Does Martyrdom Sanctify the Holy Name?


2015-10-04 – Think about the phrase “mass shooting” for a moment.

Of course the phrase conveys the enormity of multiple murders. But does it, even for a second, convey a sense of holy sacrifice in your mind?

The latest mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon has raised that possibility. The shooter asked Christian’s to identify themselves and, in so doing, Christians identified themselves as targets for murder. A question has been going around the Internet asking whether you would be willing to do the same.

Now, of course, I would not identify myself as a Christian, considering that I am not. So I’m going to take this as a broader question. Throughout history, Jews have often been asked to sacrifice their lives for their religion. So the question I am going to ask is whether you would be willing to sacrifice your life for a conscientiously held belief?

Should you?

Before I get to this question, though, I want to say that I feel no urge to judge those who are forced to make this decision at the actual point of a gun. That is a moment of panic. You do or you don’t. It’s not a considered decision. What I am talking about is whether you would theoretically sacrifice your life. We theoretically sacrifice our lives all the time, in dorm discussions or in blogs. It’s a kind of thought experiment. I’ve theoretically sacrificed my life many times . . . and lived to tell about it.

So would you sacrifice your life for your conscience?

In Judaism there is a pair of concepts: kiddush ha’shem (sanctification of the holy name) and chillul ha’shem (desecration of the holy name). Martyrs are considered to have died for the sanctification of the holy name. There are many kinds of desecrations and there are other types of sanctifications beside martyrdom. We’re not talking about those here. I just raise these concepts as a pair to suggest that martyrdom (in its pure form, at least) protects the name and reputation of God. If you are a martyr, you are saying that you value your relationship with God over your life and you want people to know that.

Sacrificing your life is not the only way to make that point.

Think about Anne Frank and her family. They feared the Nazis would take their lives because they were Jews. They did not stand up and say “come and get me,” but rather they went into hiding. Would you judge the Franks as cowards? Did they desecrate the name? I don’t think so.

In my mind, a God that allows a holocaust needs to take care of his own reputation.

To me, the question of making a sacrifice for your conscience solely for the reputation of God comes uncomfortably close to violating the third commandment:  “Thou shalt not take the name of the lord your God in vain.”

Now, I’m not saying that martyrdom necessarily violates this commandment. But I am saying that it comes close enough that there is no automatic answer.

So when you stand up for your conscience, you have to consider other questions as well. Are you standing up against authority or a criminal? Will your act help or hurt others? Are there alternatives to getting yourself killed that will not harm others? Who else will suffer when you are gone? Are we really talking about a sacrifice of your own life, or are you really saying that you are willing to sacrifice others on this altar. And so on.

It’s not an easy question, if you are talking about sacrificing your actual life. Watch out for people who think it’s easy.

If you’re only talking about sacrificing your theoretical life, it’s as easy as pie.



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