A Jewish Sourcebook For Resistance, Part 1

Matthew Gindin
18 min readJan 10, 2024

Nourishment drawn from premodern sources

Poster for the Jewish Socialist Union, or Bund (“Here where we live, this is our country!”)

Her ways [the Torah’s] are ways of pleasantness, And all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who retain her.

Mishlei 3:17–18

“Toffasto Meroobah Lo Toffasto” (If you grabbed too much, you grabbed nothing).

— The Talmud

“They have healed also the hurt of My people lightly, saying: ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

— Jeremiah 6:14

According to the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Jews were a people chosen by God to fulfill a mission. That mission was to create a different kind of society, one based on tzedek u’ mishpat (restorative kindness and vindicating justice) which was, as far as their imagination could reach, egalitarian, ethical, and lived in covenant with the God of Life. For the purpose of this mission they were given a land- Israel- and warned that if they lived by the covenant it would be theirs and they would flourish there, but if they didn’t, the land would “vomit them out” (Vayikra 18:28). The ancient Jews struggled to fulfill that mission, and ultimately, by the analysis of those who wrote the Tanakh, they failed. They believed that this resulted in the loss of the land, and an exile which lasted over 1600 years.

The new leaders of the Jewish people, the Rabbis, then crafted a portable religion for a nomadic community, one which focused on the individual, the home, and the community. This religion was exacting and detailed in both its ritual and ethical demands, and cultivated an exquisite ritual, textual, psychological and moral sensitivity. The Rabbis taught that if Jews fulfilled the Torah in their persons and community it would bring not only a return to Israel but the redemption of the world, and this belief was elaborated into a mystical, quasi-shamanic cosmology whose priests were the Jews, whose actions would mystically repair the cosmos itself. They would be rewarded with a God-led return to Israel and the messianic redemption of the world, as well as the healing of the cosmos.

In the late 19th century, in the face of severe persecution in Russia and Poland and a rising tide of nationalism throughout Europe, a group of mostly secular Jews believed it was time to abandon this Jewish self-understanding of being an international tribe of holy people and replace it with being a people like any other who had their own homeland, and possibly their own nation-state. This was resisted both by Orthodox Jews and by the massively popular Jewish socialist movement in Europe, but Zionism slowly grew in influence and power. The Zionist mainstream would ultimately go for the statist option, and in the eyes of many Jewishness would be redefined as an ethnicity or culture who had their own modern nation-state, Israel, and who relied not on God, but on their own military, political skill, and might to survive and thrive.

In this series of four essays drawn from a class I’m teaching I want to wind back the clock and look and engage in a project of reclamation focused on the voices of our ancestors who spoke out of Jewish tradition in a way which was skeptical of, or downright opposed to, statism, violence, war, and xenophobia, and who embraced principles of universal human dignity, careful ethical sensitivity, and love of both Jew and non-Jew.

My intention is not to romanticize the past or claim that premodern Judaism spoke with one voice about these matters- voices of authoritarianism, violence and xenophobia existed alongside the voices we will excavate here, but my purpose is to lead on us a journey to find nourishment in what I think are the highest expression of the insights and historical experience of our traditions.

Tanakh

In today’s class I want to start with a tour of eight events or themes in the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible, acronym for Torah (Teaching), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings)]:

Image, Murder, Monoculture, Brothers, Empire, Monarchy, War, and Protest.

Before we begin I want to share an insight from the great academic Bible scholar Richard Elliot Friedman, from his book The Bible Now. Friedman points out that we tend to misread the Hebrew Bible in ways that render it at best useless and at worst toxic.

We do this because we don’t understand it in its context. The Hebrew Bible is a revolutionary text, and inside of it lies an an arrow of thought pointing at a moral upheaval in its ancient context. The arrow points towards egalitarianism, justice, the dignity of human life, compassion, anti-militarism, and anti-fascism, but the people who wrote the text could only imagine the trajectory of the arrow as far as their imaginations allowed.

In many ways human thought- partially inspired by the Bible itself, has moved past the Hebrew Bible (though in some ways it still hasn’t caught up). When we read the text without seeing the arrow it is useless, and when we imagine that the limitations of the text are in fact its end-goal, then we do the opposite of what the text intends: instead of looking to where the arrow is pointing, we look backwards, enshrining the limitations of the authors — like patriarchy, for instance — as being sacred.

With that in mind, let’s begin.

Image

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

And God created humankind in the divine image,

creating it in the image of God —

creating them male and female.

The Italian Jewish Torah commentator Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) pointed out that the word tzelem, often translate in english as “image” occurs very seldom in the Tanakh, and when it does it refers to an idol- a small clay statue used in non-Jewish temples. Cassuto pointed out that when the Tanakh says that Elohim– God– created human beings b’tzelem Elohim, it is making a slyly revolutionary point that is lost on us thousands of years later. The point is that all kinds of idolatry are forbidden except one: the love of human beings.

Another aspect of tzelem is that in the ancient Near East Kings were believed to be representatives- images and emissaries- of God, and so tzelem may also carry this connotation. Yet the Tanakh says that God created “human beings,” i.e. all human beings, as “the images of God.”

We should note that the text, when saying humans are created “b’tzelem Elohim” and conferring a status on all human beings- without exception- normally reserved for the fascist, semi-divine tyrants of the world, it makes a point of pausing and saying — “male and female” were created so. The inclusion of “female,” which strikes us today as ho-hum, or even problematic because of the gender binary, was in its context actually a radical and rare, if not possibly unique, affirmation of the dignity of women alongside men.

We should also note that these Earthlings (adam) are made from the Earth (adamah) and the Rabbis here comment, “They were made from the earth of all lands, so that no one could say, “My land is better than yours” and “they were made as the one ancestor of all human beings so no one could say, ‘My race or lineage or family is better than yours.’”

R’ David Seidenberg points out that Yalkut Shimoni 13:2, says: The One began to gather the dirt (of the first human) from the four corners of the world — red, black, white, green…Why from the four directions of the earth? So that if one comes from east to west and reaches the end (of his life) to separate from the world, the land won’t say, “The dirt of your body is not from me. Return to the place you were created.” Rather, every place that a person walks, from there her body (was created) and to there she (may) return.” and also “All people are the generations of Adam, so also all of us are in one image, in one seal/chotam, in one form. We are also sealed/stamped with the likeness of Elohim, and we need to treat another with the honor and dignity/silsul of Elohim, and not shame our fellow. (Derekh Hakodesh, Vidal Tsarfati, d.1619, Morocco)

The image of the image is a protest against the imaginary of the world the ancient Jews lived in, where only the male ruling elite were in the divine image, where lineage meant absolute hierarchy, and most people were created to be servants. This universal dignity was understood, in our core texts, as prohibiting….

Murder

The first murder in the Torah is that of Hevel by Kayin. When the envious Kayin (who name is connected to the idea of acquisition, “koneh”), guilty of murdering Hevel (whose name means “ephemeral, like vapour”) is confronted by God, who asks him where his brother is, he famously says, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?”

“Your brother’s blood calls to me from out of the earth,” God replies, which in Hebrew literally is written as “bloods.” The later Rabbis learn from the plural that it is not only Hevel’s blood which is on Kayin’s hands, but all of Hevel’s potential descendants. “Whoever kills one human being,” they comment, “it is as if they killed the whole world.”

God does not kill Kayin in revenge, interestingly, but rather marks him out not to be killed, seemingly trying to signal something: the cycle of violence ends here. Humans continue to become violent, however, and multiply vengeance for every death. Lamech, Kayin’s descendant, vows to kill 77 people for every one who harms him. This crescendo of violence is what leads to the Flood.

Every ancient people has a flood story- there are versions not only from Mesopotamia, but also from China, India, Africa, and Canadian Indigenous Nations like the Haida Gwaii. Each version explains why there was a flood differently. The Jewish explanation was that it was a result of humans’ violent exploitation of each other. This violent exploitation leads to God regretting our creation and hitting the reset button.

After the flood God seems to accept human’s commitment to violence, trying to mitigate it in other ways by allowing the eating of meat and establishing the rule that murderers will themselves be murdered: here the ancient Hebrews seem to be trying to harmonize their intuition that a just God would be opposed to violence with the fact of animals eating each other and murderers being punished. The Rabbis would later understand the descendants of Noach (i.e. all human beings) to be obligated by a universal human covenant which included the requirement for courts of law to ameliorate human violence and the prohibition of cruelty towards animals.

Monoculture

Right before the flood there is a brief story as famous as it is misunderstood. In this story a group of people band together to make a tower to “make their name great,” i.e. for their own glory. God breaks the tower and scatters the people by confusing their language, giving them each diverse tongues so that they don’t understand each other and fragment. Thus the many languages are born. As much as I love the Bad Religion song “Skyscraper,” this story is not about God scuttering the dreams of those who want to reach Him. The story is about God being opposed to self-absorbed monocultures and solving the problem with diversity.

Rav Yehuda Ashlag (1885–1954), the great 20th century Kabbalist, reflected this insight on another level, when he wrote that eliminating cultural diversity, i.e. causing an culture to cease to exist even if one did not murder the actual people, was tantamount to a violation of the Biblical command, “You shall not murder.”

Brothers

According to the Tanakh, God moved into human history in at least one way by choosing a nomadic Mesopotamian shepherd named Avram, later Avraham, for a special mission, and promising him a land in which he could teach his children “the ways of tzedek u’mishpat (restorative kindness and vindicating justice).” The mission was passed down to Avraham’s son Yitzhak, and not his son Ishmael, although Ishmael was promised a special relationship with God and divine protection and blessing as well.

Yitzhak had two children, Ya’akov and Esav, and Ya’akov was chosen to lead the families mission. Rivkah and Yitzhak, fearful Esav would be chosen though he was not a good candidate, rigged the process and as a result a split between Ya’akov and Esav occurred. Though they later reconciled, Ya’akov, fearful of Esav’s hostility at being disempowered, chose not to join forces with him and, after promising to meet up and travel alongside him, instead went in another direction. As a result Esav married a Hittite woman from whom came Amalek, a tribe who later would fall on the Israelites in the desert and try to destroy them, and who, in the Rabbinic imagination, are the ultimate anti-semites. Amalek’s most famous descendant is Haman, who attempts to commit genocide against the Jewish people in the Purim story.

The Torah often speaks implicitly through story and causality. What can we learn from this story of brothers? The texts seems to be saying that since Ya’akov did not take a chance on reconciliation with Esav, Amalek was born, Haman was born, and in the Rabbinic imagination Rome was born- since Esav was identified with the Roman occupiers.

The heroes of the Tanakh are remarkably complex and never 100% good, not even Moses. Avraham risks his wife’s life and sexual autonomy to save his own skin; Yitzhak is insensitive to his wife’s need for a child and repeats his father’s mistake as well; Ya’akov deceives his father and fearfully rejects Esav, and the children of Ya’akov make a whole host of mistakes.

The most shocking of the wrongdoings of Ya’akov/Israel’s children is the response of the brothers Shimon and Levy to the rape of their sister Dina by the son of the leader of Shechem. Shimon and Levy use a subterfuge which allows them to murder every last one of the men of Shechem in revenge, a brutally disproportionate attack. As Ya’akov lies dying he calls his children for blessing but excludes Shimon and Levy. Criticizing their wanton violence, he instead curses them. In 1953, when an Israeli special forces unit led by Ariel Sharon avenged the murder of an Israeli woman and her child in a border town by Palestinian raiders by killing 70 Arab residents of the village of Qibiya, the Israeli intellectual and religious Jew Yeshayahu Leibovits wrote a controversial essay where he said the attack on “Qubiya-Shechem” was similarly accursed.

The most famous crime of the sons of Ya’akov, however, is surely the attempted murder and sale into slavery of their brother Yosef. Yosef survives and rises to prominence in Egypt, and in the end is able to save the lives of his family. He is also able to save the lives of many Egyptians, but at the cost of making them slave labour for the state of Egypt: they trade away all of their land for food and become property of the state. Although the text claims- stretching credulity- that Moshe took Yosef’s bones to Canaan 400 years later, it is notable that despite the great importance to people from Avraham’s clan of being buried in Israel, the earlier story ends with Yosef being mummified in Egypt. A recent Bible scholar has pointed out that this seems to be the text’s damning commentary on Yosef being overly willing to adopt the ways of the Egyptian empire when he saved the Egyptian populace by enslaving them to the Pharoahs.

Many later Jewish texts would warn about the dangers of getting to close to Empire, such as Pirke Avot, which warns “Shemaiah used to say: love work, hate the Rabbinate, and do not attempt to draw near to the government (1:11)” and again in 2:3: “Be careful in your dealings with the government for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a person in the hour of their distress.” The Talmud is also harshly critical of the Roman Empire, which it viewed as hypocritical (in its claim to benefit the subjugated), unjust and a hoarder of wealth amidst the poor, among other things.

Monarchy

Israel re-settled in Canaan, now charged with a mission to build a different kind of society than the surrounding Empires, and carrying the command to “love the stranger.”

The mitzvah to “love” or “not to oppress” the stranger is the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah, spoken thirty six times. The data of the Hebrew Bible would suggest that it is, in fact, the biggest thing on God’s mind. This mitzvah deserves more time of its own, so we will dedicate part of next week’s class to zeroing in on it.

The Tanakh claims that Israel functioned as a loose tribal confederation under the authority of the Torah and God. Their leadership came in the form of charismatic shoftim (judges) inspired by the Spirit of God (ruach elohim) and later by nevi’im (prophets similarly inspired). After generations of repeated struggles with the Philistines and others, the people approached the Navi Shmuel and asked for a King so they “would be like other nations”, that is, with a large, trained standing army under the centralized authority of one human being. Sh’muel was horrified by this request, but brought it to God, who told him to warn the people about the bad results of having a King, but to give them one if they want it. “They are not rejecting you,” YHVH comforted Sh’muel, “they are rejecting me.”

Later the laws of monarchy in the Tanakh would break with the customs of the time by insisting that the King could be any Israelite and was under the law, not above it.

War

In the ancient Near East, kings and upper class men maintained control through a professional army which stockpiled weapons, horses, and chariots. They were paid through taxation. Torah law, fascinatingly, does not provide taxes for the army and also limits the Kings ability to stockpile horses and weapons. The Torah repeatedly tells stories of ancient Israelis fighting off much bigger armies when they are in harmony with God’s will, and failing when they are not- even if they have the superior power at the time. Israel’s army is a citizen army with crude weapons led by a modestly wealthy King with few resources- by design. Even alliances with other nations are frowned on again and again and seen as idolatry and betrayal of YHVH.

It’s worth thinking carefully about the following speech the Torah says should be given to soldiers going out to battle:

And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, “Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not married her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.” And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, “Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.” (Deut. 20: 1–14, 19–20)

As we mentioned, the Torah depicts God as allowing Israel to have a human king under certain conditions, and Deuteronomy 17 spells out those conditions — one of which is stripping the king of all military might: the king is not allowed to build a professional army (“ he must not acquire many horses for himself”). The King is also not allowed to make military alliances with other nations (Deut. 17: 16–17), a principle the prophets would underline again and again.

This explains why in several instances Israel was commanded to hamstring their enemies’ horses and burn their chariots. As theologian Preston Sprinkle writes, “Horses and chariots were the ancient version of tanks. They were superior weapons. The army with the most horses and chariots was bound to win the war. So when Joshua (and others) hamstrings horses and burns chariots, he destroys their potential usefulness to Israel in further battles. It’s like killing an enemy with a knife and not taking his gun.”

“The king is not saved by his great army,” says Psalms. “A warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue (Ps. 33: 16–17).” The belief of ancient Israel was not pacifist, but it was a religious anti-militarism. Whatever we might think of that today, it is literally the polar opposite of the militarist ideology of the modern state of Israel.

Lastly, here is Sprinkle again: “If America, for instance, used the Bible to shape its warfare policy, that policy would look like this. Enlistment would be by volunteer only (which it is), and the military would not be funded by taxation. America would not stockpile superior weapons — no tanks, drones, F-22s, and of course no nuclear weapons — and it would make sure its victories were determined by God’s miraculous intervention, not by military might. Rather than outnumbering the enemy, America would deliberately fight outmanned and under-gunned. Perhaps soldiers would use muskets, or maybe just swords. There would be no training, no boot camp, no preparation other than fasting, praying, and singing worship songs… as it stands, many Christians will be content to cut and paste selected verses that align with America’s worldview to give the military some religious backing. Some call this bad hermeneutics; others call it syncretism. The Israelite prophets called it idolatry.”

Substitute modern Israel for America above and you have an interesting thought experiment.

We know that even previous to Zionism, and even within the Hebrew Bible itself, Jews did not embody these values much of the time. Yet they echo throughout pre-modern Jewish thought, leaving their imprint.

Before we leave the Tanakh behind as a main focus, we need to take a necessarily brief foray into the world of its supreme ethicists, the Prophets.

Protest

Existing alongside the fundamentally sacrilegious monarchy lived the Navi’im, who danced and sang and played music to go into trances and speak with the voice of God, or who were chosen to do so, sometimes quite against their will, by God Godself.

“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,

his upper rooms by injustice,

making his own people work for nothing,

not paying them for their labor.

He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace

with spacious upper rooms.’

So he makes large windows in it,

panels it with cedar

and decorates it in red.

“Does it make you a king

to have more and more cedar?

Did not your father have enough for food and drink

And then do what was right and just-

so all went well with him.

He defended the cause of the poor and needy,

and so all went well.

Is that not what it means to know me?”

declares YHVH..

So said Jeremiah.

The Prophets were not popular with Kings, and sometimes not with other Israelites either. They were jailed, exiled, beaten, and sometimes killed. Israeli Kings often kept court prophets who said things that pleased them, and were all too willing to say folks like Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos were mad.

Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn!

Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways.

Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God,

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God:

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”

Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist!

Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?

Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call that a fast, a day when YHVH is pleased?

No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn, and your healing spring up quickly;

Your Vindicator shall march before you, the Presence of YHVH shall be your rear guard.

Then, when you call, YHVH will answer; when you cry, He will say: Here I am.

If you banish the yoke from your midst, the menacing hand, and evil speech,

And you offer your compassion to the hungry, and satisfy the famished creature —

Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.

(Isaiah 58)

The Navi’im call out the Jewish people for straying from the covenant- for worshipping others gods and making idolatrous images, yes, but alongside that for being heartless to the poor, engaging in crooked business dealings, failing to love the refugee and the stranger, and falsely believing that a religious devotion without enacting justice and kindness would please YHVH or constitute fidelity to the covenant.

In review, here are principles expressed in the Tanakh which have echoed explicitly or at times subconsciously in Jewish ethical thought for the last two thousand years:

The only acceptable idolatry is worshiping universal human dignity

All human beings are equally reflections of the divine

Murder and violence are wrong

Diversity is valuable

Revenge attacks are wrong

One should take a risk on reconciliation

Human authority is suspect and fascism is bad

Militarism is bad, one should not rely on violence or might

Alliances with corrupt empires are bad

The worship of YHVH consists primarily in caring for the vulnerable and doing no injustice

Love the stranger

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Note: two of the quotations which begin this piece also begin Moshe Menuhin’s early critique of Zionism, “Not By Might, Nor By Power.”

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