September 18, 2018

Fight or flight: The nature of Judaism

On the one hand: Jews and their religion are fiercely militant.

On the other: The Jewish religion is peaceful and Jews avoid fighting, to the point that they have been derided as cowards or draft dodgers.

Looking at the three-millennia arc of Jewish history, both statements are sometimes true and sometimes false, observes Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles and senior fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Firestone will discuss the seeming contradictions as part of his April 23 UCLA lecture on “Holy War in Judaism,” the title of his most recent book, published by Oxford University Press.

Since the rebirth of Israel in 1948, few will question that the country’s soldiers are as tough and skillful as any in the world.

But records of Jewish prowess in arms go as far back as biblical times and continue through the Jewish revolts against the Greeks and Romans.

In the sixth century BCE, the Persians, who controlled Egypt at the time, hired Jewish mercenaries to establish a garrison on Elephantine, a small island in the Nile, to defend Egypt’s southern border against incursions from Nubia.

Throughout the centuries, groups of Jewish soldiers were reported to be fighting in China, Sudan, Yemen, Mali and Spain, as well as in Jerusalem, battling alongside Muslims against the Christian Crusaders.

In the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE) and Emperor Hadrian, some 580,000 Jews were killed, but casualties among the Roman legions were also fearsome.

The Roman historian Cassius Dio recorded that it was the custom of emperors, when reporting the latest victories to the Senate, to open with the salutation, “If you and your children are in health, it is well. I and the legions are in health.”

Significantly, when Hadrian informed the Senate on the outcome of his war against the Jews, the historian noted, the emperor omitted the phrase.

Appalled at the number of Jewish casualties and given the dispersion of the Jews after their defeat by the Romans, the rabbis sought to prevent future casualties by telling the faithful that it was not physical resistance that protected Israel, but rather spiritual concentration on righteousness and prayer.

The sages drew a distinction between an offensive or discretionary war, started on human initiative, and a defensive war commanded by God.

To further avoid future conflicts, Jews were also forbidden to return to their country in massive numbers, or to rebel against gentile rule in the Diaspora.

If the Jews followed these strictures, the rabbis said, God would not allow the gentiles to persecute the Jews, at least not “overly much.”

The rabbinic rulings sought to prevent the Jews “from doing stupid things,” Firestone said, and the effect was to rule out any war initiated by Jews, a ruling that stood for the next 2,000 years.

In modern times, it took the rise of Zionism, which David Ben-Gurion saw as a kind of civic religion, and the catastrophe of the Holocaust, to reverse the old rabbinical strictures and reassert the old fighting spirit.

With the victory of the Six-Day War, even many Orthodox Jews, who had opposed the creation of a Jewish state absent God’s command, accepted the triumph as a divinely ordained victory.

As a general rule, Firestone said, “No religion is inherently more militant or more peaceful than any other. Judaism, as well as Islam, started as militant religions, because they had to be tough in order to survive.”

On the other hand, Christianity evolved under the rule of the Roman Empire, which would tolerate no rival religion. So Christians had to lay low and act peacefully, just to survive.

But once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the official religion, its adherents became militant and aggressive. His conclusion, Firestone said, “Is that religion is an organism, which will adopt any tactic to assure its survival.”

Firestone will speak on “Holy War in Judaism” on April 23 at 4 p.m. in Royce Hall, Room  314, on the UCLA campus. Light refreshments will be served. There is no fee, but RSVP is required. To reserve, send an e-mail. Visit for more information.