The Masada myth

Masada is indeed a unique place, and one that every Jew should visit (“Iran, nukes and American Jewry’s Masada moment,” September 18). The “bare and arid rock in the middle of the unbearably hot Judean desert,” as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently described it, is a worthy destination for Birthright youth, not to mention young Israeli soldiers.

But only if we do it historical justice and give Masada its due.

To portray Masada, as Rabbi Boteach does, solely as a glorious expression of Jewish defiance, and to hijack its ambiguous and ambivalent history to serve his political agenda, is most unfortunate. We owe it to our youth and to our history to do better. The myth of Masada is complex and troubling, and to simplify and glorify it is disingenuous at best, dangerous at worst.

The single ancient source about what happened at Masada is the dramatic account by Josephus. Although this complex and fascinating figure had his own agenda, and has been shown by historians to be prone to exaggerations and inaccuracies in his magisterial history of the Jewish people, let us accept his account of the mass suicide of some 960 Jews as the Romans breached the fortress. This, despite the troubling fact that Yadin’s famous expedition, and others, have failed to find proof of the deed.

Rabbi Boteach does acknowledge that “Masada could be understood as a giant symbol of Jewish defeat.” But he goes on to say, “But, somehow, Masada isn’t a symbol of defeat. Far from it…Masada is not a symbol of Jewish defeat but of Jewish resistance…the fighters at Masada knew they faced insurmountable odds. But they never surrendered.” He concludes, “They were never there for victory….On the contrary, they gathered on that abandoned desert fortress for the sake of Jewish defiance.”

Whether the Jews at Masada resisted heroically is debatable. According to Josephus they chose the morally questionable path of mass suicide rather than the martyrdom of going down fighting. Is that the path we want to teach our children to emulate? Rabbi Boteach conveniently ignores this giant stumbling block when he speaks of “American Jewry’s Masada moment.”

Likewise troubling is the fact that the last Jews of Masada apparently were extremists who flouted the rules of the Jewish community, and were willing to use violence against fellow Jews. The core of the Masada zealots were identified by Josephus as sicari, a violent sect named for the daggers that they used to assassinate both Roman officials and their Jewish collaborators. Josephus also claimed that these zealots intentionally burned storehouses of food in Jerusalem in order to incite rebellion against Rome and the Jewish establishment. They were willing to use starvation of the populace to further their political aims.

Rabbinic sources (see Gittin 56, Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 4:5, Lamentations Rabbah 1:5, and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:12) record a fascinating debate between Abba Sikra, the shadowy head of the sicari, and the great Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai about resistance to Rome. Ben Zakkai preached accommodation. Working with the “enemy” sworn to Israel’s destruction, it was his heroic establishment of a new center of learning (“Give me Yavneh and its sages”) and his bold new thinking that did more to save the Jewish people than the resisters.

There is reason to believe that Abba Sikra may have been Ben Zakkai’s own nephew. The fault lines in the Jewish community then, like now, ran deep. They divided families. Defiance against Rome, it must be admitted, brought only death. Negotiation brought life. Perhaps Abba Sikra secretly understood this; according to the Talmudic legend it was he who helped smuggle his uncle out of Jerusalem to talk with Vespasian.

Masada is a myth, on many levels. That does not mean that its story is untrue or its site unworthy. But we should visit and remember with a healthy mixture of reverence and skepticism, of reflection and debate. The legacy of Masada is complicated and troubling; deeply so. Simplifying the truth, abridging history, and proclaiming “Masada moments” is a disservice to our past, our present, and our future.

Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

Barry Schwartz is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia and director of the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia.

Not my rabbi

I question whether the Standard should be publishing Rabbi Boteach’s columns expressing his Republican position on the Iran deal, as well as on many other issues. He ran for Congress, as a Republican, with the million-dollar support of Sheldon Adelson. He was resoundingly defeated by a margin of approximately two to one. Notwithstanding his political bias, your publication gives him a platform to express his Republican opinions. While he has the chutzpah to claim that he is “America’s rabbi,” he is not my rabbi and he does not speak for me.

Gerald Fischer
Fort Lee

American Jews disagree

Many commentators in both the Jewish and general media have commented on the nastiness among Jews regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Opponents of the deal have called Jewish supporters “kapos,” and supporters have accused opponents of “dual loyalty.” However, I have seen little regarding the hyperbole, chiefly by opponents of the deal. The JCPOA was compared to the infamous 1938 Munich agreement, although they have nothing in common. Buses purporting to show the Ayatollah thanking the Democratic Party were parked outside congressmen’s offices. Ads making unfounded claims appeared in various newspapers. My personal favorite was an ad showing three pictures, the main gate of Auschwitz, the burning World Trade Center Towers, and a mushroom cloud; I am still wondering how the three were related, both to each other and to a deal with Iran.

I was hoping that once Congress voted, this over-the-top nonsense would cease. But here comes Shmuley Boteach, in his September 18 column, “Iran, nukes, and American Jewry’s Masada moment,” to tell us that his opposition to the JCPOA was comparable to the Jews of Masada standing up to the Roman Empire and to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto fighting the Nazis.

I had no idea that publishing ads in the New York Times, using money donated by others, entailed that type of sacrifice! And, as if this alone does not illustrate Rabbi Boteach’s talent for self-promotion, his column further states, “The American Jewish community, had for the most part, embarked on an antagonistic crash course with the president,” thereby conflating his opinion with that of American Jewry. Sorry, rabbi, polls showed that most American Jews were for the deal.

Richard J. Alexander

A voice from the seats

As I sat in shul on Rosh Hashanah, waiting for the shofar, my focus on prayer was shattered by the explosion of an incendiary device in the sermon. Once again, the political views of a rabbi displaced kavanah.

When will rabbis realize that presenting their political views from the pulpit damages the efforts of some, or most, congregants to daven with a full heart? Rabbis can come down from the pulpit anytime, engage with congregants on the issues of the day, and let the strength of their arguments compete in conversation or debate.

All I want from the pulpit is Torah, not positions on the real estate market or interpretations of the news or medical advice. There are better sources of information, and views, available to us all.

If the liberal religious movements once were criticized for replacing God with social action, the Orthodox world should reflect on the degree to which it has replaced God with politics. Not that it has necessarily benefited Jewish values. I could still hear one congregant ask “What do you say about Corey Booker?” and hear another answer “A schwartzer is a schwartzer.”

I think we can all do teshuvah.

Mark Friedman

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