeans alike.
By choosing violence over negotiations at Camp David, Yasir Arafat helped unleash a war of terror that threatens to engulf the world. America has already paid dearly for its steadfast support of Israel, among other reasons. Jews count the Omer this spring with a sense of foreboding. As antisemitism erupts again in Europe, Israel faces the prospect of an expanded conflict with the Palestinians and their allies in which there are only Pyrrhic victories. Till the terror ends and sanity prevails, hawks and doves must unite as unconditional Zionists to do all in their power to advance Israel’s welfare.
Yet when that time comes, we should be prepared to act on the cautionary note implicit in the Omer period. On occasion, we have contributed to our own misfortune. The joy of Lag Baomer springs from a dark scenario: The Talmud contains a dim historical memory that Rabbi Akiba, the dominant figure in the formation of the Mishnah, lost some 24,00 students in a single year from Pesah to Shavuot to an outbreak of croup (BT Yevamot 62b). By the middle ages, that memory was modified to have the illness let up by the thirty-third day of the Omer, hence the brief cessation from mourning (Levinsky, Sefer Hamoadim, VI, 336-43).
Though the numbers are too large and the story too pat to be credible, what is plausible is the connection to Rabbi Akiba. A mystic as well as a master of the law, he sanctioned Bar Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome some sixty years after the destruction of the Second Temple by bestowing upon him the nimbus of messianic authority. Perhaps because of it, the uprising enjoyed far broader rabbinic and popular support than in 66 C.E. But to no avail. The devastating defeat was accompanied by an even greater loss of life including scores of Rabbi Akiba’s students. After the fall of Betar, Bar Kokhba died ignominiously in flight, while the Romans tortured Rabbi Akiba to death for violating their ban on the teaching of Torah. Judaism itself now seemed to them to be the seedbed of Jewish sedition. In retrospect, it was sheer folly to challenge the Romans again. Messianic fervor could not even the odds. The first victim of an overdose of messianism is sound judgment.
And so it was in the heady years after the Six Day War. For the first time in Jewish history, a messianic explosion erupted in the wake of a startling military victory. Religious nationalists armed with a surfeit of sacred texts and a sure sense of God’s will stormed into a political vacuum that was not demographically empty. The intensity of their faith and the purity of their self-sacrifice stirred the Zionist embers of secular Israelis and diaspora Jews. Successive Israeli governments lent them ample support for military, political and idealistic reasons. But the land grab is unsustainable because the Palestinians revile it and the West has no tolerance for a belated form of colonialism. That is what Yitzhak Rabin realized after failing to crush the first intifada. Messianists always overreach. In this case they have snatched defeat from victory. No matter how tattered, there is no long-term alternative to the peace process.
The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tazri’a – M’tzora are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.