Tough Jews: Hanukkah, Heroism and the Identity of the Messiah
Call it toughness, call it guts, call it chutzpah—whatever term is chosen, it’s a quality that we as Jewish people have grown to appreciate, especially around Hanukkah.
In 175 B.C., hope lay in a small band of tough Jews,” the Maccabees. So the story goes. Actually, many Jews weren’t looking for hope—because the Greeks and Syrians weren’t destroying Jews. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian despot, chose to assimilate Jews rather than annihilate them. Jews were changing their names left and right. Jacobs became Jasons, Simeons became Symmachueses. They were enjoying their secularized life. Then Antiochus entered the Temple and killed a pig on the altar. That goaded the Maccabees, the antiassimilationists of the day. They beat the Syrian-Greek army, took back the Temple, and cleansed it for God’s service.
Today the story of the Maccabees still resonates. For many it’s a generic symbol of Jewish freedom. What matters is not that the Temple was dedicated back to God, but that it was taken back from the Greeks and the Syrians. What we remember is that the Maccabees were tough—they stood up and fought.
The phrase “tough Jews” may sound like a contradiction in terms to some. After all, Jews are renowned for having a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, for humanitarian contributions, for educational excellence, but not usually for toughness. However, the idea of the outspoken, forceful Jew is becoming more prominent, from images of IDF soldiers in combat to the increasingly popular T-shirts that shout, “Yo, semite!” or “Shalom, (expletive withheld)” to a crop of recent books, such as Chutzpah by Alan Dershowitz, and Tough Jews by Rich Cohen.
However, not all Jewish people appreciate the same brand of “toughness.” Jewish author Andrew Furman writes:
At the precipice of a new millennium…one would think that Jews…could finally eschew the ethos of physical toughness, pagan at its core. Disturbingly, however, the cult of toughness seems to be gaining, rather than losing, momentum within Jewish circles.1
Furman argues that Jewish toughness should not be celebrated merely for its own sake. Others contend that as Jews, we have a right to be as tough as we want, given all that our people have endured. How should we regard toughness? As we look at the history of our people, and examine our heroes, we may end up redefining toughness itself.
A History of Toughness
Both before and since the events that inspired the celebration of Hanukkah, Jewish history is full of people who can rightly be called “tough.” Consider the first war against Rome in 66 A.D. wherein Jews, fed up with oppression, fought back. The ultimate symbol of that first war is Masada, the great fortress on the mountain, visited by thousands of tourists every year. Unlike the Maccabees, we didn’t win that battle, but we fought to the bitter end. That’s what tough Jews do.
We tried again in 132 A.D. during the second war against Rome. Again, we were defeated, but out of this war arose Bar Kochba, the almost mythically heroic general whom Rabbi Akiva declared to be the Messiah. His nickname, Bar Kochba, means “Son of the Star,” a reflection of Numbers 24:17,18:
…A star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel, and shall crush through the forehead of Moab, and tear down all the sons of Sheth. Edom shall be a possession, Seir, its enemies, also will be a possession, while Israel performs valiantly.
Bar Kochba, “the crusher,” it was claimed, was this star out of Jacob—until he was killed. Nevertheless, this general’s reputation grew, regardless of the fact that he was a false Messiah. He is usually forgiven that “minor flaw” based on his toughness.
After thousands of years of exile and oppression, could anyone blame Jews for wanting to be tough?
This veneration of the “tough Jew” continued throughout the centuries up until the rise of Zionism and a “tough” state of Israel reborn in the shadow of the Holocaust. After 1948, it was the allure of the pioneers, the halutzim, and the skill and daring of the Israeli army that captured the imagination of Jews, especially during the Six-Day War.
Writer Thomas L. Friedman maintains that the effect of the Six-Day War on the Jewish psyche cannot be overstated:
Practically overnight, Jews began to see themselves as shtarkers, tough guys, and began to eschew their longstanding image as the nebbish, or weakling. Further, emboldened by Israel’s heroics, Jews could begin to celebrate, rather than shroud, their Jewish identities.2
While it can be argued that Jews need this sense of strength psychologically, it can also be argued that this toughness has become too much a part of Jewish identity. Some posit that focusing so much on our “toughness” ultimately will be detrimental to the Jewish soul as this desire to be tough is, in actuality, the same old desire our people have long struggled with: to be like everyone else. Most cultures celebrate toughness, and so therefore, we think we have to be tough, too. Citing as an example the Jewish adulation of wrestler Bill Goldberg, Furman writes:
Our childish pride in Jewish tough guys is disturbingly invited out to play as we learn that loyal fans scream “Goldberg!” at the top of their lungs and wave signs proclaiming what part of the body Mr. Goldberg kicks…and that if any spectator dares to accost him with an anti-Semitic slur, he will go into the crowd after them.3
This fanatic admiration of sheer toughness is also illustrated in the recent book Tough Jews by Rich Cohen, which tells the colorful story of New York City’s Jewish gangsters such as Tick-Tock Tannenbaum, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Gurrah Shapiro and two Bugsys (Siegel and Goldstein). While Cohen does not come out and praise Jewish mobsters and their activities, he does say, “We would be better off with the gangsters…” because, “everyone needs someone who gives them the illusion of strength.”4
Hanging Tough: A Justification
Has the illusion of strength become too important to us as Jewish people? After thousands of years of exile and oppression, from pogroms to suicide bombers, could anyone blame Jews for wanting to be tough?
Perhaps not. But there are a couple of potential problems. The first is the labeling of who is tough vs. who is not tough. In Cohen’s Tough Jews, he juxtaposes “tough” Jewish gangsters with Jews whom he cannot help but deem “not as tough”—for instance, Jews from ghettoes in Europe who were marched off to their extermination. The implication is that the Jews during the Holocaust should have stood up and fought their persecutors. Contrasts such as these only serve to “cast undue blame upon the victims of the genocide in Europe rather than on their victimizers.” (Furman, p. 4)
The second problem comes from making this “toughness” a criterion for heroism. The temptation is to idolize people like Bar Kochba, Bill Greenberg and Bugsy Siegel just because they were strong. But does strength of character count for nothing? The people we deem “heroes” among the Jews of Europe during World War II tend to be the ones who led the Warsaw ghetto uprising, as opposed to those who were forced like sheep to the slaughter or who merely survived the living hell of the concentration camps. In reality, many of those people in the latter group were just as strong in both body and character—but their strength did not spare them. Should someone like journalist Daniel Pearl be considered less heroic just because terrorists got the best of him?
A third danger is that we may end up deriving and defining our self worth, both collectively and individually, based on our toughness or strength. But how tough is tough enough? And how do we determine true toughness?
Consider this: in their sunset years, the Tannenbaums and the Abe Releses and all the other gangsters were to one degree or another, broken men. At the end of their lives, what did they have to show for themselves other than their toughness?
If all we want as Jewish people is to survive, then perhaps it would make sense to put all our hope or identity in strength or military prowess; to simply adopt a “might makes right” philosophy. But Jewish people have always had much greater goals than merely surviving. And so we must look for ways to combine toughness with strong character or virtue, and hold our heroes and the people we choose to admire to the same standard. And so it may be necessary to adopt a definition of toughness that includes much more than brute strength.
To a certain extent, we’ve already recognized this. We see it in certain superheroes—Superman, The Hulk and Daredevil—all of which were created by Jewish people.5 During the Second World War, they even fought Nazis on paper, much as the gangsters handled American neo-Nazis for real. These superheroes are worthy of admiration, not just because they could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but also because they desired to help people. They were kind, and though this kindness may have made them seem somewhat less invincible, we applaud them because we need heroes worth believing in. We need a hero who, for instance, refuses to blow up a building even though their archenemy is inside…because a little girl is also in the building.
Toughness: A Biblical Definition
We don’t have to venture into the realm of fiction to find people like that to admire. The historical records in the Tanakh contain the accounts of several Jews who encountered and overcame tough situations, but they weren’t heroes because of their strength; rather, they relied on the strength of God. Their toughness had to coincide with righteousness and truth as determined by God (see “Tough (?) Jews of the Tanakh” chart on page 6). What we see is that, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s tough and then there’s tough. King Saul was tough, a military expert, but ultimately his heart was not for God. Conversely, little David seemed anything but tough. Yet in the end, who became the true hero of our people and foreshadowed the Messiah to come?
Throughout Scriptures, we see that God often calls people who don’t appear so tough on the outside, but are inwardly tougher than they appear…the ones people would least expect. So it should come as little surprise that the Messiah would also be someone unexpected.
Our penchant for toughness cannot help but color our expectations of Messiah. Many want him to be a tough Jew, a warrior who will destroy our enemies and restore our people.
Now, the concept of Messiah has evolved through the years—for secular Jews in the 1880s and later on in 1948, Zionism was the Messiah insofar as it represented ultimate hope.6 Many Jews today, like the secular Jews during the Maccabees’ time, do not hope for a Messiah; lots of people believe they are their own messiah. Yet, even in this, we still see a craving for strength, as these people put their hope in their own strength.
Jews who still expect a real, living Messiah will describe him largely as the warrior who redeems Israel from all its enemies.
Yet for centuries Jewish tradition portrayed two Messiahs to come. One was called the Messiah Son of David. He was tough in the way the Maccabees were tough, but more so. He would be larger than life.
There was also another portrait of Messiah, called Messiah Son of Joseph. He would be humble and there would be nothing in him that one would normally esteem. And he would die.
The Bible does portray Messiah as both victorious warrior and seeming victim. In the prophetic book of Zechariah alone we see Messiah as a conquering king and a man who rides a lowly donkey.
But why could there not be a Messiah who was both tough and yet gentle and righteous, like so many Jewish heroes before him?
More than Meets the Eye
Yeshua (Jesus), by many people’s standards, wasn’t a tough guy. Many Jewish people of his day allowed that he was a good teacher, maybe even a healer and prophet, but he was certainly no warrior—he just wasn’t tough enough, according to their expectations.
But if you read about Jesus’ life and death in the New Testament, you see that he was as tough as they come. He didn’t take out a contract on the Romans; he didn’t build up an invincible military, but Jesus was tough.
Jesus was fully aware that his execution was a certainty, and yet he endured the most painful of deaths willingly.
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.
Why could there not be a Messiah who was both tough and yet gentle?
And he didn’t do it to be a martyr, he didn’t even do it to be a hero. Jesus was very specific about what his death would accomplish. He came to do more than defeat Israel’s mortal enemies; he battled an enemy long recognized by Jewish people and all of humanity, known as “sin.”
It’s sin that causes hatred and oppression, that causes people to murder each other in cold blood, that causes reasonable, well-intentioned people to do awful things. It’s a tough enemy to fight.
In the old days, before the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., Jews knew that sin was a problem and the way to forgiveness was a repentant heart and a means of substitutionary atonement—a sacrifice that would bear the judgment for our sins. After 70 A.D., the rabbis tried to rebuild from the ashes, and without the Temple, they did away with sacrifices.
But Jesus had come as the one perfect sacrifice for all sins, just as was predicted of Messiah:
He was bruised for our transgressions
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The chastening for our well-being fell upon him
And by his scourging we are healed.
The New Testament portion of the Bible records that Jesus understood this:
The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Most rabbis refused to believe Jesus was who he said he was. But hundreds of Jews accepted Jesus’ claims and witnessed his resurrection from the dead—something no tough man or woman has done before or since.
Conclusion: How Tough are You?
Our world is accustomed to responding to toughness and to esteeming toughness. Many of us would like to be stronger people. What those first Jewish followers of Jesus understood and what millions have come to realize today, is that we don’t have to rely on strength, or toughness, as a source of identity, selfvalidation or a solution for sin. True toughness involves much more than sheer strength—it involves character and truth.
And so we come to the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection require us to make a tough choice. Jewish tradition has typically said Jesus is not for us. Jews who believe in Jesus are traitors, meshummadim. Yet there are good reasons for considering Jesus, and a great place to discover them is in the New Testament. But doing that requires toughness, the ability to say, “I’m going to think for myself no matter the consequences, no matter what my family or friends or community might say. I’m going to find out the truth about Jesus.”
Are you up for the challenge?
The author is indebted to Naomi Rothstein for her significant contribution to this article.
- Tough Jews: A Dissent Archived at tikkun.org
- Friedman, Thomas L. “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” 1989, quoted in Tough Jews: A Dissent
- See footnote 1.
- Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams. Rich Cohen. Simon & Schuster, 1998.
- In fact, most of the comic book characters of the mid-20th century were Jewish. Some of these superheroes call to mind religious Jewish themes. For instance, Superman’s real name, “Kal-El,” used the Hebrew word for God, “El.”
- “Zionism is at once a decisive break with the traditions of Jewish weakness and gentleness and also not so decisive a break: it rejects meekness and gentleness in favor of the normalcy of toughness…”—Paul Breines in Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry, Harper Collins, 1990.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.