Acknowledging Our Power

This evening, as Yom Kippur begins, millions of Jews around the world are gathering for what is regarded as the most sacred moment of the Jewish year. Sacred – and also, challenging. The challenge of Yom Kippur lies in its uncompromising purpose: each one of us is called to undertake an intense examination of ourselves and confess our errors and misdeeds. To do this with integrity, we need to acknowledge our power – our power to hurt others and ourselves, and also our power to take responsibility for our own lives.

We all need to do this – even those who feel powerless, who feel that they have been wronged and are the victims of others. We have all been wronged at some point or another. We have all been victims at one time or another. All of us are capable of using our power, for good and for ill. Yom Kippur is for all of us.

I have the feeling that most of us would probably feel more comfortable talking about our faults and failings, however difficult it is for us to admit them, than acknowledge that we have power.

It may be that although this is not, exclusively, a Jewish problem, our understanding of ourselves as Jews, as part of a minority group that has been persecuted and abused by others, who have exercised power over us for millennia, may have something to do with our reluctance to recognise our own power.

It may be that the magnitude and the horror of the Sho’ah has underlined for us an understanding of Jewish existence throughout the diaspora as, what the great 19th century historian Heinrich Graetz called,  ‘a vale of tears’, characterised by leiden und lernen, ‘suffering and learning’.[1]

It may be that because of the way in which virulent anti-Semitism has portrayed the Jewish people as a demonic power in control of the world, we find it impossible to acknowledge that we have ever exercised any power at all.

It may be that because we are so convinced of our Jewish victimhood that we are totally unable to grapple the reality of Jewish power, as represented by the State of Israel.

It may be because there is a correlation between certain events in Israel and a rise in the level of anti-Semitic incidents here in Britain,[2] leading us to feel even more threatened as Jews, that we find it so hard to confront the fact that the Israeli government is using its power as a state to dominate others.

It may be that because the Jewish state has been threatened, time and again, by hostile neighbouring states, spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric that it is difficult for us to recognise that Israel has the power to make constructive choices, rather than destructive ones, and not fall victim to a victim mentality.

There are so many compelling reasons to shrink from the notion that we Jews, individually and collectively, have power. But there are also good reasons for thinking again – and this special day of Yom Kippur gives us a little time to do some rethinking. This In his award-winning book, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, first published in 1986,[3] the Jewish historian, David Biale, challenges the notion of perennial Jewish powerlessness by presenting a more nuanced and multifaceted picture of Jewish existence from Antiquity to the present day. He writes (p.9):

Traditional Jewish memory, with its emphasis on recurring persecutions, can only reinforce the traumas of recent Jewish history; and history itself, in all its complexity, may provide the needed therapy.

So, Biale’s book is an exercise in history as therapy. He provides a detailed analysis of each epoch, demonstrating the complexity of Jewish existence in different times and different places. He also identifies a key Jewish principle formulated by the sages in response to the experience of living in the diaspora that helps us to see how our forebears responded, in a powerful way to being a minority.  Called dina de-malkhuta dina – ‘the law of the kingdom is the law’ – we find this principle first at work in the context of the great diaspora Jewish community in Babylon – present-day Iraq – where Jews initially settled following the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, and which later nurtured the creation of the Talmud.[4]

Biale explains (p.56):

The assumption behind dina de-malkhuta dina was that, in exchange for recognition of the rights of the monarch, the Jews would receive internal autonomy. The political theory of ‘the law of the kingdom’ was therefore inextricably linked with the theory of Jewish self-government … The principle claimed that Jewish law was sovereign and the contract with the state implied that each side gave up part of its sovereignty: the Jews gave the King certain rights of taxation and the King gave the Jews the right to govern themselves in all other matters.

What did this mean in practice? Biale writes further (p.79):

In Babylonia during the talmudic period, Jewish courts had jurisdiction over murder, theft, torts, commercial transactions, and ‘personal’ law (marriage, divorce, and inheritance). In this way, the Jewish authorities had virtually all the powers of an autonomous state with the exception of control of foreign affairs. The power of the Babylonian community was certainly no less than that of the priestly state of the second Temple period.

The zenith of the talmudic period in Babylon was in the fifth century CE. So, what was the power of the priestly state of the second Temple period – that is, after the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians in the 530s BCE, and Jews were able to return to the land of Judah? The land was almost continuously occupied: first by the Persians, then by the Greeks, then by the Seleucids, following the death of Alexander the Great, and finally by the Romans. In fact during a period of over half a millennium, there was an independent Jewish nation for just 77 years. In other words, during the second Temple period, our forebears were both, dominated by imperial powers, and in charge of their own affairs; politically powerless, they also exercised power – in much the same way as they did in Babylonia.

And what of the empires of Christendom and Islam? When the Roman emperor, Constantine, embraced Christianity in the beginning of the fourth century CE, Christianity was transformed into an imperial religion – hence, Christendom. Later, following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam became a rival empire. Biale points out that while, ‘Both Christianity and Islam dictated that Jews be maintained in a second-class position divorced from political power’ (p.60), ‘[y]et the theologies of Christianity and Islam dictated that the Jews be protected’ (p.61). He adds (p.61):

The tension between toleration and degradation in Islam and Christianity produced a reality less monolithically hostile to the Jews than theological images would suggest.

Of course, there were important differences between Christian and Muslim societies. The situation for Jews living under Islamic rule, where religious and state authority were unified (p.61) was straightforward. All non-Muslim subjects were governed by the law of the dhimma, which excluded them from exercising any political power and which required the payment of a special poll tax. Nevertheless, as Biale points out (pp.61-62):

… persistent failures to enforce the law of the dhimma opened avenues to power

that would have otherwise remained closed.

When it came to Christendom, the situation was more complex. Biale argues that ‘The Jews were successful in exploiting the fragmentation of power in Christian Europe by playing off secular against religious authorities.’ (p.61). He writes (p.64-65):

Mediaeval society was hierarchical and was built on complex relationships of loyalties and privileges. Even kings were not fully autonomous in their power over their territories, for they had to contend with princes and bishops who might have conflicting loyalties to other authorities. …

Power in the Middle Ages involved not only the power possessed by a group in its own right but also what allies it could call upon to protect it. For the Jews, to win privileges and protection was a sign of power.

This of course begs the question of what is meant by ‘power’? Biale acknowledges this when he writes (p.64):

The very essence of a privilege is that it depends on someone who grants it. If power means the ability to act autonomously, the Jews surely could not be called powerful. They did not wield power in the modern sense of sovereign state power, but in the Middle Ages such a notion of power hardly existed.

And we need to be clear about what is meant by ‘privilege’. Not just the ad hoc granting of concessions on the part of powerful individuals to Jews who were in the right place at the right time. Biale points out that (p.63):

Since the Jews were typically urban dwellers, they fought for the same rights as those enjoyed by burghers. They took full part in the life of their city, sometimes occupying municipal offices and contributing to the town’s armed defence. In many mediaeval towns in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, they were able to obtain full and equal citizenship.

Is this the whole story of Jewish life in the Middle Ages? What about active anti-Jewish persecution? Biale’s approach helps the reader to understand the specific conditions in which different Jewish populations were persecuted and to appreciate the changes and developments – religious, political and economic – which precipitated violence against particular Jewish communities. So, for example, the clash between the empires of Christianity and Islam, which led to Crusader missions to liberate the ‘holy land’ from ‘the infidel’, and had devastating consequences for the Jews of the Rhineland whom the knights, fired up with their sacred purpose, attacked along the way.

Biale charts a general decline in the situation of the Jewish communities across Christian Europe during the late mediaeval period (pp.87-98), citing a series of phenomena: The Reformation, and Martin Luther’s viciously anti-Semitic attitude to the Jews; the creation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in the Catholic church, which both had an actively anti-Jewish agenda; the incidence of the Black Death, when the Jews were scapegoated for the tragedy; and perhaps, most important, the  growth of the absolutist state, first signalled by the conquest of Muslim Spain by Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. All these developments – and more – led to blood libels, book-burnings, violent attacks and expulsions. But even this statement is too sweeping – and the actual record shows that contrary to our notion of one long night of horror, events and incidents were specific in time and place – and certainly not continuous.

And then, massive transformations: the Enlightenment, the collapse of the feudal order, the rise of capitalism and the dawn of modernity. Following these developments, over the course of the 19th century, with emancipation in Western Europe and the rise of nationalism, the social, economic, legal and political picture of Jewish life became even more complicated. Moreover, paradoxically, the terrain of Jewish power changed dramatically: gone were the autonomous self-governing Jewish communities; released from legal restrictions on their activities, Jews begin to actively participate as individual citizens, in the wider society.

This did not mean an end to anti-Semitism. Christian anti-Semitism continued and with the increasing pre-eminence of science, a new pseudoscientific form of racial anti-Semitism developed. Meanwhile the circumstances of Jewish life continued to vary from place to place and Jews evolved new and powerful strategies in the quest for viable ways to live as Jews: Progressive Judaism and political Zionism in Western Europe on the one hand, and in Eastern Europe, the Bund, the Jewish Socialist movement for Jewish self-determination.

Even when Europe became a cauldron of hatred with the rise of Nazism, Jews refused to be victims in a variety of ways – by leaving, by continuing with their lives as much as was possible, by creating cultural and educational opportunities in the ghettos, by resisting when they could – in the Warsaw ghetto, and even in Treblinka and Sobibor. A binary approach to Jewish responses during the Sho’ah is useless: Jews were neither simply passive ‘lambs to the slaughter’, on the one hand, nor brave resistance fighters, on the other. In a totalitarian system, of course, those who are persecuted are, fundamentally and objectively powerless, but that does not mean that they lose all personal power. When, in Auschwitz, for example, Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s father, used their meagre margarine ration to kindle a Chanukkah flame, it was an act of spiritual resistance.[5]

Nevertheless, as Biale reveals, the myth of Jewish powerlessness gained currency during the 19th century, promulgated first by the maskilim, the Jewish Enlightenment ideologues in search of integration, and later by the Zionists. Both camps, while in pursuit of different goals, wished to promote the ‘normalisation’ of Jewish life as an antidote to what they perceive to be a ‘”Diaspora mentality” of passive suffering and martyrdom.’ (p.138). And then, ‘In the wake of the Holocaust’, Biale writes, ‘the myth of historical powerlessness …. became the central justification for the quest for Jewish power’ (p.144).

I don’t have the time now to describe and analyse developments in political Zionism, from the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897,[6] through the establishment of the State of Israel, and all that has transpired since the declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948. The nub of the issue is this: From an Israeli perspective, the very existence of the Jewish state is the answer to what is understood as centuries of diaspora powerlessness. From this point of view, the essential task of the Jewish state is to guarantee that ‘never again’ will the Jewish people become victims, by doing everything possible to safeguard the security of its Jewish citizens and maintain its power. This agenda leaves no room for other victims and their needs. And this mind-set makes it impossible to acknowledge that in the process of defending and protecting its Jewish citizens, the State of Israel is succeeding in victimising another people. Indeed, when those who are being persecuted by the exercise of Israeli state power, attempt to resist by fighting back, the persecuted become the persecutors – and Israel, again, becomes the victim.

Of course, it is much more complicated than this: Iran and the Arab nations that surround Israel on all sides except the sea, have represented and still represent a real threat to Israel. They are certainly not victims of Israel.

And the Palestinians? Of course, victimised by Israeli policy, they aren’t simply victims either. Powerlessness and power: the framework for understanding Jewish existence is also relevant to understanding Palestinian existence. Palestinians have choices. Ordinary Palestinians can resist the continuous infighting between different factions, which only exacerbates their plight. Ordinary Palestinians can reject vengeance and violence in favour of a coordinated campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Just imagine if Palestinians gathered in large numbers at every checkpoint and just sat down and stayed there. Just imagine if all that they did as they sat was sing and hold up placards calling for an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Just imagine the media attention. What would the Israeli authorities do as the whole world looked on? And what would ordinary Jewish Israelis do if they were no longer living in fear of attack? Isn’t it just possible that they might begin to find space in their hearts and minds to recognise the justice of the Palestinian cause? Isn’t there a chance that ordinary Jewish Israelis might begin to call on the Israeli government to go back to the negotiating table and stay there until an agreement is reached on a two state solution?

And with Israelis and Palestinians sitting down together and working out a new relationship for the future, what would the Arab nations do? Having lost their cause célèbre, wouldn’t they, too, begin to accommodate themselves to the new political reality? Perhaps, Syria and Iran would take a little longer. But wouldn’t Jordan – and even Lebanon – soon see the advantage of participating in a new cooperative relationship with Israel and Palestine, with all the economic benefits that that would bring? I remember sitting at a New Israel Fund breakfast meeting about a year ago with Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian representatives of Friends of the Earth Middle East, talking about cooperative initiatives to conserve water. And I remember thinking: this is what the future could be like…[7]

So, we have begun the journey of this special day by thinking about Jewish power and powerlessness in new ways, in the hope that we may also think about our own personal power and powerlessness in new ways.

Today we have time to reflect on the past year and take steps to renew ourselves with the liturgy and the Torah and Haftarah readings as our guide. The passages from the Torah we read on Yom Kippur, from Deuteronomy chapters 29 and 30, and Leviticus 19, remind us that the heart of the Torah is, as the words suggests, ’teaching’. Certainly, the stories of our ancestors, of the Exodus and of the wilderness wanderings, have defined us as a people. But it is the Torah’s teachings, the laws, rules and regulations, which remind us about our purpose as a people. As the Torah continually reminds us, we were powerless slaves in Egypt, but when we settle down in the land beyond Jordan to fashion a society, how will we use our power? And so, the Torah looks forward to the society we are summoned to establish and is preoccupied with the just exercise of power.

Moreover, as Leviticus chapter 19, known as the ‘Holiness Code’, makes clear, the injunctions to act justly are directed at every individual – not just those who hold positions of power. How will we – the individual members of the society – treat our neighbours, our customers and our employees? How will we treat all those who are dependent, vulnerable and marginal: the poor and the needy, the elderly and the disabled, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger?

Of course, we have experienced persecution and oppression as a people – and anti-Semitism remains a force, still. But the challenge of our existence as the Jewish people lies in how we use our power.

Yom Kippur calls us to reflect on our power in all its dimensions, both personal and communal. May each one of us, today, take the opportunity to acknowledge our power to harm others and ourselves – and may the experience of this unique day, inspire us to take responsibility for how we exercise our power in the year ahead. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Erev Yom Kippur 5773 – 25th September 2012


[1] Heinrich Graetz, The History of the Jews. (Geschichte der Juden von den ältesten Zeiten bis auf die Gegenwart). 11 volumes. (First published, 1853–75)

[2] See CST, Antisemitic Incidents Report, 2007; and Antisemitic Incidents Report, 2010.

[3] Biale pub details Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History by David Biale (Schocken Books, New York, 1987).See also; ‘Power, Passivity and the Legacy of the Holocaust’ by David Biale in Tikkun, Vol. 2, No.1, 1.


[4] The principle was first articulated by the third century Babylonian rabbinic authority, Samuel. Biale writes (p. 54): ‘In the four places Samuel’s principle appears in the Talmud, it affirms the authority of the gentile ruler to enforce certain laws pertaining strictly to financial matters (mamona), such as the collection of customs and taxes and the promulgation of land ordinances.’ The four places are in the Babylonian Talmud; N’darim 28a; Gittin 10b; Baba Kama 113a-b; Baba Batra 54b-55a.

[5] The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who was Senior Rabbi of west London Synagogue for many years and died in 1996, was in Auschwitz as a child along with his father. He recounted this story of his experience of Chanukkah in Auschwitz (See Chasing Shadows: Memories of a Vanished World by Hugo Gryn (compiled by his daughter, Naomi Gryn), Viking 2000:

The Jewish prisoners in our barracks—Block 4—decided that we would celebrate [Chan­u­kah] by lighting a menorah every night. Bits of wood and metal were collected and shaped into light-holders and everyone agreed to save the week’s meager ration of margarine that would be used for fuel. It was my job to take apart an abandoned prison cap and fashion wicks from its threads.

[On] the first night of Chanukah…most of Block 4 gathered around the menorah—including some Roman Catholic Poles, several Protestant Norwegians and…a German count who was implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life. Two portions of margarine were melted down—my wicks in place. We chanted the blessing, praising God who “performed miracles for our ancestors in those days and at this time,” and as…I tried to light the wick, there was only a bit of spluttering and no flame…. What the “scientists” in our midst failed to point out was that margarine does not burn!

As we dispersed and made our way to the bunk beds I turned not so much to my father, but on him, upset at the fiasco and bemoaning this waste of precious calories. Patiently, he taught me one of the most lasting lessons of my life and I believe that he made my survival possible.

“Don’t be so angry,” he said to me. “You know that this festival celebrates the victory of the spirit over tyranny and might. You and I have had to go once for over a week without proper food and another time almost three days without water, but you cannot live for three minutes without hope!”

[6] The First Zionist Congress was the inaugural congress of the Zionist Organization (ZO), which became the World Zionist Organization (WZO) in 1960. It was held in Basle, Switzerland, from August 29 to August 31, 1897 and was chairedby Theodor Herzl. The Congress adopted Ha-Tikvah as its anthem, which later became the national anthem of the State of Israel.

[7] For Friends of the Earth Middle East, see