Parashat Emor: The Jewish martyr

Our history is tear-drenched and blood-stained by the many sacred martyrs who have given up their lives to sanctify the Divine Name.

emor 88  (photo credit: )
emor 88
(photo credit: )
"And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:32). The portion of Emor opens with a strange commandment to the kohanim: "And the Lord said to Moses, 'Say to the kohanim, children of Aaron, and tell them: Do not defile yourself by contact with the dead of the nation'" (Leviticus 21:1) - the only exceptions being close blood relatives and one's spouse. I have explained that this law serves as a ringing declaration that Judaism - unlike all other religions - is not chiefly concerned with the other world, but with this one; is not interested primarily in death and the hereafter but is principally engaged with life in the here-and-now. What does seem strange, however, is that our same portion goes on to command: "You shall not desecrate the name of My holiness; I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:32). Our Talmudic sages derive from this verse the necessity of sacrificing one's life to sanctify the name of God (kiddush hashem): under all circumstances an individual Jew must give up his life rather than transgress any of the three major prohibitions of murder, sexual immorality or adultery. Further, in times of gentile persecution, a Jew must die rather than publicly transgress even the most "minor" of Jewish customs (B.T. Sanhedrin 74 a,b). If indeed life in this world is deemed to be so important that our priests may have virtually no contact with the dead, why command martyrdom in any situation? Our history is tear-drenched and blood-stained by the many sacred martyrs who have given up their lives to sanctify the Divine Name! I believe that the answer lies in the very juxtaposition of the law of priestly defilement (emphasizing the importance of life) with the law of martyrdom (enjoining death) in the very same portion. Yes, preservation of life is crucial, and this world is the focus of Jewish concern, but not life merely for the sake of breathing, and not the world as it is, with all its imperfections. After all, anyone who lives only to keep on living is doomed to failure. Life has meaning only if one devotes it to external ideas, ideals and values which are more important than any individual life; one participates in eternity by dedicating one's life to the eternal values which will eventually repair the world and establish a more perfect society. Hence we must value and elevate life, improve and ennoble this world, but always according to those principles which will lead to redemption... those beliefs and actions which are more important than any individual life. Yes, "live by these [My laws]," but true life can only be achieved by a dedication which includes a willingness to sanctify God's name by martyrdom, albeit only under extreme circumstances. But then how can we justify martyrdom - even if only during periods of persecution - for the sake of a minor Jewish custom? The Ashkenazi sages of the 11th-12th centuries, when many Jews were martyred by the Crusaders, suggest that the general custom in Rome and its colonies during the second century was to wear white shoelaces; the Jews, however, wore black shoelaces to commemorate the loss of our Temple and the suspension of Jewish national sovereignty in Jerusalem. When gentiles in times of persecution attempted to force Jews to wear white shoelaces - and thereby force the Jewish community to cease mourning the loss of our homeland - the Jew must respond with martyrdom rather than forget the restoration of Jerusalem (B.T. Sanhedrin 74b, Tosafot ad loc). My revered teacher Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik added one crucial point. Among the many Jewish laws, decrees and customs which have developed from biblical times to the present, the Jews themselves do not always realize which are truly vital for our national and religious preservation; the gentiles, however, who are geniuses at persecuting us, do understand how best to strike at our jugular. Hence whatever they insist we abandon, we must maintain, even at the price of our lives! From this perspective, it becomes easier to understand why the claws of modern anti-Semitism - especially throughout Europe - are reaching for the State of Israel and its policies. The double standard of condemning us for fighting back against terrorists without even censuring those responsible for terror, the attempt to deny our right to a state, only emphasize how crucial the State of Israel is for Jewish survival today. The memorials of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen quickly followed by Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) remind us that Israel is not merely a destination but is destiny; Israel is not only the means by which we survive, but our mission for world salvation. It's the place whence the word of God - a God of life, love and peace - will spread to all of humanity. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.