Israelis Can't Seem to Shake the Habit of False Messiahs

Yossi Sarid
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Yossi Sarid

What did we know about Lag b’Omer? We knew we had to filch planks of wood, prepare spuds and burn the villain of the day. And we knew there was an exemplary hero, named Bar Kokhba. And we didn’t know the results of his heroism, they didn’t tell us.

And here are the results: About 580,000 Jews were killed, 950 communities were destroyed. We embarked on a 2,000-year exile. If the Great Revolt ‏(which ended in the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70‏) was an eclipse of the sun, then the “small revolt” in 132 was total insanity.

There is no need for Diskins and Dagans in order to diagnose the symptoms of messianism in this case, to reveal to us the lawlessness and destructiveness of Bar Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva, without whose umbrella of halakha ‏(religious law‏) the revolt would have died out before it ignited and burned everything.

Both symbolize the connection between belligerent ultra-nationalism and religious zealotry; that is the lethal combination that endangers our lives whenever we begin a new life here, and that is the obsessive urge to revolt against the nations, to climb the wall and race to our demise.

There are many sages who warn of this suicidal tendency. But in every generation patriots rise up against us to destroy us; and in every generation the list of enemies is updated − from Hadrian, may his bones turn to dust, to Ahmadinejad, may his bones rot.

External and internal enemies are out to destroy us. These are the Hellenizers in every generation − good Jews on the whole − who are not at ease within the suffocating four walls of halakha and want to open a window to the world and its culture, which also has something to offer. Hellenization is preferable to atrophy.

We are the Hellenizers of our generation, and we reject Rabbi Akiva’s philosophy of “even if He takes your life,” which requires that we be killed rather than violate any commandment. We believe in the philosophy of “and you shall live by them,” which was bequeathed to us by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha.

We have nothing to debate with the Orthodox Judaism that has become petrified; we barely have anything to say it. Our complaint is actually with secular Judaism, which also participated in the rewriting of history; the Zionist movement also took part in falsifying it.

The bonfire of Lag b’Omer did not burn from ancient times; the consuming fire was lit by the state-in-the-making and its leaders: The Palmach pre-state strike force was established on Lag b’Omer, as was the Gadna military training program for youth, whose symbol, the bow and arrow, is identified with the adventurousness of Bar Kokhba. And the Israel Defense Forces set the day of tribute to reserve soldiers on this unfortunate date.

Both the pen and the sword followed in the footsteps of Bar Kokhba: From right-wing thinker and political leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Beitar song “To die or conquer the mountain − Yodfat, Masada, Beitar,” to right-wing poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, who wrote “Bar Kokhba’s teaching is the truth, even after the fall of Beitar,” and up to children’s songwriter Levin Kipnis, whose infantile song ‏(based on Shaul Tchernichovsky’s poem “Beitara”‏) we sang in our childhood and our youth: “He was a hero, he called for liberty, the entire nation loved him.”

Only in recent years are we being extricated gradually from the myth of the heroism and sacrifice of Bar Kokhba, who presented himself as the Messiah, son of David, and whose messianism was certified by Rabbi Akiva. The general and professor Yehoshafat Harkabi was the first to expose the Jewish passion for destruction in his book “Vision, Not Fantasy.” And recently Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau published his important work “The Sages,” in which he expresses his opinion of “Bar Kokhba’s teaching is the truth”: “We have to admit that his teaching is arrogance and lies,” he wrote.

To this day we have not succeeded in ridding ourselves of the punishment of false messiahs. We are comfortable with our hallucinations, with being captivated by them. Sometimes it seems that the movement for national liberation − now as then − includes a self-destruct mechanism. In that way every disaster becomes a holiday, which will become a disaster. Holidays and epochs devoted to catastrophe.