on the 70th Anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising – Warsaw, Poland
And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was still. [Leviticus 10:3]
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן
What is the Jewish position on Martyrdom?
In Islam, martyrdom is still celebrated (see: Shahid), and in Christianity, becoming a martyr for the faith was a major motivator for joining the Crusades.
Clearly the celebration of death, even for a lofty goal, goes against modern sensibilities. Since the martyrdom of Christians and Muslims often coincided with the slaughter of Jews, it is not surprising that we Jews are martyr adverse.
So while the traditional Yom Kippur Machzor still contains the Ten Martyrs, it has been dropped by liberal Judaism. In fact, modern research conducted by scholars such as Israel Jacob Yuval author of Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages have argued that there was a perverse belief from the birth of Rabbinic Judaism and into the Middle Ages, that martyrdom could hasten the coming of the final redemption. There is even evidence of a unhealthy competition between the Jews and their Christian neighbors regardin whose martyrs could bring the messiah or the 2nd Coming.. as the case may be.
It is interesting that the Arabic word for martyr is Shahid, which comes from the same semitic root as Shohad…. Bribe. (see Nachmanides on Leviticus 16:8) The core of the martyr-redemption dynamic is a sense that we humans can bribe the divine by slaughtering His/our children.
Evolved Judaism (and I suspect, mainstream Christianity), reject any glorification of death. Certainly Zionism rejects martyrdom which is why Masada represented such a problem to Zionists such as Ben Gurion and even Yigal Yadin.[i]
I am writing this from Warsaw while I am still absorbing the effect of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising but my sense is that this uprising represented a paradigm shift in a 2,000 year old struggle by Jews for self-respect and self-determination. In fact this was the point made by the Israeli Ambassador who spoke at midnight at the memorial.
My sense is that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the beginning of an alternative response to the senseless death of our children. An alternative to the pietism of Moses and the quietism of Aaron. zei shtill no more…..