Live By Them and Not Die By Them

Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, July 15, 2005

After services last week, a member of the congregation and I got into a conversation about suicide bombers. What was most difficult for him to understand was the suicide aspect of these attacks. Why send yourself to certain death? Why give up your life?

Of course, the most devasting aspect of these attacks is not the death of their perpetrators but of their targets, random bystanders and civilians. From ancient times and up through the Geneva Convention in our own day, there has been a code of conduct in warfare which limited what were seen as appropriate attacks. Even in the midst of the carnage of war, some actions were viewed as morally reprehensible. We have evidence of this in our own Biblical tradition. The ancient Israelites were involved in conflicts and warfare with many peoples yet there is animus of an enduring kind against only one of these, the Amalekites. I believe the Torah points us to the reason in describing their attack: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt, how undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” The term yirat adonia, translated here as fear of God, does not mean religious observance, but rather a sense of respect for standards of behavior. The difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist should not be which side you are on- but rather a judgment of the tactics used against the moral standards of the world community.

Going back to my conversation of last week, I couldn’t decide whether to be cheered or dismayed by the difficulty my conversational partner had in comprehending that an individual might chose to give up their life for a cause in which they believe. In past generations giving up one’s life for a noble cause, was often an admired act.

As Americans we are heir to the tradition of “I regret that I have but one life to give up for my country” and as modern Jews, to the words attributed to Josef Trumpeldorf, an early Zionist who died fighting the Turks- tov lamut be’ad arztienu, it is good to die for the sake of our homeland. Those who serve in the armed forces, or even as a police officer or fire fighter, make a commitment to risk their lives to protect others and our safety is dependent on their willingness to die for the good of the community.

Is contemporary skepticism about making this kind of self-sacrifice a good thing, as it curtails military adventuring, or is it a sign of the narcissism of our society, where it is all about me and not at all about us?

Within Jewish tradition there is extensive discussion on the question of whether and under what circumstances one should give up one’s life. Some of this discussion takes place in the context of the mitzvah: do not stand idly by the blood of your brother. To what extent, the rabbis ask, must one risk one’s life in order to prevent harm to another person? Must one dive into the water and risk drowning? Or place oneself between a victim and vicious highwaymen? Shifrah and I saw this same issue come up in an old episode of West Wing we watched recently where the president had to decide whether to commit American troops, risking their deaths, to intervene in a situation of genocide taking place in Africa. Must one fulfill the commandment not to stand idly by even at the risk of one’s life or the lives of others?

Another place where this discussion takes place is in Talmud Sanhedrin Chapter 8, where there is a long discussion of which of the commandments one should give up one’s life for and not violate. The Talmud records this discussion as having taken place “in the attic of the house of Natzah in Lydda”. It is not often that the Talmud records the location of a conversation. I find it significant that this issue was not being discused during a regular session in the academy but perhaps when the rabbis were in hiding because of Roman persecutions. The rabbis present at that time offered this advice: “Regarding all the Torahs commandments, if a person was told, ”Violate this commandments or else you will be killed, he should violate the prohibition, for the obligation to preserve life supersedes all the other commandments. This rule applies to all the Torah commandments except for idolatry, for sexual relations such as incest, and bloodshed.” Later rabbis challenged even these three exceptions and pointed to a statement by Rabbi Yishmael, an earlier scholar: Rabbi Yishmael said: From where do we know that if a person was told, ”Worship an idol, or else you will be killed” he should indeed worship the idol in order not to be killed. This is learned from the verse in Leviticus that states: You shall therefore keep My statues and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them.” Parsing the verse they reach the conclusion that a person may commit idolatry in private rather than be killed.

Others took a different approach. R. Akivah, a student of Rabbi Eliezer, who lived in the time of the Hadrian persecutions, and was one of the ten rabbis whose martyrdom is described in the Yom Kippur afternoon service, looked to the V’ahavtah to justify the position, that in cases of persecution, one must be ready to serve God will all one’s soul, that is even to the extent of giving up one’s life. Also on the side of Rabbi Eliezer, is the later decision of the rabbis, that during a time when the very practice of Judaism is banned, the performance of even a minor commandment takes on much greater significance. Rava bar Rav Yitzchak took this to the extent of saying: “even to the change of the strap of a shoe” - that is if Jews were accustomed to tie their shoes in a particular way, something not part of the Torah or even later halachah, and a Jew was coerced by a non-Jew to change the way he ties his shoe to follow non-Jewish custom, the Jew must suffer death and thus sanctify god’s name rather than violate Jewish custom.

Through the generations this difference of opinion between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Eliezer, continued to be expressed in the approach of different Jewish communities. Jews in the Arab World, tended to lean more towards the position of Rabbi Yishmael- live by them and not die by them. Convert under duress, with the intention of later fleeing and returning to Judaism. Scholars believe that at one point in his life Maimonides converted to Islam to save his life, and we know of a whole community of Sephardic Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity in Spain, who later escaped and came to the Netherlands and readopted Judaism. Benedict Spinoza’s parents and grandparents were part of this Converso community. In the Ashkenazi world the position of Rabbi Eliezer was more dominant. There it was considered a duty to sanctify God by giving up one’s life, rather than to violate the commandments, even under the greatest duress.

This week in the Reform movement’s Ten Minutes of Torah article on Israel, there was an interesting discussion of Masada, the Roman fortress on which a small group of Jewish took their stand and unsuccessful, committed suicide rather than surrender. The author, Marc Rosenstein, reminds us that though Masada is the most visited of all of the Israeli national parks today, it is not the model on which Jewish life was built. We are not the descendents of those who killed themselves at Masada, but of those who lived in Yavneh, probably originally a Roman prisoner of war camp. The rabbis at Yavneh made accommodations, preserving Jewish culture but not Jewish sovereignty. They identified Safed, Tiberias, Hevron and Jerusalem, as the holy cities, not Masada nor any of the sites of Bar Kochba’s successful battles.

The events of recent weeks remind us of the pernicious effect of a death centered ideology. May we continue to stress those elements in Judaism that speak of life and toleration.