A recent visit with a smart, committed rabbi in Florida got me thinking again about groups visiting Masada. The rabbi shared his excitement about Masada and his doubts about its suitability as a place to mark bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on an upcoming Israel trip.
Masada has long-been a mandatory station on Israel travel itineraries. Dramatic photos of Masada are displayed across the websites of major Israel travel organizations and agencies. Excluding the pandemic years, Masada hosts 750,000 visitors annually; making it one of Israel’s most popular sites alongside the Western Wall and Yad VaShem. International interest in Masada led to its inclusion as a UNESCO world heritage site. Conde Nast Traveler defined Masada as a must-visit and exclaimed, “No visit to Israel is complete without paying homage at the ancient fortress of Masada.”
The hype is deserved. The towering ship-shaped mountain and its isolated desert location is awe-inspiring. Whether ascending to the summit by foot or by cable car or standing on the peak to catch the sunrise glinting off the Mountains of Moab and the Dead Sea; the natural surroundings are breathtaking.
Even a brief exploration of the mountain – the ruins of palaces, galleries, and ornately decorated halls – surprises and stuns. In a desert that receives about 47 mm of rain annually Masada’s 2,000-year-old water system was potentially capable of storing enough water for thousands of people that could last for over a decade. Massive storage areas and even fruit gardens struck the ancient visitor with a background of plenty above a stark desert landscape.
And finally, the story of Masada as preserved by the 2nd Temple rebel leader, turncoat, and historian – Josephus Flavius – is understood and retold by generations of Israeli tour guides as a stirring heroic epic of resistance to oppression and occupation. In the words attributed to Masada’s rebel commander, Elazar Ben Yair, “Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men…” Josephus’ account of the siege and fall of Masada is the only account of the unfolding drama and the solitary testament to the suicide of the defenders of Masada.
However, the widely accepted and recounted version of Masada often does not consider decades of academic research challenging Josephus’ version of the events, the shifting status of Masada in Israeli culture, and our own reactions in the face of behavior under extreme duress. It is perhaps the nature of myths that they are told in broad strokes, and in the limited time a typical tourist group visits Masada there is also a pressing sense that messy details and internal tensions detract from the traveler’s experience.
The popular retelling tends to elevate the Sicarii rebels of Masada to heroic status through their suicidal self-sacrifice. When reviewing Josephus account of that fateful Passover eve in 73 C.E., the suicide pact of the male adults of Masada demanded that each husband and father murder their own families before taking their own lives.
According to Josephus, after a prolonged siege, Roman forces were poised to ascend to the summit of Masada and break through the defensive walls. Josephus stages Ben Yair delivering two stirring speeches to his commanders. Convinced that the only choices they were left with were either death or slavery; each adult male agreed to kill their own families, and then allow themselves to be put to death by the ten remaining adult males who had been chosen by lot.
“Miserable men indeed were they, whose distress forced them to slay their own wives and children with their own hands, as the lightest of those evils that were before them. . .They then chose ten men by lot out of them, to slay all the rest; every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and after all, should kill himself.” (The War of the Jews, Book 7).
Tour guides stand on Masada – perhaps under a thatched roof overlooking the Roman ramp or adjacent to the spot where a pile of pottery shards including one with the name ‘Ben Yair’ was uncovered – and tell the story of the last night. Josephus account is not about an individual decision by all involved to take their own lives; rather it is a bleak (and not entirely unsympathetic) account of a ritualized, political act. And one where in the context of life in the ancient world, men made even the most crucial decisions for women.
I had read Yigal Yadin’s Masada while I was in high school. Even then I was a Jewish history geek. And I recall being at Masada for the first time in 1982. Standing at the top platform of the Herodian Northern Palace and facing towards Ein Gedi, our guide exposed us to Josephus’ report of the Sicarii attack on the Jewish village of Ein Gedi, the pillaging of the site, and the murder of over 700 Jews on Passover. The Sicarii were a ruthless wing of the Jewish resistance against Roman occupation, infamous for hiding daggers (sica in Latin) under their robes and assassinating Jewish opponents in Jerusalem’s busy streets and markets. A Talmudic source points to another Jewish extremist group – The Thugs (HaBiryonim). According to a Talmudic source (Gittin 56a) this faction destroyed the food warehouses of Jerusalem in an attempt to rouse a desperate population to join them in battling against the Roman troops besieging the city.
Can the defenders of Masada be seen as heroes considering the events described above? Can we judge the events of the past in the light of the values of the present? How do we discern between legitimate resistance to oppression and occupation and terror and brutality? How do we respond when religious and political extremism raises its head both at home and away?
The questions raised by the intricacies and mysteries of Masada even after decades of archeological and historical research are relevant to our own identities as Israelis and Jews. Who are our heroes and role models? How do we share the stories of our past in ways that help us contend with the complexities of our contemporary world? Adding Masada to a cancel culture list is not a choice. The site itself and its shifting place in modern Jewish identity cannot be ignored. Like with all topics of study – especially those that are near and dear – intellectual honesty and wrestling with tough questions is the only path worth pursuing.
When I visit and teach on Masada, I always feel a sense of excitement and privilege. The site itself and its stories continue to inspire and provoke, inspire and incite. I know that the best tour educators approach the site similarly. I first visited Masada 40 years ago and have likely wandered among its ruins hundreds of times. For me, visiting a site like Masada requires me to be an archaeologist of narratives; excavating the layers of versions and retellings; sharing with visitors the questions and queries, challenges and relevancies of the site because we live in a land where the past is always present.
So, what about Bnei Mitzvah ceremonies on Masada? My answer is the same with regards to Masada, and Tzippori, and the Kinneret Farm, and any other site of meaning in Israel. On the cusp of becoming Jewish adults, an encounter between a young person and a site in Israel and the stories of the Jewish people have the potential to strengthen lifelong bonds and transform communal remembrance into personal memory. Like Masada, all sites of memory demand personal excavation. Parents, and educators and rabbis need assist our children to consider their own connections to these places and stories, about the values challenges that each place presents, and about who are the adults worth emulating – then and now. Visit Israel. Visit the sites. Celebrate and contend with their difficulties and complexities. Being a bar and bat mitzvah means taking a stand. Add your unique voice to our stories. Make your choices and pave your own Jewish paths. Who knows? Someday someone may be telling your story.
Special thanks to Ian & Heidi Stern – lifelong friends and madrichim – for their input.