The Ethical Implications of Ma'oz Tzur

Should you joyously sing a song that you might find offensive?

Print this page Print this page

Where Else Do We Find Words Like These?

Expressions, prayers, and songs that ask God to wreak violence on our behalf appear throughout our liturgy, tradition, and holiday texts. Daily in the traditional Amidah, three times a day, we praise a God who "breaks enemies and subdues scoundrels;" and we ask God to "destroy God's enemies." On Passover we open our doors and declare that God should pour out God's wrath on our enemies; and in the prayer for the Israel Defense Forces, we don't just pray for strength for Israel's army, but we go further to say, "May God cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them."

Thus, rather than sublimate a desire for physical aggression, does the repetition of such ideas in our liturgy encourage, affirm, or instigate violence toward those who once oppressed us, even when we are free?

When confronted with such texts in our liturgy--for those of us who find such texts uncomfortable or abhorrent--there are a variety of possible responses. We can rationalize their existence as an outgrowth of the time in which they were created, when physical anti-Semitism was rampant. We can counterbalance them with a textual tradition that is peace-loving and accepting of our enemies, such as, "Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan).

Reinterpreting the Enemy

We can reinterpret "the enemy," by psychoanalyzing the external enemy into an internal enemy. Or perhaps we can do nothing. What are the ethical implications if we acknowledge and welcome into our tradition the existence of vengeful, violent, war-loving texts that pray to a God who slaughters our enemies and who kills on our behalf?

How can it be that these prayers have their place alongside the prayers in our liturgy for peace, justice, forgiveness, and compassion or that uttering both kinds of prayers is part of the inner spiritual life of a Jew? It seems that the journey to let both traditions live within us is part of our religious process. Can we allow ourselves to dwell with this discomfort and to accept it into ourselves? Furthermore, how does it affect the way we treat others and live our lives?

To accept a vengeful God alongside a compassionate and forgiving God requires us to accept a more complicated inner life, a spiritual life that is not black and white, but is complex and nuanced. It demands our responsibility, good judgment and sincere and critical thinking. It exhorts us to think sensitively when we call upon God and reflect thoughtfully when we consider which image of God we turn to.

There are ethical implications to believing in a vengeful and violent God alongside a compassionate and peace-creating God, and they obligate us to live a life of tremendous accountability. For how could we ever truly know when it is right to pray for the death of another human being?

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper

Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper is currently the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies at Yavneh Day School. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.