Tefillah Tuesday: “Adonay Man of War”

שירת הים, the Song of the Sea contains many stirring phrases that can spur you on to powerful davening. It also contains at least one that I personally find difficult to pray: ה’ איש מלחמה, ה’ שמו, “Adonay is a Man of War, Adonay is His name!”

I don’t think Judaism can legitimately be presented as pacifist. After the Shoah and with all our experience of the Arab-Israeli conflict and terrorism, I think we should recognize that עת מלחמה ועת שלום, “there is a time for war and a time for peace [Ecclesiastes 3.8].” At certain moments, violence becomes a tragic necessity. We should recognize this without enthusiasm or celebration.

Especially when I observe religiously motivated violence among Islamic fundamentalists – and even some of our brothers and sisters in Israel – I recoil at this verse’s gleeful association of God with an instrument of violence. There are dozens upon dozens of descriptions of God in Jewish tradition. This one has very little traction for me.

So what can a davener do when it comes time to recite these lines – or especially to sing them, since the lively Sefardic tune is a widely loved synagogue favorite? What devotional resources are in your toolkit (or tallis bag) to help you daven Shirat HaYam or other troubling lines?

First, one strategy would be to skip some passages. The siddur is long, and if you say everything every time you’ll never get to Kiddush. In a previous post I referenced the Halakhic principle that “better is a little with concentrated attention than much without it.” Skipping around is not the worst thing that ever happened in shul.

However, skipping works better in some cases than others. In Halakhic and aesthetic terms, it is not ideal to omit verses that actually come from the Torah. It might be smoother to skip the Song altogether than to read it selectively. And besides, it’s not just one or two words. Even if one omits the phrase that God is Ish Milchama, the “Man of War,” it doesn’t alter the basic theme of the poem, which remains a celebration of God drowning the Egyptian horses and riders.
Another route: don’t make the problem worse than it is. As the Midrash [Pesikta d’R. Kahana 12.24] teaches, “God appeared as a warrior at the Sea, and as a teacher at Sinai” and in many other guises, each befitting what the people could absorb and what the moment demanded. “Although you see Me in many images, know that I am One in them all.” Perhaps davening in 2017 calls upon us to stretch our own powers of imagination, and place ourselves in moments when our people would need to invoke an image of Ish Milchama, the “Man of War.”

This also applies to the hyper-masculine image of the Man of War. Yes, the macho God may be problematic to feminists like ourselves. On the other hand, don’t make it worse than it is: As R. Abraham ibn Ezra wrote back in the 12th century, before anyone knew to care about androcentric God-language, ish in Biblical Hebrew can mean individual, not only masculine human.

We might also resort to a little apologetics, and invoke the well-known Midrash [Talmud Megillah 10b] that God silenced the angels from singing at the Egyptians’ downfall. Perhaps we can “sweeten the punishment” just a little by acknowledging that our Sages also wrestled with the spiritual dynamics of praising God’s violence. This stratagem will work better for some daveners than others, and better in some contexts than others.

Perhaps we can draw a little sustenance from the sages of modern Bible scholarship, which recognizes that our Shirat HaYam is a slightly uneasy mash-up of a couple of poems, only parts of which are tied to the Red Sea. Most of the Song actually focuses on the dedication of the Temple and leading the Israelites through the desert, protecting them from enemies who do not appear to be Egyptians, and none of that really belongs chronologically in Exodus 15. So mentally, we may be able to shift our focus from the violence at the Red Sea to the divine protection along other parts of the journey.

Strategies like these always work partially. Some mornings I just skip the Song, and linger over the psalms. Other times I employ these other interpretive maneuvers. It gets me through the Song.

In the end, though, I find it religiously perverse to associate God’s name with war. I’d rather cite another Talmudic passage [Shabbat 10b, citing Judges 6.24] that שלום הוא שמו של הקב”ה, “Peace is one of God’s names.”


(Image: USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere by Thomas Birch, circa 1813)