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What is the Jewish View on Martyrdom?

What is the Jewish View on Martyrdom?

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Question:

Do Jews have martyrs? I know that there are religions in which it's a great thing to die for your faith, and doing so makes you a saint or gets you a ticket to paradise. What is the Jewish view? Is a person supposed to die for his beliefs?

Response:

Jews have never sought out martyrdom—it was always martyrdom that caught up to the Jews. Ever since Abraham was thrown in a fiery furnace by Nimrod, literally millions of Jews in every era of history have given up their lives rather than their faith at the hand of the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslim conquerors, the Almohadin, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis and many more.

In Judaism, martyrdom is called Kiddush Hashem—"the sanctification of G‑d's name," and a martyr is called kadosh—"holy." And yet, a Jew is not permitted to seek martyrdom, but rather to seek life and sustain life. True, the Talmud says of those who died al Kiddush Hashem that their place in the world to come is beyond the reach of any created being.1 But then, the same Talmud also teaches that, "One hour of return and good deeds in this world is more beautiful than all the life of the world to come.2"

The Talmud tells how Rabbi Akiva, arrested for the crime of teaching Torah in public, screamed Shema Yisrael ("Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one") as his skin was raked off his body by Roman soldiers.

His students exclaimed, "Even now?"

Rabbi Akiva replied, "All my life I agonized over the verse, '...and you shall love G‑d...with all your life.' It means, even if they should take your life from you. I pondered, 'When will this come to me so I can fulfill it?'"3

Yet not only did Rabbi Akiva not wait for martyrdom to come to him, he ran and hid from the Roman persecutor as long as he could. Just as Jews throughout the Diaspora used every possible means to survive in the lands of their exile.

Getting conflicting messages? That's one thing we can pin down about Jews and Judaism: that there's nothing about them we can pin down. For almost every observation to one effect, you'll find another to the opposite. The same holds with martyrdom. It can be said that martyrdom is at once both the theme and the antithesis of Judaism.

You've likely heard a hundred times such statements as, "Judaism is an affirmation of life." "Judaism seeks redemption in the here and now." "We're not busy trying to get to heaven, we're trying to get heaven down to earth." All those are absolutely true.Judaism is an affirmation of life, which is affirmed by martyrdom. Yet, nevertheless, within that vibrant enthusiasm for life, you will find the martyr's heart that has sustained us at every point of our history.4

Fire from Heaven

Let's start with the biblical story of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu. When the Children of Israel had completed erecting a portable sanctuary for G‑d called a mishkan, and fire came down from heaven to burn up the offerings on the altar, Nadav and Avihu were so inspired that they broke all protocol, entered the inner chamber of the Mishkan and burnt there incense "which they were not commanded." Again, a fire descended from heaven, this time taking their souls from them, leaving their bodies perfectly intact. And then...

Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke when He said, 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.5

Those words should stop you in your tracks. If they didn't, then try this Midrash:

Moses said to Aaron, "Aaron, my brother! I knew that this House was to be sanctified through the beloved ones of the Omnipresent, but I thought it would be either through me or through you. Now I see that they were greater than I or you!"6

True, Nadav and Avihu knew what they were getting into. As the Ohr HaChaim explains7, they yearned for mystic union with the Infinite Light and they got it. But how could it be that G‑d's sanctuary requires "sanctification" through the death of His holy ones?

If anything, Nadav and Avihu's mode of escape from earthly life stands in sharp antithesis to the get-G‑d-down-to-earth theme of the Mishkan: "Make for me a sanctuary, that I may dwell amongst you8." Rather than us departing this world to come visit Him, G‑d would like us to find Him here, in a small, practical sanctuary built by the people for the people in our everyday world where people eat, sleep, sow seeds and reap their plantings. The Mishkan was to be a sort of "first stop" for G‑d's light to shine in our world. From there we could take it and spread it everywhere else. As the oft-quoted words of the Midrash of Rabbi Tanchuma,9 "G‑d desired a dwelling in a mundane world." If so, leaving behind your bodies for the sake of mystic union was an outmoded vehicle of worship, now superseded by a whole new paradigm of "find G‑d in the here and now."

Yet Moses seems to be saying to Aaron just the contrary: The only way to bring G‑d into His sanctuary was through these two holy souls abandoning physical life to bond with His light.We have here a paradigm sustained by its antithesis. The paradigm is affirmed by its antithesis.10

Noah's Martyrs

It's not the only case. Consider this Midrash:

Noah has just disembarked from the ark and made an offering on an altar to G‑d. G‑d "smells the pleasant fragrance"11 rising up to Him (obviously in a figurative sense) and vows never to destroy the world again. He makes a promise to Noah to this effect that He will keep the cycle of seasons and nature constant from now on, assigning the rainbow as the eternal sign of this covenant. At this point, our Midrash jumps in and makes a stunning assertion—that the catalyst to this resolution was not Noah's animal sacrifice alone, but many human sacrifices yet to come:

He smelled in the offerings of Noah the fragrance of Abraham our father rising from the fiery furnace, the fragrance of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah rising from the fiery furnace...the fragrance of the martyrs of the era of forced conversions...12.

Once again: G‑d is vowing to sustain a world. In the words of Isaiah, "He didn't create it to be desolate, He formed it to be dwelled upon.13" And yet He is only willing to sustain such a world because it will contain those who will give their lives for Him.

Professor Bill, Anarchist

In my formative years, one of my mentors was an anarchist. His name was Bill, a lanky, highly articulate man in his late 50s who had held lecturing posts at several universities in the past. But now the repercussions of his political activities had forced him to be satisfied teaching at a private tutorial college. Bill introduced me to friends of his who had fought as anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. I was fifteen, but managed to organize an Anarchist Discussion Group for the Vancouver Free University. It was the best organized and longest enduring of any of their classes.

Still vivid in my memory is the evening we held in the lounge of the Vancouver JCC. Radical politics was cool in 1971 and the couches lining the walls were crammed with listeners of all kinds. My anarchist mentor spoke, bringing the words of Proudhon, Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin alive, and relating them to the commune and collective movement that was spreading throughout British Columbia. Central government was an affront to the dignity of the human being. The natural instinct of man is to cooperate, to make peace, and governments alone are responsible for war and devastation. I wish I could believe these words today as I did then in my innocent youth.

Then, as everyone was fascinated and inspired, he threw out a simple question to the audience. "How many people here," he asked, "are willing to die for the cause of Anarchism?"

Die? Cause? Eyelids blinked and faces glanced at one another as though someone had just told a bad joke. It was a nice talk. Cool ideas. Maybe even some of us might take a few months to groove on a commune in the Arrow Lakes. But, hey—die for a cause?

So Bill sat down. I said to him, "But Bill, nothing you said advocated violence. We're not talking about overthrowing a government, just about promulgating these communes and networking with each other until the "old, decrepit regime" dies out."

If a cause has no one willing to die for it, then the cause itself will die.

Bill answered, "If a mother bear is not willing to risk its life for its cub, the cub is not viable. If a cause has no one willing to die for it, then the cause itself will die."

Fishy Lessons

Bill was saying something the Jewish People had been saying about themselves for an awful long time: Our existence is sustained by our readiness to self-sacrifice.

Remember the story of Rabbi Akiva mentioned above? Before the Romans caught him, a man named Popus ben Yehuda had chided him for teaching in public, openly defying the authorities. Rabbi Akiva replied to Popus with a fable:

A fox strolled along the river bank and saw there fish gathering in one place and then another. The fox said to the fish, "Why do you flee from place to place?"

The fish replied, "Because of the nets that humans are casting to catch us!"

So the fox said, "I have an idea. How about you come up here on the dry land and we will live together, just as my fathers lived with your fathers?"

The fish replied, "You are the one they call the cleverest of the beasts? You are not clever, but a fool! If in the place that gives us life we are afraid, all the more so in the place that gives us death!"14

Translation: As soon as Jews give up risking their lives for Torah, they give up their viability as a people.

The same applies in a global sense today: As soon as people are deterred by terror, refraining from rebuilding where terror has torn down, failing to settle back into life where terror has brought death, they have sacrificed the fate of humanity as a whole. Human life on this planet is sustained by those who do not fear dying for it.

Getting To the Essence

Back to the story of the Mishkan, G‑d's proposed home on earth. All the instructions have been followed, all the work has been done as ordered. A fire has descended from On High, G‑d's presence is revealed to all the people. But He is not there. As King Solomon was later to say at the inauguration of the temple he built in Jerusalem: "The heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You...but this house..."15

G‑d is everywhere, beyond all things, but He wants His very essence to be found within time and space, beginning with that place we built for Him. It should be not just another place for miracles to be seen, not just a place to communicate with Him—but a place to commune, to be one with Him, all of Him.

But to do that, He needs a partner working from the inside. G‑d says, "I will be there, all of Me. But do I have a partner?" Not just someone following instructions, but someone who really believes in all this, someone who will take ownership of the idea, throwing all of himself into that communion, doing something that was not commanded, giving up everything—including life itself—just to find oneness with G‑d. He found that in Aaron's two sons, and as they came to Him, He entered into their Mishkan16.

Now take that out to the general world. Ultimately, the entire world is meant to be G‑d's temple. He created it as a place where His very essence could be revealed, in all things, through every soul.

Again, He needs a partner. He looks down upon His world and says, "If I am to be there for you, are you there for me?"

And we answer, "Since our father Abraham, we have given our lives for You. In each generation, they attempt to convert us, by the sword and by the kiss, and we walk through fire for you. They slaughter us for no other reason than that we belong to You, and we continue with You nonetheless. We could have changed our faith, joined those more powerful and happier than ourselves, and You gave us every excuse to do so. Yet, for almost four thousand years, we have stood firm, and even now, when nothing seems to make sense, when the righteous are struck down and the ploys of the most decrepit human creatures succeed, we still hold on to You and only increase in our efforts. You have a partner. You have an open door with us."

We never sought martyrdom; but martyrdom has always sought us.

As I wrote, Jews never sought martyrdom, it was martyrdom that sought us out. Ultimately, the purpose is life on earth. Enough burnt offerings have been made. We have done our part many millions of times over. Now is G‑d's turn to do His.17

Footnotes
1.
Talmud Baba Batra 10b.
2.
Ethics of the Fathers 4:17.
3.
Talmud, Brachot 61b.
4.
See Tanya, chapter 25, where he states that the key to all fulfillment of all mitzvot is the Jew's realization that he would rather give his life than become separated from his G‑d.
6.
Rashi ad loc; Leviticus Rabba ad loc; Talmud Zevachim 115b.
9.
Midrash Tanchuma, Numbers 16.
10.
News sources report that when Zaka (the Israeli rescue and recovery team) entered the Mumbai Chabad House after the massacre, they found bullet holes in the Torah Ark. Upon opening the ark, they found the bullets had pierced a Torah scroll just below this verse: "G‑d spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they came close to G‑d and they died." (Leviticus 16:1) Photos were published of the damage, and several rabbinical leaders, including Rabbi Eliashiv reportedly examined the scroll.
12.
Genesis Rabba 34:9.
14.
Talmud Brachot 61b.
16.
See Likutei Sichot volume 27, pp. 116.
17.
See the Maamar from Parshat Noah, 5740.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Jesse August 25, 2017

Very well said especially, Rabbi, if you don't mind my focusing on one part of the above in particular:

"[E]ven now, when nothing seems to make sense, when the righteous are struck down and the ploys of the most decrepit human creatures succeed, we still hold on to You and only increase in our efforts. You have a partner. You have an open door with us" Reply

Carol Gottlieb Greensburg, PA April 28, 2014

L'Chaim As a Jew by choice, I will do everything I can with the blessings G-d has given me to sustain life and protect life. My soul is a mishkan where G-d dwells, and I am charged with the responsibility of making sure it stays intact. If I allow my soul to be taken from me, then I do the Torah a disservice. All the questions set forth in the latest comments are thought provoking; however, in my opinion, it is more important to cherish life and carry on with the task G-d has given me. For now I will trust in G-d. Reply

Chaim Cinncinnati March 5, 2014

What if a woman tries to save her husband, saying, "Let him go. Shoot me instead."

That is exactly what she said. But the ones outside got him anyway. She died in vain.

She sinned? She did right? Which?

On the one hand, her decision wrecked havoc on her child's life.
On the other hand, her decision resulted in her child's eventually coming to America and surviving the Holocaust.

Do we condemn her as a suicide? As a mother who abandoned her son?
Do we applaud her for having unwittingly ensured that her child would eventually reach safety? (She herself would never have gone to America, which she regarded as a gdless place.)

I have wondered about this since I learned of it in 1959 and I still can't decide.

What do you think, Rabbi Tzvi? Reply

Samantha Leon March 4, 2014

What if a Jewish man takes a bullet for the woman he loves? What then? Is this seen as seeking martyrdom? Reply

Anonymous los angeles, ca April 23, 2012

How about Abraham's attempt to sacrifice his son--that is not martyrdom--that is killing for a cause. It was him destroying all his progeny--the whole Jewish nation! Why was it essential for him to be willing to destroy the future of the Jewish people for his conviction in God to remain steadfast? How can One justify that? Reply

Mr. Aaron Makabi April 13, 2012

Excellent article Very good article.

It's is amazing to think about all the Jewish people have been through, and how much we have changed to adapt to whatever government or fiscal system we are currently living in.

It's even more amazing to think about how much we have kept and preserved of our history, culture and faith despite the odds and against the wishes of various governments overtime.

I'd like to think that it is our base nature to be willing to give it up life itself to do the right thing for ourselves, our family, our community and most importantly HaShem.

I'd also like to think that maybe we are on the brink of a period of time where that will no longer be a concern and the most we will have to sacrifice is our personal time to helping others with our minutes and hours.

I am rambling at this point. That is how I know this is a great article. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman October 11, 2011

Re Ann Oct 9 Lots of questions upon which there has been lots of dispute for many centuries. I think most of them are answered by inference in Rabbi Silberberg's article that is linked to this one (See "Related" in the right margin), "Is a Jew required to die rather than disobey a Torah command?"

Today, thank G-d, at least for us living within Western Civilization, these questions are not relevant. Our self-sacrifice is more in matters like not turning up to work on Yom Tov. Reply

Anonymous October 10, 2011

Anne Oct 9, 2011 You ask some heavy questions. They are valid.

I want to know too. Reply

Ann Houston, TX October 9, 2011

Exactly when must we die for Judaism? If a madman with a machine gun says to eat pork, then as good Jews we eat the pork and remain alive, right?

If an oppressive government makes a law that we must bow down to idols IN PUBLIC, where ten or more other Jews can see us, then as good Jews we refuse to bow down, and we accept the punishment, right?

What if the oppressive government makes a law that we must eat pork? Do we eat it or do we not?

What if a madman with a machine gun demands that we bow down to an idol? Do we bow or not?

What if the oppressive government asks us to bow down to an idol inprivate? Do we bow or not?


The Jews of Mainz and Worms refused to be baptized by the Crusaders. They fought and died rather than submit. Must we do the same?

What is the border? At what point do we die rather than submit?

If the USA changes the constitution and institutes an "established" religion, and those who don't convert must die, do we die?

If we are attacked by skinheads with holy water? Reply

Jeannie Taylor Kenefic, Oklahoma October 7, 2011

Hello My Jewish friend was killed in a horrible car crash when he was 25 years old. It happened on August 2, 1982. His name is Jay Goldfeder. I would like to know what will happen to him now that he is gone. Thank You, Jeannie Taylor Reply

Anonymous w October 3, 2011

Jewish principles There happens to surface one golden rule for the Jew and his principles. It is defined not by Jews, but rather by their opponents throughout history.

The oppressor never asks what kind of Jew you are. Whether extreme observant or atheist, by definition, a Jew is a Jew.

Lately there was a speech given by a Rabbi Lewis. It clearly set out the present situation of the Jew which goes back to time immemorial. " Er Kumpt. " In context, if you are a Jew, the enemy will eventually be at your door. Rabbi Kahane put it another way, " Never Again ! ". When the chips are down, forget martyrdom/religion/mesirat nefesh. Instead, fight for your fellow Jew/Israel.

Lately there was a taped message covering all the advantages in Israel for Arab Israeli citizens.They are in the Knesset. They are judges. They all enjoy freedoms of a democracy.

Israel is predominantly secular. The authority/choice of mesirat nefesh is a non-starter. Being a Jew is being a Jew. Reply

J.Sperber Encino, CA,USA September 27, 2011

martyrdom Some of the comments makes one believe that Jews had an option to s ave themselves by converting during the Holocaust. That was never an option, the nazis were pure racists, and hung up on hair color, shape of the skull, and nonsense like that. My mother saw nuns that were converted Jews shipped off to a concentrationcamp. She herself (my mother) converted to Judaism before the war, but she was saved because of her "Arian" papers. Reply

Anonymous w April 21, 2011

Fresno April 17 Conflict with regard to mesirat nefesh does exist. You do not understand anything from the Milligram experiment. I am not sure why you brought up the intermarriage issue of your son. You say that you have an excellent relationship with him. The thought that immediately crossed my mind is ' them '. How could he leave out his daughter-in-law ?!

Your argument that no conflict is involved when it comes to mesirat nefesh is inconceivable, You continue to keep missing the point. Why do i need to speak to a rabbi ? You think all rabbis would accept mesirat nefesh ? Your appeal to Rabbi Tzvi has gone unanswered so far. Your thoughts on the subject of conflict are indefensible. You are not listening to evidence but rather pontificating on your own sanctimonious view.

It is you who needs to talk to a rabbi and find out that a situation of mesirat nefesh is cause for internal conflict. If/when you approach such a meeting, do more listening and you might learn something about internal conflict. Reply

Dr. Moss Posner, M.D. Fresno, CA/USA April 17, 2011

it has absolutely nothing to do with my son on my relationship with him, which by the way is excellent. What is has to do it since you're not understanding or listening to what is being said is that no conflict exists.
talk to the rabbi. I don't know what else to tell you. Reply

Anonymous w April 17, 2011

Stanley - April 11 and no conflict April 10 Millgram's confirmation and measurement were based on obedience to authority, in the form of a person. We learn obedience soon after we are born. First there are parents. Then there are teachers. Then there are laws. There are doctors. There are rabbis. All along the path we learn to be obedient to authority, so that by adult stage, even media has become an authority, a new news hypothesis, not " no additional bad news " as you have concluded. This was the whole point of the updated version of the Millgram experiment. Television in particular and media in general were the big differences between Millgram and the update. Those giving lethal shocks jumped from Millgram's 62 % to 80 % in the new version. You missed it.

Returning to mesirat nefesh,it would seem that a small minority would rebel against authority. None of the subjects in the experiments were radical. Only a few overcame the conflict within themselves, overcoming obedience/submission to authority. You missed that too. Reply

Anonymous w April 11, 2011

your turn Rabbi T -April 10 2011 I did not know that your son was going to marry a non-Jewish woman. If i knew that i would have chosen a different example of internal conflict. In the intermarriage dilemma you did not compromise your principles because you do not carry the principle against it, like some Jewish parents do. So telling me that you were not guilty, i never said that you were. It must be a hot button issue for you since you are reacting to something i never said. So that you do not misunderstand, i am not saying that if you have no guilt of compromising your principles in the matter, then you must be advocating intermarriages.

The question about the crossover point is spot on. And why is there such a question ? As in the Millgram experiment, what we say we will do often does not match up with what we do.

I will wait for the Rabbi to describe the absence of conflict regarding one's principles. I am not impressed with your tone of response, your logic, nor your appeal to the Rabbi as an authority. Reply

Dr. Moss Posner, M.D. April 11, 2011

Stanley Milgram there is absolutely no question about the conclusions of the Milgram experiments. what Milgramaccomplished in effect was to 1 to confirm and 2 to measure this tendency. what I am saying here is that there is no additional bad news Reply

Dr. Moss Posner, M.D. April 10, 2011

"I am not saying that it makes intermarriage right, but i would compromise my principles in a heart beat to remain close to me child."
---------
my son also is going to marry a non jewish girl. how does that make ME guilty of compromising MY principals? and....
--------
"Exactly at what point do we cross over from the duty to live for G-d to the duty to die for G-d?"
-------
You don't understand the basic premises. That is what in Logic is called a False Alternative. There iS no conflict, as you describe it. I'm sure the rabbi can explain. Reply

Anonymous w April 10, 2011

Millgram 1962 part 2 The reason i cite the Millgram and France study is because it shows what a human being is capable of.

The France study also hypothesized that since 1962 one important factor that had increased in society was television viewing. Has electronic information become the message/authority.Twitter, Facebook etc are powerful influences. There was a reality show in England that did a Russian Roulette episode against the will of justice. Electronic communication has been used for bullying and even resultant suicides.

The information above is intended as just that. Groucho Marx was right about 80 % of the population who drop their principles. There was nothing in common for that 20 % of shock givers who quit at some point before the end.

We know that some Jews were camp guards.

I take no pleasure in this information.
Groucho's joke is sad. His funnier one is : " I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know. "

The topic is too sad. i have to leave it at that. Reply

Anonymous w April 10, 2011

Millgram 1962 In 1962 Dr. Millgram a psychologist conducted an experiment the results of which were astonishing. People would apply increasing doses of electric shock to a person behind a wall. They did not know he was an actor. All shock givers gave the first shock level or two. By the time the lethal range doses were given, 62 % were still giving shocks, even while at each level the actor screamed at the pain, until he did not answer to the shocks, presumably dead.
This experiment was recently repeated in France in 2010, much more sophisticated. All kinds of measurements were made of the shock givers. The actor reacted same as the Millgram experiment. 82 % of shockers went to the final stage.

When you watch the tapes, you cannot believe that you would do the same level of shock. You may be right about yourself. But 80 % who did not think that they could inflict that lethal dosage, in fact did.

The second experiment concluded that the willingness to accept authority determines our behavior. Reply