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Samson the Terrorist: A New Midrash?

The Victoria Philharmonic Choir recently ran a performance of Handel's Samson Oratorio, but with a bit of a twist on the old biblical narrative: Samson as 1946 Jewish suicide bomber — and not without controversy. The director, Simon Capet, draws … Read More

By / April 17, 2007

The Victoria Philharmonic Choir recently ran a performance of Handel's Samson Oratorio, but with a bit of a twist on the old biblical narrative: Samson as 1946 Jewish suicide bomber — and not without controversy. The director, Simon Capet, draws a comparison between Samson and the Menachem Begin-led Irgun bombing of the British headquarters at the King David Hotel that same year.

In a March 28, Times Colonist report, Capet said he did not mean for the changes to offend but that he wanted to “present the work as a simple morality tale” designed to reflect today’s Middle East realities.

“Is there any difference between pulling down a pillar or blowing a bomb?” he asks. “Samson killed thousands of people. To show him in the traditional mythological sense does a disservice.”

While the comparison is unusual in the classical music world, it’s a hot topic in politics. “There’s a large focus on this right now, with Israel being presented as the Samson figure,” says Andrew Rippin, dean of humanities at the University of Victoria and a specialist in Islamic studies. Indeed, American journalist Seymour Hersh coined the term “the Samson option” in his book about Israel’s development of a nuclear arsenal.

Shadia Drury, a philosophy professor and author of Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics and the Western Psyche, recently compared Samson to World Trade Center bomber Mohammed Atta in a talk at UVic. Drury says she thinks the choir’s modern interpretation of Samson is heroic.

But local Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein says the comparison “promotes a shallow understanding of history” and is offensive. “Israelis never supported Irgun or that kind of terrorism. They weren’t heroes … and Begin went into politics legitimately decades later. He wasn’t some crazy terrorist.”

Tough call. Rabbis have done this — re-situating biblical themes and narratives in contemporary settings — for centuries: that's why we have midrash. Moreover, this is certainly not the first time an artist has re-appropriated the Samson myth for his own political, social, or cultural agenda: think of Milton's Samson Agonistes, where Samson is depicted as a tragic, suffering figure of regret whose greatest lament is his blindness (and don't forget about Milton's own concurrent struggle with physical blindness). Or Aldous Huxley's 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza. And what about recent efforts by Jewish women writers to reclaim the figure of Delilah? All of these artistic endeavors are midrashic impulses. But one wonders: is there a line, somewhere, between appropriate and inappropriate midrashic gestures? 

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