New Year--Second Day
The Akeidah---Proof text for Jewish Martyrdom

30 September 2011

My talk is based on The Akedah, The Binding of Isaac, by Louis A. Berman (Jason Aronson, 1995). Dr. Berman retired as a professor of psychology in 1989 from the Unversity of Illinois at Chicago.

I was taught that the core lesson of the Akeidah was Abraham’s total faith in God. I heard the criticisms that he spoke up for Sodom and Gemmorah but obeyed an order to kill his child. I heard that the Akeidah was a statement against child sacrifice.

But in preparing for today’s talk, I uncovered the far more disturbing fact that the Akeidah is the proof text for Jewish martyrdom----Kiddush hashem---suicide to avoid forced conversion.

The theme of Jewish Martyrdom is developed in the Books of the Maccabees. These books were in written in Greek about 40 B.C.E. for a Hellenized Jewish audience. They are Greek in style and philosophy. They were not translated into Hebrew until a thousand years later. These books are not part of the Jewish Canon. The first two books are part of the Catholic Bible. The fourth book is only a foot note to the Greek Catholic Bible.

Jewish Martyrdom appears in the story of Hannah and her Seven Sons which appears in the Second and Fourth Book of the Maccabees.

Hannah and her Seven Sons are brought before the Greek king Antiochus. He commands each son to eat pork. He threatens each son that his tongue will be ripped out and his limbs will be severed unless he complies. Each son---one by one--is threatened, refuses to eat pork, and is dismembered in the view of the surviving sons and Hannah. Each son dies of his injuries, confident of resurrection in the World to Come.

Antiochus begs the youngest son to comply so as to save his life for the sake of his mother. Hannah counsels her only surviving son to refuse in the name of God. He refuses to eat pork, and is dismembered and dies.

After the last son is killed, Hannah dies.

The Seven Sons are saints in the Catholic Church. Their feast is August 1.

In the Fourth Book of Maccabees, Chapter 16, verses 20-25, it is said:


[20] For his sake also our father Abraham was zealous to sacrifice his son Isaac, the ancestor of our nation; and when Isaac saw his father's hand wielding a sword and descending upon him, he did not cower.
[21] And Daniel the righteous was thrown to the lions, and Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael were hurled into the fiery furnace and endured it for the sake of God.
[22] You too must have the same faith in God and not be grieved.
[23] It is unreasonable for people who have religious knowledge not to withstand pain."
[24] By these words the mother of the seven encouraged and persuaded each of her sons to die rather than violate God's commandment.
[25] They knew also that those who die for the sake of God live in God, as do Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the patriarchs.


Using the Akeidah as a proof text, the concept of martyrdom took hold.

In the second century the rabbinic counsel at Lydda pronounced the laws of martyrdom---Kiddush hashem. A Jewish person had to suffer death rather than violate three commandments prohibiting idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder.

However, this view was not unanimous.

In the 12th century, the Jews in Spain and Morocco were being subjected to forced conversion to Islam. A Jew who had submitted to forced conversion asked a rabbi---a distinguished talmudist---to endorse the secret practice of Judaism. the rabbi said that each commandment of Judaism that would be practiced by a convert would constitute an additional sin.

Maimonides disagreed. Understanding that saying one is Muslim is not the same as being Muslim, and recognizing the monotheistic nature of Islam, Maimonides rationalized outward conversion to Islam, discouraged martyrdom, and recommended migration and exile. (See
“Maimonides” by Joel K. Kraemer, Doubleday, 2008).

As the Crusades broke out in the the 11th and 12th centuries in the Rhineland, martyrdom took full hold. Berman contrasts Christianity from Islam. The Jews of Europe despised Christianity as idolatrous---not being monotheistic. They looked down on Christians. The Christians were focused more on converting Jews rather than destroying the Jewish people.

During crusader pogroms, Jews were offered the choice of torture or conversion. Swept up in the religious fanaticism of the times, Jews embraced the story of Hannah and her Seven Sons.

Faced with forced conversion, fathers slaughtered their wives and children, and then themselves.

It is told that the Jews of Eller assembled in a hall, recited their confessionals, and the saints among them slaughtered the entire congregation. Three hundred souls perished.

Rabbi J. H. Hertz relates in his Chumash commentary, the martyrdom at York Castle in 1190. Faced with a pogrom, the Jews holed-up in the Castle and committed suicide. Another 300 souls in Kiddush hashem.

Berman relates that the practice of martyrdom was supported by the belief in resurrection. There were legends and midrashim that Isaac was actually slaughtered and resurrected at the Akeidah. Some accounts say he was resurrected as soon as his windpipe was severed. Others say he bled to death. Others say that he was burned to ashes, but was immediately resurrected. Still other stories have Isaac ascend to heaven and return to earth after three years.

In the 12th century, Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn wrote an poem including:


He made haste, he pinned him down with his knees,
He made his two arms strong.

With steady hands he slaughtered him according to the rite,
Full right was the slaughter.

Down upon him I felt the resurrecting dew, and he revived.
[The father] seized him to slaughter him once more.

Scripture, bear witness! Well-grounded is the
fact: And the Lord called Abraham, even a second time from heaven.



In the years since the Holocaust, an idea to compete with Kiddush Ha-shem has taken off.

Kiddush ha-chayim. The sanctification of life. The refusal to die is holy. Survival is holy---to preserve the faith and the nation.

Berman asks:


Does the Akedah, in it s Biblical form, sanction or perhaps promote martyrdom? Or rather does verse 12 underscore the santity of human life:

“Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him?” Writing on the Akeidah, Elie Wiesel answer the question thus:

“In the Jewish tradition man cannot use death as a means of glorifying God. Every man is an end unto himself, a living entity.”