Putting politics and Israel aside, the most impressive part of the events in Cairo was the fearlessness and courage of the protesting Egyptians. We asked Rabbi Jill Jacobs to offer perspective on placing life in harm’s way. What should we be prepared to die for? Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Jewish Obligation
The three categories for which Jews are traditionally expected to martyr themselves are all instances in which the choice is either to die or to violate a serious prohibition — namely, idol worship, murder or certain sexual practices such as incest. The Talmud also offers examples of rabbis who choose to martyr themselves rather than desist from teaching Torah. In all of these cases, the potential martyr does not put him or herself into the situation, but rather is forced into it by an oppressive government or a powerful individual.
Tahrir Square & Jewish Tradition
In the Egyptian situation, individuals are not necessarily setting out to martyr themselves, but are assuming a significant degree of risk for a greater cause. Anyone who entered Tahrir Square knew there was a possibility of being injured, arrested or even killed. The calculation, then, is whether the risk of death is outweighed by the possibility of bringing about a better life for the majority.
This may be more akin to the Jewish question of whether one must put him or herself in physical danger in order to save a life. In general, there is no expectation, for example, that one must risk drowning in order to rescue another person. But no situation comes without risk — a doctor driving a car to the hospital could be involved in a fatal car crash. In every situation, then, a person must weigh whether the chance of saving lives immediately or in the long term outweighs the possibility that she will be hurt or killed in the process. Judaism does not value martyrdom for its own sake, but may permit some degree of risk when lives are at stake.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs
On Her Own Martyrdom
I don’t think that any one of us can know whether or when we would be willing to sacrifice our lives until the choice presents itself. It’s easy for me to sit in my Manhattan apartment and declare what I would or would not do under any circumstance, but philosophical musings may or may not have any relationship to how I would act when called. That said, the chief question for me would be whether I believed that the risk I was taking was justified by the results that my actions would bring about.
– Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall Be No Needy” and the forthcoming “Where Justice Dwells.”
Final Thought: Human Being
Not Martyr Or Hero
Just the other night in a lecture hall at UCLA, the writer Leon Wieseltier stood beneath a photo of the journalist Daniel Pearl. Islamic terrorists murdered the young Wall Street Journal reporter nine years ago, just seconds after he told them, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
But Pearl, said Wieseltier, was not a martyr. “Jews don’t believe in martyrs,” he said. “We believe in heroes. And Daniel Pearl was a hero.”
Martyrs set out to die for a cause. But the value Judaism places on life is too high, too precious, to make room for the intention to die. Daniel Pearl didn’t set out to die for his faith; he was killed for it, and he died a hero’s death. So the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” is a question best left to the moment before, when all other options are exhausted, when the only choice left is life or death.
Take away the obvious and immediate answers — my family — and the answer is likely just one word: freedom. Given the choice between living an oppressed or enslaved life, robbed of choice and dignity, and a chance to change my fate, I’d like to believe I would risk my life for freedom. I don’t think that makes me special, or a martyr, or a hero, but a human being.
– Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of Tribe Media, which publishes the LA Jewish Journal.