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

March 25, 2022 | James A. Diamond
About the author: James A. Diamond is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Waterloo. His books include Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon (2014) and, most recently, Jewish Theology Unbound (2018).

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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