accessed from

Was Moshe’s Violence in Egypt Justified? On War, Violence, and Freedom

(in honor of Adar 7, Moshe Rabbenu’s yahrzeit)

In the past few decades, Aaron Schmuel Tamares (1869-1931), a lonely, laconic, and largely unknown talmid hakham and rabbi from a small hamlet in Lithuania, became the subject of interest for scholars of modern Jewish thought in large part because he presented a novel idea of Jewish pacifism born from his reading of classical Judaism. Scholars such as Tsachi Slater, Aryeh Cohen, Hayim Rothman, and others published detailed studies of his writing from the late 19th century until his death in 1931. In 2020, progressive American rabbi and activist Everett Gendler published the first book of translations of Tamares’ work, A Passionate Pacifist: Essential Writings of Aaron Samuel Tamares and, more recently, Blimah Press in Israel has been re-issuing his works in Hebrew.

Below I engage with a section of an early essay of Tamares entitled “Herut” (“Liberation”), written in 1905 and published in 1906, essentially a long sermon on Passover that reflects on questions of war, politics, and violence in the Jewish tradition. The essay focuses on the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, and more specifically on what Tamares determines is the categorical difference between Egypt, the quintessential exemplar of political power and violence, and the Israelites, the disempowered victims of servitude who have yet to become the inheritors of Torah but who are the progeny of Abraham  the antithesis of Pharaoh, in this sermon.

While the essay is focused on the scriptural narrative, its presentist context is just below the surface. The essay was written two years after the Kishinev pogrom (1903), a year after Herzl’s death (1904), a year after the first Russian revolution (1905), and a few years before the Young Turk revolution (1908). Tamares’s exploration of violence in scripture in “Herut” is replete with his deep concern of growing nationalism, revolution, and the violence that accompanied both. While in it in his later work, especially Knesset Yisrael U-milkahmot Ha-goyim, written after World War I, where Tamares develops his strongest case for pacifism, “Herut” serves as a kind of preliminary analysis of violence, politics, and war that is expanded in subsequent decades. Below I briefly explore one small aspect of Tamares’ essay in juxtaposing Abraham and Moshe as two competing motifs of Jewish engagement with politics. The biblical moment at stake is Moshe’s killing of the Egyptian taskmaster (Ex. 2:11-15), an episode that must have been vexing for an aspiring pacifist, yet one that illustrates precisely why, in Tamares’s view, violence can never accomplish to task it sets out for itself.

In chapter five of “Herut,” Tamares juxtaposes Abraham’s spirit of compassion and generosity with Moshe’s violent encounter with the Egyptian taskmaster. In doing so, he tries to understand what Moshe was trying to do by seemingly acting in opposition to Abraham with his violent intervention, whereas Abraham, in Tamares’s recounting, had consistently attempted to assuage Laban and others he encountered. (Of course, Abraham has his own episodes of violence in the ‘Akeda [Gen. 22] and wars of his time [Gen 14], but Tamares does not mention them in this essay.) The unspoken assumption in Tamares’ essay is that if Moshe was indeed the legitimate inheritor of the Abrahamic tradition, how could he have acted violently, even in a case where his violence was an act of counter-violence?

Tamares earlier suggests that the true hazard of political violence, which he calls “rationalized evil,” (rish’ut sikhli) and, in this case, Egyptian servitude, is that in the orbit of political domination, or the master-slave dynamic, the persecuted often begin to absorb the violent nature of their oppressor such that they begin to see their persecuted state as justified. By “rationalized evil” Tamares means acts of evil/violence that the actors claim is justified through ideology. He also calls this “political violence.” He juxtaposes this to “natural violence” or acts that are a response to natural inclinations such as anger, jealousy, and greed.

Not unlike Frantz Fanon’s notion that the persecuted begin to side with their persecutors – and by extension as Albert Memmi argues in The Colonizer and the Colonized, the persecuted seek to become the persecutors – Tamares suggests that the Israelites were so convinced that their enslavement was justified that they could not rebel, not because they were afraid, but because they came to believe the master-slave relationship was justified. This extends even to the point where they could not justify rebellion. However – and here I read Tamares through Memmi – if the Israelites were liberated without coming to reject the paradigm of justifiable violence, they too could become masters of domination. Tamares’s point may be that the problem of justifying violence even if one is subservient is that it could then translate to justifying violence if one becomes dominant. Such a people could not be the inheritors of Torah.

The great surprise for Moshe when he witnessed the Hebrew slave being beaten by the Egyptian was not the act of violence itself but the fact that no other Israelite who witnessed the act sought to intervene. Tamares suggests that this was not because they feared Egyptian reprisal as much as because they were convinced that the act was justified. In response, Moshe kills the Egyptian in the hope that it would awaken the Israelites to the falsity of their state of servitude, whereby they could achieve a sense of self-respect and self-worth that would result, for Tamares, in the weakening of Egypt’s grip. Tamares argues that much of the success of despotism, including convincing citizens to give their lives for a political cause/war, is to convince the population that their life was worth sacrificing for a collective political project. Without that acquiescence, despotic rulers lose much of their influence and, in fact, can result in popular rebellion. Elsewhere in “Herut” Tamares asks how Germany under Otto von Bismarck could convince its citizens to die for a collective cause. It does so, he argues, by constructing a tapestry of patriotism: songs, banners, and chants that falsely celebrate the legitimacy of collective violence legitimated by ideology.

It may be naive to claim that the oppressor becomes less convinced of their right to oppress when the oppressed rebel by refusing to acquiesce to their oppression. That is, there is a more natural tendency to believe revolutionary acts are those that counter violence with violence. (Fanon famously said that violence against oppression can be “detoxifying” a medical term whose meaning here is not clear.) But Tamares, like Hegel, is wed to the notion that the master-slave dynamic is dialectical and interdependent and once the slave no longer agrees to their servitude, the dynamic begins to unravel. This is what he claims Moshe was trying to do in his violent act against the Egyptian, not so much to take revenge on the Egyptian but to show the Israelite onlookers that oppression and domination are false (sheker). That is, Moshe committed violence against the Egyptian taskmaster in order to disabuse the Israelites of the idea that political violence is justified.

But to no avail. Not only did the Israelites refuse to see what Moshe was trying to show them but they suggested that he, and not Pharaoh, may be the one endangering their lives. “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex. 2:14). Moses was frightened and fled. Tamares rejects the innate connection between Exodus 2:14 and 2:15 which states, “When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.” Rather, he suggests that Moshe fled not for fear of his life but because he realized that the Israelites could not be their own agents of salvation. They could not think their way out of slavery because they became an integral part of the justification of their own servitude. The slave ultimately remains a slave to the justification of violence against them.

Tamares suggests that the Israelites had suffered a tremendous moral descent while in Egypt whereby they became convinced of the violent nature that maintained in their own servitude. In killing the Egyptian, Moshe hoped to dislodge them from that moral decadence whereby they could begin the process of self-redemption. What transpired, however, was the opposite. The Israelites angrily confronted Moshe, suggesting that he too is complicit in their state of submission. (“Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”) Hearing this, Moshe recognized that the Israelites were unable to garner sufficient self-respect to reject the political violence of Egypt, and political violence more generally. He therefore chose to leave Egypt.
Here Tamares offers a different assessment as to Moshe’s departure. It is not, as others suggest, and as the verse seems to make explicit, that Moshe was afraid he would be pursued by Pharaoh. Rather, he recognized that the Israelites did not have the ability to save themselves and thus a savior could not be effective. They had become convinced of the efficacy and legitimacy of violence against them, embodying servitude to such an extent that they could not see beyond it. Moshe thus truly abandoned his constituency without any indication he would return.
Tamares uses an interesting locution to describe what Moshe’s goal in his violent act against the Egyptian taskmaster. He writes that he wanted to “return the crown to its place” a Rabbinic phrase (see Talmud Bavli, Yoma 69b) suggesting that he wanted to re-institute the lost Abrahamic tradition he described earlier, a tradition of generosity and compassion that for Tamares is the only path to self-respect, and subsequently, to liberation (herut). Of course, some forty years later, Moshe encounters God in the Burning Bush, gets called back to Egypt, and returns to liberate the Israelites. That liberation transpires only through divine intervention which is, of course, divine violence. But not far from Walter Benjamin’s thesis on divine violence, it is divine violence that makes human violence illegitimate.
Tamares’ intervention deserves some additional attention. It appears that he is disturbed by Moshe’s behavior and tries to situate it in his pacifist perspective. That is, how can/does a violent act work to perpetuate pacifism? I say this in part because this biblical episode is a favorite of militants such as Meir Kahane, who cites it often as the true beginning of “Judaism.” For Kahane, violence as self-defense is also a tool to self-respect and pride. For Tamares, Moshe’s violent intervention was an unnatural and even transgressive exception for the purposes of arousing a sense of self-worth and fidelity in the Israelites to enable them to break free of servitude, not by violent means, but by rejecting the master-slave dynamic that was the true essence of their servitude. Moshe did not expect a violent slave revolt but an attitudinal transformation that would weaken the grip of the oppressor. (For more on Kahane’s reading of Moses’s act of violence, see my book, Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Princeton, 2021, pp. 52-53).)

Moshe didn’t use violence to set a new behavioral standard but rather to make an exceptional intervention to exhibit collective responsibility and fidelity. In this sense, Tamares may be alluding to a comparison of sorts between Moshe’s failed attempt to arouse the people and God’s miraculous intervention to redeem the people. Moshe transgresses the behavioral order to counter an addiction to servitude, and God deploys the natural order to save a people who simply cannot save themselves.

Extending beyond Tamares’ reading, perhaps this is why God calls Moshe back from Midian. God could have redeemed the Israelites without Moshe; Moshe had already rejected the Israelites in response to being rejected by them. But perhaps somehow Moshe’s transgressive act – to counter violence with violence – was the most another human being could do to change the nature of a people convinced of the violent dynamic of the master-slave dynamic. But it didn’t, and doesn’t, work. God would now have to intervene beyond human participation (the plagues). Moshe is called back to facilitate acts of divine violence to unlock the prison of servitude.

Moving back to Tamares, and here gesturing to Walter Benjamin’s thesis on divine violence, perhaps it is divine violence that invalidates human violence. Moshe fails through the trial of violence, enabling God to succeed by rejecting violence as a legitimate human response, by taking violence away from humans and placing it outside the purview of political affairs. For Kahane, Moshe’s act of violence inaugurates the true history of Israel as a conquering and violent nation. For Tamares, by contrast, the plagues offer a different covenantal model whereby God acts violently, if necessary, so that Israel does not.

Here Tamares gestures to his time (1905) two years after the Kishinev pogrom, the year of the first Russian revolution, and a year after Herzl’s sudden death. The Jews in Europe were beginning to seriously consider Zionism and in so doing, to enter the nationalist struggle, one that had already heralded serious violence that would increase exponentially in the coming decade. On the one hand, Jews in Europe had largely left their non-emancipated status to become members of European society. And yet, for Tamares, choosing nationalism meant choosing to engage in a project that almost always necessitates violence. States are brutal entities. They are violent actors and, worse for Tamares, they are violent actors that justify their violence. Like others with anarchistic inclinations, such as Abraham Yehuda Hen, Shmuel Alexandrov and Nathan Hofshi, Tamares was suspicious of states, national political struggles, and claims of land ownership. At about the same time, philosopher Hermann Cohen argued that states are legitimate forms of collective existence – except for Jews, precisely because Jews carry the messianic message that subverts the notion of a state. Cohen argues in his essay “The Messianic Idea,” (written in the 1890s; whether Tamares had read it, I do not know) that the prophets viewed the destruction of the “state” as a necessary part of Israel’s mission. Depoliticization is the germ-cell of Cohen’s messianic idea.

Tamares, living in the middle of nationalist fervor that would explode in the Great War, saw the violence that is inherent in the state and tried to veer Jews away from the idea. But he was not opposed to all forms of nationalism and was a vehement critic of assimilation. He supported diasporic nationalism, not unlike Simon Dubnow, and was sympathetic to Ahad ha-Am’s cultural Zionism. But in “Herut” he uses Egypt as the leitmotif of political statecraft that utilizes domination to further its nationalist goals, not as an exception, but as the standard. Abraham is the true model of Jewish righteousness, Moshe being one who tries and fails to re-instate a lost Abrahamism.

For Meir Kahane and some Zionists, Moshe’s violent act came to override Abraham’s compassionate posture, political realism overcoming the power of Abrahamic submission. For Kahane, non-violence is diasporic and a sign of Jewish weakness. For Tamares, it is a sign of Jewish strength. Moreover, Jewish violence for Tamares is an exercise in assimilation; it is an act of becoming “like the gentiles.” Kahane admits as much when he says that Jews have to become “more like the goyim.” For Kahane, Moshe’s killing the Egyptian was the signpost to a new Jewish space, the inauguration of a new Jewish project: collective strength, power, and conquest. Tamares sees it otherwise. Moshe’s violence was for him an exception that proves the rule. First, it did not work, and second, for Jews to model it is, in effect, is to mimic Pharaoh, to become Pharaoh. In the beginning of “Herut” Tamares argues that the purpose of Torah in the exile is to serve as a map whereby Israel can exhibit to the other nations how to proceed in collective existence. The violence therein, almost always mandated by God, is overwritten by the moral code that harkens back to Abrahamism.

For Tamares, the story of the Exodus is not a triumphalist expression of Jewish covenantal might, but rather a cautionary tale whereby God saves the Jews – representing the powerless – who cannot save themselves. But moving forward, the dangers of Pharaohism is ever-present, for all peoples, Jews included. Of that Tamares was quite certain. Today that danger remains all too relevant.

Thanks to all who joined in my shiur at the Lehrhaus Restaurant in Cambridge, MA on February 19, 2024 where some of these ideas were developed and, as always, to our Thursday night zoom haburah on the writings of Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar and Aaron Shmuel Tamares.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.