Hanukka: The end of martyrdom

While martyrdom was the initial response of pious Jews living in the Land of Israel to the Greco-Syrian persecutions, the emergence of the Maccabee family challenged that response.

The tragic and defiant story of the Seven Brothers and Their Mother – known today as “Hannah and her Seven Sons” – was first told in 2 Maccabees. Hannah, her sons, and the other pious Jews who refused to desecrate Judaism by following the edicts of Antiochus IV were known as “Hasidim.”
They were the first martyrs in recorded history – people willing to die to attest as witnesses to the truth of their faith. Antiochus wants to compel Hannah son’s to eat the sacrificed meat of pigs and each one refuses, forfeiting his life after being tortured by the Hellenists. As they die in agony, they affirm the God of Israel and monotheism. After all her sons are killed, the mother shares their fate. Their defiance is inspiring and has lived on in Jewish memory as the epitome of dying to sanctify God’s name.
While martyrdom was the initial response of pious Jews living in the Land of Israel to the Greco-Syrian persecutions, the emergence of the Maccabee family challenged that response. The Hasidim of ancient times refused to fight on Shabbat lest they desecrate the holy day; Judah Maccabee urged his fighters to battle on Shabbat to survive and defeat the enemy, thus saving Jewish lives. The Maccabees fought the enemy and their mandate was for Jews to live to attain religious freedom and a sovereign state. No martyrdom for the Jews battling the Hellenists. The mandate was to live and triumph. Despite the inspiration of Jews dying to sanctify God’s name, Judah’s plan was to overcome the enemies of the Jews and not submit to them. The Maccabees rejected the response of martyrdom, as admirable as it was. Defeating the enemy, living to fight another day, was the answer.
Even when eventually offered freedom to worship in a sanctified Temple in Jerusalem by the Hellenists, Judah rejected this and went on to conduct guerrilla warfare to found a sovereign Jewish state.
If the kingdom of the Maccabees had endured and Jews had remained sovereign over the Land of Israel, perhaps the centrality of martyrdom in Jewish theology, folklore and tradition would have faded. But with the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and with the triumph of the rabbis as the leaders of Jewry, martyrdom reasserted itself as the prime example of expressing one’s identity as a Jew. Whether the torture of the rabbis by the Roman Empire during the collapse of the Bar Kokhba revolt or the Jews of the Rhineland who killed themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert to Christianity in the First Crusade, martyrdom became the epitome of the defiant response to persecution. There was no heir to the Maccabee armies. With no ability to confront enemies on the battlefield, martyrdom was the only choice left. In the world of Ashkenaz, the Jewish decision to die rather than convert became an ideal.
These martyrs sanctified God’s name by sacrificing their lives on His behalf, like Hannah and her seven sons of old.
With the rise of the Zionist movement in the modern period, the martyrdom and miracles of Hanukka that so dominated rabbinic Judaism gave way to an emphasis on the military victories of the Maccabees and their founding of a sovereign Jewish kingdom in the Land of Israel. While the mass suicide at Masada was lauded as an example of Jews standing up to their enemies in defiance, it was not seen as an example that should be repeated in the confrontation with the British Empire and the Arabs. The Maccabee rejection of martyrdom rose to the fore once again. The military victories and the Maccabee politics, so long off the radar screen of rabbinic Judaism, took central stage again in the story of Hanukka. Martyrdom and the embrace of death in the name of God were no longer seen as a fitting response to persecution.
The Holocaust further eroded martyrdom as the appropriate response to the enemies of the Jews.
Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, speaking in the Warsaw Ghetto only a few months before the Jewish revolt, realized that offering up one’s life to sanctify God’s name made no sense when an enemy would destroy all Jews – there would be no Jew left to be inspired by acts of martyrdom. Rabbi Ziemba stated that “in the past, during religious persecutions, we were required by law ‘to give up our lives even for the least essential practice.’ In the present, however, we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds. Halacha demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”
While we often speak today of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust as martyrs, a traditionalist rabbi who lived during the Shoah realized that the response of the Maccabees was mandated by Jewish law. The traditional praise of Hannah and her seven sons could only lead to the death of every Jew in Europe.
Yes, the martyrs of Jewish history, the martyrology recited on Yom Kippur, remain a source of inspiration.
But in a world of enemies who want to destroy not only the Jewish state but every Jew in the world, we will not emulate the mother and her seven sons.
We will follow the path of Judah, the great warrior, diplomat and statesman.