The second stanza of Bialik’s “On the Slaughter” cannot be fully understood without knowing the details of the Kishinev pogrom to which it reacts. The horror of the pogrom included a Jewish man and his dog, both beheaded, lying in a street to rot. The perpetrator: a Gentile, who probably thought he was doing a Christian good deed.
The title of the poem is activated in this stanza. The slaughter is understood through ritual categories. This takes us deep into the world view of the Hebrew Bible, a world view we might wish to understand before recoiling in uncomprehending disbelief.
Here is the second stanza:
הַתַּלְיָן! הֵא צַוָּאר – קוּם שְׁחָט!
עָרְפֵנִי כַּכֶּלֶב, לְךָ זְרֹעַ עִם-קַרְדֹּם,
וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ לִי גַרְדֹּם –
וַאֲנַחְנוּ – אֲנַחְנוּ הַמְעָט!
דָּמִי מֻתָּר – הַךְ קָדְקֹד, וִיזַנֵּק דַּם רֶצַח,
דַּם יוֹנֵק וָשָׂב עַל-כֻּתָּנְתְּךָ –
וְלֹא יִמַּח לָנֶצַח, לָנֶצַח.
Hangman! Here is the neck – Up! Slaughter!
Behead me like a dog, yours is the arm and the axe,
and the whole earth, my scaffold –
and we – we are the few!
My blood is permitted – hack off the head, and let the blood of murder stream out,
blood of suckling and greybeard upon your shirt,
and may it never, never be blotted out.
The slaughter of human beings by other human beings is also regulated
by God in many cultures, including the culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible. Is
it true, as some say, that modern war, to paraphrase the mathematician Laplace,
has no need of that hypothesis? Has God become superfluous in the modern world?
To the extent that it is true, it is not clear that war has thereby become more humane. But it isn’t true anyway. God is hauled into our conflicts all the time, though some prefer things like “the national interest” to do the honors of God in prosecuting a war. I don’t see how that is an improvement.
The perpetrators of the Kishinev pogrom, or at least some of them, justified what they did in terms of their faith in God. How else could they have justified it?
A conversation is reported to have occurred between a group of American Quakers on a Moscow visit, with Vladimir Lenin. “Do the ends justify the means?” the Quakers asked. “If the ends do not, what does?” replied Lenin.
Bialik sees the slaughter through the categories of his religious tradition. The first word, ‘hangman,’ is directed at the perpetrators of the slaughter. This one word almost says it all.
The noun ‘hangman’ does not occur in biblical Hebrew, but the corresponding verb does. Here is the key graph through which Bialik, by metalepsis, tries and condemns the Christians who perpetrated the slaughter:
וְכִי־יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט־מָוֶת
וְהוּמָת וְתָלִיתָ אֹתֹו עַל־עֵץ…
קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא
כִּי־קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים תָּלוּי
As Jeffrey Tigay informs us, “According to the Mishnah a gibbet (a pole with a horizontal beam) was erected and the dead man’s hands were bound and slung over the beam.”
We have another word for a gibbet: a crucifix. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” yelled the crowd. The hangman whom Bialik addresses has already done so. The hangman does not realize that in so doing, he has crucified his Lord.
The hangman of Bialik’s poem is a God-like figure, with the power of life and death. That is precisely the power Christian Russia had over the Jews in their domains. The Jews, often, were like lambs led to slaughter.
נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה
כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל
וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ
נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח־פִּיו
he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep led to slaughter,
like a ewe before those who shear her,
mute, he did not open his mouth.
Bialik would have none of it. He opened his mouth. He called his people to arms. From now on, they would defend themselves from the ones who wished to be their hangman. Or they would go from that ‘whole earth’ which had become a scaffold. And many did, leaving a world they cherished behind.
‘But we, we are the few!’ This is based on another passage of Torah, as Rabbi Alexandra Wright points out in a recent essay:
לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל־הָעַמִּים
חָשַׁק יהוה בָּכֶם
כִּי־אַתֶּם הַמְעַט מִכָּל־הָעַמִּים
Not because you are the most numerous of peoples
has the Lord embraced you
and chose you,
but because you are the least of the peoples.
Israel glories in its election based on this passage. But now the fact that they are the least of the peoples, the smallest, the few, means that they are easy prey.
‘My blood is permitted.’ But it was not permitted, and Bialik knew it. Genesis 9:4 forbids the blood of murder: this applies to Gentiles as well. But in the upside-down world in which Bialik lived, rotten to its foundations, it was permitted. The stench of that permission invades Bialik’s perception of heaven itself. There is no nook and no cranny in Bialik’s world, not even the inaccessible location which is God’s abode, that is not permeated by that stench.
‘May it never ever be blotted out.’ According to Psalm 51, David, after his crimes of passion (adultery and murder), prays as follows:
חָנֵּנִי אֱלֹהִים כְּחַסְדֶּךָ
Favor me, God, as befits your kindness,
as befits your compassion,
blot out my crimes.
It is precisely Bathsheba’s son Solomon who becomes David’s heir; it appears David’s prayer was answered. Bialik’s prayer: that the prayer of Christians seeking absolution for the murder of Jews on Easter never be answered.
There is a conversation between Ivan and Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha waxes on about forgiveness. Ivan, the atheist, is not convinced. Must a mother whose son was torn to a bloody pulp by dogs for the happy sport of her master – must such a mother forgive the murderer of her child? It is forbidden, says Ivan.
It is forbidden, says Bialik.
It is forbidden, thought the author of Psalm 137.
 The secularization of the process of animal slaughter has led to ongoing atrocities in the way our culture handles the killing of animals for food. The best exposé of this I know of is Lina Wertmuller’s “Carne,” a film which makes the rounds of the cinematic art circuit on university campuses. I assume you can order it through Netflix and the like.
 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (JPSTC; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996) 198. I realize this text provokes a lot of questions. For example, if a hung body is an affront to God, why was something so horrific permitted in the first place? Why was capital punishment permitted at all?
 Dostoevsky, the Christian, created the most convincing atheist of world literature, Ivan Karamazov. This says something about the dark night of the soul which accompanies true faith.