Chanukah might well be the beginning of martyrdom in human history. According to Arnold Toynbee, who cannot be accused of great partiality towards Jews and Judaism, the first human group to lay down their lives for their God may have been the Jews who were martyred for their faith at the time of the Maccabean revolt.
The need to show one’s unambiguous loyalty to God even at the price of one’s life has tragically punctuated Jewish history throughout all the centuries since that time. The records of martyrdom up to and including the Holocaust make sad but impressive reading.
The rule is that in an emergency Jews may compromise Jewish observance – for example, Shabbat or kashrut – but with three exceptions. Not even in an emergency, not even to save one’s life, is it permitted to transgress the laws against murder, idolatry or immorality.
The Chanukah story illustrates Jewish willingness even to sacrifice life in order not to undermine these cardinal principles. The Hebrew phrase for the willingness to die for God is Kiddush HaShem; at the time of the Holocaust, however, great rabbis decreed that there were times when determinedly staying alive was also a form of Kiddush HaShem.
In the light of claims arising out of supposed ideological martyrdom on the part of members of another faith, it must be stated and emphasised that in Jewish ethics and teaching martyrdom does not, can not and must not include murdering other people.
If an individual or community is in dire straits and their faith in God is directly challenged by an enemy who tries to impose idolatry, there may be no choice but to suffer death for one’s beliefs. However, murder is murder and our ethics can never justify murdering people, even ostensibly in the name of God.
Chanukah, the occasion when martyrdom began, is an appropriate moment to restate these sacred principles.