An erratic, irresponsible, leader who pits one part of the population against the other, seemingly concerned with nothing as much as his own power and enrichment? We’ve seen this before – both in the 20th Century and earlier, in the biblical Book of Samuel.
Within it, Saul, becomes the first king of Israel and quickly commits to killing his son-in-law, David, who he believes is conspiring to take over the kingdom.
Saul finds he cannot kill David, but he kills hundreds of others in ways that still echo today.
In their brilliant book, The Beginning of Politics, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes look at Saul, sitting on the heights of power, holding the spear which he has twice used to try and kill David (see I Sam 18:10-12 and 19:9-10). He is absolutely apoplectic that David is still alive.
More than that, King Saul is convinced that David is alive because his own soldiers, fellow Benjaminites, are secretly plotting against him, in league with David.
Saul here is pathetic creature, tormented by his insecurity and sense of inadequacy, complaining that none of his men are loyal to him, but he is still the king. And make no mistake – a paranoid and insecure leader, with command of the military and the economy, is a very dangerous thing.
In an unstable political moment such as this, there will always be an opportunity for a person who is sufficiently unscrupulous and cunning to find a way to advance themselves.
Doeg the Edomite, a mercenary among Saul’s troops, is exactly such an unscrupulous and cunning person. Doeg senses an opportunity and reports some fake news to Saul, which happens to be exactly what Saul wants to hear.
Doeg reports that, just as Saul suspected, there is a conspiracy, and David is at the heart of it. Doeg says that he saw the priests of Nob making inquiries of God on David’s behalf, which is something the priests are only supposed to do for the king. It would have been treasonous if the priests had done that, which they didn’t.
As in most campaigns of misinformation, there was actually a kernel of truth to the story. David was at the temple, and he did get supplies from the priests, but only because he baldly lied and said that he was a loyal servant of Saul, sent on a secret mission. They had no idea he had broken ranks with the king, and one way or the other, the priests certainly never talked to God on David’s behalf.
However, that isn’t what Saul wanted to hear, so that isn’t what Doeg told him. If nothing else, Doeg is extremely attentive to what the king wants, crazy though he may be.
Doeg’s treachery works — Saul, who was certain that someone had betrayed him, now has an address for his anger — the priests of Nob.
Saul summons the head priest and his entire household for questioning. The paranoia grows — Doeg falsely implicated one person; Saul summons 88 men, as well as their wives and children — hundreds of people in all.
The head priest flatly denies interceding with God on David’s behalf and says that he assisted David with food and because, to the best of his or anyone else’s knowledge, David was the most loyal and respected of Saul’s servants! He was David’s dupe, not his accomplice.
The defense is pointless — Saul thunders and condemns them to death, and commands his guards to slay all the priests and their families, bringing us to the heart of this tragedy.
The servants of the king would not raise a hand to strike down the priests of the Holy One. The king said to do it, and they simply refused. They hashtag resisted.
Sadly though, their resistance was futile — Saul just turned to Doeg and commanded him to commit the murders. And Doeg, our man who knows that keeping this king happy is essential for his own success, kills with abandon, massacring nearly 100 men, their families and their animals.
In times of political turmoil, there will always be those who, like Doeg, offer immoral obedience to a tyrant, hoping to curry favor.
So what do we learn? At minimum, don’t be Doeg — don’t offer false testimony about individuals or groups, don’t lie and curry favor with authorities, don’t murder innocent people, even if you are commanded to do so. This is Ethics 101: Common Human Decency — don’t be Doeg.
What then of the bodyguards? They were public servants who carried out the violence of the state when needed, and had the backbone to refuse when the sovereign issued an immoral command. Good for them.
Yet, non-compliance only goes so far. While Saul’s bodyguards kept their own hands clean, that didn’t do much good for the priests of Nob, who presumably didn’t want to be murdered at all and weren’t particularly fussed about who exactly was holding the sword.
In fact, the Jewish and Israeli legal tradition holds that you need not actually hold the weapon to be liable for a murder which you could have prevented.
Almost exactly 35 years ago, the state of Israel fought a war in southern Lebanon, and Israeli troops guarded the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, which housed tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli army allowed an armed right-wing Christian militia into the camp, where in less than 48 hours they massacred approximately 3,000 people.
The Israeli public was rightly horrified and Prime Minister Menachem Begin established the Kahan Commission to investigate what happened. The Kahan report, which was authored by the president of the Israeli Supreme Court, the future president of the Supreme Court and a major general, found that while Israel was not directly responsible for the massacre, Israel was indirectly responsible.
They said the decision to allow the militia into the refugee camps was taken “without consideration of the danger — which [they] were obligated to foresee as probable — that [the militia] would commit massacres and pogroms against the inhabitants of the camps.”
They went further and said that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility “for ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge” and “not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed” and that he should be relieved of his command.
What might the Kahn commission say about Saul’s bodyguards? They, like the Israeli soldiers at Sabra and Shatila, didn’t kill anyone. Their hands were clean. They just happened to be standing there. With weapons. While someone else did the killing. Maybe they were checking Facebook?
Had the Kahn commission conducted an inquiry into Saul’s bodyguards, it seems unlikely they would have judged them favorably.
True, the bodyguards were not Doeg. They didn’t do any killing. But it seems their concern was not with the vulnerable, but with preserving their own sense of virtue.
That’s not good enough. It’s not enough to say we aren’t Doeg, doing the bidding of a dangerous ruler, and it’s not enough to be the bodyguards, and stand idly by while others are being persecuted.
It’s bad tactics, because as Pastor Martin Neimoller reminds us, after he stood silently by when they came for the socialists, the trade unionists and the Jews, there was nobody left to defend him when they come for him.
More than that though, it is bad ethics. We learn in the Gemara (Shabbat 54b), “whoever is able to resist the sins of even the entire world and does not is implicated in the sins of the entire world.”
So, should we ever be faced with a paranoid and erratic ruler, who is quick to capitalize on divisions in our country and threatens vulnerable populations, we are called to resist.
But how? How do we resist such a ruler?
The Jewish experience of the Warsaw Ghetto offers two models. One is the model of Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the other is the model of Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Hasidic rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, known as the Eish Kodesh,.
Anielewicz was a leader not just of the armed resistance, but of all the Jews of the ghetto. He wrote in an oft copied letter, “Jews, the hour is near. You must be prepared to resist, not to give yourselves up like sheep to slaughter. Not even one Jew must go to the train. People who cannot resist actively, by shooting, must offer passive resistance, by hiding. Let everyone be ready to die like a man! Let every mother be a lioness defending her young!”
It would be hard to overstate Anielewicz’s impact in ongoing Jewish consciousness. There are commemorative stamps and coins in his honor, streets named for him in nearly every Israeli city, as well as a kibbutz in the Negev.
His life looms larger than his name though. The formal name of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel is יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה, Day of Memory for the Holocaust and the Resistance. It is in the resistance that millions of Jews in Israel and around the world have found dignity and self-respect in the aftermath of an annihilation that was not just devastating, but humiliating.
How could we have gone as sheep to the slaughter?
The anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon wrote that violence is “a cleansing force [that]… frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” The violence of the oppressed, he argues, is as much about achieving psychological goals as political goals. Violence can allow oppressed people to see themselves in a grander light.
Anielewicz didn’t think he was going to defeat the Nazis, he thought he was going to die with honor and dignity.
About eighteen years ago, I led a group of American college students to Ukraine to clean up an old Jewish cemetery that had been turned into the local garbage dump.
In the course of our time there, we visited Babi Yar, a bucolic site outside of Kiev where over two days in September, 1941 the Nazis murdered 33,771 Jews. Sitting with my group, one of my students asked what I would have done if, back in 1941, I was the young rabbi for a group of college age Jews when the Nazis took power. It was a horrible question because there is no possible good answer. What options would we have? Flee? Fight? Collaborate?
It took me awhile, but ultimately I said the only thing I could imagine us doing was banding together and fighting the Nazis, even if that meant our certain death, because at least then we would die with honor. We all agreed there wasn’t any other answer and discussed what it would mean to die valiantly. There was even something exciting about the idea of leading my students to kill Nazis and dying like a partisan.
We all know that many of the great moral victories of the 20th century were won through non-violence – the civil rights movement and the liberation of India chief among them. Yet there are limits to its efficacy.
In a 1938 article, Mahatma Gandhi called on the Jews of Germany to practice non-violence as a form of resistance against the Nazis. In response, Martin Buber, a towering 20th century Jewish intellectual and one of the founders of the Israeli peace movement, wrote that for years he had studied Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolence and admired how it pricked the conscience of the British occupation. Thousands of Jews practiced non-violent resistance on a daily basis, but “the Germans murder our children with abandon, rape and kill our women and openly defecate on every holy object we hold dear. They have no conscience to be pricked.”
There are times when violence is the only path to liberation. I’m not a pacifist. I am un-ambivalent in my gratitude that people — guerillas and regulated armies alike — took up arms against the Nazis. If resistance then was limited to strongly worded op-ed pieces or even mass sit-ins, I suspect few Jew would be alive today.
Violence can, at times, be a force of liberation. However, despite what Fanon says, it cannot be a source of any meaningful self-respect.
In the fall, I sat a Zen meditation retreat at Auschwitz. It was a profound experience, in part because while sitting the retreat, I studied the Eish Kodesh, the final book of Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.
This work was unknown until 1960, when a Polish construction worker found a metal canister in the remnants of what had been the Ghetto. It had the word ATTENTION written in Polish on the outside, and on the inside, in Yiddish and Hebrew, were the teachings that Rabbi Shapira shared with his students and congregants in the Ghetto, along with a letter, also written in Polish, asking that if this manuscript was ever found, it be sent to the rabbinate in Tel Aviv. Even though Rabbi Shapira’s native language was Yiddish, he wrote the letter in Polish because he correctly assumed that if it were ever to be found, it would be found by a Polish speaker, since all the Yiddish speakers would be dead or gone.
The manuscript was sent on to Israel, where it was published the following year.
Rabbi Shapira was the descendant of tremendous rabbinic dynasties and himself a gifted rabbi and educator and practitioner of hashtaka, a form of meditation in which the self is a witness to the stream of one’s thoughts without necessarily being caught up in them, not unlike Vipassana or insight meditation.
During the fall of 1939, the Germans bombarded Warsaw, and most of Rabbi Shapira’s family was killed. The Warsaw ghetto was essentially built around his home and his unhappy fate was to shepherd his community through hell, to their death. He did this with a love and compassion and moral courage which humbles me.
Rabbi Shapira offered resistance of a very different type than Anielewicz, but he did not, by any means, go as a sheep to the slaughter.
He titled his work Hiddushei Torah mi-Shnot ha-Za’am, Torah Insights from the Years of Wrath, but nowhere in there does he mention Germany or Nazis. They had taken his community, they had taken his family, they would ultimately take his life, but he would not let them take his soul.
Not only that, but he would not hate the Nazis, though of course, he had every legitimate reason to do. He was not speaking theoretically when he insisted in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto that even the demons of Hell have sparks of the Holy, however unrealized.
On the wall of my office is the verse Ain Od Milvado – there is nothing other than God. When the enemy insists that you are vermin in need of extermination, it is resistance of a very different type to insist that not only are you a site of the presence of God, but so are they.
Anielewicz teaches us one way to resist, one which I do not repudiate. But I’m painfully aware what the orientation towards force can do to an individual, to a family, to a nation. Hard though it might be to protect a body, it might be harder still to protect a soul.
Nietzche taught that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Should we ever be faced with a monster, in our personal life or in our political life, how else might we respond, if not with violence?
In recent years, Wunsiedel, a German town near the Czech border, has struggled with parades of neo-nazis who come to honor war criminals buried there. The town staged counter demonstrations, exhumed the corpses and removed the grave stones, but the neo-Nazis returned again and again, seeming to relish the conflict.
Finally, in 2014, the town turned the Nazi parade into the world’s “most involuntary walkathon.” They turned the march into a mock sporting event, stenciling “start,” a halfway mark and a finish line onto the street, as if it were a race. They lined the route with silly signs, including my favorite, “Mein Mampf!” or “my snack,” which hung over a table of bananas. Citizens of the town pledged 10 euros for every meter the nazis marched, and a sign at the end of the route thanked the marchers for raising €10,000 for anti-Nazi efforts. Finally, when the Nazis crossed the finish line, someone showered them with rainbow confetti.
Now, I love this story, but Rabbi Shapira did not have the opportunity to mock the Nazis. His resistance was no less profound, however, for its lack of glitter.
At the very end of his life, Rabbi Shapira was held in a factory with other communal leaders – political activists, lawyers, artists, scholars. Somehow, the partisans from Anielewicz’s Jewish fighting group infiltrated the factory and prepared to smuggle the prisoners out in groups of two or three.
These leaders had made a pact that none would leave without the others. In The Holy Fire, Professor Nechemia Polen writes that despite the emphasis that Judaism places on saving life, “these were no ordinary times; the Nazis had done their best to destroy not only the physical lives of the Jews, but their souls. The enemy had divided Jew against Jew, holding out the vain hope of survival to some, as he took others to their deaths.
“In the summer of 1943, when most of Polish Jewry had already been murdered, it might well have seemed to the communal leaders of Jewish Warsaw that the most important statement they could make at that moment was an expression of mutual solidarity.
“Escape – even if successful – would likely bring only temporary reprieve from death; more important, more lasting, more meaningful was to express solidarity with brothers and sisters, the unbowed remnant of a once proud and flourishing Jewish community.
“For Rabbi Shapira personally, this solidarity pact would have taken on a dimension of special religious meaning, that of Kiddush ha-Shem, holy martyrdom. The pious hasidic master joined hands with nominally secular figures: political activists, lawyers, intellectuals, artists, and others, sweeping aside all ideological differences in an act of solidarity that reached the core of their shared Jewish identity.
“For Rabbi Shapira this was no doubt the highest expression of love of God, and love of God’s persecuted children. To turn down a rescue attempt in such circumstances was a compelling act of faith, a concrete articulation of the soul-to-soul bonding that he had preached all his life.”
At the very end, Rabbi Shapira resisted, not with force, but with loyalty, solidarity and love.
I’m older now than I was when I led those students at Babi Yar, with a community I’m deeply committed to, a wife and two kids who I love passionately and a dog who I basically tolerate. I sat for long hours of silence in the barracks at Auschwitz this fall, and wondered again what I would do if they came for me.
It was and is an impossible question, with no answer that can be judged right or wrong. But this fall, I saw myself dying not as a fighter but a father, gathering my children to me if I could, and singing to them. The honor I aspired to was of love, not violence.
So, we learn from Doeg that when there is a ruthless and immoral leader, we should not curry favor them by lying and killing for our own gain and
We learn from Saul’s bodyguards and the Kahn Commission that we are not to stand by, keeping our hands clean while others are persecuted and
We learn from Mordechai Anielewicz that at times, we need to be strong, and physically courageous, in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
What do we learn from Rabbi Shapira?
We learn that we don’t have to let the bigots determine the terms of the fight. We learn that honor comes not from how others treat us, but from how we act.
We learn in the old words of the Mishna, וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ – In a place where nobody merits the name human, where decency has been trampled, we work, we strain, we struggle to be a human.
We stand in solidarity, we act with honor, we live by values we hold dear – even to the very end.
The great punk band the Clash once asked, when they kick in your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?
Those aren’t the only options.
If they kick in my front door, I’m planning to come in my tallis and tefilin holding hands with the bad hombres from Mexico, the transgender soldiers, the women who’ve bene grabbed, the queers, the Arabs, the undocumented workers. Perhaps it will be time to fight, and perhaps it will be time to sing and laugh and pray.
It will never be time to stop being human.
This was originally given over as a drasha on the first day of Rosh Hashona 5778 at Beacon Hebrew Alliance.