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Is There a Blessing for a Gun?
By Saul Goldman
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. 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
enemy, perhaps he would listen to reason.” Violence was
incomprehensible to Jews.
Louis Finklestein described Judaism as a system of symbols. There is a
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 deciphered.
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
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
In the past century, we saw dramatic changes in Jewish life. These
characterized by a renewal of ancient symbols. Symbols are mysteries
until we effectively
unwrap its meaning or even multiple meanings.
Strange that the uzi (Israeli submachine gun) has become the symbol of
transformation in Judaism since the destruction of Jerusalem about two
ago. 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
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’t
care much about us. The uzi, which we manufactured, expresses our
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 mother
asks “what did you learn today?” She answers “we learned about the
Exodus.” “Oh, tell
me what your teacher said.” “OK, Moses led our People out of Egypt but
his army were in hot pursuit. When Moses got to the Red Sea, he ordered
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. “Is that what your teacher told you,”
asks the mother
incredulously? “Not exactly, mommy, but if I were to tell you what she
told us, you’d
never believe it!”
Our new self-image is evident. Today, more Jews speak Hebrew than
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 the 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’s campaign against a superior
Abraham Joshua Heschel, after the Six Day war, composed a 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
responsible for that blessing, the Israeli army.
Our sacred scriptures and our liturgy refers to God, as A-donai 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,
Samson, Saul and especially David were all warriors. If the 52 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, the blessing on bread, 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
Thus, despite the old joke about the reform rabbi reciting a blessing
before eating a ham
sandwich, Jewish tradition understood that somethings were essentially
Many acts are 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 blessing for an Uzi? Why one may ask should there
be a blessing for
an uzi? Would it not be like saying a blessing over ham? Shouldn’t both be
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’s Army (Zva Hashem).
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, a Holy war. Anyone who was ever in
battle knows that
war is the single greatest constellation of terror, humiliation, fear
and revulsion that human
beings could ever create. War, as the civil war general, 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
Israeli 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. So, I asked the divisional
chaplain many years ago
when I served in the Israeli army, what is the blessing for an uzi?
To understand the function of blessing precedes the choice of blessing.
conceptualizes what we are about to do. Thus, it elevates the Uzi to an
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.
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
defending Israel? Does American citizenship constitute a “deferment”
from our part in
Israel’s defense? Moses sneers at those people who have found
exemptions from service
(sounds like the yeshivah bochers of Jerusalem), “your 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,
and the dignity restored to all of us.
Today there is a disconcerting debate that is going on within Israel
about doing away with
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: 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’t 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! The issues that concern Israel
concern all the Jewish
people. Because our future depends upon the future of Israel. For each
of us to be
blessed by its riches requires that we share in its risks.
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.
So, rabbi, is there a
blessing for the uzi?
from the July 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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