The Proper Response to a Gestapo's Taunt?
It is 1942, and you are a Jew who has been captured by the Nazis. You are being led by the Gestapo to the train that will take you to your camp; whether to slavery or death you know not. As you walk, a friend of the Gestapo stops you. He loves Jewish music, he says, “Can you play me one of those Jewish classics? Hava Negilah maybe, or Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem?”
What are you supposed to respond?
Responding to the Taunt of Their Captors
The above scenario is meant to be illustrative—things like this did happen—but I begin with it as a way of reimagining the passage from Psalm 137.
כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם שְֽׁאֵל֢וּנוּ שׁוֹבֵ֡ינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁ֭יר
שִׁ֥ירוּ לָ֗נוּ מִשִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן:
For our captors asked us there for songs,
Our tormentors, for amusement,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
Part of the answer is intuitive; why should they please their captors? Instead, the Judahite exiles hang up their lyres and take an oath that their right hands, which once played the instruments, should whither before they ever play a song of Zion on the soil of their captors.
The taunting explains the beginning of the psalm, but it also helps us understand the end of the psalm, with its blood-curdling fantasy that someone should dash their enemies’ babies against rocks. Verses like this are exceptional in the Bible and are meant to express an emotional-psychological stance. In this case, the author’s animus is rooted in the dreadful slaughter perpetrated in Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and is sparked by the taunting of the victors.
In short, I suggest we look at the psalmist as akin to a holocaust survivor, who lost everything he or she had. When responding to a Nazi taunt, immediately after their campaign of extermination, in a world in which, God forbid, the Nazis won (as did the Babylonians) – is there really a clear answer to what is or is not a proper thing to say?
Harshly Phrased Generic Curse
I do not believe that the verse is really meant as an expression of joy at the death of children, but rather as a savagely expressed plea for future vengeance against enemies. It is akin to what is expressed in the phrase, “May God avenge their blood,” but phrased in such a way to add shock value.
More significantly, the verse is not meant to express a principled stance that we should rejoice in the death of infants as part of a campaign of vengeance. Rather, it is an unfiltered response that derived from Judah’s destruction, its people’s exile, and the terrible carnage.
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February 28, 2015
March 18, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Amit Kula is the rabbi of Kibbutz Alumim as well as of Beit Midrash “Daroma” at Ben Gurion University. He did his Ph.D. in Jewish thought at Ben Gurion University, focusing on the writings of Rav Kook. Kula was formerly the Rosh haYeshiva of Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim. He is a member of the rabbinic organizations Tzohar and Beit Hillel, has written a number of online responsa, and is the author of Existential or Non-Essential: History and Literature, Religious Language and the Nature of the Deity.
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