Is there a right way? critiquing those who critique the masada myth


More and more Christians seem to have turned towards taking the Sermon on the Mount to heart, with its plea to turn the other cheek. Yet at the same time, the (especially white) Christian turn towards the call to nonviolence of Jesus tends to promote a blanket condemnation of physical violence. Sarah Moon, for instance, has noted how nonviolence in (often white evangelical) Christian circles is a position of relative privilege. Because many of us do not face physical violence daily, it is disingenuous to police others who do face subjective (physical) and objective (ideological and symbolic) forms of violence routinely. It is not to say that I am anti-pacifist, but rather, that Christian pacifists can lose sight of other forms of violence in their blanket condemnation of physical violence. One must take into account other forms of violence that complicate the simplistic view violence is only about physical retaliation (or even whether physical forms of might be triggered through ideological or systemic violence). The support of nonviolence goes so far as to promote certain visions of the historical past, namely, Jean Vanier sees the Jesus myth as superior to the myth of Masada. Daniel Boyarin does something similar concerning rabbinic Judaism. Thus, we have three myths: the Jesus myth, the Masada myth, and the Yavne myth. Each functions as a particular response to Roman imperial hegemony. Yet, in their insistence that either the Jesus myth or Yavne myth is superior to the Masada myth, Boyarin and Vanier miss the mark concerning the violence of imperialism.

The Yavne myth recollected in Bavli Gittin 56a-b is juxtaposed against the Jewish nationalists, where Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai and his nephew (“the Father of Lies”) argue about how long the Jewish nationalists will allow Jerusalem to be shut up during siege. The idea that Jewish nationalists fought heroically against outsiders (Rome), and committed suicide rather than submitting to Roman imperial hegemony is critiqued in the Yavne myth. In trying to appease the Romans, Rabbi Yoḥanan correctly predicts that Vespasian will become the emperor of Rome. After a conversation between Rabbi Yoḥanan Vespasian, a messenger comes to tell Vespasian that the emperor has died. Because Rabbi Yoḥanan correctly predicts this, and is granted a wish, which he replies, “Give be Yavne and its sages, and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel, and doctors to cure Rabbi Ẓadoq [who had been fasting in order to save Jerusalem].”

Boyarin is correct that the Yavne myth promotes a different image of Judaism than that of the Sicarii because it a) proposes abandoning Jerusalem altogether (the seat of both political and cultic power); b) Judaism’s (at least rabbinic) de-emphasis of territoriality altogether. Rabbinic Judaism advances a kind of cosmopolitanism in light of Roman imperialism. As Boyarin notes,

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s story makes nearly explicit allusion to Josephus, since according the the latter, it was he who announced to Vespasian that he had become emperor. This helps to establish an intertextual connection between the texts and promotes contrast of their values. The Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbi Yoḥanan prefers life and the possibility to serve God through the study of Torah over everything else. He is willing to abase himself, pretend to be dead—a virtual parody of the Masada suicide?—make peace with the Romans over/against the Jewish zealots, even to sacrifice Jerusalem, in order that [rabbinic] Jewish life and Torah might continue (Boyarin 2002, 52; Italics for emphasis).

While the Jewish nationalists responded to Roman imperial hegemony through physical violence, the Rabbis were willing to appease Roman imperial hegemony in order to promote the survival of their culture. Again, the Yavne myth itself suggests a critique of the Masada myth.

Although Vanier does not use the terminology of the “Masada myth,” he proposes that Jesus’ statement regarding violence is superior to that of the violence against Rome espoused by the Sicarii. In Becoming Human, Vanier juxtaposes Jewish nationalists over against the ideals of the Jesus Movement. Vanier implies that Jewish nationalists would have been considered terrorists by Rome:

For many centuries the Jewish people had been overrun by foreign powers: first by the Babylonians [sic], then by the Persians, later by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. The Jewish people, naturally, hated this foreign domination. Crushed in their dignity and freedom, they sought liberation, often through violent means. “Freedom fighters” might be the term the Jewish people would have used to describe those who recorded to violence. The Romans, of course, would have considered them terrorists (Vanier 1998, 146; italics for emphasis).

Although Vanier appears not to make a value judgment on the Jewish nationalists, I believe the statement, “The Romans, of course, would have considered them [Jewish nationalists] terrorists” indicative. Moreover, Vanier positively evaluates the ideals of the Jesus Movement (“turn the other cheek” [Matt 5:43-44; Luke 6:27-8]) against the tactics of the Jewish nationalists. As Vanier later explicates, only non-violence can break the chain of violence (ibid; 147-8). Like Boyarin, Vanier evaluates his own religious traditions positively against the Masada myth. However, both authors ignore that all three myths (the foundation of the Jesus Movement, the Masada myth, and the Yavne myth) are responses to Roman imperial hegemony. This leads me to the question in the title of the blog post, “is there a right way?” More specifically, “is there a right response to imperialism?” This leads me to other questions as well, namely, why focus only on subjective violence?

In Violence, Slavoj Žižek notes two other forms of violence, ideological violence and systemic violence. Ideological violence is the violence perpetuated by “racism, incitement, or sexual discrimination” (Žižek 2008, 10). Systemic violence, for Žižek, is the kind of violence played out under capitalism itself, it is a violence that can be no longer attributed to individuals themselves because it involves the kinds categorization that makes certain forms of life more livable than others. As Žižek later states, systemic violence is the kind that “involves the ‘automatic’ creation of excluded and dispensable individuals from the homeless to the unemployed, to the ‘ultra-subjective’ violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious, in short racist, ‘fundamentalisms'” (ibid., 14). Here perhaps one should replace capitalism with Roman imperial hegemony, but the notion of a kind of symbolic violence, to allude to Bourdieu, which cannot be attributed to individuals.

For instance, rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus Movement contain their own forms of violence. Rabbinic Judaism is exclusionary, particularly the exclusion of women from public forms of religiosity and participation in shaping rabbinic discourse. “Turn the other cheek” might seem immediately pacifist, but this framing of the Jesus Movement as non-violent ignores the early Jesus Movement had an ideology of eschatological violence: violence is simply deferred to a future time and enacted by God (Interestingly Žižek treats this over against “eye for an eye,” where Žižek argues that “turn the other cheek” can lead to resentment and desire for revenge leads to other modes of oppression [ibid., 190]). Because both privilege a critique of subjective violence, Boyarin and Vanier romanticize the movements that they privilege.

More importantly, Boyarin and Vanier, indicated in their ignoring the violence of Roman imperial hegemony, ignore the multiple layers of violence. Not only is there a privilege in choosing one response to imperialism as a better one, but also it ignores that the violence of Jewish nationalists pales in comparison to that of imperial Rome. This is not to say I side with Bar Kosiba and those who committed suicide at Masada. Yet, it is worth questioning, “is there a right response to imperialism?” Doesn’t this very question already obscure the violence of Roman imperial hegemony? It might be the case that the Sicarii drew upon Roman manifestations of power to critique Rome (i.e. suicide as a form of honor), as Boyarin notes. The Sicarii might have also been thugs, slaughtering those living in Ein Gedi, for instance. Nevertheless, it seems more apt to critique the violence of Roman imperial hegemony. After all, the Sicarii exist as a response to the imperial powers that be. This is neither to side with the Sicarii, nor to say that one cannot agree with Boyarin and Vanier. Rather, it is to focus more specifically the (subjective and objective) violence of imperial power. In such a way, historiographically, I want to align myself much more with Sarah’s discussion of privileged pacifism, and suggest that this privilege can frame the way that we view the past.


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