Jewish martyrdom & Tisha B’Av

On Tisha B’Av we give up food and sacrifice other personal joys to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. In light of the rash of recent self-immolations, and attempts, this day of mourning is a good opportunity to ask what the Jewish perspective on self-sacrifice is, be it fasting or protest suicide. While the social protests are primarily secular, in the Jewish homeland nothing can exist without at least a subtle undertone of religion, and these acts of self-immolation not excepted.

Self-sacrifice in Judaism

The things observant Jews give up during the time leading up Tisha B’Av, everything from studying Torah to shopping for new clothes, is probably the best suited aspect of personal sacrifice in Judaism to lend itself to the social protests. Giving things up, including food, is often used to express political beliefs as seen in the ubiquitous hunger strike and extending to odd protest movements such as Sacrificing things shows the significance or a cause and its importance to the person giving something up. Tisha B’Av shows that this form of self-sacrifice has a place in Judaism.

But what about self-immolation and the idea of taking ones life for a cause?

Jewish martyrdom

The violence of the Crusades, and the pressure on Jews to convert or die, convinced the rabbis to change their stance of martyrdom and decide that giving up ones life to uphold the commandments was worth a guaranteed place in heaven.

When it comes to the actual taking of ones life in the name of a cause–self-immolation as protest, for example–Judaism has a rich history and clear precedents. I must confess I owe most of my information on this topic to Benjamin Marinoff’s research paper, “Martyrdom: Can’t Live With It, Can’t Survive Without It.”

Judaism places a phenomenally high value on life, allowing almost every commandment to be broken to save a life. You can drive people to the hospital on Shabbat and doctors can even answer their phone or carry pagers in case they need to come to the aid of someone whose life is at risk. It’s this emphasis on life that makes it all the more remarkable when Judaism encourages, or even requires, one to take his/her own life.

Judaism requires one to give up his/her own life before committing the following acts:

  • Murder (duh)
  • Idolatry (viewed as giving up the core of Judaism, which is viewed as worth dying for)
  • Various sexual sins (the rabbis decided these were akin to murder… questionable)

But while the requirement may be absolute, as you can imagine every Jew who was faced with transgressing one of these sins has not always chosen to take his/her own life instead.

For much of Jewish history, up until the Crusades, there was no heavenly reward for taking ones own life. The only incentive to kill oneself rather than transgress was to maintain a moral life. But with the Crusades came massive pressure on Jews to give up their Judaism. In light of this, the rabbis decided in 1096 to declare that martyrdom would grant the martyr a place in heaven and that in fact, taking ones life for the Jewish cause was the only guaranteed way to heaven.

In case you can’t see where this is going, suicides skyrocketed following this decree. Jews would seek out Crusaders that had passed them by or take their own lives without cause all in the aim of reaching heaven. But the people doing this weren’t actually martyrs, as a prerequisite for becoming such a thing is that it is done selflessly for a cause greater than ones self.

Maimonides expanded the list of things one must martyr themselves for when he decreed that in cases where forces are seeking to wipe out an entire Jewish community, every religious act must be upheld to ensure the survival or the religion. If asked to violate even the most mundane of commandants, a Jew must choose to take his own life, Maimonides said. Importantly though, he said that one should only if his suicide will be public. As Marinoff writes:

[Martyrdom] is designed to send a powerful message, but without anyone on the receiving end, the message diminishes into a personal sentiment of an extinguished soul.

It’s for this reason, the requirement that martyrdom be more than suicide for a cause but rather the taking of ones life as public spectacle, that self-immolation has become such a popular means of protest suicide.

Explaining the roots of self-immolation in her paper “The Twice Killed: Imagining Protest Suicide,” Karin Androlio writes:

Beginning in 1963, Buddhists torches burned into Western minds the awareness that [self-immolation] was possible for human beings to do; thus began its emulation.

Self-immolation, a human choosing to do something that most of us have a visceral, and indeed evolutionary, compulsion to avoid at all costs, has a searing effect on its audience. It’s hard to ignore and conveys a message that the individual would not have done this if he were not truly passionate about the cause.

Self-immolation had its hey-dey during the Vietnam War as a means of protesting for peace. But even these protests were ostensibly religious in nature, which has proven to be the only genuine cause that has led people to kill themselves in protest or to be recognized for doing so–be it through martyrdom or generic idolization.

Protest suicide, for it to become more than desperate people driven to take their own lives, must be a piece of a larger movement to which people devote themselves.

For Buddhists and Quakers who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War, the civilian deaths resulting from the violence went so far against their pacifist religion and lifestyle that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. The all-encompassing nature of their pacifist beliefs, and resulting willingness to give up their lives, is lacking in the social protest movement.

The primary point of Marinoff’s paper, and one that must be considered in light of the social protests self-immolations, is that people must be willing to sometimes give up their lives for Judaism. If there’s no line drawn in the sand beyond which people must be willing to die, then how can people be asked to devote their lives to the religion? The willingness of its adherents to die rather than transgress the essential commandments gives the religion credibility.

Unlike Judaism or the pacifist roots of Quakerism and Buddhism–the forces behind the Vietnam era self-immolators–nobody is being asked to shape their entire life around the social protests. There’s thus no need for a line in the sand, and no need for people to sacrifice their entire selves.

What we’re seeing with the self-immolators isn’t willingness to die for a cause, it’s the tragic result of depressed people finding personal resonance in the protests’ message and using its publicity to try and afford a greater significance to the tragic taking of their own lives.

Instead of celebrating these victims it would be wiser, and more relevant, to take an example from the mourning on Tisha B’Av and employ hunger strikes, or abstain from other activities as a way of objecting to the social inequity the protesters feel so strongly about.

About the Author
Arno Rosenfeld is a San Francisco native attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is trying to make sense of Israel in all its beauty and imperfection.