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?


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