All religions have produced martyrs, but none have produced as many as Torah Judaism
Courage is the king of the virtues, it is said, for without it, none of the other virtues would be possible. And it is always in too short supply.
I have been thinking about courage recently due to a series of interviews by National Review’s Jay Nordlinger with figures around the world who possess it in abundance. One of those is Iranian-born Masih Alinejad, who was expelled from Iran in 2009, after having been previously imprisoned for anti-regime pamphlets.
But with seven million social media followers, she has proven more of a thorn in the side of the regime abroad than in Iran. She has a Facebook page where she posts videos sent to her by Iranian women of themselves without hijabs, the symbol of the regime’s social control. In 2019, the mullahs imposed a ten-year prison sentence on anyone sending a video to Alinejad.
Though Alinejad is now an American citizen, the FBI uncovered an Iranian plot to kidnap her and return her to Iran via Venezuela. At least one other exiled Iranian journalist has been thus kidnapped, and once back in Iran, executed.
But the story that I found most affecting was that of a 20-year-old girl named Saba, who was arrested because her mother had contact with Alinejad. In prison, Saba was told that if she denounced Alinejad, she would be released, and she said she would. But when the cameras were brought to record her denunciation, she instead exclaimed, “Death to the dictatorship” — for which she was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Another of Nordlinger’s heroes is Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading opposition politician and journalist in Russia. He has twice come close to being murdered in poisoning attacks. And for years, his wife and children have lived outside Russia for their safety, while he travels back and forth. But mostly he is in Russia, telling Nordlinger that his fleeing abroad would be a huge victory for the Kremlin
The late senator and prisoner of war John McCain chose Kara-Murza to be one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Yet the latter is under no illusions that his high profile or the friendship of leading American politicians constitutes any form of protection. The decisive event of his life was the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, within sight of the Kremlin, on February 27, 2015. And he witnessed how current opposition leader Alexei Navalny, another hero of the first rank, was first poisoned with nerve gas by Putin’s agents in Germany, and arrested and tried as soon as he returned to Russia.
Yet despite a law enacted by the Kremlin making any criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine punishable by up to 15 years in prison, Kara-Murza appeared on CNN on April 11, and proclaimed, “This regime that is in power in our country today — it’s not just corrupt, it’s not just kleptocratic, it’s not just authoritarian. It is a regime of murder. And it is important to say so aloud.”
He is now in prison.
Where does courage on this level come from? What could possibly bring a 20-year-old Iranian girl to toss away her entire youth, 24 years of her life, rather than make a statement that would have done nothing to harm the person at whom it was directed, or to benefit the regime, as all would have understood it was coerced?
Why did Kara-Murza insist on giving a speech on the virtually unwatched CNN, knowing that it would result in all likelihood in his not being able to see his wife and children again for many years? He at least offered a precedent for his act of courage, if not an explanation for the source of that courage: the poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya, who protested the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square with six others, so that the Soviet leaders could not claim that the whole nation supported the invasion.
IT OCCURS TO ME that Jewish history might offer some answers to those questions. All religions have produced martyrs, but none have produced as many over more than two millennia as Torah Judaism. Yes, Hashem’s protection of a solitary sheep among fifty wolves is a miracle. But so is the perseverance of the Jewish People over thousands of years of unremitting efforts to wipe us out.
The key is to have so fully integrated a set of beliefs into one’s being that to renounce them, or to fail to proclaim them, would to be tantamount to declaring one’s entire life to have been a lie, a worthless collection of empty vanities. That is why many Torah greats contemplated martyrdom during the recitation of Shema, the ultimate affirmation of Jewish belief: If one is not prepared to die for this belief, the affirmation is lacking.
Like many, I find it easier to relate to Tishah B’Av through the Holocaust, an event copiously documented and within living memory. Among this year’s reading was Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein’s Forgotten Memoirs: Moving Personal Accounts from Rabbis Who Survived the Holocaust, in particular the chapter devoted to the memoirs of Rav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, the rav of Veitzen in Hungary and later in Chicago.
He relates two stories concerning the permissibility of ransoming a Jew destined for extermination, when it is certain that another Jew will be taken in his place. (If the numbers of those selected for extermination did not tally, the kapos in charge of the group would themselves be killed.) The first involved a father who asked Rav Meisels whether it would be permitted for him to ransom his only son. Rav Meisels refused to answer him, pleading that he had no seforim available to consult.
The father told him, “If it were permissible beyond a doubt, you would surely tell me so. So I understand this to mean that the halachic judgment is that it is forbidden according to Jewish law. That is enough for me, and my only son will be burned in accordance with the Torah and the halachah. I accept this verdict with love and joy. I will not do anything to ransom him because that is what the Torah wants.”
That exchange took place on Rosh Hashanah, and the entire day, the father went around talking to himself about having merited to sacrifice his son, just as Avraham Avinu traveled three days, with complete calm, to similarly sacrifice his son Yitzchak Avinu.
No less moving was the story of Akiva Mann, a 15-year-old in the Veitzener yeshivah. The Nazis yemach shemam had conducted a selektzia using a bar set at a certain height to determine who would be sent to a work detail and who to death. Akiva, who was tall for his age, was selected for work, while Moshe Rosenberg, nearly 20, but short of stature, passed under the bar and was selected for death.
Akiva approached the Veitzener Rav, and proposed to ransom Moshe, a tutor of younger boys in the yeshivah and a budding Torah scholar, and substitute himself in Moshe’s place. The Rav told him that the halachah in such situations is “your life takes precedence.”
But Akiva was not quieted. The thought that “Moishele should die while I, far inferior to him, should remain alive,” tormented him. He asked only to be assured that he would not be considered to have committed suicide if he substituted himself for Moshe. Even that, the Rav could not assure him.
Yet Akiva, who had watched his whole family killed, continued to plead, for the “privilege of performing the exalted act of giving up my life... to save dear Moishele, who life is worth far more. Why shouldn’t I gladly rush to do such a thing?” The Rav attests that the crying of this boy “who loves Torah more than life itself” would have soon paralyzed his heart. But he did not consent.
The knowledge that one has passed the test, that one is so fully identified with one’s guiding principles that life without them is inconceivable, is a source of joy. That is the rejoicing of Rabi Akiva, as the Romans were flaying his flesh, that at last he could fulfill the mitzvah “to love the L-rd, Your G-d... b’chol nafshecha — with your life itself.” And that explains how in the gas chambers, moments before death, chassidic bochurim could dance on Simchas Torah, proclaiming their love of Hashem and His Torah.
Happy are we to be part of a people that has produced such heroes of the spirit in every generation.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 925. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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