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    Martyrdom is by living, not only by dying: Reflections for Chanukah

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 24 December 2019.

    December is a month of festivity. It often coincides with the Jewish festival of Chanukah, marking the Maccabean struggle against the imposed hellenisation of Judea. Implicit in the story is the double tenet of freedom of religion, and willingness for martyrdom, in the service of a principle.

    The word “martyr” is an entrenched part of modern vocabulary. It is claimed as the justifying principle behind acts of terrorism. There is a widespread assumption that martyrdom has a special association with Islam, but such a sweeping claim needs interrogation. Not all Muslims have this belief.

    Last year, 30 French imams roundly condemned acts of terror, declaring: “A Muslim who harms the life of an innocent person living in peace with Muslims will never breathe the perfume of Paradise.”

    The imams went on to say, “Theologically speaking, the martyr is the one who suffers unjust or sudden death, and not the one who seeks and provokes it.” Not a word about virgins queuing up in Paradise to meet the new martyr. Hopefully this approach will win broad Muslim assent and make life safer for many across the world.

    In Judaism, martyrdom is an entrenched notion with a long history, culminating in the six million martyrs of the Holocaust. Indeed, the idea of martyrdom — from a Greek word for “witness” — began with Judaism. Even Arnold Toynbee, no great philosemite, admitted that the first group to lay down their lives for God were the Jews.

    All cultures and causes have had encounters with martyrdom. Medieval thinking acclaimed nine names — three Jews (Joshua, David and Judah Maccabee), three pagans (Hector, Alexander and Caesar) and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey Bouillon). There are many lists of Christian martyrs, though not all the “martyrs” have been proved to be genuine.

    The Psalmist says, “For Your sake are we killed all the day” (Psalm 44:23). Leo Baeck writes in his Essence of Judaism that, “the martyr exalts his love for God above his life… it becomes a deed of freedom… he creates himself through death.” In ancient times, Rabbi Akiva said that the biblical duty to “love God with all your soul” means “even if He takes your life,” which is why Akiva is said to have died with a smile (Talmud B’rachot 61b).

    The French imams explicitly reject the aggressive view of martyrs as operators of lynch law. They say that the genuine martyr is not a terrorist. He does not murder anyone. He does not attack others even if he believes he is acting for God. He sometimes suffers death, but he never deals out death or claims to be God’s policeman.

    In Judaism, the rabbinic sages quote the verse, “Jacob was very afraid and grieved” (Genesis 32:8). They ask, “Why was he afraid? Lest he be killed. Why was he grieved? Lest he be forced to kill others.”

    Jewish martyrdom reached its climax — or rather, its nadir — in the Holocaust. Those who died honoured their faith and people. Those who survived built Israel and created new bastions of Jewish life elsewhere. If we count the survivors, there are far more than six million martyr-victims of the Holocaust. The survivors will bear the scars forever. There is a sense in which the entire post-war generation are martyrs diminished by the Holocaust.

    Can martyrdom be sought? Is it commanded, in the sense of the Jewish rule, “Run to do a mitzvah (a good deed)”? Surely no one actively opts for this mitzvah. The martyr would rather stay alive and spite the enemy.

    So let us add a new dimension to martyrdom: martyrdom by living. Staying alive is even greater than accepting death. Moshe Bleich admits that some do indeed regard martyrdom as a Divine command, part of the duty to sanctify God’s Name in public. Others, however, object that dying cannot be an occasion for rejoicing. We can only pray that the question will remain academic. Though who can tell in a world which shudders every single week at the extremist acts of terrorism that the global community has not learnt to rein in?

    “Martyrdom by living” defies the enemy by staying alive. Some martyrs die for what is in Hebrew is called Kiddush HaShem (“sanctifying the Divine Name”); others sanctify God by not dying. Survival is also Kiddush HaShem, bearing witness not only to what you die for but what you live for and how you live. Kiddush HaChayyim — “sanctifying life” — is a form of Kiddush HaShem. As Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum put it, “This is a time to sanctify God through our life.”

    There was an old man who accosted people who approached the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem with a bottle of brandy and a glass. “Drink a toast,” he would say. “A toast — to whom?” came the reply. “A toast to life,” said the old man. “I was dead. I was in Auschwitz. Now I am alive. I am still alive. Come, drink a toast to life with me!”

    At a Holocaust Survivors’ Assembly in Sydney some years ago, Professor Yaffa Eliach spoke about a girl in one of the concentration camps who always knew what day it was. Each day she scratched a mark on the wall so she would know when it was the Sabbath. Traditional practices were impossible, but nothing could stop her humming her grandfather’s Sabbath melodies. Every day, every moment, she remained alive was an occasion to defy the enemy by sanctifying God.

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