Sunday, April 22, 2007

Judaism's Culture of Death

Here are two online versions of a "joke" I recently learned about from a book by Harvey Cox:
So the Hebrew school teacher asks little Johnny: "What is the meaning of most Jewish holidays?" Replies little Johnny: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." Little Johnny had a point.
--"The Horseradish Chronicles: The Pain of chrain" by
Michael Arnold Glueck in the Jewish World Review.

"They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat": so goes the world's shortest summary of Jewish holiday themes that circulated recently on the Internet.
--"Eat, Drink, and Be Merry...and Share the Wealth" by Josh Eagle,
Yosef Abramowitz, and Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick in
The Jewish holidays of Purim, Passover, and Hanukkah are part of the "culture of death" and "victimization" that permeates Judaism and much of modern Jewish life, as noted by Idith Zertal in Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (Cambridge UP, 2005; pp. 1-2). On the penultimate page of her book, in reference to the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli Jew, Zertal identifies aspects of Jewish Israeli society: "the nationalist fanaticism, the messianic belief in a borderless Greater Israel, the practices of power and violence, and the rituals of blood, victimhood, and the Holocaust ... " Nearly every aspect of this culture of death, which Zertal identifies, is rooted--one way or another--in Judaism but for present purposes I'll focus on the holidays.

In the cases of Purim and Hanukkah, it would be more accurate to say, "We killed them. Let's eat;" whether "They tried to kill us" is debatable. Purim is based on the biblical book of Esther and the story is told entirely from the perspective of the victors. The author tells us that no Jews died but they did strike "down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them" (Esther 9:5).* After killing more than 75,000 people, the killers celebrated days of "gladness and feasting" (Esther 9).

The Maccabean civil war at the root of Hanukkah started when Mattathias, a priest and father of Judah Maccabee, killed another Jew for coming "forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice" to Greek gods. According to I Maccabees 2:
When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.
One of the other things that pissed Mattathias off was the king's decree banning the practice of male genital mutilation known as circumcision.

Of course, the joke would also have to be modified for the Passover story: "Our Lord, Jehovah, killed them. Let's eat." The Exodus narrative does not claim that "They tried to kill us;" it says:
Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (Exodus 3:7-9).
It is commonly believed that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt (the related notion that the Egyptian pyramids were built by slaves has come under serious scholarly criticism). In any case, Exodus indicates that the Israelites routinely made slaves of one another (Exodus 21). And soon after exiting Egypt they were longing for the good old days when they served the Egyptians and had meat and their fill of bread (Exodus 14:11,12; 16:3).
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." (Numbers 11:4-6)
Even the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical year--Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement--has a bit of the stench of death about it. Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews (3.10) describes the ritual sacrifice conducted in the Temple in Jerusalem:
But on the seventh month, which the Macedonians call Hyperberetaeus, they make an addition to those already mentioned, and sacrifice a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins.

On the tenth day of the same lunar month, they fast till the evening; and this day they sacrifice a bull, and two rams, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins. And, besides these, they bring two kids of the goats; the one of which is sent alive out of the limits of the camp into the wilderness for the scapegoat, and to be an expiation for the sins of the whole multitude; but the other is brought into a place of great cleanness, within the limits of the camp, and is there burnt, with its skin, without any sort of cleansing. With this goat was burnt a bull, not brought by the people, but by the high priest, at his own charges; which, when it was slain, he brought of the blood into the holy place, together with the blood of the kid of the goats, and sprinkled the ceiling with his finger seven times, as also its pavement, and again as often toward the most holy place, and about the golden altar: he also at last brings it into the open court, and sprinkles it about the great altar. Besides this, they set the extremities, and the kidneys, and the fat, with the lobe of the liver, upon the altar. The high priest likewise presents a ram to God as a burnt-offering.
Of course, animal sacrifice is not today part of Yom Kippur, except for those orthodox Jews who sacrifice a chicken as part of Kaparot.

Last year's Israeli slaughter in Lebanon and the ongoing war against Palestinians are natural expressions of a Judaic culture of death.

* All Biblical text is from the New Revised Standard Version via The Unbound Bible.

See also:

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wow, judaism is inherently violent. what a bad religion! thanks for letting me know.
To be clear, I did not write that "judaism is inherently violent" and I don't happen to believe that. I wrote about "a," not the, "Judaic culture of death" and "the 'culture of death' and 'victimization' that permeates Judaism and much of modern Jewish life." I'm sorry if this was too subtle. As noted in my post the words in single quotes are Idith Zertal's, an Israeli historian.

On the penultimate page of her book, in reference to the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli Jew, Zertal identifies aspects of Israeli society: "the nationalist fanaticism, the messianic belief in a borderless Greater Israel, the practices of power and violence, and the rituals of blood, victimhood, and the Holocaust ... " Nearly every aspect of this culture of death which Zertal identifies is rooted one way or another in Judaism. (I'll probably add this section to the main article.)
To the anonymous commenter who called me a "fat racist bitch" and a "Nazi:" Your verbal ad hominem attack is the very hallmark of a Nazi mentality, fixed as it is on my person and devoid of any engagement with the ideas I expressed. Your vacuous, impotent rage only confirms that I am on the right track.
if you don't think that judaism is inherently violent, what is the point of your post? without any context (you don't explain what is your purpose in providing these facts), your post could easily be interpreted, even by sympathetic regular readers of your blog, as anti-jewish.

the image you choose (to represent judaism?--this is not clear to me) is the image of death or the grim reaper. you claim that the 'real story' behind many of the major jewish holidays is one of death and murder. in order to bring in the most important jewish holiday, yom kippur, you somehow even include animal sacrifice in this logic, even though animal sacrifice was undoubtedly quite common back then.

you include a quote from numbers to claim that the jews didn't really appreciate being freed from slavery (the slavery, you make a point of noting, is doubted by a prominent researcher). how does this factor in to your culture of death? it seems like you just tacked that on there to further discredit the story of passover.

your examples are not linked together by any explicit thesis. the reader is left to interpret your point. without any acknowledgment that there are other cultures within judaism, how do you think readers will interpret this post?
M., I wrote my response to you as a separate post at or
First of all, to the writer of this article, obviously your message is not clear if it is so easily misinterpreted by the above comments. Perhaps you should consider revisiting it.

Secondly, if you so choose, you can view most religions in this light by selectively choosing excerpts from texts. While this COULD be informative, try creating a balanced view, do not perpetuate negative stereotypes- this goes for all religions. Knowing much about the full texts of Judaism, much of the religion is in fact based on the promotion of education and making the world a better place.

Lastly, you act as those these texts are solely those of Judaism. Lets recall the fact that there is a place for these texts in all Abrahamic religions (Christianity and Islam), it is merely a question of whether they are followed/ studied alone or accompanied by those texts that were later written.
What is "obvious" is that one anonymous commenter deliberately misrepresented the post and that another was ideologically impaired in understanding it. In any case, as indicated in my own comments, I did revise the post and issue a followup in response to comments. I'm not sure what prevents you from seeing and acknowledging that.

In your second point, you talk about "texts" but the post is primarily a discussion of Jewish holidays--contemporary practice as opposed to mere text/theory/philosophy--and how those holidays inform and reflect what Jews do with power today.

As for your "balanced view" remark, the dominant narrative of Judaism--the religion that fuels the active daily violence of Zionism/the Jewish state--is the idea that "much of the religion is in fact based on the promotion of education and making the world a better place." So, any imbalance lies in minimalizing and obscuring the culture of death in Judaism. My post is merely a tiny attempt at correcting that imbalance.

You last remark is as inane as the first two. Christianity and Islam simply do not celebrate Passover, Purim, or Hanukkah. If you want criticisms of Christian and Islamic violence then you won't be disappointed as there are plenty of them available be sure to carp about "balance" though.
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