Were the Defenders of Masada Justified in Killing Themselves?

According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish rebels, besieged by Roman legionaries on the hilltop fortress of Masada in the year 73 CE, decided to commit suicide rather than surrender. Scholars still debate the accuracy of this account, while the Zionist movement decades ago embraced it as an example of Jewish heroism. But, notes Shlomo Brody, the Talmud makes no mention of the fall of Masada, and the rabbinic view of such acts of martyrdom is hardly straightforward:

[T]he talmudic sages may have believed that [the defenders’] decision to kill each other was a severe violation of Jewish law. Judaism prohibits suicide, and Jewish law has largely urged its adherents to practice rituals under political subjugation rather than choosing death.

The legitimacy of the warriors’ actions was debated by two leading Religious-Zionist rabbis during the 1960s. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, then the chief rabbi of the IDF, wrote an extensive defense of their decision. While suicide is broadly prohibited, there are a number of cases in which the talmudic sages justified it under extreme conditions. The Talmud, for example, records the story of a mother and seven children who jumped off a roof rather than commit idolatry, alongside another story of 400 boys and girls who leapt into the sea rather than being sold into slavery [by their Roman captors in the wake of the Great Revolt]. . . .

Perhaps most significantly, the ancient rabbis justified King Saul’s decision to fall on his sword rather than be captured by the Philistines (I Samuel 31). For Goren, this [last] case was a paradigm, demonstrating the preferability of suicide to allowing the [supposed] desecration of God’s name that occurs when an enemy kills Jews or gloatingly takes captives.

Goren’s claim about Masada was strongly criticized by several scholars, including Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria, who . . . argued that the operative halakhic principle is encompassed by the biblical verse “live by them [i.e., the commandments],” traditionally understood as an injunction to choose life in order to ensure the future of the Jewish people. If Jews throughout the generations had [chosen] death over political subjugation, the nation would never have survived. If the Masada fighters had surrendered, some would have been killed or enslaved, but others might have escaped and lived on. . . . [H]eroism means to know when to fight and when to stay alive.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Halakhah, King Saul, Masada, Suicide

As Vladimir Putin Sidles Up to the Mullahs, the Threat to the U.S. and Israel Grows

On Tuesday, Russia launched an Iranian surveillance satellite into space, which the Islamic Republic will undoubtedly use to increase the precision of its military operations against its enemies. The launch is one of many indications that the longstanding alliance between Moscow and Tehran has been growing stronger and deeper since the Kremlin’s escalation in Ukraine in February. Nicholas Carl, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, and Katherine Lawlor write:

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi have spoken at least four times since the invasion began—more than either individual has engaged most other world leaders. Putin visited Tehran in July 2022, marking his first foreign travel outside the territory of the former Soviet Union since the war began. These interactions reflect a deepening and potentially more balanced relationship wherein Russia is no longer the dominant party. This partnership will likely challenge U.S. and allied interests in Europe, the Middle East, and around the globe.

Tehran has traditionally sought to purchase military technologies from Moscow rather than the inverse. The Kremlin fielding Iranian drones in Ukraine will showcase these platforms to other potential international buyers, further benefitting Iran. Furthermore, Russia has previously tried to limit Iranian influence in Syria but is now enabling its expansion.

Deepening Russo-Iranian ties will almost certainly threaten U.S. and allied interests in Europe, the Middle East, and around the globe. Iranian material support to Russia may help the Kremlin achieve some of its military objectives in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Russian support of Iran’s nascent military space program and air force could improve Iranian targeting and increase the threat it poses to the U.S. and its partners in the Middle East. Growing Iranian control and influence in Syria will enable the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [to use its forces in that country] to threaten U.S. military bases in the Middle East and our regional partners, such as Israel and Turkey, more effectively. Finally, Moscow and Tehran will likely leverage their deepening economic ties to mitigate U.S. sanctions.

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Read more at Critical Threats

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Russia, U.S. Security, Vladimir Putin