One of the most popular stories of Hanukkah is that of Hannah and her Seven Sons, which is told in the Second Book of Maccabees. As we know, the Jews of the second century B.C.E. were forbidden to observe core commandments, and were expected to make public displays of idol-worship. Hannah, the pious single mother of seven sons, refuses to worship fake deities, as do her children, and they lovingly accept execution as martyrs.
I remember learning this story as a child, with an emphasis on the deep devotion displayed by Hannah, a model of self-secrifice for the greater theological good. In a way, she fits nicely into a tradition of pious parents, including Avraham, who was willing to sacrifice his long-awaited son, and the Jews of the Rhineland during the First Crusades, who preferred killing their families rather than hand them over to the marauding Crusader hordes.
And now, we live in a time when those who choose to die as religious martyrs have become a source of terror, even when they are incompetent martyrs, like the knucklehead who couldn’t even blow himself up properly at Port Authority this week. This creates a strange dynamic around the concept of martyrdom. How can we tell stories that glorify Hannah while being so repulsed by the idea of the shahid? Is it merely a case of us versus them, in that our martyrs are heroic while theirs are cowardly?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll see what Jewish law has to say about martyrdom, which we call Kiddush HaShem (the sanctification of God’s name), and think about the lessons we can draw from the story of Hannah.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameah,