Bar Kokhba: The motion picture

Spartacus has had his day in film history. It is time for Bar Kokhba.

The Judean Desert (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Judean Desert
The year was 73 BCE. The slave gladiator revolt led by Spartacus the Thracian began and threw the southern Italian peninsula into a state of chaos.
The rebels fought successfully for two years until the forces of the Roman Republic, under the command of the wealthy Marcus Licinius Crassus, crushed them.
This rebellion would have been forgotten if not for the ancient historian and biographer Plutarch (45-127 CE) who recounted the slave revolt and the details of the life of Spartacus in his biography of the Roman Crassus.
The slave revolt led by the gladiator Spartacus served as a symbol of resistance for Garibaldi, who fought in the 19th century in much of the same territory as the ancient rebels – and was heralded by Communists as a prime example of revolutionary class struggle. It also served as the basis for the 1951 novel Spartacus by Howard Fast, an American author born of Jewish refugees.
Fast was a Communist, at least until he broke with the Soviets after the revelation of Stalin’s crimes. The 1960 film Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas in the title role and based on the Fast novel, has remained an iconic American film. While I like the movie, I think that Paths of Glory (1957) is the better Kubrick-Douglas collaboration. It is interesting to note that like Fast, Kubrick and Douglas were born of Jewish refugees to America.
I only wish that the Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire 2,000 year ago would merit a motion picture on the scale of Spartacus, especially the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-135 CE. While the slave revolts are an important series of events in rebellion against the Roman overlords, the Jewish fight against the Romans is likely the only example of a subject nation disturbing the Pax Romana.
Actually, there were three Jewish rebellions against Rome in the short period of 70 years – two in the Land of Israel and one in the Diaspora. The Romans crushed the Jews in all three rebellions. But we are still here, back in our homeland, and the Roman Empire is a memory. That fact in itself merits a film chronicling these rebellions, especially that led by Bar Kokhba.
MY CONCEPT for a Bar Kokhba film – actually he was known by his birth name Shimon bar Koziba – is to combine the Golan-Globus action epic with some serious investigation as to why this revolt achieved success, the attitude of rabbis to Bar Kokhba, and the legacy of the last leader of a sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael before 1948. The reason that Bar Kokhba is the perfect subject of an historical film is that we have just enough information from rabbinic literature, archaeology, Greek and Roman historians, and Bar Kokhba’s letters to reconstruct the rebellion and the politics and theology that surrounded it.
The Great Revolt of 66-70 CE is recounted in great detail by the Jewish historian Josephus. But the only result of his chronicle was a horrendous television mini-series on Masada, completely ignoring the earlier stages of the revolt, the struggle between competing Jewish leadership, and the establishment of Rabbinic Judaism in Yavneh by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Masada, a literal and figurative dead end, has been hijacked for an audience that is deemed too stupid to follow the complexities of Jewish history, ancient and modern. The time has come for a thinking person’s film that combines military heroism and its dissent among the Jews of ancient Israel. As for the Diaspora rebellion against the Emperor Trajan in 115-117 CE, there is simply not enough information to reconstruct those events, although we know the Romans put down the rebels with great bloodshed.
We have just enough information about the Bar Kokhba rebellion to reconstruct it with fact and imagination and address issues that are relevant to this day. As the screenwriter, I would infuse my narrative with assessments of the Bar Kokhba legacy from two modern studies: The Image of Bar Kokhba in Traditional Jewish Literature by Richard G. Marks and the study of Recovered Roots by Yael Zerubavel.
I would ignore Yehoshofat Harkabi’s belief that Bar Kokhba was an adventurist whose exploits were reckless – this is simply a forerunner of post-Zionist propaganda rather than historical reality. Bar Kokhba deserves better than Harkabi’s simplistic portrayal. He was a complex man who left all Jews with a complex legacy. Let us accept Bar Kokhba for who he was rather than a poster boy for the evils of nationalism. His rebellion was well-organized and far superior in success to the other Jewish uprisings against Rome. The Roman Empire could only defeat the Jews with a crack legion from Britain after two years of defeat.
BAR KOKHBA remains an inspiration until this day, representing the Jewish will to fight and survive against great odds. But he was not a forerunner of secular Zionism.
He was not an ancient version of Moshe Dayan. In fact, among the letters that Yigal Yadin discovered in a cave near Ein Gedi in 1961, Bar Koziba – he does not refer to himself in the letters as Rabbi Akiva’s messianic redeemer “Bar Kokhba” – demands that he be delivered the four species to celebrate Sukkot.
At the same time, Bar Kokhba was not a student at an ancient version of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. He was not a harbinger of the fight for religious freedom of American Jews, and like Spartacus, he certainly was not a communist.
Bar Koziba was a Jew who lived, fought and died in the Land of Israel in the 2nd century – not a secular or religious Zionist, not a humanistic Jew or an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Rabbinic Judaism – while its roots are in the Torah through interpretation of Oral Law – was in its infancy.
Bar Kokhba lived as a Jew. Religious and secular, socialist and nationalist, halachic or progressive – these are modern categories that do not apply to Bar Kokhba. We do a disservice telling the story of the rebellion by exploiting Bar Kokhba through the lens of religion or ideology. To do so makes a shambles of scholarship and the attempt to arrive at the truth in history. In the letters found by Yadin, Bar Koziba signs as “Nasi” – not as in “Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi” and not as in “Chaim Weizmann HaNasi.”
Since I have penned essays before about the negative perception of Bar Kokhba in rabbinic literature and his apotheosis with the rise of modern Zionism, I will not review the specific charges by ancient and medieval rabbis condemning Bar Kokhba as a failed messiah whose exploits should be lamented on the ninth of Av.
Nor will I delve into Bar Kokhba’s transformation into a superhero in Zionist culture and politics. My film will address these issues, attempt to ask questions and delve into the intricacies of Jewish history. My screenplay will celebrate Jewish heroism in the fight against enemy empires but be cautious in its approach to the tragic realities that have been the result of messianic activism.
Yes, we all have a bias. But if we could provide a balanced approach to the life of this remarkable leader – the Bar Koziba of the ninth of Av and the Bar Kokhba of Lag Ba’omer – it will go a long way to educating Jews about their past – a complex past that should not be exploited to score talking points. If any reader is interested in financing this blockbuster, please contact me. Spartacus has had his day in film history. It is time for Bar Kokhba.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.