The Death of Aaron’s Sons and Judaism’s Divided View of Martyrdom

March 25 2022

This week’s Torah reading of Shmini describes the sacrifices and ceremonies with which Moses and the Israelites inaugurated the newly constructed Tabernacle. Amid this happy occasion, two sons of the high priest Aaron provoke God by bringing an “alien fire” before Him, and are immediately punished with supernatural immolation. Moses then tells the bereaved father—his own brother—that God has told him, “I sanctify Myself through those near to me, and I am glorified before all the people.” Thereafter, the same verse states, “Aaron was silent.”

In a 2013 essay, James A. Diamond—drawing on the work of ancient and medieval Jewish exegetes—understands in Moses’ statement a glorification of martyrdom, but one the text itself qualifies:

[I]n the biblical narrative, Moses’ increasing closeness to God often seems to threaten to displace his initial human (one might even say humanist) ideals. This reaches its nadir in the misguided “comfort” he offers to Aaron. At this stage of Moses’ religious development, his sensitivity to others, even a person as close as a brother, is completely overwhelmed by religious zeal. . . . I interpret Aaron’s silence as repudiation, not acquiescence. The exchange described in Leviticus 10:3 is really a struggle for the theological direction of Judaism. Will it be animated by a spirit of compassion for others so that life can endure or by a martyrdom that upholds the honor of God?

Unfortunately, the tragic course of Jewish history transformed the conception of martyrdom and elevated it to a positive religious value. Such was the case at the siege of Masada in ancient times and later, in the First Crusades, when fathers killed their children rather than leaving them vulnerable to marauding crusaders and eventual baptism before killing themselves to “sanctify the Name.”

However, this valorization of martyrdom was always inconsistent with mainstream Jewish theology, as is evident from the tortuous halakhic rationalizations that followed. . . . Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the dean of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin and one of the most prominent rabbinic personalities of the 19th century, once declared his preference for “worshipping God by fulfilling the commandments while I am still alive,” over dying for God. The name of God is sanctified when life is preserved, not when it is proclaimed great an instant before life is obliterated.

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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Aaron, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Martyrdom, Moses

 

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter