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.