Rabbi Saul Goldman
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Is There a Blessing for an Uzi?
Sholom Alecheim used to tell the tale of a Jew in the czar's army. He was taught to march and to shoot and how to use his bayonet. When after the bayonent course, his drill instructor told the troops that they were about to face the enemy and asked if there were any questions. The Jew asked the sergeant could you please show me my "man" (i.e.enemy), perhaps he would listen to reason. Violence was incomprehensible to Jews. Tonight, I want to talk, not about war and Jews, but about Jewish wars.
A theological introduction. Louis Finklestein, our teacher and chancellor of JTS for many years wrote his memorable essay, Judaism as a System of Symbols. If you remember college literature courses there is a difference between a sign and a symbol. Signs tell us what is, they tell us about clear facts; they provide information such as street sign. In medicine, a sign is the objective indication of an illness such as elevated blood pressure or changes in an electrocardiogram. Symptoms are like symbols, they are unclear, still a mystery waiting to be solved. Rabbi Finklestein helped us to understand some of the symbols of Judaism, such as the Torah scroll, the menorah or the tallit, which have empowered our lives. According to Professor Finklestein, symbols can also be behaviors, actions and deeds that point to deeper meaning such as eating matzah on Pesach or putting on tefillin. Mitzvot are symbolic behaviors.
In the past century, we saw dramatic changes in Jewish life. These changes were characterized by a renewal of ancient symbols. Symbols are mysteries until we effectively unwrap its meaning or even multiple meanings. Two lovers are shown on the movie screen and then a flash to the ocean waves which have come to symbolize their lovemaking. How odd that the ocean ebb and flow should become a metaphor for sexual love.
Stranger, then, that the uzi (Israeli submachine gun) has become the symbol of the greatest transformation in Judaism since the destruction of Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Why would a rabbi would speak of a weapon? Because Rabbi Finklestein has taught us that objects take on profound meaning in the context of their use. For example, if you are a New Yorker, you might see a switch blade knife and associate it with being mugged or street crime. If you are a post holocaust Jew and see an uzi, it evokes not images of crime, but hope and salvation. The instrument of violence becomes a symbol of hope. How so?
Hope without power is merely magical thinking. I would be hard pressed to hope in the concentration camps surrounded not only by German guards, but by an world that didn much care about us. The uzi, which we manufactured, expresses our realization that salvation is not a gift; it is a goal.
For Jews, and all those whose world view and attitude toward life has been inspired by Torah, the rebirth of Israel renewed our faith. Israel has inspired a dynamic new attitude toward ourselves and the world.
Israel has penetrated to the deepest levels of memory and re-visioned those collective experiences. For example, Passover became a dynamic motif for American blacks during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It spoke to the feminists and now gays and lesbians. Churches all over America celebrate some form of pesach. We understand ourselves differently.
Even our humor reflects this transformation. I enjoy telling the story of the Exodus on Passover (the revised version). The little girl comes home from Hebrew school and her mother asks "what did you learn today?" She answers that she learned about the Exodus.? Oh, tell me what your teacher said.? K, Moses led our People out of Egypt but Pharoah and his army were in hot pursuit. When Moses got to the Red Sea, he ordered his communications officer to call ahead. Then a squadron of Israeli jet fighters appeared in the skies and bombed the Egyptians while the combat engineers constructed bridges so the People could cross over the water. s that what your teacher told you, ?asks the mother incredulously? ot exactly, mommy, but if I were to tell you what she told us, you never believe it!?
Our new self-image is evident. Today more Jews spreak hebrew than yiddish. And added to the recognizable symbols of Judaism is the Star of David, no longer a badge of shame, identifying Jews, but now on flags and on the fuselage of aircraft. But perhaps one of the most significant symbols is the Uzi. The Uzi represents what our joke states clearly. Today we see so many wonderful changes; people speaking hebrew, a land reclaimed, cities where there were once sand dunes, a resurgence of intense interest in Judaic studies all because of the Uzi.
Sentiments and ideas are impotent without power to animate them. The nationalism of the American colonies only succeeded because people fought for their principles. In reality, the miracle of Hanukah lights was a people campaign against a superior Syrian force.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, after the Six Day war, composed beautiful tribute to Israel. Heschel wrote about the beauty and joy he experienced walking in Jerusalem. He quoted psalms, Talmud and theolgy. He felt God's presence and the miraculous, he wrote of this and of an historical transformation. But he never acknowledged the one institution responsible for that blessing, Zahal.
Our sacred scriptures and our liturgy refers to God, as Adonai Zvaot, Lord of the Armies. The Bible not only described the world as it was, but also gave us a vision of how it should be. It understood that change meant using power. Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Samson, Saul and especially David were all warriors. If the 54 year old war of Israeli Independence will end in a peace treaty, it is because Arabs finally recognized the futility of war. Thank God and thank Zahal!
Remember that line in Fiddler when the rabbi was asked is there a blessing for the czar? We laugh because the czar was our enemy and it seemed incredulous to bless him. But, in Jewish theology, words transform. For example, by saying hamotzi, we elevate a basic biological need into a sacred act. We do this by distinguishing ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. We re-orient ourselves in relationship to God. There are certain items that can never be blessed, forbidden foods or forbidden acts are two examples. Thus, despite the old joke about the reform rabbi reciting a blessing before eating a ham sandwich, Jewish tradition understood that somethings were essentially unredeemable.
Many acts are sublimated by sanctifying them. Essentially neutral they can be transformed into mitzvot or keli kodesh, instruments of holiness. Hence, my question to the rabbis, is there a beracha for an uzi? Why one may ask should there be a blessing for an uzi? Would it not be like say hamotzi over ham? Shouldn't both be anathema? The answer, of course, is no. The Torah forbids us to eat pork, but tells us how to be warriors. Reciting the blessing over the Uzi is what transforms the soldier into a Jewish warrior; a soldier in the Lord Army (Zva Hashem).
But now I ask what makes a Jewish warrior? And, how do we take a weapon that can be used to kill people and transform it into a keli kodesh, an instrument of holiness? The answer lies in Maimonides?theology of milchemet mitzvah. To anyone who has ever served in battle, war is the single greatest constellation of terror, humiliation, fear and revulsion that human beings could ever create. War, as Sherman concluded, is hell. The dilemma, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, is that war is the price we pay for our liberty.
Until there will be no more violence in this world, our people will require guardians for a long time to come. How will our warriors maintain their spirituality and their ethical standards? Torah commands us about the way we are to treat captives and besiege cities. Zahal (IDF) soldiers behave according to this code known as tohar haneshek, or the "purity" of arms. The way in which our soldiers behave indicates that even in the inverted world of war, piety can be observed. That is why most of us realize that the accusation of a massacre in Jenin is a lie. So, I asked the divisional chaplain many years ago when I served in Zahal, what is the blessing for an uzi? I still have not received an answer. Now, I will give the answer.
To understand the function of blessing precedes the choice of blessing. A beracha conceptualizes what we are about to do. Thus, it elevates the Uzi to an instrument of God’s will insofar as it is employed to defend Israel. To paraphrase the manual of arms, we cognitively place an additional safety on the weapon.
Symbols unfold both meanings and questions that we cannot avoid. Maimonides teaches us that there are wars we are obligated to fight. Does that mitzvah obligate all Jews? Does our American citizenship deprive us of fulfilling the important commandment of defending Israel? Does American citizenship constitute a eferment? from our part in Israel defense? In this week Torah lesson, Moses sneers at the people who have found exemptions from service (sounds like the yeshivah bochers of Jerusalem), our brothers go into battle and you sit here!? (Numbers 32:6). And yet, Moses instructs that the fruits of victory be shared by all Israel. We have enjoyed the gifts of Israel's victories: Jerusalem, Jewish independence and the dignity restored to all of us.
Today there is a disconcerting debate that is going on within Israel about doing away universal conscription and replace it with a small professional army like America. This is poltically and spiritually dangerous. Because, their livelihood, self-esteem and loyalty is to their bosses? professional soldiers, unlike citizen soldiers are a potential threat to democracy. Israel has not yet fully matured as a democracy. It is still being weakened by the civil tensions between Sefardi and Ashkenazi, religious and secular, Arab and Jew. Israel is too fragile a society to exclude the majority of the population from military skills and training. The greatest insurance Israel holds against any coup d etat is an army of hungry, tired civilians who can wait to get home and out of uniform. It is paradoxically their distaste for soldiering that will insure not only our success in battle but that the military will never become a domestic political tool! Once at a meeting of our divisional staff, our general remarked about our unusual army. If I were to tell you that tomorrow, we leave for Turkey because there is an enemy there that threatens our children, you would complain but everyone would be ready to go. If I were to tell you that tomorrow we are going to Jerusalem to take the knesset, you would look at me add an expletive or two and all turn around an go home, for that I am proud of who we are?
The issues that concern Israel concern all the Jewish people. Because our future depends upon the future of Israel. Today in the aftermath of 9/11 and the IDF retaliations against terrorists, there is a clear signal from much of the world that the war is not against Israel as a country; it is against Israel as a people. It is still another war against the Jews. The State department warns Jews about travel to France and Belgium; it cautions about wearing our kipot. Centuries ago during another war against us the rabbis formulated the only kind of defense ( passive resistance) we could muster in the form of a rabbinic principle: “y’hareg v’lo ya’ avor”. Under normal circumstances Jews were expected to do whatever it took to avoid being murdered: eat pork or desecrate shabbat. But under the extreme conditions of Hadrianic persecutions even a small infraction of the law would be sufficient reason to resist. Thankfully, today we, as a nation, can take pride in our contribution to the war on terror. As we pray for a better world, we pray for the best of our sons: may they be swift as eagles, strong as lions?(2 Samuel 1:23)
The uzi represents both the blessings of a homeland, rich in energy and creativity, and the risks incurred by its defense and ongoing security. Each of us, when we completed basic training were given both an Uzi and a Bible. We understood that without the uzi, the values and visions of our Torah would remain dormant in a pagan world; we also knew that without the Bible the uzi would be just an instrument of violence. Is there a blessing for an uzi? Certainly, baruch atah adonai..... sh’ozer Yisrael bigvura!