Reviving the Torah of War

Abir — a Practical Torah


Today we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim.  As others have pointed out, Purim is not a celebration of the death of Haman(y”sh).  Haman was hung nine months before the 14-th of Adar.  Nor do we celebrate the thwarting of Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews.  Haman’s plot died with him.  With the Persian army ordered to remain in barracks and Mordechai ascendant in the capital, who in his right mind would dare to attack the Jews?  To do so would invite retaliation from the second most powerful man in the kingdom!

So if we are not celebrating the death of Haman(y”sh) and the thwarting of his plot, what ARE we celebrating?  Well, the answer is pretty obvious from the Megillah itself.  On the 13th and 14th of Adar, the Jews, who had been given a royal guarantee that the Persian authorities would not intervene, gathered together and launched an attack against their enemies throughout the Persian Empire, slaughtering seventy five thousand men throughout the kingdom and eight hundred in the capital, including the ten sons of Haman.  There is no need to mention that the women and children of the enemy were likewise slaughtered.  We can learn this from the Megillah itself.

The Jews took none of the spoils from their slaughtered enemies.  Why is this?  Because the enemies in question were Amalekites.  The Torah commandment to extirpate Amalek includes not only the commandment to mercilessly slaughter Amalekites regardless of age and gender until none remain anywhere in the world, but also the commandment to destroy all the property of Amalek.  Spoils should not be taken from them.  It seems to me that taking arms, war materiel and funds to purchase both from dead Amalekites would be permissible under the rubric of pikuah nefesh and in order to further the mizvah by exterminating more Amalekites.  However, from the Megillah it is obvious that the Jews of Esther’s time had no need to avail themselves of such leniencies.

Consider what this implies.  Would any of today’s Jewish communities, even the ones in the Holy Land, have the wherewithal to gather together and slaughter the enemies of the Jewish People in their tens of thousands without the aid of any army?  Do today’s yeshiva bochurim, even in the dati leumi community, have the martial skills and arms to do this?  The answer, of course, is a resounding “no”.

In and of itself this should tell you that our communities have drawn much further away from the true spirit of Torah than even the assimilated, persianized Jews of Esther’s Shushan.  The chief reason for this are our methods of Torah study.  Amid the oppressions and humiliations of the past two thousand years, with Jews locked in ghettoes, surrounded on all sides by raging mobs of murderous goyim, prohibited from bearing arms and completely unable to defend themselves, the study of Torah became the sole means of ensuring continued national survival.  Only by clinging to the Torah, by ordering every tiny detail of their lives in a manner that would remind them of their Judaism, could our ancestors survive the bitterness of the exile.  Thus Torah study became solely a legal study.  Generations of rabbinical students studied solely those aspects that would enable the survival of Jewish culture, growing up uniformly as skilled lawyers capable of directing every little detail of their community’s day-to-day life.

However, the Holy Torah is not merely a book of law.  The Holy Torah is the sum of all knowledge in the universe.  Just as we can ground legal studies in the Torah, so too can military studies, administration and science be grounded therein.

This does not mean that we should seek to acquire all knowledge solely from the text of the Torah itself.  While the Holy Torah surely contains all the knowledge we seek, we are not adequate to the task of discerning all we need to know solely from the holy text itself.  Therefore we must, due to our inadequacies, apply the processes of secular science and knowledge acquisition.  If goyim discover some new principle or invent some clever, useful new device, we should certainly borrow it at once.  And if the processes of secular science and engineering lead us to some new knowledge, we should certainly apply it with alacrity.  Doing so increases the power and renown of the Jewish People and thus elevates the honor of the Holy Torah and increases the honor of Hashem.  And when we have done so, lest we become arrogant and think that we have discovered something truly new, we should always return to the text of the Holy Torah and sanctify our knowledge by showing how it is alluded to in the text itself.

Now, we know very well that our ancestors were formidable warriors.  We also know that before the invention of firearms, all nations and cultures created and practiced martial arts systems based on the principles of anatomy, the weapons available to them and the philosophies upon which the core of their civilization was based.

The martial arts of Western Europe died a slow death as firearms developed and improved and as centralizing nation-states sought to disarm the population and monopolize the tools of violence.  The martial arts of the Far East, on the other hand, had no time to die a slow death.  Japan went from swords to aircraft carriers in less than a hundred years.  Even as Japanese battleships sank the entire Russian navy at Tsushima, there were still old men alive in Tokyo who remembered Saigo Takamori’s quixotic attempt to pit swords and bushido against quick firing artillery and bolt action rifles.  And as the newly-disarmed citizens of Western nations sought means to defend themselves against criminals, it was only natural that they would turn to the vibrant martial arts of the East.

Responding to the new needs of a new era, Japanese masters modernized, systematized, updated and exported their samurai heritage.  Jujitsu systems were the first to make the jump across the ocean, with Jujitsu schools appearing in Europe and America as early as the 1880s.  Judo, a sporty “clean-up” of Jujitsu, and Karate, a systematization and modernization of Okinawan peasant fighting techniques, followed suit rapidly.  By the late 1890s, westerners were already teaching martial arts derivatives adopted to their particular needs, such as Bartitsu.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, Western governments were adopting Asian techniques as a means of training elite soldiers and policemen in hand-to-hand combat, developing effective and easy to learn martial arts systems such as Sambo.  Thus it is solely due to a combination of historical accidents and massive ignorance that we see martial arts as primarily an Asian phenomenon.

Given the fact that every culture in history has at one point or another developed martial arts systems, it is reasonable to ask whether there existed such a thing as a Jewish martial art.  The answer, of course, is not only did it exist, but it was extremely effective.  The Torah itself tells us so.  At the news that Hammurabi’s army has plundered Sodom and taken Lot captive, Avraham Avinu sets off in pursuit with his elite bodyguard of 318 Torah students, overtakes the Babylonians after a  series of forced marches and defeats them in a surprise attack at night.  King David, a great Torah scholar, personally kills hundreds of Philistine warriors, presenting their severed foreskins to Saul as token of his martial prowess.  There certainly existed a martial arts system, grounded in Torah and based on the concepts of Jewish mysticism, that was practiced by these men not only as a means to ensure physical prowess, but also as a method of Torah study.

Obviously, with two thousand years of persecution in situations where Jewish self-defense of any kind was essentially impossible and any attempt at martial training would bring on the massacre of the entire community, a Jewish martial art would have died out.  However, there is one man who claims that this is not entirely so.  This man, Yehoshuah Sofer, has compiled and systematized a Torah-based martial arts system he calls “Abir”.  Abir is entirely practical and highly effective, as can be seen, for example, in this video.

Yehoshuah Sofer claims that this art is based on the martial arts tradition preserved by the isolated Habbani Jewish community of Yemen, and that this tradition itself hearkens back all the way to King David and Avraham Avinu.  Scoffers point out that Yehoshuah Sofer happens to hold a 7-th dan  in Kuk Sool Won and that the circular movements and distinctive “hands-free” grapples of Abir as taught by Yehoshua Sofer strongly resemble corresponding techniques in Hapkido and Kuk Sool.  Based on this, they posit that Abir is somehow “fake” or “not authentic”.

Now, this argument is frankly ridiculous.  First of all, since when is outward similarity of technique proof of anything?  The grappling techniques in the Codex Wallerstein resemble Aikido and Jujitsu, while the longsword technique bears a striking resemblance to Japanese swordsmanship.  Would some imbecile declare based on these resemblances that this seminal fechtbuk, written in Germany circa 1470 C.E., is somehow based on martial arts systems codified on the opposite side of the world centuries later?

The fact is, given human anatomy and the laws of physics, there are only so many efficient ways to punch, kick and throw an opponent.  There are only so many ways to hyperextend, break or dislocate joints, only so many ways to upset a fighter’s balance and so forth.  Effective martial arts systems will naturally come to resemble one another.  And would it not stand to reason, flipping the scoffers’ argument on its head, that a man seeking to modernize and systematize a half-forgotten family tradition would find a martial art that most strongly resembles it and train in it in order to “fill in the gaps”?

The “hands free” grappling and throwing techniques of Abir and Kuk Sool are of great antiquity, hearkening back to the days when martial arts assumed a combat between two heavily armored, sword-armed opponents.  In such combat, a man who lost or broke his sword had to rely on secondary weapons such as a dagger, yet had to bring them to bear against very small targets, such as gaps in the joints of armor.  Since punching and kicking an armored opponent is an exercise in futility, one had perforce to grapple with him, upset his balance, dislocate his joints and otherwise place him in a position where a small weapon such as a dagger could be applied.  Yet since one’s hands were occupied holding a dagger, a shield, a spear shaft or other such implement, the grappling had to be performed by wrapping one’s limbs around the enemy rather than by grabbing him with one’s hands.  In fact, the very presence of such techniques tells us that a martial arts system is rooted in a tradition going back centuries if not millennia.  Who is to say with certainty which tradition it is?

Secondly, what in Heaven’s name is a “fake” or “not authentic” martial art?  Techniques have been borrowed back and forth from time immemorial.  Kuk Sool is itself a compilation of several Korean martial arts, with the primary component being Hapkido.  Hapkido, in turn, is a twentieth-century modernization of ancient Korean arts with heavy borrowing from Judo and Jujitsu, which are themselves compilations of earlier samurai techniques, which are based on ancient Chinese martial arts, and so on down into prehistory.   Going forward in the opposite direction, does the fact that they borrow heavily from Judo, Karate and Jujitsu make Sambo any less Russian or Krav Maga any less Israeli?  Trying to figure out whether a martial arts system is “authentic” is an exercise somewhat similar to an attempt to determine whether a firearm design is “authentic”.  At best, such frivolity is of use to a small number of highly specialized historians.  At worst, it is a complete waste of time.

The only criteria that matter for a martial art are the same as the criteria for any other infantry weapon: whether or not it works well in almost any circumstances and whether or not it fits with the needs of the practitioner.  Abir is effective.  It is firmly grounded in Torah principles.  Its grand master is a pious Breslover hassid who wears begged ivri on a daily basis.  Therefore, it qualifies both as a Jewish martial art and a method of Torah study.  Case closed.

If we seek to revive the Torah of Eretz Yisrael and to build a true Jewish State, we must perforce revive a Torah-based martial tradition.  If we do not do so, we end up with the perversions of secular Zionism, with its near-worship of muscular Hebrew-speaking goyish ignoramuses brandishing rifles and its contempt for the helpless frum Jew.  King David and Avraham Avinu spent far more time practicing Torah as a military art than they did studying Torah as a legal system.  And so should we.  May the day soon come when our educational system, beginning in kindergarten, teaches effective Torah-based martial arts and military skills, both as a means to instill pride in our heritage and as a means to build the physical courage, fitness and skill necessary to maintain a true Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael.

14 Adar 5770

From The Virtual Medinat Yehudah, here.

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