Not by Might

I was recently reminded about what an unfair fight we face when battling against BDS and the other manifestations of the propaganda attack on Israel when my temple held a service in celebration of Scouting (Boy and Girl) and alumni of Jewish summer camps.

At a mock campfire after the service (complete with s’mores), a folk singer led the kids in the room through the cannon of Jewish camp tunes, including one I remember when my boy was involved with the temple singing group: “Not by Might and Not by Power” based on a passage in the Book of Zechariah. (The song was written by Debbie Friedman, a pioneer who helped transform the music of the Reform and Progressive Jewish movements, who sadly passed away just a few days ago.)

Now I have some friends and allies who dismiss the sentiments in songs such as “Not by Might,” with its chorus of: “Not by might and not by power, But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace” as one more example of “kumbaya thinking,” the tendency of many Jews to try to find common ground and avoid conflict at all costs, even when faced with situations when conflict is unavoidable or a foe who is teaching their children to fight until victory over those hoping to prevail by spirit, rather than might.

Like so many situations in the real world, the duality of compromisers vs. militants misses some critical points, starting with the experience of Jewish history. Once again, I am in the debt of Professor Ruth Wisse who summarizes and reflects on the challenging relationship between Jews and Power in her masterful short book of the same name.

Jews, after all, were once citizens and rulers of a political entity, the original Jewish state, and (like all small powers in antiquity) had to contend with the continual encroachment of numerous imperial neighbors such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. The lessons of most of these conflicts were mixed, with the fall of the first Hebrew kingdoms to Babylon by a failure of Jewish arms, followed by a restoration of that nation due to the act of generosity by a Persian king (which many thought acted as an agent of God).

The Greek conquerors both captured the land and tried to force Hellenized culture onto the monotheistic Jews, only to repelled (again, by arms) by the Brothers Maccabee. But it was the experience with Rome which provided a unique historical lesson to the Jews, setting up a struggle between compromise and force that informs us millennia later.

For in various revolts against Rome in the First and Second centuries AD, the Jews faced off against the superpower of the day, a foe whose legions had made Rome the undisputed ruler of the Western world. And despite the hopelessness of their cause, the Jews fought on and rekindled their revolt again and again, each time deciding that the imbalance of power would be rectified by having their own one true God on their side.

The failure of this quasi-religious, but ultimately political conflict was total, with the Jews first defeated, then defeated again and disbursed throughout the empire, their political homeland erased from the map (until the last century). Now some Jews still take heart in the courage and steadfastness of their ancestors in the face of odds that should have informed them that defeat was certain. But many more internalized another more significant lesson that might (in the form of armed Jewish revolt) led to near destruction, while spirit (in the form of Judaism recast in the new Diaspora in religious rather than political terms) kept the Jewish nation alive for centuries after Rome was just a memory.

Given this background, who can blame Jews for their peculiar relationship with any sort of power (political, military or especially state)? If recent history demonstrates that spirit alone will not save Jews from the ovens or give birth to a state, older history shows that might and power do not provide all of the answers and, indeed, might create the very problems (such as lack of Jewish independence) they tried to solve.

This debate between might and spirit has been going on so long with sides so hardened that little light is shed when proponents of each side argue their positions, which today use the terms (or, more often, accusatory labels) of “Left” and “Right” as the foundation for sterile debate.

Lost in all of this history, however, is an example worth thinking about: that of Rome. While it might seem odd to look at our historic enemy and destroyer for lessons, keep in mind that Rome was not an empire like the Mongols who simply pillaged and enslaved, enjoying war for its own sake and caring little for anything but spoils. Rather, Rome’s success (especially its military successes during the Republican era) came from the careful deliberation it took before entering a conflict (bordering on hesitancy) coupled with a resolution to never back down once conflict began.

Today, Jewish might (while nowhere near as huge as in our enemy’s imaginations) is not inconsiderable. Yet part of that might derives from the hesitancy with which it is applied. As needs to be pointed out again and again, the people who sing “Not by Might and Not by Power” have created for themselves a pretty decent homeland. Precarious certainly, but a state with which those who built it (and those of us who look on from the sidelines) can be justly proud.

At the same time, the people who have been teaching their children for decades to fight on until their enemy is vanquished either live in squalid holes, in or states on the verge of civil war between totalitarians and fanatics, each claiming to be able deliver victory by the sword more quickly than the other.

Food for thought as some of us dig out from 12-18 inches of heavenly visitation.

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One Response to Not by Might

  1. Anonymous January 16, 2011 at 3:55 am #

    best wishes for peace

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