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The Martyrdom Prayers

Enigmas and mysteries

By Phillip Lopate | October 14, 2016
Detail from <em>Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur</em>, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878 (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail from Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, by Maurycy Gottlieb, 1878 (Wikimedia Commons)


The rabbi at my synagogue asked me to deliver a Dvar Torah, a commentary on some prayers recited during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and this is what I came up with:

The strange set of texts devoted to Jewish martyrs known as Eilleh Ezk’rah or “These I Recall,” which are read each Yom Kippur, give us much reason to pause and to puzzle and to be disturbed. First of all, there is little emphasis otherwise on martyrdom in Jewish liturgy, and only twice, during Yom Kippur and T’sha B’av, are martyrs even mentioned in prayers. Historically, not only secular but religious Jews seem to have shied away from the theological use of martyrs, perhaps to differentiate themselves from those of other faiths. As we know, Christianity has had a robust tradition of martyrology: think of all those early Renaissance paintings of decapitated saints with blood gushing from their necks. In our own time, the concept of contemporary martyrs remains much alive in the Islamic world and, to a lesser extent, in political movements seeking to unseat an oppressive government, where funerals with coffins held aloft become an incentive for mass demonstrations.

I don’t think I am alone in feeling that there is something unsettling, gaudy, macabre, and opportunistic in these communal demonstrations of grief. Then again, I am not myself good martyr material: first, because I’m a physical coward, and second, because my faith is rather weak, so it’s doubtful I could imagine giving up my life to defend it. Still, I am willing to keep an open mind and to admire those who did.

Let’s examine the texts themselves. The first one is devoted to “The Rabbinic Martyrs Murdered by Rome” and begins with the sentence: “In the time of the Roman Empire, God suffered ten rabbis to be martyred.” What an odd locution, “God suffered,” since God is not doing the suffering here. The word is obviously being used in its other sense, meaning God permitted the 10 to be martyred, which immediately shifts the onus away from the killers and onto God Himself. Thus, these deaths will be seen not merely as a human tragedy but as part of a cosmic plan, which deepens the mystery—not for the last time—about why God should let such terrible things occur to His alleged Chosen People.

We then are given individual vignettes about the martyrdom of Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Bava, and Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradion. One might ask why the martyrs mentioned were all rabbis: surely the Romans must have put some ordinary Jews to death. Part of the reason may be that it was rabbis themselves who compiled these texts, and they may have been more taken with the martyrdom of their own kind. Also, in each case the rabbis are portrayed in their roles as scholars teaching Torah, rather than tied to any political resistance to the Romans. Rabbi Akiva happened to be a supporter of Bar Kochba’s revolt, but we hear nothing about that political or military episode in these texts. Perhaps for the same reason, the Book of Maccabees was not permitted to become part of the Bible.

Each martyrdom is depicted expressively and gruesomely: Rabbi Shinon pleaded to be executed first, so that he would “not have to gaze upon the death of” a colleague, and his blood flowed “like a slaughtered bull.” Rabbi Akiva’s skin was scraped off with iron combs. Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava was pierced with “300 lances so that his body was like a sieve,” and Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradion was burned at the stake, with “wet wool placed over his heart” so that his dying would take longer. Such graphic details seem to be an inevitable, possibly necessary part of martyr traditions. Inspiring legends of a folkloric nature were also included in these reports to mitigate or ennoble the sacrifices. For instance, Rabbi Akiva calmly recites the Sh’ma as he is being scraped to death—at last he is able to fulfill the verse to love God with all his soul, and as he pronounces the word “One,” his soul departs. Most beautiful is the legend about Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, who was wrapped in a Torah before set aflame: “His disciples asked: ‘Master, what do you see?’ He replied, ‘The parchment is burning, but the letters are flying free.’”

The next section deals with the period of the first Crusade, when the pious community of Mainz was being wiped out. The community members cried out to God, asking to be saved and wondering why He seemed to be abandoning them. On the day designated for martyrdom, “these pious people sanctified themselves by ascending to God as one. In life kindly toward each other, in death they were not parted, for they were all gathered together in the courtyard of the archbishop.” In essence, they are rewarded by all going up to heaven in a group and being admitted right away, bypassing the usual waiting period. Yet—and it’s a big yet—the very next sentence tells us: “The wrath of God was kindled against God’s people and so the counsel of the Crusaders was fulfilled.” Now, why should God have been so angry at these pious, kindly souls, to the point of letting them all be slaughtered? It would seem a monstrously disproportionate injustice. Here one could argue, I suppose, for the inscrutable majesty and mystery of God, who is not to be subjected to flawed human judgment. But that judgment is precisely what the writer expresses next, as he goes on to bemoan the loss of so many people who followed the Torah’s teachings: “But now their wisdom has been swallowed up and destroyed, as happened to the citizens of Jerusalem in their destruction.” In other words, we are witnessing something like a repeat of the destruction of the second Temple, for no apparent reason other than that bad stuff happens. These bloody cycles repeat. Interestingly, unlike contemporary governments (in Israel and elsewhere) that call for immediate retaliation to avenge the blood of their martyrs, the Jews of former times were given no recourse to fight back against their oppressors, because the real instigator who made all this happen was God, Who is punishing His people for some transgression committed who knows when.

The third text, regarding the destruction of Spanish Jewry, is a powerful poetic indictment that considerably amps up the tone of bitter reproach. The author, addressing God, repeats this word “bitterness” several times, castigates “those traitors negating You,” laments the passing of goodness, sweetness, beauty, and faith, cries in despair, “Salvation is gone from the Hebrew folk,” and concludes “For gone is God’s presence, no longer found on earth.” It seems to me Judaism is unique in the way it so often calls a retreating God to account. We cannot simply say that that’s because the Jews have suffered persecution down through the millennia, since other peoples have also experienced incalculable tragedies, and yet they go on praising and not questioning their deity. Rather, I think it’s an admirable part of Judaism to tolerate and even incorporate doubt, skepticism, and a need to engage God in a dialogue, even to the point of questioning His very existence.

From there we move on to the Holocaust, with two poems, one by Jacob Glatstein, and another by Yehuda Amichai. The tone differs immediately from that of the previous texts, since these are personal, autobiographical accounts. No longer is the writer speaking for the community to God; he is this lone individual, telling the poetry-reading public with nostalgia and sadness about his father, his mother, and the passing of a way of life. Now, Glatstein is a fine poet and Amichai a great one, but it is hard to imagine what purpose these poems might serve as prayers, unless we assume that God is a literary critic. There is something provisional, tentative about the inclusion of these two testimonies in our prayer books; a thousand others on the subject might have been chosen. And here we see the dilemma of the Conservative Jewish authorities who assembled these memorial texts, trying to update the prayer book. If, as Adorno cautioned, no poetry should be written after the Holocaust, and by extension, any attempt to make literary capital out of the subject is likely to trivialize, then these modern poems are bound to disappoint as martyrdom texts.

All along, I sense, you’ve wanted to dispute my statement about Judaism’s reluctance to make theological use of martyrs, by citing the Holocaust as an exception. Granted, the Holocaust or Shoah, whichever term you prefer, has come to occupy a central place in Jewish thought, but I don’t think you can claim the six million victims were necessarily martyrs, since many did not choose to die for their faith; they were murdered simply for having been born Jewish, or half-Jewish. That doesn’t make their extinction any less horrific, but it removes the element of volition from the equation.

To use an example much closer to the present day: in those sickening videos that show ISIS beheading two Americans and an Englishman, the victim in orange prison smock is sometimes heard to make a statement blaming the Western powers’ antagonistic policies for his imminent death. Perhaps he mistakenly believed that by mouthing these fulminations against his government he might ward off the knife. We feel doubly sorry for the helpless victim, and are by no means inclined to accuse him of apostasy. Had he sung out the Star Spangled Banner or God Save the Queen, it might have seemed a smidgeon more courageous, but so what: the end result would have been the same. Is he any less, or more a martyr, if he recants his loyalty to the West with his last dying breath? We do have a pure example in Daniel Pearl, who was said to have asserted his Jewish faith, maybe even said the Sh’ma like Rabbi Akiva, before being decapitated. Yet there was no rush on the part of the rabbinate to declare him officially a martyr. This will seem like nitpicking to some. Is there a valid theological distinction to be drawn between a victim and a martyr, and if so, what?

We are left with one final enigma: Why are these texts a part of the Yom Kippur service? What possible connection could there be between atonement and martyrdom? Why on this day when Jews are encouraged to think of ourselves not as innocent but as complicit in the world’s misdeeds, do we recite prayers honoring our martyrs? All I could come up with was that the solemnity of the holiday provides an appropriate home for these dark memorials. Also, our reading a Torah portion during the High Holidays about Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac as a demonstration of his faith makes for an association with the martyr theme. One Yom Kippur prayer says: “May the binding of his son satisfy any guilt we may have incurred, and may the merit of the innocent one serve to vindicate us this day.” Though Isaac, as it happens, does not die at his father’s hand (neither has he agreed initially to perish for his faith), we can draw a parallel between the extreme tests to which God puts his believers. Finally, since Yom Kippur is the day when we urge God to listen to our prayers and forgive us our sins, in the calculus of guilt it does not hurt to remind Him of these credits in our spiritual bank account. Just as our ancestors used to sacrifice an animal to get His attention, so we now draw His attention to our heroic martyrs, because—as the slogan goes for buying a lottery ticket—hey, you never know.

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