While studying with the late teacher Hong Yixiang 洪懿祥 (1925-1993) in Taiwan, I received an affable reaction to my Jewish heritage. This response correlates with the Taiwanese sentiment of solidarity towards a perceived similar national narrative with that of the Jewish people. Both nations view themselves as one of the world’s oldest civilizations and also as ones that retain unique positions: China, Zhongguo 中國, “The Central Kingdom” and “Center of Civilization”, and the “chosen people” of Israel, an idea which is a pillar of Jewish tradition dating to biblical times. These mutual and parallel aspects serve as the launching point for the following comparison between the rise and role of martial arts in both cultures. As much has been said and written about the historical and cultural aspects of Chinese martial arts, I chose to start the comparison with the phrase “the sword and the pen” from a Jewish point of view, continue through the evolution of martial arts in Jewish culture in the context of Zionism, finally describing the teaching methodology of Chinese martial arts at the Wingate Institute in Israel.
The Jews, also known as the Jewish people, are a nation and ethno religious group originating in the Hebrews of the ancient near east. In Jewish tradition, Jewish ancestry is traced back to the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Judaism is the religion, philosophy, and way of life of the Jewish people. Originating in the Hebrew Bible and explored in later texts such as the Talmud, it is considered by Jews to be the expression of the covenantal relationship God developed with the ChildrenofIsrael. In Judaism the term “People of the Book” (Hebrew: Am HaSefer) was used to refer specifically to the Jewish people and the Torah, and to the Jewish people and the wider canon of written Jewish law.
The Sword and the Pen
The “Talmud” (Hebrew; literally to teach and/or study) is a central text of mainstream Judaism, in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewishlaw, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. According to one of the phrases found in the Talmud in the Aramaic language: “yi safra- la sayafa, yi sayafa – la safra,” (Midrash 77- 27- 2) literally meaning “If he is a writer (or educated) – he is not a fencer (or highwayman), and if he is a fencer – he is not a writer.” The source of this phrase is a libel against the wise rabbi Elazar Ben Parta, who allegedly stole charity money while teaching the Torah. To this accusation he replied: One can’t be rebuked with two adverse and contradictory charges. The more modern saying “safra and sayafa”, a man who is both an educated man of the book and a warrior, originates at the onset of the Zionist movement, referring to the settlers who were men of culture and work, who dealt with defense as a secondary duty.
This saying corresponds to the Chinese phrase “zhong wen qing wu” 重文輕武, applauding literary cultivation while belittling martial attainment. According to Ma Mingda 馬明達, “The idea to master both the pen and the sword was the most prominent feature in traditional China’s educational philosophy and cultural consciousness.” (Ma Mingda, 2010)
The Aramaic phrase, in fact, manifests a deeper meaning that force and spirit seemingly cannot coincide. I would like to examine this notion through the biblical verse of Genesis 27:22 “And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, the voice [is] Jacob’s voice, but the hands [are] the hands of Esau.”
According to the biblical episode of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, the blind and aging patriarch Isaac wanted to bestow his blessing on his eldest son, Esau, before passing away. Jacob, being the second-born son, coveted his elder brother’s birthright to the blessing. Prompted by his mother, Rebekah, Jacob covered his hands and the nape of his neck with goatskins, in order to resemble his hairy brother Esau. After being approached by Jacob, Isaac commented: “… the voice [is] Jacob’s voice, but the hands [are] the hands of Esau.” Isaac did not recognize him as Jacob and proceeded to bless him. “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied (Genesis 27:24).
The root of the conflict between the two worlds of force and spirit is the two brothers – Jacob and Esau. Their natures are intrinsically contradictory and estranged and had been before they were even born. Their mother, Rebekah, expresses the distress of her pregnancy: “And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus?” (Genesis 25:22). Their mother’s womb is thus the first battle ground in the continuous confrontation between the twins, symbolizing an imminent, eternal struggle: “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manners of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)
The bible is a well of tales depicting sibling rivalry as the way of the world. In Genesis alone, Cain kills Abel, Isaac and Ishmael are rivals, Jacob and Esau clash in their mother’s womb, and Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit. Even the sisters Rachel and Leah vie for their husband Jacob’s attention. Familial relations seem to be furthest removed from the Biblical vision of “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalms 133:1).
Esau is a hunter, a man of the field and an outsider. On the other hand, Jacob is a naïve, introspective, tent dweller. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, widely known to scholars of Judaism as the Maharal of Prague, or simply The MaHaRaL, annotated: “…the voice [is] Jacob’s voice, but the hands [are] the hands of Esau.”The voice originates in the depths within, while the hands are the extraneous organs that extend the body the most. Jacob’s culture is one of force, external impression, utilitarian ambition, and hedonism, while Esau’s is a spiritual realm inclined to focus on intangible moral values and abstract ideals. A huge abyss gapes between these irreconcilable worlds (MaHaRal, 1578).
This backdrop, along with the wording of the blessing, serves to explain Isaac’s choice to bless Esau: “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness, an abundance of grain and new wine. Many nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers.” (Genesis 27:28-29). These economic blessings are appropriate for Esau, not Jacob. What need does the spiritual Jacob have for force and economic abundance? This is more suitable for Esau, as he will provide for Jacob.
After learning that he has been deprived of his blessing, Esau begs his father for a blessing of his own, but all Isaac can offer him is: “By your sword you shall live, but your brother you shall serve” (Genesis 27:39). A closer look at the two blessings the brothers receive reveals a significant difference between them. Jacob’s blessing opens with a reference to heaven’s dew; His gaze first turns to the heavens and only afterwards to the earth’s bounty, thus recognizing the force that endows him with prosperity. Esau is not capable of attaining this level of transcendence; earthly produce is paramount and there is no mention of heaven. Nature is apparently a materialistic dimension, without a spiritual designation. In Jacob’s blessing we find rule and authority, but Esau “will live by the sword”. The sword in this sense is the goal, not a means to an end.
Rebekah did not want the supply and might of Israel to fall in the hands of Esau and the government to succumb to his violent rule. Only the ethereal Jacob has the know-how of utilizing the power of the blessing for exalted purposes. Severing force and spirit, or the tent and the field, would bring disaster on them both. The economy would collapse and force will translate into violence. The realm of spiritual ideas and ethics would respectively remain abstract and be solely the calling of the few able to survive this kind of rough, vicious world. Rabbi Abraham Ahi Hagra (1946) comments on the MaHaRal’s annotation:”When the voice is Jacob’s voice – Jacob deserves the hands of Esau”. This expresses the possibility of harmony; when the hands are enslaved to the spiritual voice which ascends from inside oneself.
War played a crucial part in the consolidation of the national identity of ancient Israel. The bible leaves no doubt that these early Jewish traditions were created and passed from generation to generation amidst incessant war fare. The Jewish apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that Jewish culture during the Second Temple (586 BC – 70 CE) developed in an environment of established violence. This atmosphere probably influenced all shades of Jewish faith during that period.
The climate changed after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE and the oppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE). From then on, continuously throughout Jewish history, the more dominant the foundations of exile and slavery became in the genealogy of the Jewish people, the more profoundly the remains of Jewish military heritage were erased from the national collective consciousness. Lose (1998) states: “War, which was an important historical component of the nations of the world, was considered by the Jews to be the art of Esau. In the Jewish history it had a place only in the mythical recollection of the past or in the messianic vision of the future, but not in the present”. Even under these circumstances there were a handful of Jewish who pursued military careers and fought as volunteers or mercenaries, flying different flags, but they were the exception to the rule. The profession of war was off limits for the Jewish Diaspora during the middle ages and the beginning of the early modern period. The situation changed somewhat with the legislation of compulsory enlistment in many Western countries. Jews responded the call to arms on a large scale, occasionally enthusiastically, yet not many chose to join the Jewish Brigades, which were formed by the Allied Forces with the encouragement of the Zionist movement, even though this could help to promote Jewish political goals (Baron, 1977 / Chaliand 1994).
Thus it happened that warfare was one of the few fields of human enterprise that did not gain, since ancient history, any significant contribution from the Jews. Other cultures can point a consecutive intellectual chain of military thinkers, from Sun Zi 孫武 to Nasreddin. Compared to those affluent traditions, 2,000 years of Jewish tradition, are almost entirely absent from the classics of military philosophy, commentary and contemplation, reinforcing the term “People of the Book” (Cohen, 2005).
Written By Abi Moriya