Two kinds of Jews: Bar Kochba was not an ancient Moshe Dayan - opinion

Bar Kochba would have admired Moshe Dayan’s heroism but they were two different Jews separated by millennia.

 BAR KOCHBA WOULD have admired Moshe Dayan’s heroism but they were two different Jews separated by millennia (photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)
BAR KOCHBA WOULD have admired Moshe Dayan’s heroism but they were two different Jews separated by millennia
(photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

(I compose this essay in memory of my wife, Mayira Yafa Kavon, of blessed memory. She died at age 54 on the morning of the second day of Passover. We were married for 13 years. Baruch Dayan Ha’emet).

Please read this essay carefully. While I celebrate the heroism of Yosef Trumpeldor, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Uzi Narkiss, Yitzhak Rabin, Yigael Yadin and the Underground predecessors of the IDF, I am disturbed that the Maccabees, the Zealots, and Simeon Bar Kosiba are viewed by many Jews solely through the lens of the modern State of Israel, neglecting the heroism of the ancient Jews in the terms of 2000 years ago.

In no way do I denigrate our modern heroes. I simply want the reader to understand that the celebration of Bar Kochba on Lag Ba’omer is a modern phenomenon. I have no problem with highlighting this brave warrior as an inspiration to the State of Israel and the IDF, but Bar Kochba (his birth name was Bar Kosiba) was not a kibbutznik or a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir (Zionist-socialist pioneering youth movement). Let us get that straight. Then, we can have an intelligent conversation about who Simeon Bar Kochba really was.

Simeon Bar Kosiba was a Jew. Not a Reform Jew, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, haredi, secular Zionist or religious Zionist. These are all modern manifestations of a Jew.

‘THE BAR Kochba Revolt,’ Arthur Szyk, 1927. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)‘THE BAR Kochba Revolt,’ Arthur Szyk, 1927. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Bar Kosiba led the revolt in the Land of Israel against the Roman Empire successfully for two-and-a-half years but Rome crushed the last rebel fortress at Betar in 135 CE. The empire had to bring its crack legions from Britain to put down the rebellion and did not report back to the Senate – as they usually did after a foreign imperialist adventure – that their troops were “in health.”

As Rabbi Morris B. Margolies elucidates in Twenty Twenty: Jewish Visionaries through Two Thousand Years (2000), there are few Jewish sources on the rebellion. We rely on few Greek and Roman historians, the early Church Father Eusebius, and the Talmud, which “does contain material, largely legendary.” In fact, even in Bar Kosiba’s lifetime, some rabbis had doubts about the rebellion and questioned the great Rabbi Akiba’s identification of Bar Kosiba as the Messiah. The name “Bar Kochba” – “son of the Star” – was a name given to Bar Kosiba by the premier legal mind and mystic of his time, interpreting the biblical verse “A star shall go forth out of Jacob” as “the King Messiah.”

After the failure of the rebellion and up until modern Zionism, rabbis never referred to this hero of the last Jewish sovereign state in the Land of Israel before 1948 by his messianic name “Bar Kochba.” Rabbinic attitudes toward this warrior were centered on the reality that he was a failed Messiah whose rebellion caused much misery for the Jews and exile. But letters found in a deep cave by war hero, statesman, and archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1961 in Ein Gedi, a center of rebel activity in the Judean desert, cast doubt on whether Bar Kosiba even thought he was the Messiah.

THREE OF the letters Yadin found in Hebrew and Aramaic, signed by “Bar Kosiba” – not “Bar Kochba” – (he signed them as “President over Israel”) deal with military matters. But the fourth letter is most interesting: “I have sent to you two donkeys that you shall send with them two men to Yehonatan bar Be’ayan and to Masabala in order that they shall pack and send to the camp… palm branches and citrons. And you, from your place, send others who will bring myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed and send them to the camp… Be well.”

In other words, Bar Kochba performed the mitzvah of blessing and waving the four species on Sukkot. Perhaps we will be tempted to say he was an “observant Jew” but that is an anachronism. Two thousand years ago all Jews carried out the commandments of the fall holiday. This is not meant to condemn Jews today who do not observe Sukkot or do so in a secular or national way – it is simply to point out that all Jews observed the holidays 2000 years ago. They were Jews and that is what Jews did.

For thousands of years, religion and nation in Jewish life have been wound together in a very tight cord. Only with Emancipation, Reform Judaism and Secular Zionism did the cord begin to unravel. Reform Jews in Germany in the 19th century were rabidly opposed to the idea of a Jewish State – it cast aspersions of dual loyalty on them. Secular Zionist thinkers and activists wrote God out of the equation and were opposed to many aspects of Halacha. Many secular Zionists had embraced an anti-religious socialism.

This did not mean that the pioneers did not celebrate Jewish holidays. Historian Anita Shapira in Zionism and Religion (1998) describes the celebration of the fall festival on the kibbutzim that many of the heroes of the modern State of Israel grew up on: “Sukkot, a holiday that traditionally focused on the four species, was turned into a harvest festival in keeping with the agricultural calendar. Attempts were made to give new meaning to the water-drawing festival of Sukkot, mentioned in the Midrash. Simhat Torah, a festival that celebrates the reading of the Torah, was completely ignored.”

Would Bar Kochba, if he were alive to see the rise of the modern State of Israel, recognize the kibbuztniks interpretation of Sukkot (Simhat Torah was not a reality in the ancient hero’s time – it is only a thousand years old in origin)? He may have had some understanding of the celebration of agriculture but otherwise it would be alien to him. This means that Jews who lived up until the modern period were not the Jews of today in many ways.

Lag Ba’omer was a minor holiday for the rabbis – it celebrated the end of the plague which decimated the students of the great Rabbi Akiva. But today, it is a major holiday in Israel that remembers the last sovereign Jewish State in the Land of Israel before 1948 and its heroic leader. It should be clear to us that Bar Kosiba be seen as a warning of the dangers of messianic activism but he should also be celebrated as an inspiration to the Jews in our time fighting ferociously to found a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.

Bar Kochba would have admired Moshe Dayan’s heroism but they were two different Jews separated by millennia. Bar Kochba lived, fought and died as a Jew – as did Moshe Dayan. They were two different Jews living in two different epochs.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.