Masculinity and the Hanukkah Hero: Toward a New Interpretation of Biblical Gevurah

The story of masculinity, heroism, and Hanukkah has been told countless times in the past century. Depending on who is talking, it is variously recounted to champion a return to pre-rabbinic biblical values (think David Ben Gurion) or, more recently, as a call to recover a “softer” rabbinic model of masculinity (with Daniel Boyarin in Unheroic Conduct). However, a closer examination of the biblical term gevurah, at least as it appears in one seminal biblical passage, suggests that both narratives are oversimplified, and that the claim that the Bible champions the warrior is more complex than is often contended.

Beginning with biblical gibborim such as Samson, Saul, and David, and throughout most of the biblical period, physical prowess was seen as heroic and worthy of emulation. It was almost exclusively associated with masculinity (thus gever and gevurah share the same root). As recorded in I Maccabees, Hanukkah initially celebrated the physical heroism of the Maccabees. Later, the Talmudic rabbis pivoted, downplaying the military victory in favor of the spiritual miracle of the oil. This shift, scholars such as Boyarin contend, reflected a fundamental rabbinic ambivalence about the ideal of the male-as-warrior. Owing to a mix of political realism and a radical reconceptualization of Jewish life in exile, the Rabbis sought to redirect the locus of Judaism toward the themes of spiritual worship and divine intervention. In fact, the shift from the early biblical conception of heroism from physical strength to moral power began earlier, the hero no longer defeats his enemies on the battlefield, but “conquers his evil inclination” (Avot 4:1) and pursues victory in the study hall.

The rabbinic view of the hero dominated throughout the exilic period until the rise of Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century. Countering the image of the physically degenerate European, many secular Zionists embraced variations on Max Nordau’s “muscle Judaism.” Physical prowess and the ability to engage in warfare were championed again. It was only nearly two thousand years later, when the Zionists reclaimed the image of the Maccabees as warrior-heroes, that the classical biblical paradigm of the soldier was restored.

Of course, both narratives are facile. The rabbis, for all their ambivalence about taking up arms against the Romans and their embrace of Torah study as a new ideal of masculine religiosity, maintained the prohibition against women bearing arms, which according to cultural norms were still viewed as “masculine items” (Nazir 59a). Additionally, Maimonides maintained at least the theoretical view of the Messiah as a military-spiritual leader. Perhaps most important, the rabbinic house of study, far from a place of gentlemanly discourse, has been not unfairly described as a site of verbal “violence,” substituting for the battlefield where most rabbis no longer waged their wars (Jeffrey Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, chap. 3).

Yet it is not just the rabbinic period that resists key aspects of this storyline, but even the idealization of the biblical warrior-hero – both its definition and its celebration – that requires reconsideration. Given that the term gibbor is generally understood to be the biblical term for a warrior, we therefore turn to this phrase is search of insight into the biblical definition and valuation of the gibbor.

All 221 biblical uses of the root G-V-R in regard to human beings appear exclusively in reference to physical warriors. By contrast, in regard to divine gevurah, while the the term sometimes similarly depicts God as a warrior, on other occasions it refers more generally to God’s ability to perform anything He desires. This raises the key questions, what exactly are the definition and attendant characteristics of divine gevurah, and what are its implications for the human gibborgever?

As a case study, we will examine one key passage:

For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God [ha-kel ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ve-hanora] who shows no favor and takes no bribe,

but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18, with rough parallels in Jeremiah 32:18 and Nehemiah 9:32)

The plain meaning of these verses make an essential point about God’s actions as a gibbor. A Talmudic passage in Megillah 31a underscores this verse’s implications for developing a biblical view of gevurah:

Rabbi Yohanan said: Wherever you find the might [gevurato] of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you find His humility. This matter is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings.
It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17), and it is written afterward: “He executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow” (Deuteronomy 10:18). It is repeated in the Prophets: “thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, Whose name is sacred” (Isaiah 57:15), and it is written afterward: “with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit,” (Isaiah 57:15). It is stated a third time in the Writings, as it is written: “Extol Him Who rides upon the clouds, Whose name is the Lord” (Psalms 68:5), and it is written immediately afterward: “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows” (Psalms 68:6).

This passage declares a fundamental principle, illuminating peshuto shel mikra: in all three sections of the Bible, it is precisely where we encounter God’s strength [gevurah] that we find His humility, as manifest in His preparedness to lower Himself and care for the needy.

Yet the use of gevurah in the passage in Megillah is unusual. While the continuation of the first verse does use the term gevurah, the latter two do not, instead describing God as “dwelling on high” (Isaiah) and “riding in the clouds” (Psalms). Why does the Gemara go out of its way to use the term “gevurato” of the Holy One, Blessed Be He instead of, for instance, “gedulato”?

Indeed, when referencing the Gemara, some commentators, including Keli Yakar, Shelah, Netziv, and Rabbi Lamm, substitute the language “gedulato” for “gevurato.”[1] After all, the common denominator between the three texts would seem to be that despite his exalted nature, God descends to be present with the needy. The word “gedulah,” a more generic term for greatness, would seem a more fitting appellation for this characteristic than “gevurah,” which generally denotes physical might.

We might simply infer from these commentators that the Talmud was imprecise in its terminology. But this interpretation is difficult. With one exception, all available manuscripts of the Gemara have the language gevurah.[2] The same holds for the Gemara’s midrashic parallels, such as Yalkut Shimoni (to Deut. 10:17).

Further, this interpretation does not accord with the way the Sages implicitly understood this verse in their construction of the Amidah. As noted in another Talmudic passage, the verse in Deuteronomy serves as the framework for the first three blessings of the Amidah:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Why are the Sages of those generations called the members of the Great Assembly? It is because they returned the crown of the Holy One, Blessed be He, to its former glory. How so? Moses came and said in his prayer: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God [ha-kel ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ve-hanora]” (Deuteronomy 10:17). Jeremiah the prophet came and said: Gentiles, are carousing in His sanctuary; where is His awesomeness? Therefore, he did not say awesome in his prayer: “The great God, the mighty Lord of Hosts [ha-kel ha-gadol ha-gibbor], is His name” (Jeremiah 32:18). Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children; where is His might? Therefore he did not say mighty in his prayer: “The great and awesome God” [ha-kel ha-gadol ve-hanora] (Daniel 9:4).

The members of the Great Assembly [by including the full phrase ha-kel ha-gadol ha-gibbor ve-hanora in the Amidah] came and said: On the contrary, this is the might of His might, that He conquers His inclination in that He exercises patience toward the wicked. God’s anger is flared by the gentile nations’ enslavement of His people, yet He expresses might by suppressing His anger and holding back from punishing them immediately. And these acts also express His awesomeness: Were it not for the awesomeness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, how could one people, who are alone and hated by the gentile nations, survive among the nations? (Yoma 69b)

The Talmud makes it clear that the themes of “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God,” drawn from our verse in Deuteronomy, serve as the basis for a phrase toward the very beginning of the Amidah. In fact, when we compare Deuteronomy to the prayers, we find that the term “gibbor” is the central phrase of the second blessing of the Amidah. The pointed usage of the term “gevurah” in the second blessing suggests that “gedulah” and “gevurah” are not interchangeable, particularly in the context of the verse in Deuteronomy. Further, the term gevurah in the Amidah seems to have little association with war. God, who is all-Powerful, brings the rain and revives the dead. This seems to have little to do with conquering external, or even internal, enemies.

The text of Shemoneh Esrei, then, suggests that the Gemara Megillah should not be understood as conflating gedulah and gevurah. So why does the Gemara go out of its way to use the term gevurah, and what does this tell about the phrase’s larger significance?

Maharal (Hiddushei Agadot Megillah ibid.) offers an answer that brings us much closer to a satisfying resolution. Maharal explains that while the Talmud acknowledges that the word gevurah only appears in the first of the three verses, it intentionally uses that language to sharpen its larger theme. Typically, a human gibbor remains distant from the needy and downtrodden. This is not so in the case of God, who “brings them closer and provides special care for them.”

In effect, because the term gevurah effectively captures this divine characteristic, the Talmud uses gevurah to cover all three verses. In other words, the Gemara is suggesting that in fact all three verses refer to this quality of gevurah. In human affairs heroism is typically manifest through physical aggression. But biblical gevurah, at least in connection with God, is not strictly tied to warring against an enemy. God exercises such powers in a variety of ways, including His ability to bring rain (gevurot geshamim), revive the dead (mehayeh meitim), and provide salvation (rav le-hoshia). It is to this aspect of God’s power that we appeal in Shemoneh Esrei. Because God is all-powerful, we beseech him to utilize His powers toward compassionate ends, as manifest in God’s far-reaching capacity to revive the dead.

The prayer, in turn, helps illuminate the Gemara’s choice to depict gevurah instead of gedulah. A gibbor is not just a warrior, but a mighty individual who possesses a degree of superiority over others. It is the title given to one who has achieved a hierarchical relationship with others through strength or another form of supremacy. The greatest example, of course, is God.

But all this is merely the backdrop to the burning ethical question confronting the gibbor: in light of this broader definition of gevurah, how does he interact with others? How does he use his power? He may remain distanced and aloof, as Maharal suggests is the norm, or he may approach and be present with the needy. Will he lord over others or see that his strength is meant to position him to use his power to assist the vulnerable? God does the latter, and it is precisely this trait that is reinforced in Torah, Prophets, and Writings.

The Gemara in Megillah 31a is therefore very precise: while the term gevurah does not appear in all three contexts, the concept appears in all these places. As the ultimate gibbor, God is hierarchically superior to all humans, yet He opts to exercise this gevurah in relation to the needy by drawing close to them and caring for their needs.

Crucially, by noting that the same theme appears in all three sections of the Bible, the Gemara seems to be emphasizing that this point should not be understood as a rabbinic innovation, but is in keeping with peshuto shel mikra. The passage in Megillah, along with the rabbinic appropriation of this verse as a foundational component of the daily prayer service, suggests that the verse in Deuteronomy offers us a profound insight into the quality of Godly gevurah.

The next verse in Deuteronomy finally emphasizes the most important point of all:

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (10:19)

God’s behavior must be a model for ours. We too must assist the foreigner, for in that interaction, any non-foreigner is, in our broader definition of one who is less vulnerable, a gibbor.

If Deuteronomy is any indication, physical strength is neither inherently glorified nor vilified in the Torah. The most important part of the Hanukkah story is not the fact that the Hasmoneans were warriors, though that was used toward a positive end and was therefore laudable. Their position as gibborim was, at that time and often in ours, a starting point, a fact of life. The question is what we do with it. The human gibbor may not revive the dead or summon the rains, but must always use his position not to defeat the innocent but to advocate for the indigent. Above all, like God, he must lower himself to simply be present in the same space as the less fortunate.

[1] Citations for the first three appear here: Rabbi Lamm’s appears in a sermon delivered for Parshat Vayishlah entitled “Some Fatherly Advice,” available at

[2] Ketav Yad Munich 95 actually has gedulato instead of gevurato. See Hachi Garsinan of the Friedberg Project for Talmud Bavli Variants.