Image credit: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

About a year ago, a Religious Studies GCSE student of mine and I were discussing martyrdom. She asked if there were Jewish martyrs. I replied that no, not really, but if she wanted an alternative viewpoint, she should ask the organiser of her synagogue refreshment rota and see what their response was.

We laughed at the time, but that now seems rather hollow, in the wake of the attack last week during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The deaths of eleven members of that community in such a violent and senseless manner has shocked and saddened people all over the world, both Jews and non-Jews.

One story described how the Orthodox chevra kadisha, or burial society, had held a vigil outside the crime scene where the victims’ bodies remained while police investigated. Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who runs the burial society, was quoted as saying “These are people who were killed because they were Jewish, they are bodies of holy martyrs.”  

Along with many others, I have been shocked to silence by the tragedy. I hesitate, however, before the word martyrs. With its origin in Greek, the word originally meant witness, but has come to mean (according to the Cambridge English Dictionary) “a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs, and is often admired because of it”. The American Merriam-Webster offers “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion”. The Oxford definition is “a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs”.

While I accept that language is fluid and evolving, the weight of the dictionary definitions seems to be that a martyr has agency in their death: something which is hard to say of those killed last week. They did not choose to be attacked, nor did they sacrifice themselves voluntarily: they were murdered when they should have been safe, in a place which should have offered sanctuary.

The issue of how to talk about the victims of suffering and persecution is a central aspect of my work as a Holocaust educator. Martyr has become a common way of describing Jewish victims, at least partly because of the Holocaust.

Many memorials describe those killed by the Nazis and their collaborators as martyrs. I recently attended a funeral at the main Orthodox Jewish cemetery near London and the memorial to the Holocaust there characterises the dead in this way. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem was founded as the Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority: it still frames Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day for remembering the Holocaust, in this way, as ‘Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day’.

But Kiddush Hashem, to die for the sanctification of G-d’s name, is not quite martyrdom. Jewish law is clear that Jews are not permitted to commit murder, incest, or blasphemy under any circumstances – if the choice is between doing these things and death, then death has to be accepted. Otherwise, models of resistance emphasise that pikuach nefesh, preserving the soul, is preferable: the same principle that means the ill and infirm can break even the most solemn fasts if they need to; and kiddush ha’chayim, sanctification of life, enjoins Jews to aspire to meaningful survival: by learning, educating and recording.

Working as an educator, I have found devising and running sessions exploring some of the different ways in which Jews attempted not just to survive, but survive as Jews, inspiring and moving. The neat dichotomy of martyrs and heroes into which many books and resources still, almost unconsciously, divide the victims, neglects the diversity and variety of the – often very ordinary – heroism involved. Those caught up in the Holocaust found food, raised and educated children, and loved, and learned – in the face of implacable, reckless hate. The Nazis didn’t care if people were good Jews, bad Jews, old Jews, young Jews or any other descriptor: their aim was simply, as the attacker is said to have shouted before opening fire last week, that “All Jews must die”.

The victims of the Holocaust also, however, probably also made mistakes, forgot their obligations, and failed to live up to their best imagining of themselves. This, after all, is much of what being an everyday, ordinary human is.

And it is in that everyday ordinariness that the horror of last week resides. As I understand it, a baby-naming ceremony had just been held. Early in morning services, before (as the rabbi later wryly commented) most of those with busy lives and large families had managed to arrive. Instead, the victims were older, lonelier, more vulnerable, perhaps depending on the synagogue for much of the structure of their daily lives. This was not a heroic choice to assert identity, but a mundane choice to make their way to shul through the drizzle, shrug off their coats, and engage in celebrating the most everyday of miracles, a new life. This was not martyrdom or sacrifice, but simple, brutal murder. It even lacked the poetry to be described as tragedy. It was simply carnage.

We live in an age where we are exposed to information in previously unimaginable quantities: from books and magazines, from news, from advertising. Above all from the ability of friends and acquaintances to constantly present us with new facts, new ideas, and the nagging sense that someone, somewhere, is “doing life” better than we are. The average person today has to make constant decisions about what we know – and how that fits or not with what we thought we knew yesterday – in a way that would utterly confound our ancestors. In that context, it is understandable to use formulaic words and phrases which streamline our process of meaning-making.

But as the rabbi I listened to yesterday morning reminded me and anyone else who listened, words are fundamental: words have power. Creation in Jewish understanding was a speech act. As we remember the dead of Pittsburgh, we have an immense responsibility to do what those in power seem unwilling or unable to do – remember that our words bring the world into being. We are all witnesses to the consequences of doing so – or of not doing so. So, belatedly, Shabbat shalom.