Bar Kokhva. Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv. February 2016–June 2016. Sarah Tur’el. Catalogue: Sarah Tur’el and Ganyah Dolev eds., Bar- Kokhba: Historical Memory and the Myth of Heroism. Eretz Israel Museum: Tel Aviv, 2016. Hebrew, 177 pp.
Shim’on Bar Kosibah, more commonly known as Bar Kokhba, the leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans (132–135/6 CE), can be counted among the most fascinating and enigmatic characters ever to be constructed by Jewish tradition.1 Anyone studying the revolt faces considerable difficulty owing to the dearth of historical resources recounting its various aspects—the course of the action and its strategies, stages, and consequences. In contrast to the Great Revolt (67–73 CE), which was covered extensively in the writings of Josephus Flavius, the Bar Kosibah revolt did not have an official historian and there is very little relevant primary-source historical documentation. Thus, most of the extant historical data are based largely on archaeological findings from excavations conducted mainly in Judea, where fascinating material regarding the revolt has been, and is still being, found.
Apart from the historical data from the period, rabbinic literature whose earlier sages were contemporaneous with the revolt has provided a rich tapestry regarding both the event itself and the commander who led it, whom they called “Shim’on Bar Koziva.” Two central images of Bar Kosibah emerged from the rabbinic literature: the first refers to the one whom Rabbi Akiva defined as the King Messiah: “When R. Akiva looked at Ben-Kosibah he said, ‘There shall come a star out of Jacob’ (Num. 24: 17). ‘A star of Jacob,’ this refers to the King Messiah.”2 The second image is that of a harsh military commander, one of exceptional physical strength surpassing all the conventional norms: “What was Ben-Kosibah’s strength? They said: ‘When going into battle, he caught the ballista stones with one of his knees and hurled them back, killing several people.’ ”3
These two images, the messianic and the military alike, turned, each in its own time and venue, into respective cornerstones in the historical, literary, folkloric discourse surrounding the image of Bar Kosibah, from Late Antiquity to present Israeli and Zionist discourse.
Commencing in the period of the Ge’onim and lasting, practically, until the nineteenth century and the rise of nationalism in Europe, the meager discussions regarding Bar Kosibah’s image focused primarily on his messianic identity: is he, indeed, the King Messiah? Or, conversely, what can be learned from his image about the prospective Messiah and is his image juxtaposed against the other Messiah, namely, Jesus Christ.4 In the nineteenth century, with the rise of European nationalism and the parallel rise of the Zionist movement, the military aspect became a more alluring point of interest. The transition from a theological discourse regarding Bar Kosibah’s messianic identity to a national discourse concerned with military images (from which the messianic flavor had not been omitted) increased the interest in and preoccupation with Bar Kosibah. Unlike during the Middle Ages when his image was only secondary, within the modern national and Zionist discourse, it is central and dominant.5 The prominence of Bar Kosibah’s image in that discourse took him outside the study halls and research institutions’ walls and transformed him into a literary, visual, popular, and adored icon, centered primarily on the holiday of Lag ba-Omer.6
The exhibition “Bar Kokhva: Historical Memory and the Myth of Heroism,” in the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv in the first half of 2016 was mounted to take a place at the heart of the political and popular discourse that was constructed around the image of Bar Kosibah. It is the first exhibition of its kind in a major Israeli museum that does not deal simply with historical questions focusing on the course of action and the results of the revolt. Rather, the museum’s space was utilized specifically to portray a spectacular curve of archaeological, literary, and folkloristic images and representations assembled around Bar Kosibah’s enigmatic character. The exhibition’s cultural point of departure relies on recognition of Bar Kosibah’s very significant role in the construction of a new Jewish nationalism in which Bar Kosibah the Hebrew Warrior stands at the center.
One can appreciate this exhibition’s complex role from the way the display space was designed. The archaeological artifacts unearthed during the extensive excavations in various Judean Desert wadis—coins of the period, a variety of kitchenware, and items of clothing—were at the center. The other exhibits—the rich corpus of children’s literature on this hero, the plays written about him, the different ways to pronounce his name (Bar-Kokhva, Bar-Kozva, Bar-Kosibah) and the tale of his fight with the lion—were placed around the artifacts. On the face of it, one can treat this display as a conservative artistic-design choice, one that places the “tangible” and “factual” historical discourse at the center of the exhibition, thus representing the cultural and folkloristic discourse as a secondary adjacent text. Yet, as a matter of fact, that was hardly the case. In fact, in this exhibition the archaeological element, that is to say the seemingly factual one, bowed to a reflexive discourse, one that examined the excavated artifacts and the fashion of their display in the Israeli public discourse. The item that concluded the archaeological display was a reproduction of an Israeli television Channel 1 cover story about the 1982 national-military funeral held over the bones of Bar Kosibah warriors that were found in an archaeological dig conducted by Yiga’el Yadin in Hever River Gorge in 1960–1961. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren directed a full military funeral for the bones in the presence of, among others, the Israeli governing elite: Prime Minister Menahem Begin, Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, and Chief Sephardic rabbi Ovadyah Yosef, (fig. 1).7
The choice to conclude the archaeological section of the exhibition with a commemoration of a politically charged event, which, at the time it occurred, evoked a multifaceted debate in the Israeli discourse, made it clear to the viewer that archaeology in and of itself is not a mere “fact,” or, conversely, an impartial historical argument. In fact, the exhibition was utilized as a venue for political and cultural debate, in themselves assisting in the construction of Bar Kosibah’s character and image. This construction was not as the leader of a failed Jewish revolt that took place in the second century CE, but as the commander of a timeless Hebrew army whose soldiers were brought to burial in a funeral appropriate and befitting for soldiers of the modern Israeli army, as if they had served in present day.8
I consider that beyond the unorthodox and controversial yet worthy choice on the part of the curator, Sarah Tur’el, to construct an exhibition that dealt with Bar Kosibah through primarily folkloristic eyes, the exhibition’s strength lies in its refusal to judge the cultural and political implications of the artifacts on display. The exhibition includes a wealth of representations that expose the centrality of Bar Kosibah’s place in the Zionist movement, in which he stands as a kind of a prototype and forerunner of the new Jewish warrior. At the same time the way in which the displays were exhibited and the quotes chosen (or not chosen) to illuminate them was purposely arranged so the political evaluation would be left to the viewer. The viewer was destined to be an active participant in this exhibition, thus, in turn, one that was required by default to ask questions regarding the significance of the many artifacts on display. This approach invited the viewer to re-examine, in a nonthreatening way, some of the basic assumptions of the Zionist movement and today’s Israeli society.
In reference to the various names and their meaning, see Haim Weiss, “There Was a Man in Israel—Bar-Kosibah Was His Name!,” JSQ (Jewish Studies Quarterly) 2 (2014): 99–115. Throughout this review I use the name “Bar Kosibah,” which is the name of the revolt’s leader as it appears in epistles found in the Judean Desert in the fifth and sixth decades of the twentieth century.
Thus in Palestinian sources: Lamentations Rabbah, 1, and PT Ta’anit 68–69. It is worth noting that in the Babylonian Talmud, Bar Kosibah is portrayed in a negative light, as someone who crowned himself as the Messiah, see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 93b. Bar Kosibah’s messianic image is also prominent in early Christian literature. Eusebius, a fourth-century Church Father, for instance, referred to the revolt and noted that, “The Jews were at that time led by a certain Bar-Chochebas [Bar-Khochva], which means ‘star,’ a man who was murderous and a bandit, but relied on his name, as if dealing with slaves, and claimed to be [a] luminary who had come down to them from heaven and was magically enlightening those who were in misery.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Volume I: Books 1–5, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 4: 310–313.
Lamentations Rabbah, 1 and Yerushalmi PT Ta’anit 68–69.
In this context see Ram Ben-Shalom, “The Jewish-Christian discourse on Bar Kokhva,” in Facing Christian Culture, Historical Consciousness and Past Images amongst the Jews of Spain and Provence in Medieval Times, Ram Ben-Shalom (Ben-Zvi Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Jerusalem 2006), 251–276 (in Hebrew), and Richard G. Marks, The Image of Bar-Kokhba in Traditional Jewish Literature: False Messiah and National Hero (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1994).
Thus far, few studies have been devoted to Bar Kosibah’s image in the national Israeli discourse, see Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), Haim Weiss, “From Secular to Religious Archaeology: The Case of Bar-Kosibah, Yigael Yadin and Shlomo Goren,” Theory and Criticism 46 (2016): 143–167 (in Hebrew).
The question regarding the Bar Kosibah connection with Lag ba-Omer is an academic one that still awaits a full and comprehensive response. A discussion concerning the various images of Bar Kosibah as an integral part of this holiday’s rituals can be found in Zerubavel, Recovered Roots, as well as Haim Grossman’s article in the exhibition’s catalogue: Haim Grossman, “Long Ago in Israel Lived a Man Named Bar-Kokhba: Hero and Heroism of Lag ba-Omer in the Culture of Israeli-Jewish Children,” in Bar- Kokhba: Historical
Memory and the Myth of Heroism ed. Sarah Tur’el and Ganyah Dolev (Eretz Israel Museum: Tel Aviv, 2016), 106–152 (in Hebrew).
For a discussion regarding the burial ceremony and its implications see above, Weiss, “Secular Archaeology,” and the bibliography there.
The emphasis in the exhibition in reference to the political complexity of the archaeological discourse is almost entirely absent from the exhibition’s catalogue. The catalogue includes two articles about the archaeological finds relevant to Bar Kosibah’s revolt. The first one, written by Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, is dedicated to the question of hiding in caves during the time of the revolt, and the second, by Cecilia Meir, is devoted to coins from the period. Both articles illustrate two of the most pertinent archaeological questions regarding the revolt. Yet, as is often the case with professional articles in this discipline, they do not include discussions pertaining to the national and political implications of the findings.