The topic of “Israel” tends to be a standard part of supplementary Hebrew school programs in the 3rd or 4th grade. I taught this topic a good six or seven years in Denver, and tended to approach the subject from a mishmash of angles: some history, some geography, some contemporary life, some politics.
Most of these years, I remember reading a picture book on the famous mountaintop retreat known as Masada, built by the famous King Herod, and regaling my students with the epic story of what happened there:
A few years after the Roman invasion in 68 CE, the story goes, a group of nearly 1,000 Jews retreated there, fending off the Romans. Known as the Zealots, these Jews repelled the Romans for three years when, faced with the breaching of their walls, they all committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
It’s an impressive story, and I had not only read countless renditions of it, I had visited the famed site myself, on numerous occasions, when living in Israel. Armed with a full-color storybook illustrating the tale, it was a lesson that was always a big hit. And it always sparked meaningful conversations. Are there things worth dying for? I asked the kids. Do you think they made the right decision?
Now, I am chagrined to learn, that this story isn’t exactly true. You could call it one more myth that has fallen “victim” to rabbinical studies!
For a thorough examination of the story – the real history according to biblical scholars and an analysis of how and why the myth evolved to take its place – I suggest you go to the source and read this article written by an anthropology professor at Hebrew University: www.bibleinterp.com/articles/masadamyth3.shtml
Here, though, are some of the highlights:
+ It was the Sicarii, not the Zealots, who were hiding out on Masada (and the differences between those two groups is not insignificant);
+ All of the Jews did not commit suicide and no one knows if even “many” of them did;
+ It took about three weeks, not three years, for the Romans to breach the walls;
+ We have ample evidence that the main contemporary account of the Masada story (by Josephus) is hardly an objective account;
+ And most of the “facts” we have to come believe and recount in the Masada story were not even professed by Josephus, or by another contemporary account written by a Roman who was there. They were invented in the 1920s.
All of this leaves me with a deeply unsettling question: Why are we, as a people, continuing to tell this mythologized version? What can possibly be gained by perpetuating these fabrications, particularly in light of how much we have to lose (namely, our credibility!)?
Part of what so deeply disillusioned me from Christianity was learning how much of the Christian story is based on myth that continues to be taught as historical fact – or historical fact that continues to be covered up and never discussed – (the “virgin” birth; Jesus’ Jewish roots and devotion to Jewish law and practice; the co-option of pagan holidays into Christian ones without ever teaching their real roots, etc. etc.) To see Judaism committing the same perversion of truth is upsetting.
In the article referenced above, Nachman Ben-Yehuda gives a thoughtful explanation for how and why the Masada myth developed in the nascent state of Israel. The story, he explains, served a purpose and became a source of inspiration for a generation of new Israelis. All of that is fine and good. It makes sense, and I don’t begrudge those people who got the proverbial ball rolling.
But Israel has been around now for more than 50 years. The time has come to let it go. The time has certainly come to take down the blatantly untruthful plaques and “historical” markers at the site of Masada itself, which repeat inaccurate details of the story; and the time is long past to discontinue writing false information into children’s instructional materials.
I hope that sometime soon, we can all embrace the idea that we don’t need fabrications to make our history meaningful, compelling and inspiring. The truth is plenty rich on its own. Disney, Harry Potter and the Brothers Grimm have regaled children for generations, and no one thinks any less of them because they don’t pretend to be “the truth”!