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Leon's No Newsletter 72 Heroism and Martyrdom in Judaism

Road breakers monument

Shalom everyone,

Last Monday on my way to pick up a family of tourists from moshav* Bet Hashmonay for a tour to Massada, I used the old pre 1978 road.

Since 78, there's a sparkling new motorway specially built to avoid passing the quaint moshavim selling their tasty homemade products to the many visitors who used to stop there on their way to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The tel* of Gezer, the ancient biblical city, is evidence of the importance of this old road as a highway between Egypt and Babylon and between the Mediterranean Sea and the Far East.

This old road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv unlike the modern motorways was deliberately built to pass through villages like Gezer, Ayalon and Bet Hashmonay.

The importance of this road was realized most sharply in the War of Independence because without control of this road the Arabs, by using their many villages which straddled the road, to block the passage of Jewish traffic, would succeed in isolating Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the two main concentrations of Jewish habitation in Palestine. If either of these cities fell to the Arabs the Jews would have been defeated and the State of Israel would have survived with difficulty or not survived at all.

The villages along the road had to be conquered; there simply was no other way to save Jerusalem.

Traveling with my tourists on that road of modern Jewish heroism on my way to Massada the site of ancient Jewish heroism, once again I examined the Jewish attitude towards heroism.

After considering Israel's military struggles in modern and ancient times one might be led to thinking that heroism is something which Jews greatly admire.

If we examine the object celebrated in Jewish festivals, however, we find that traditional Jewish festivals do not celebrate the heroism of man. For example stories of the heroism of the Macabbees are deliberately deleted from the Bible.

Jewish festivals celebrate either the heroism of God or the suffering of man. In Judaism only God is the hero and man is, at best a martyr.

Massada isn't celebrated in any Jewish festival because like the story of the Macabbees it is, possibly*, a story of heroism not martyrdom.

Romans celebrate heroism Jews celebrate martyrdom.

The Bible, the official Jewish history, recounts enough examples of martyrdom to give us a clear understanding of what it is; the story of the Jewish children thrown into the Nile by Pharoah is the first story of martyrdom. The story of Job who could have chosen to curse God and die a quick death, instead he chooses to bless God and continues to suffer, is the classic story of martyrdom.

The best known Jewish stories of martyrdom are of course the stories of the ten martyrs, read in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement.

All of these stories have in common acts of death or suffering which inspire the living to live according to beliefs and moral principles as a way to save the world from the destructive forces of immorality and corruption.

Heroism has no place in Judaism because it elevates death as something worthwhile by offering the hero a physical reward and adoration after death. Martyrdom doesn't encourage death, on the contrary, it is a necessary evil which the martyr accepts rather than forego moral principles. Heroism inspires people to die Martyrdom inspires people to live by elevating the importance of life, lived decently and morally.

The modern suicide bombers, for example aren't inspired by a better world for the living but by a glorious world of pleasure after death.

The people of Shederot, who live decently and honestly are martyrs facing rockets fired by people who see life as worthless and death as the way to the good life.

It's very unlikely that Elazar, the leader of the Jews who took their own lives at Massada, said the words which Josephus, the Romanised Jewish historian puts into his mouth: "let us die rather than suffer torture and indignity of slavery". It's much more likely that he said "let us die rather than curse God" or "let us die rather than bow down to the Roman idols".

Those who believe Josephus' version admire heroism, those who accept the alternative version I suggest admire martyrdom.

Wishing you a great no news day

Yours truly.


* agricultural settlement

* Hill of ruins of several ancient cities built one on top of the other; on the same place but each one in a different historic period. The oldest is at the bottom, usually dating from the Bronze Age (2500 years BCE, the time of father Abraham) the youngest from the Crusader or Mameluk period (12th to 15th centuries CE).

* Josephus' version of Elazar's speech.matches with the typical Roman attitude to death. See the opinion of Marcus Aurelius in. J. H. W. G. LIEBESCHUETZ, CONTINUITY ANC CBANGE IN ROMAN RELIGION, Clarendon Press, Oxford, P.212 We don't know what he really said to his followers before they took their own lives.

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