My problem with Maoz Tzur

by Brian on December 9, 2018

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

I have a problem with Maoz Tzur, the song that’s traditionally sung at Hanukah time after lighting the hanukkiah. One of the poem’s uncomfortable recurring themes is vengeance.

In the opening stanza, we pray to God to “prepare a slaughter of the ‘barking foe.’” It gets even more extreme by the song’s closing verses: “Wreak vengeance upon the wicked nation … thrust the enemy into the shadows of death.”

I get why the author of this poem was pissed. A lot of bad things have happened to the Jewish people and they keep happening, even today. So, the thinking must have gone, the only way to stop more pogroms, expulsions, desecrations or modern missile attacks is to utterly annihilate our enemies.

That’s certainly a message that resonates in the Bible.

In Deuteronomy, you can read the following: “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.”

During the war against the Midianites, after the Israelites kill every male among their adversaries, Moses ups the ante and demands the Israelites eliminate all male children and any women who are not virgins.

Can we dismiss these commands as simply reflecting the way things were back then? Or are these sacred rules of conduct that are supposed to endure forever?

A few weeks ago, my daughter and son-in-law were, for the second time this year, forced to flee their home in Sderot in order to get out of range from the rocket barrage coming from Gaza.

When a ceasefire was eventually negotiated, many residents of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip were livid. The IDF must go into Gaza and wipe out Hamas entirely, they rallied. What if innocent people are killed? “We’ve got to teach them a lesson” was one of the most striking lines I heard.

Really? Pull out the ruler and slap their hands indiscriminately, because that’s the only way kids learn? It sounds so childish.

Now, I’m not someone who opposes war at all costs and would rather retire the army, open any borders and hope for the best.

Rather, it’s the language of vengeance that arises in times of crisis that troubles me. Is this something that we carry from Jewish tradition? Do those who live their lives according to a strict reading of the biblical narrative have a greater propensity to seek revenge? Or do our sacred texts simply echo human nature, much as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Colgate College Prof. Kevin Carlsmith created a group investment game. Participants were to put a dollar into a group pot and the researchers would add a 40 percent bonus. The pot would be distributed equally.

The best thing for the group would be for everyone to cooperate. But a player could also refuse, in which case he or she would keep the dollar and get a share of the pot – a better deal for the individual.

Carlsmith secretly inserted a “free rider” into each group who convinced the others to invest equally, but then chose not to play along. The rest of the group was understandably annoyed.

When Carlsmith then presented a way for group members to take revenge, everyone took up the offer. More than that, they predicted that they would feel better after they got their revenge.

Dan Ariely has uncovered a biological basis. The best-selling author and professor of behavioral economics scanned participants in a PET CT machine and found that just the thought of revenge stimulates the reward center of the brain to give us pleasure.

Vengeance goes hand-in-hand with a desire to make yourself look good at the expense of your opponent. That too has found its way into Jewish tradition.

Our morning prayers beseech men to thank God for not making them a woman.

The Aleinu prayer states that non-Jews “bow to nothingness and vanity and pray to a God that does not save.”

Hebrew Union College Professor Rabbi Dalia Marx is overseeing a revision to the Israeli Reform prayer book. She and her team have decided to replace that line in Aleinu. “We don’t feel that we need to bring down others in order to cite our uniqueness,” Marx explains.

Similarly, the popular A Night to Remember Haggadah suggests that instead of (or in addition to) the furious “pour out your wrath” closing to the Passover Seder, we proclaim “pour out your love on the nations who have known you.”

Vengeance and belittling may have their roots in biology, but avengers rarely receive the pleasure they’re expecting. In Carlsmith’s experiment, he asked students to report how they felt after getting their revenge. The results showed that, despite their predictions, they actually felt worse compared to others who weren’t given the same opportunity.

Our avenging brains evolved over millions of years, making it tough – but not impossible – to affect a change. Perhaps the best place to start is with language.

So, with Hanukah here, I’m going to take a tiny step in excising vengeance from our vocabulary. Dalia Marx suggests replacing two words in the first stanza of Maoz Tzur.

Instead of “l’et tachin matbe’ach” – when you prepare a slaughter – let’s sing “l’et tashbit matbe’ach” – “when you put an end to slaughter.” And instead of “mitzar ha’menabe’ach” – for the ‘barking foe’ – we’ll say “u’mitzar terave’ach” – “and spare us from the foe.”

Give it a try as you light the sixth candle tonight. Happy Hanukah!

I first shared my frustration with Maoz Tzur in The Jerusalem Post.

Aharon Varady, who runs the Open Siddur Project, points out that former British Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz first proposed swapping “tachin” for “tashbit.” 

Picture from Eva Rinaldi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]

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