28 May Naso: Samson, the First Jewish Superhero
I’m pretty sure that it’s safe to say that for us Jews, the first superhero was Samson, of whose birth we will read this Shabbat in the Haftarah. I first met Samson while preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, which fell on this Shabbat, Parshat Naso, 45 years ago. I remember being impressed by Samson’s strength. No sooner had I gotten through my big day in synagogue, I received a set of weights as a Bar Mitzvah gift. It was through my relationship with Samson that I found my own interpretation of “coming of age” – body building (yes, I know that’s hard to believe looking at me today!). Not long after that, while I delved a bit more into the story, I realized that I had the ideal excuse for my preferred hairstyle at the time – I would be a Nazarite, just like Samson! In any case, this seemed like a noble excuse for my boycott of barbers.
It wasn’t just Samson’s physical strength and his hair (you can both in the image above from the Yiddish work, Tzena Urena, of Samson slaying the lion bare handed) that attracted me as a teenager. I was intrigued by his abstention from wine, I was amused by his sense of fun and games and I could identify with his preoccupation with women. But what really caught my attention was unpredictability – you never knew what he’d be up to next.
Samson has always attracted the attention of readers and commentators of the Bible. Presumably, our interest stems from the complex nature of his character. His strength lies in his uncut hair, but it really comes from God. He is a holy Nazarite from birth, but he’s constantly defiling himself through death. He is the great warrior who falls at the hand of a woman. It is these contradictions in his persona that have made Samson both a negative hero and a role model for Jews and non-Jews throughout the ages.
Josephus (Antiquities 5:317) proudly points out to his Roman audience that Samson exemplified the heroic soldier. True, admits this first century Jewish historian, he did allow himself to be ensnared by a woman, but one must understand that this is due to the nature of man. “Still”, he concludes, “testimony is due to him for his surpassing excellence in all the rest.”
In the images below, from a different edition of Tzena Urena, we see Samson in battle wielding an asses jawbone (above) and carrying off the gates of Gaza (below):
The Sages of the first few centuries were less tolerant of the big guy’s relationship with women. According to Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael (Shirata 2), Samson was punished in a way that fit the crime, what is known in Hebrew as midah k’neged midah. He instructs his parents to fetch him the Philistine woman in Timnat, “for she is pleasing in my eyes” (14:3). It was because of this misuse of his eyes, explains the midrash, that they were poked out when he was ultimately taken captive in Gaza.
A later midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:5) likewise makes note of Samson’s infatuation with women, but only as an excuse to talk about the dangers of drinking: “And if this is how he was lured after his eyes while being a Nazarite [thereby abstaining from wine], just imagine how great his promiscuity would have been had he partaken of wine as well!”
Rabbi David Kimhi (RaDaK) was concerned less with Samson’s over-attraction to women than he was with the religion of the women to whom he was attracted. “If God had commanded that Samson be sanctified [as a Nazarite] while still in the womb,” he asks, “how could he defile himself with the daughters of the Philistines?!” Perhaps intermarriage was actually an issue in Provence of the 12th-13th centuries, or maybe this was just something that irked Kimhi on a philosophical level. In any case, this commentator solves the problem neatly by revealing that Samson simply converted each of them to the religion of Israel before he took their hand in marriage.
If in the early Rabbinic tradition Samson was mostly a negative hero, he seems to move into the position of a positive role model outside of that world. In 17th century England, the Samson we meet is well aware of his own responsibility for his plight. John Milton, in his epic poem, Samson Agonistes, has our hero make the following confession: “Of what I now suffer, She was not the prime cause, But I myself, who vanquished with a peal of words, O weakness…”.
The 20th century saw Samson featuring prominently in both poetry, prose and even film. In Zeev Jabotinsky’s novel entitled Samson the Nazarite – a type of parable that served as a manifesto for his Revisionist movement – we find a kind and wizened gentleman who spends his days playing with the Philistine children while captive in Gaza. Jabotinsky’s Samson is not only a gentleman, but a shrewd political thinker as well. In one of the most famous passages from this book, Samson parts with his comrade Hermesh by asking him to convey just two words to the Israelites: “The first”, he says, “is ‘iron’ … even if it means forfeiting your wives and your daughters … you must have iron. The second”, he continues, “is ‘king’. Our brethren may not yet understand this, but with time they will … a leader who will lead them into battle … is this not how the Philistines have to rule over Canaan?”
Samson has taught the “new Jews” of the 20th century to bear arms and politically organize themselves, he has provided an example of self-awareness of cause and effect, he’s been used to warn against sexual overindulgence and substance abuse. He has even offered readers a particular solution to intermarriage. The issues may change from place to place and from time to time, but the medium remains the same.
And today? What kind of Samson are we thinking about? I’ll leave that up to parents telling stories to their children, teachers in the classroom and all of us who simply read the biblical text. One thing is certain, in Samson we have a wonderful example of how different individuals reading the same sacred text can find meaning and inspiration in totally different ways. Perhaps for me, this is the greatest contribution our first superhero has made to the Jewish tradition.