The First Debate Over Religious Martyrdom

Religious martyrdom is a complex and painful subject in the history of Judaism, but the general thrust of both the Bible and classical rabbinic theology is to value living for God over dying for Him. The rabbinic tradition understands the verse “You shall keep my laws and statutes, so that man may practice them and live by them” (Lev. 18:5) to restrict the formal obligation to die rather than transgress a commandment solely to the cases of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. At a historical moment in which dying “in the name of God” (and not infrequently killing others in the process) has become all too commonplace, it is worthwhile to return to a short biblical narrative, which, when read closely, seems to subtly anticipate the rabbinic rejection of martyrdom as a supreme religious value.

Chapter 9 of Leviticus depicts a national celebration of the first sacrifices in the desert Tabernacle, which climaxes with a spectacular expression of divine approval: “Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering . . . And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces,” (Lev. 9:24). Jubilation, however, immediately turns into anguish when, in the next verse, Aaron’s sons initiate their own sacrifices:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense upon it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord, and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord,” (Lev. 10:1-2).

What does this literary repetition of the phrase “there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed” mean? In the case of animal sacrifices, the phrase generally means that a divine need has been satiated. Does the repetition signal, then, that in both the cases a divine need was satiated? Are these deaths the spiritual equivalents of animal sacrifices that are totally dedicated to God—the culmination of lives lived wholly in the service of the Lord?

“The Death of Nadav and Avihu” by James Tissot, ca. 1896.
“The Death of Nadav and Avihu” by James Tissot, ca. 1896.

The narrative attributes Nadav and Avihu’s deaths to their personal celebration of the Tabernacle’s dedication with an “alien fire.” However, the many rabbinic suggestions as to the motivation and background of their mysterious crime—ranging from political rebellion to disrespect, drunkenness, and bachelorhood—simply accentuate the inscrutable injustice of their deaths.

To understand the full import of this biblical episode, I think that we must pay close attention to the interplay between Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu’s uncle and father respectively:

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God spoke of when He said ‘I sanctify Myself through those near to me, and I am glorified before all the people.’ And Aaron was silent,” (Lev.10:3).

Rashi, the most renowned and popular of all medieval (and subsequent) biblical commentators, views this exchange as one in which Moses provides theological consolation and Aaron’s silence expresses resignation.

As with many of Rashi’s readings, there is a textual problem that stimulates his comment. In this case it is the apparent baselessness of Moses’ claim to have been privy to God’s words: “Where,” Rashi asks, “did He speak this?” His ingenious answer is to point to an apparently unrelated verse. Rashi writes:

“And there I will meet with the Israelites; and it [the Tent] shall be sanctified by My glory” (Ex. 29:43). Do not read it “by My glory, but rather “by My glorified ones.” Thus Moses said to Aaron, “Aaron, my brother, I knew that the House would be sanctified by those intimate with God, and I believed it would me or you, but now I see that they [Aaron’s sons] are greater than both of us.” And Aaron was rewarded for his silence. What was the reward he received? God addressed him confidentially.

Thus, Rashi answers his question by locating the source of Moses’ apparent quotation in the Book of Exodus when, to all appearances, God merely assured Moses that He would sanctify the Tent of Meeting with His glory or presence. In this interpretation, however, what God said in Exodus was that the Tent will eventually be sanctified by the death of martyrs. So Moses comforts Aaron with the assurance that God values martyrdom above all else, and that Nadav and Avihu are “greater than you and I.” Aaron’s silence indicates his deference to what we might call Moses’ theology of martyrdom.

Rashi underlines this approach in his interpretation of the second half of Moses’ citation, “and I am glorified before all the people.” Rashi writes, “When God punishes the righteous He becomes feared, exalted, and acclaimed.” Whereas the preceding phrase of Moses’ apparent quotation speaks of the intrinsic value of martyrdom as a sanctification of God, this second phrase supplements it by speaking of the public effect of martyrdom. Dying for God is also a public relations coup for the divine cause. For Rashi, then, the death of Aaron’s sons advanced the cause of God and religion, providing a paradigm of both God’s need for martyrs and the human need for martyrdom.


Rashi’s interpretation, however, is both philologically and contextually problematic. One can scour the entire Exodus narrative in vain for any hint of this sentiment, let alone a direct endorsement of martyrdom. The extent of Rashi’s midrashic contortions, wrenching its source out of both its narrative and grammatical contexts, highlights his frustration with the lack of any source for Moses’ bold assertion. Moreover, the root of the Hebrew word used to describe Aaron’s reaction, which is commonly rendered as “silence,” often connotes a response that is silent but far from acquiescent or accommodating.

For example, the word is used in the song at the splitting of the Red Sea to capture the overpowering dread that petrifies the Egyptians: “Terror and dread descend upon them, through the might of Your arm they are still as stone,” (Ex. 15:16). The prophet Amos employs it as a principled reaction to the moral chaos of a systemically corrupt society: “At such a time, the prudent man keeps silent, for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13). The prudent observer described by the prophet is certainly not in agreement with what he witnesses. Read in this context, Aaron’s silence is more likely an expression of astonishment at his brother’s insipid attempt at comfort. This is, in fact, how the Septuagint understands the verse, translating it as “his heart was pricked” or “shocked.”

Rashi’s view did not go unchallenged. His own grandson, Rashbam, notorious for disavowing his grandfather’s midrashic approach in favor of the peshat, or literal sense, categorically rejects this interpretation of Moses’ “comfort.” According to him, Moses’ response has nothing to do with the virtue of martyrdom. Rather, when Moses said, “This is what God spoke of when He said ‘I sanctify Myself through those near to me, and I am glorified before all the people,’” he was alluding to the priestly laws of mourning, which call for the High Priest to refrain from overt expressions of bereavement because of his position as a representative of God.

According to Rashbam, then, Moses was making a halakhic statement about how Aaron should behave, not a theological one about what Aaron should believe about the death of his sons: “Do not mourn, do not cry and do not refrain from [priestly] service.” The description of Aaron’s response, “and Aaron was silent,” then goes on to describe his priestly restraint from public grief in accord with Moses’ instruction.

“Consecration of Aaron and His Sons,” from the Holman Bible, 1890.
“Consecration of Aaron and His Sons,” from the Holman Bible, 1890.

Another of the great medieval commentators, the 13th-century kabbalist, Talmudist, and biblical commentator Moses ben Nachman, or Ramban, who was Rashi’s equal in stature if not in popularity, offers an entirely different perspective. As is often the case in his commentary, Ramban offers a trenchant critique of Rashi’s interpretation. In particular he targets Rashi’s implausible location of the divine source for Moses’ statement in another biblical book. Moreover, unlike both Rashi and Rashbam, he reads the exchange between Moses and his brother as one of opposition, not agreement.

Ramban points out that the biblical phrase “God spoke” can bear a figurative sense in addition to its literal one. It can mean “His decrees, His thought, and the manner of His ways.” In other words, Moses did not quote God’s words verbatim to Aaron, but rather offered his own understanding of the manner in which God governs the world. Just as Rashbam views Moses in his capacity as a posek or halakhic decisor, Ramban views him as a theologian. In both cases Moses does not cite but interprets. This, of course, radically changes the whole tenor of the exchange. As in Rashi, Moses is still articulating a theology of martyrdom, but Ramban allows the poignancy of Aaron’s silence to emerge as an anguished dissent. Comfort is transformed into confrontation.


Reading the Pentateuch as a coherent unified composition in its final redacted form, as Rashi, Rashbam, and Ramban surely did, reveals a complicated and very human portrait of Moses from his birth in Exodus to his death at the end of Deuteronomy. Within this narrative, I would argue, Moses’ self-assured advocacy of a theology of martyrdom is a betrayal of his own beginnings, indeed everything that qualified him to be the prophetic leader and liberator of his people.

Moses’ career was launched by a willingness to die for others rather than God. His premiere act was a violent protest against suffering and oppression that must have stemmed from a deeply felt empathy for the other: “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers and witnessed their suffering,” (Ex. 2:11). That suffering is captured in the stark brutality of the description at the end of the verse of “an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man, one of his brothers.” At this stage of Moses’ career, there is an exquisite ambiguity in the term “his brothers” which can refer to the Hebrews, his biological brothers, or the Egyptians, his socio-cultural brothers. The next verse discloses the moral breach that Moses must negotiate in its reiteration of the term “man,” this time without any ethnic association—“He turned this way and that, and seeing no man about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

The biblical description here delicately points to the precise nature of the dilemma Moses confronted. The community into which Moses ventures is populated by human beings defined in terms of their ethnic or national identities rather than their shared humanity. Moses sees no one who is simply a “man” who could resolve the crisis, and thus expresses his own humanity in a supreme act of resistance to suffering and injustice. Moses sacrifices his promising future among the very upper echelons of the ruling class and risks death, not for the sake of God or religion, but for the sake of another human being.

Any sense that Moses’ act can be attributed to tribal allegiance rather than moral outrage is quickly dispelled by his very next intervention: “When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting, so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’” (Ex. 2:13) Finally, in a third act against injustice that often goes unnoticed, though it is described only a few verses later, Moses challenges male tyranny over women: “And the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock,” (Ex. 2:17). These three decisive, revolutionary acts introduce us to an iconoclastic Moses who is willing to  sacrifice himself for other human beings. It is precisely this willingness, not his dedication to God, that inspires God’s choice of him to be the national liberator and recipient of revelation. God’s choice of Moses is a consequence, not a cause, of these courageous acts.

From that point forward, however, in the biblical narrative, Moses’ increasing closeness to God often seems to threaten to displace his initial human (one might even say humanist) ideals. This reaches its nadir in the misguided “comfort” he offers to Aaron. At this stage of Moses’ religious development, his sensitivity to others, even a person as close as a brother, is completely overwhelmed by religious zeal. Inspired by Ramban’s critique of Rashi, I interpret Aaron’s silence as repudiation, not acquiescence. The exchange described in Leviticus 10:3 is really a struggle for the theological direction of Judaism. Will it be animated by a spirit of compassion for others so that life can endure or by a martyrdom that upholds the honor of God?


In the aftermath of their exchange, Moses instructs Aaron and his remaining two sons, Eleazar and Itamar, in the legal minutiae of sacrificial rites. No other ritual signifies pure devotion to God more than animal sacrifice. It appears that Moses’ passion for God has become so intense that it has overwhelmed his compassion for others. In the very shadow of Aaron’s inconsolable loss, he rages at their failure to comply with those regulations. The repeated biblical description of Eleazar and Itamar as “Aaron’s remaining sons” here (Lev. 10:12, 16) seems to convey Moses’ intimation that these two might very well share the same fate as their brothers.

Moses has become so preoccupied with ritual that he has lost touch with human relationships. Aaron, pushed beyond the limits, finally breaks his silence with a rhetorical question that shocks Moses out of his religious stupor:

And Aaron spoke to Moses “See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would it have been good in God’s eyes?” And when Moses heard this, it was good in his eyes, (Lev. 10:19-20).

As Rashbam points out here, Aaron is apprising Moses of the impropriety of setting the precedent for all future offerings with a celebration that has been hideously marred by tragedy. The future of Jewish worship and theology must be shaped by human needs and human responses, by care and compassion for others, not otherworldly devotion.

Moses initially spoke in the name of God, certain that his theology of martyrdom was divinely endorsed, so Aaron now pointedly asks whether his stubborn insistence on the implications of that theology would be “good in God’s eyes.” Aaron’s critique finally silences Moses, jolting him out of his zealousness for the divine and returning him to his original care for others: “Moses heard and it was good in his eyes,” (Leviticus 10:20). The change in whose perspective “goodness” is determined captures this return to Moses’ humanist beginnings. The caustic rebuke to consider what is good “in God’s eyes” causes Moses to turn to what is good “in his eyes,” that is what is humanly good. Ironically, Rashi’s comment to this verse actually captures Moses’ reversal: “He confessed and was not embarrassed to say he did not hear.” The arrogance of his initial claim of hearing God speak is transformed into the humility of a public admission of not hearing. Aaron’s human “speaking” overcomes the divine word that had so occluded Moses’ previous sensitivity to human need.

Although in my reading this biblical debate is resolved in favor of Aaron and against religious martyrdom, the matter was by no means settled for all time. The two theological stances remain in tension. The ancient philosopher Philo viewed Aaron’s sons’ deaths as “perfect burnt offerings,” while the medieval Zohar, the canonical text of Kabbalah, cites them as endorsing the notion that the deaths of the righteous constitute a form of atonement.

Unfortunately, the tragic course of Jewish history transformed the conception of martyrdom and elevated it to a positive religious value. Such was the case at the siege of Masada in ancient times and later, in the First Crusades, when fathers killed their children rather than leaving them vulnerable to marauding crusaders and eventual baptism before killing themselves to “sanctify the Name.” (Rashi, who lived through these events, may have had them in mind in his interpretation of Moses and Aaron’s exchange.)

However, this valorization of martyrdom was always inconsistent with mainstream Jewish theology, as is evident from the tortuous halakhic rationalizations that followed, as historian Haym Soloveitchik has shown. R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the dean of the famous yeshiva in Volozhin and one of the most prominent rabbinic personalities of the 19th century, once declared his preference for “worshipping God by fulfilling the commandments while I am still alive,” over dying for God. The name of God is sanctified when life is preserved, not when it is proclaimed great an instant before life is obliterated.


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