Josef Stern - December 2016 Meeting Topic

Maimonides and his Predecessors on the ‘Sanctification of the Name of God,’ aka Martyrdom

This paper is part of a longer manuscript on the philosophical interpretation of the Aqedah, the story of the “Binding of Isaac” in Genesis 22, given by Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), the greatest medieval rabbinic scholar and the author of arguably the most influential philosophical text in the history of Jewish thought to this day, the Guide of the Perplexed.  Maimonides reads that biblical text as a parable, i.e., as a text with multiple levels of meaning. On what Maimonides calls its vulgar external meaning, it is a historical (or mythic) narrative about a particular man commanded by a fickle god to sacrifice his son, who silently obeyed, journeyed to a far-off place, and, once he got there, was ordered by the same fickle deity not to carry out His command.  According to Maimonides, whether or not any such event occurred, the significance of Gen. 22, the reason why this story is included in the Torah, cannot lie in this vulgar interpretation, either as a chapter in the history of ancient Israel or as ancient mythology.  Instead of its vulgar interpretation, the value of Gen. 22 lies in reading it as a text of wisdom or wisdoms according to its parabolic external and internal meanings. These kinds of wisdom are both what the text means but they differ in their contents.  Parabolic external meaning expresses “wisdom that is useful in many respects, among which is the welfare of human societies,” i.e., wisdom concerned with communal, social welfare—material, economic, political, and intellectual. That is, the external meaning of a parable not only aims at the material and political well-being of the community but also at inculcating in its citizens correct beliefs and values. Parabolic internal meaning expresses “wisdom that is useful for beliefs concerned with the truth as it is” (ibid. 12). This somewhat obscure formulation calls out for explanation, but what Maimonides has in mind is wisdom concerned with individual perfection which is a function of the perfection, to the degree possible, of one’s intellect through knowledge of the truths of physics and metaphysics.

Without going into details concerning either the scriptural exegesis or the philosophical critique, I argue in the larger ms. that the parabolic external meaning of the Aqedah is a critique of one conception of the religious life according to which dying for God, and martyrdom in particular, is the highest expression of one’s love of, and devotion to, God. In the course of working out this argument, I turned to Maimonides’ explicit discussions of the laws of martyrdom in his halakhic, or legal, works, the Book of Commandments (BC), an enumeration of the 613 Mosaic commandments, and the Mishneh Torah (MT), his seminal code of rabbinic law, the only absolutely comprehensive code to be written to this day, ranging from laws concerning obligatory beliefs (about God and the natural world) through torts, family, and ritual law, to laws governing a Jewish political state in the messianic era. In both BC and MT Maimonides has rather extensive, detailed discussion of the laws governing martyrdom (which immediately follows in MT his laws concerning beliefs about God and the natural world), which makes it all the more remarkable that he never explicitly mentions the topic in the Guide.

The paper I am submitting to the workshop for discussion is the result of what I came up when I examined the question of the conditions under which one should die for God, or martyr oneself, in these two major legal works of Maimonides. The paper is a close analysis (maybe too close and detailed for many) of Maimonides’ argument in BC and MT concerning when martyrdom is obligatory and when it is not permissible, indeed condemned.  The critique of martyrdom he gives in these works is, I think, different from the argument he gives in the Guide in the course of his interpretation of the Aqedah, although both arguments are related to the question whether there are limits to the love of God, hence, whether there can be excessive love of God.  However, the argument in the legal works is also tightly connected to a question about the contours of a holy life.  To set my detailed analysis in perspective, let me conclude with what I think is this larger question with which Maimonides is concerned in these legal works.

The Hebrew phrase which the rabbis use to refer to dying for God and, more specifically, to the circumstance in which a victim (anus, coereced individual) is given the dilemmic ultimatum either Transgress a commandment or Be executed (and he opts for the latter), is qiddush hashem, literally: “Sanctification of the Name of God,” which is to be understood as sanctification of God; i.e., “the Name of God” refers to God.  (This phrase is not scriptural, although the rabbis link it to Lev. 22, 32, and some scholars argue that the rabbinic discourse is deeply influenced by early Christianity.) It is, I think, extremely telling that the rabbis use this phrase, which is derived from the Hebrew word ‘qadosh’ or ‘qedushah,’ usually translated as ‘holy’ or ‘holiness,’ and not a term with the meaning of the term ‘martyr’ (not to say, ‘martyrology,’ discourse about martyrs), the term used by Christianity, or ‘shahada’ (or ‘shahid’), the term used in Islam (and closely connected to jihad)— both of whose meanings derive from witnessing.  For Maimonides, I think, the deeper question about dying for God, and the necessity to surrender one’s life in certain circumstances, is precisely connected to the relation between qiddush hashem (as a euphemism for dying for God and martyrdom) and qedushah, holiness or a holy life.  The question is: What does a holy life demand of humans (and, in particular, Jews)?  The predicate ‘qadosh’ is the only predicate (or attribute-term) in Scripture that primarily applies to God and only derivatively to humans (unlike, say, ‘knowing,’ ‘just,’ ‘merciful’).  Thus the paradigm of the qadosh, or holy, is God Himself, and a life that is qadosh, or holy, would presumably be some sort of imitatio dei, imitation of God’s ‘life.’  The question, then, is whether such a holy or god-like life is only a perfect kind of life in which the person fulfills every divine commandment, exactly and perfectly, in all circumstances, in which case a life in which one cannot fulfill the Law perfectly would not be a holy life, and thus (at least for some individuals and even when they are coerced to transgress a commandment) not a life worth living; hence, better then that one allow a coercer to take one’s life, better that one surrender one’s life.   Or does a holy life allow for imperfection, a life in which sometimes one must perform transgressions (say, under compulsion)—in which case one should transgress and not martyr oneself? The question is not whether transgression under coerced circumstances is permissible, but whether such a life is nonetheless a holy life, a life (in some sense) in imitation of God.   It is against this background that Maimonides pursues his exploration of the laws of dying for God.