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The Question of the Fourth Night: When is it Necessary to Die for God? The Jewish Teachings on Martyrdom

Why did some Jews choose to die for God?

The Maccabean revolt is the first appearance of martyrdom in the history of religion. The most vivid story of Martyrdom we tell below.  As we explore this question at the Hanukkah Seder, we dip rosemary bread into an oil mixed with chives, roasted onion, and sage.

The two texts I below are separated by over a thousand years. The earlier one is an accounting of a famous story in the Book of Maccabees about a sage, Elazar, who matyrs himself before Antioches.  The second is from the great rabbi, Maimonides written to the Jews of Morocco called Igeret Hashmad, The Epistle on Martyrdom.

As you read and discuss these two texts, explore the meaning of matyrdom?  When does the tradition insist that we should give up our lives and when does it coach compromise.? How do you judge the situation of Elazar.  In retrospect, is his martyrdom necessary and justified?  Is there a criteria for Jewish martyrdom in our times?

The Martyrdom of the Jews Against Antioches, IV Maccabees 5 and 6: Period of Time: @170 BCE

Elazar was one of the leading scribes a man of advanced age and fine appearance [with a silver gray beard]. When ordered to eat pork, he refused.

When Antiochus saw Elazar's public refusal, he spoke to him persuasively: "Before I commence inflicting torture upon you, graybeard, I would give you this counsel: eat of the pig's flesh and save yourself. I respect your age and your gray head; but I cannot think you a philosopher when you have so long been an elder and still cling to the religion of the Jews. Why are you disgusted by eating the excellent meat of this animal?"

Elazar responded coolly and defiantly:

"We, Antiochus, who out of conviction lead our lives in accordance with the divine Law believe no constraint more compelling than our own willing obedience to the Torah; and therefore under no circumstance do we deem it right to violate the it. We do not regard the eating of unclean flesh a small offense.

You mock at our philosophy. Yet it teaches us self-control, so that we rule over all pleasures and desires; and it trains us in courage, so that we willingly endure any difficulty. I shall not violate the sacred oaths of my ancestors who swore to observe the Torah, not even if you cut my eyes out and burn my insides. I am neither so decrepit, nor so ignoble, that reason should lose the vigor of youth in the cause of religion. So make ready your torturer's wheel, fan your fires to a fiercer heat. You shall not defile the sacred lips of my old age. Pure shall my [deceased] ancestors welcome me [after death]"

The king ordered the torture to begin in order to break Elazar's will. With his head raised high to heaven, the old man suffered a fierce whipping; he was flowing with blood, and his sides were lacerated. He fell to the ground when his body was no longer able to endure the torment; but he kept his reason erect and unbent. Whenever he fell, one of the savage guards kicked him in the side to make him get up. Elazar endured the pain, despised the compulsion, prevailed over the torments, and like a noble athlete under blows, outstripped his torturers. with his face bathed in sweat and his panting breath coming hard, his stoutness of heart won the admiration even of his torturers....

Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrificial meal, because of their longstanding acquaintance with Elazar, took him aside. Privately they urged him to provide his own meat, which he could properly eat, and pretend that he was eating the meat of the sacrifice, as the king had ordered. By doing this he might escape the death penalty, and on account of his lifelong friendship with them, be kindly treated. But Elazar refused.

"It does not become our time of life to pretend, and so lead many young people to suppose that Elazar, when ninety years old, has gone over to foreign worship, lest they be led astray through me. If I pretend (to eat pork) for the sake of this short and insignificant life, I will defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present, I escape human punishment, whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore by giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my advanced years, and leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the sacred and holy laws.

Contrast the above to this famous text on matyrdom in Jewish tradition written in the 12th century. 

A Description of a passage from Maimonides Epistle on Matyrdom by Shmuel Aryeh Kaltoft

The first theme, the class of laws related to the time of forced conversions, is split up in three classes:
1. Laws concerning idolatry, incest, and bloodshed. 2. Forced transgressions based on the oppressor's benefit. 3. Forced transgressions forced by the oppressor to make the Jew sin, with no benefit for the oppressor.

1: If one is forced to break any of the commandments related to idolatry, incest, or bloodshed, he is to accept death rather than transgress. There are no exceptions to this ruling.

2: All other commandments that the Jew is forced to transgress, and it is for the benefit for the oppressor, the Jew is to transgress and not chose death.

3: All other commandments that the Jews is forced to transgress, and there is no benefit whatsoever for the oppressor, the Jew should always accept death if it is in public. If it is in private he is allowed to transgress if it is not in a time of persecution, but if it is in a time of persecution, he must accept death.