israeli without a hyphen

parshat b’shalach

In a column written after the recent Israeli election, Yossi Klein Halevi explains why he voted for Yair Lapid… says Halevi: “He is not a hyphenated Israeli, whose loyalty to the state depends on its fulfillment of an ideological agenda.”

Whether Lapid is a passing fancy and whether his success at the polls marks a change in Israeli politics, only the future will tell, but the concept of “Jew” and “Israeli” without a hyphen is not new and fortunately, it has already passed the test of time.

Meet Nachshon ben Aminadav; a biblical character associated with the splitting of the Red Sea, in whose name a record three Israeli military operations took their name. [i]

For some reason, the political and military leaders of Israel had a visceral understanding of what Nachshon represented.[ii]

What was it about this biblical Nachshon that so captured the imagination of the secular Zionists?

The Nachshon we meet in the Bible bore an unflattering name (lit. snake), and as the descendent of Perez, the son, out of wedlock, of Judah and the harlot, Tamar… didn’t have the most prestigious lineage.  Nachshon is nonetheless inextricably associated with the critical moment of life or death of our nation at the banks of the Red Sea.[iii]

We all know the story… Pharaoh had second thoughts about letting the Israelites go and the Egyptian First Army was positioned to push the Jews into the sea.  Moses begins to pray.  “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:5 – 20).

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מַה-תִּצְעַק אֵלָי; דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִסָּעוּ.

The Biblical Text does not actually provide an account of Moses’ prayer, nor does it provide a record of Moses’ answer to God’s rebuke.

Surprisingly for such a well-known legend, the Biblical text does not even mention Nachshon.  Nachshon enters history in a solitary opinion buried in the Midrashic Literature.[iv]

R. Judah said to [R. Meir]: …. each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon the son of Amminadav and descended first into the sea; ….  At that time Moses was engaged for a long while in prayer; so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and thou prolongest prayer before Me!’ He spake before Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?’ He replied to him, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand etc.  For that reason Judah (of which Nachshon was a Prince) was worthy to be made the ruling power in Israel, as it is said: Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion.  Why did Judah become His sanctuary and Israel his dominion? Because the sea saw [him] and fled. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a)

Nachshon was not only a man of action.  His action represented a back-handed repudiation of Moses and Aaron.  A repudiation of the entrenched leadership and the prayers, rituals and ideologies of the ruling clergy.  Nachshon was neither a scholar nor a saint; he had a humble name and lineage to match.  He is mentioned rarely in scripture.  He is not known for a lifetime of piety or fealty let alone a philosophy or ideology.  Nachshon is the Jewish version of the everyman, who uses common sense, does not have a particular ideology or agenda and most of all, feels strongly in his self-determination and has a bias for action.

The truth is that Lapid’s political party Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) may not be the first time that the everyman position was formalized into a political party or sectarian movement in Israel.

For those who have studied First Century Judaism, the commonly accepted five major sects are the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and Sicarii whose number and definition was advanced by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus[v]

Modern scholarship has identified a potential sixth major sect and research continues on the Am Ha’aretz literally “people of the land” usually taken to mean the ignorant peasantry[vi].  In fact, it is clear from Talmudic sources[vii] that the Am Ha’aretz were a distinct sect with strong opinions. The most famous ex-Am Ha’aretz; Rabbi Akiva is reputed to have said: “When I was an ‘am ha-arez I said: I would that I had a scholar [before me], and I would maul him like an ass.”

Another Talmudic text writes: “Anyone who has learnt scripture and Mishnah but has not ministered to Talmidei hakhamim (the scholars) is an ‘am ha-aretz. (Talmud Babli, Sotah 21b-22a)

The most exhaustive study on this subject is: The Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period (Arbeiten … by A’haron Oppenheimer and I. H. Levine 261 pages (Aug 1997)

What is clear is that the Am ha’aretz were strongly against Rabbinic authority and were not necessarily unlearned. They also seemed to have a bias for action.

The great Zionist thinker and author Asher Ginzberg who took as his pen name Ahad Ha’am (literally “one of the people”) was certainly paying homage to the Am Ha’aretz in name. His philosophy of cultural Zionism and  his secular vision of a Jewish “spiritual center” in the Jewish Homeland also resonates with these people of the land.

Ahad Ha’am believed that the common Jew and Israeli need not abdicate the texts, traditions and cultural patrimony of Judaism to the Rabbinic authorities or self-proclaimed guardians of the Torah.  Ahad Ha’am would argue that today’s Israelis on the street should also not abdicate their deep, if understated patriotism and quiet dedication to Zionism to those who choose to wear their Zionism on their sleeve and hyphenate their Zionism and nationalism with the word religious.

So let us celebrate Nachshon, the man, the myth and the legend along with all the Amei Ha’aretz; Jews, Zionists and warriors who fought to establish and continue to defend the State of Israel.  And let us support Israelis of all stripes who love the land and its people along with its cultural and intellectual history, but have no need for hyphens.


[i] The most well know Operation Nachshon was a Haganah operation in the 1948 War of Independence to break the Arab blockade of Jerusalem. (see Operation Nachshon).

The second, lesser known, Operation Nachshon, documented in Six Days of War by Michael Oren (p. 168) and named Operation Nachshon 1, was commanded by Moshe Dayan and initialized “the conquest of the Sinai front … the opening of the Abu ‘Agheila – Rafiah-ad-‘Arish axes, And the destruction of the Egyptian army in this sector.”

The third Operation Nachshon.. called Nachson 2 included the second phase of the Six Day War and was created by the IDF General staff to influence the final outcome of the post war borders. (ibid p. 237)

[ii] As did HaShomer HaTzair, the Socialist-Zionist, anti-religious, youth movement who in 1950 founded Kibbutz Nachshon in Central Israel.  There is also a moshav started by Yemenite immigrants but now sporting beautiful homes, called Aminadav overlooking Jerusalem as well as an area called Nachshonim and town called Nachshon…

[iii] Nachshon’s crossing the Red Sea is the uniquely Jewish version of the iconic “Crossing the Rubicon”. (Ironically, The Latin word rubico comes from the adjective “rubeus”, meaning “red”.)  It is a story that defines how we Jews chart our course and draw our destiny and ultimately survive.

[iv] Good to remember that there was a time, not so long ago, when all Jews, even secular maskilim, knew their Midrash…

[v] See review in Wall Street journal on a new book about Josephus.

[vi] See Britannica: “Not constituting any particular party were the unlearned rural masses known as ʿamme ha-aretz (“people of the land”), who were found among both the Pharisees and the Sadducees and even among the Samaritans.”

[vii] Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar. ….. but let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-arez, because they are detestable and their wives are vermin, and of their daughters it is said, Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. …. R. Eleazar said: An ‘am ha-arez, it is permitted to stab him [even] on the Day of Atonement which falls on the Sabbath. Said his disciples to him, Master, say to slaughter him [ritually]? He replied: This [ritual slaughter] requires a benediction, whereas that [stabbing] does not require a benediction. R. Eleazar said: One must not join company with an ‘am ha-arez on the road, because it is said, for that [the Torah] is thy life, and the length of thy days: [seeing that] he has no care [pity] for his own life, how much the more for the life of his companions! R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Johanan’s name: One may tear an ‘am haarez like a fish! Said R. Samuel b. Isaac: And [this means] along his back. (Babylonian Talmud; Pesachim 49b)



Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

2 responses to “israeli without a hyphen

  1. Orna Stern

    Although the snake has negative connections it is because of the apple that the snake had eve eat that “we” got knowledge..
    Interesting timing for this parsha to be read when Israel is facing a unique moment in its political history.

  2. Shelly

    Agree with Orna—and what Impact will the Amei Ha’Aretz have now?

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