Judaism has a complex relationship with the ideal of martyrdom.

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Moreover, in the Middle Ages, the period of the Crusades, for example, Jews were killed for professing the Jewish religion regardless of whether they were ready to submit to the sorry fate or escape it by surrendering. The awesome drama was always worked out against the particular situation.

By a consensus among Jews, the six million victims of the Holocaust are given the accolade of martyrdom and are known as kedoshim ('holy ones'), the name otherwise reserved for martyrs; they were, after all, murdered because they were Jews.

Maimonides, when faced with the threatened destruction of Jewish communities by Muslim rulers, gave the ruling that since Islam is not an idolatrous religion, martyrdom is not required if Jews are faced with the option of conversion to Islam or death.

Other authorities took issue with Maimonides here, arguing that conversion to Islam involves a denial of the Torah of Moses and martyrdom is demanded for this very reason. The decision was naturally left to the individuals themselves.

With regard to Christianity, the advice of the Rabbis was that martyrdom should be avoided by fleeing the places in which it was a threat and the tolerant attitude emerged according to which those who had been forcibly converted should be treated with respect as unwitting offenders and welcomed back into the fold, as happened with the Marranos.

Longing for Martyrdom?

In the Talmudic tale (Berakhot 61b) Rabbi Akiba, as he was being tortured to death for teaching the Torah, declared: 'All my life I said: when will I have the opportunity of suffering martyrdom and now that it has come should I not rejoice?'

In the mystical diary kept by Joseph Karo, this saint longed to be a martyr for the glory of God. But this longing for martyrdom is very unusual in the literature of Jewish piety. The more realistic attitude was to accept in love martyrdom if the need arose but not positively to long for it to come about.

The prayer of Isaiah Horowitz is germane:

'O Holy God! If it will be Thy will to bring me to this test, sanctify me and purify me and put into my thoughts and my mouth to sanctify Thy name in public, as did the ten holy martyrs (the Rabbis who are said to have been executed during Hadrian's persecution of the Jews) and myriads and thousands of Israel's saints...'

'Our sages have taught us that whoever offers himself as a martyr for the sake of the sanctification of Thy name feels nothing of the great pain inflicted upon him. However, it is impossible to rely on these words of the sages. But come what may, be Thou with me that the torment should not prevent me having my thoughts on Thee and let me rejoice in my heart at the very moment of torture.'

Dirges for the martyrs were introduced into the liturgy of the synagogue for recital on certain Sabbaths of the year and on Yom Kippur and the Ninth of Av.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.