Acting in the Name of God
The Torah commands vehai bahem, "and you should live by them," meaning that the mitzvot (commandments) are there to give life, not to take it, and that they may be abrogated in any life-threatening circumstances. However, there are three exceptions to this principle, in which one should yehareg ve'al ya'avor, "be killed and not transgress" the mitzvot: murder, rape, and idolatry. Should Jews be demanded to murder another person, rape or be raped, or desecrate the name of God in public, bow to idols, renounce Judaism, etc., they are asked to give up their life rather than submit.
The question, of course, is why: why would God's law ask that people die rather than preserve life at all costs? The answer, deeply and intuitively felt, is that sometimes the preservation of one's own life undermines the very values that make that life worthy, and worth living. In Judaism, there are two of these values: preserving the sanctity of others' lives and preserving the sanctity of our essential truths. In most of these cases, another person or group uses the threat of death to force a renunciation of either of these two, and giving up one's life becomes a powerful and sublime form of resistance.
But though Kiddush haShem in the face of death is evidence of the deep, often unexpected, veins of strength to be found in an individual in defense of what is right and good, its performance is equal proof of the rot and perversity at the core of society, which occasions its being required. The choice of murder or death, rape or death, apostasy or death, is a tragedy that far outweighs the value of any act of resistance. And the chilling twist of the word "martyr" in our day is that it has come to be synonymous with murder. Better that the story of these words had never needed to be told.
Scott Perlo is the Rabbi in Residence of the Professional Leader's Project. He was ordained in May 2008 from the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University. He has interned as the student rabbi of Beit Warszawa, a small congregation in Warsaw, traveled to El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, Bethelem and Hevron with Encounter, and worked for Hillel at UCLA, LA Hebrew High, and Camp Ramah. He was a fellow at the Kollel of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and was the rabbinic intern of IKAR in West LA.