I am thinking about the moment when Elie Wiesel on April 19, 1985 received the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement from President Reagan. In his acceptance speech Wiesel forcefully criticized President Reagan for his planned trip to Bitburg military cemetery in which forty seven members of Hitler’s Waffen SS were buried. He said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” For me Wiesel’s words and what they meant to American Jewry in front of the President of the United States was an act of self sacrifice given the public relations repercussions of the speech for American Jewry. It is a credit to him and to President Reagan for listening to him. Unfortunately, President Reagan did not take Wiesel’s advice.
The Jewish view of this kind of an act of putting oneself on the line in speaking truth to power and accepting the consequences represents a longstanding theme in Jewish history. What is it all about? Whether we call it speaking truth to power or acting on the call to save our people or maintaining our own sacred principles, Judaism calls us to not profane God’s presence at all costs. The Torah Portion of the week Emor provides us with the basic Scriptural and Rabbinical definitions of when and why a Jewish person may give up their life to protect sacred values and especially to defend God. I ask myself , ‘would I ever give up my life for any cause that I believe so strongly in that I would give up all that I cherish in this life and life itself to stand up for something I believe in heart and soul? I cannot say I can truly answer that question. But I can say that our heritage provides us with examples of people who met that challenge and did give up their lives lest they be asked to commit transgressions and moral breaches of faith against God which would bring dishonor to God, themselves and to the community.
We are reading the end of the Leviticus holiness code which provides us all kinds of moral and ethical laws that go back to the basic principle that God wants us to act God-like, that is, to imitate God-like behavior. In the Torah the context is about the religious integrity of the priesthood. Yet, the core of the Jewish idea of giving up one’s life is called Kiddush haShem or Sanctification of (God’s) the Name. In Leviticus we read, “You shall not profane My holy name; but I will be sanctified among the children of Israel’ (22:31-32).
The sages long ago since the days of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the 2nd century C.E. and Rabbi Akiva gave up his life and other sages like him when ordered to stop teaching Torah or ordaining rabbis or practicing the ritual of circumcision. To the rabbis the Roman decree to stop these sacred duties would have meant casting the Jewish people into idolatry because it would have condemned Judaism’s future.
Each year we read on Yom Kippur in the afternoon service the martyrology when the ten rabbis of that period died at the hands of the Romans. The rest of the stories we read about from the Crusades and many other brutal accounts of violent anti-Semitism in history to our own times set in pattern the theme of intense reflection on Yom Kippur and canonized in the collective memory of the Jewish people the psychological trauma as well as the moral challenge passed down through the generations. The foundation of this heritage is the principle that standing up for God and for the honor of the Jewish people is a responsibility that a Jew bears even if the demands, under unique conditions, require self-sacrifice. Wiesel understood that dimension of risking his standing and that of American Jewry when we spoke to President Reagan.
The Jewish idea of martyrdom, explained in a commentary, puts it quite simply by saying, “This precept is based on the idea that man was created for the sole purpose of serving his Creator. Whoever is not willing to lay down his life for his master is not a good servant”(sefer hachinuch).
I came across this commentary in preparing for tomorrow morning’s Torah Study discussion on the same topic. I stopped for a moment and thought about what I was reading. Quickly I realized that I could very well be a poor servant and, ergo, not a good rabbi. I don’t know if I would have given up my life, for example, in medieval Spain to resist the Inquisition. Would I have converted to another faith to save myself or my family in any time of oppression? Would I have accepted the fate of cruel torture and death like Rabbi Akiva? What would any of us do if we were forced to transgress everything sacred to us in order to live?
Today we think about religion in a very spiritual way which means, in effect, ‘it is all about me.’ Forgive me for being a bit sarcastic here but people think about sacrifices when it comes to how much driving time it takes to get to their house of worship. We are, thank god, a far cry from more tumultuous and hostile times for our people. But in this period of history where we live in peace and tranquility should we be thinking about what we really believe in and what we would be willing to stand up for if challenged to the core of our being?
Rabbi Akiva disobeyed the Emperor Hadrian’s prohibition of teaching the Torah. He was arrested and was condemned to die a cruel martyr’s death.
When he was tortured in the presence of the wicked roman governor Tinneius Rufus, the time came for the “Hear oh Israel” to be recited. Rabbi Akiva recited it and smiled.
The Roman official shouted at him. “Old man, how can you smile in your pain? You are either a magician, or you make fun of your sufferings.”
Akiva answered: “I am no magician, and I do not make fun of my sufferings. But throughout all my life I have recited the words, ‘You must love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might’ and I was sad when I could not understand how I might possibly love God with all my soul. I have loved God with all my heart and with all my might. But it was never clear to me how I could also love Him with all my soul. Now that I am giving up my soul and the hour of the Shema has come, while I am determined to remain true to my resolve, should I not be smiling?” (Palestinian Talmud Berakhot 9:7). This is speaking truth to power.
Of course the story is frightening. At the same time is it not inspiring too? Hopefully the future will never put our descendants to the test like the kind of martyrdom we read about in our sacred scriptures today? Looking back into history, the sages and people in general, men and women in our history, gave up their lives so that this people could continue to light candles and sanctify god’s world? This story and the principle of Kiddush haShem should give us a deeper understanding about an uncomfortable but, nevertheless, important aspect of being a Jew which is exemplified in the statement from Ethics of the Fathers,” Know before whom you stand.” Certainly Wiesel understood that in his remarks to President Reagan.
The sociologist, Charles Silberman, characterized Wiesel’s plea to the President as “the most remarkable moment in the annals of American Jewry.” Religion has its own chemistry that is different than other sciences. Religion is not just a philosophic system or a compendium of tomes of laws and texts from ancient scholars. It is about real life and how faith will drive us to heroism in ways that we could never foresee. That is the awesomeness of the world God bequeathed and why it deserves our best effort to protect it. It is simply up to us on how we act in it.