Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nietzsche on Martyrs

I love Confrontation but have always found it suprising that Rabbi Soloveitchik states, "We certainly have not been authorized by our history, sanctified by the martyrdom of millions, to even hint to another faith community that we are mentally ready to revise historical attitudes, to trade favors, pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, and to reconcile "some" differences."

Why use martyrdom as an argument? It is an essentially flawed argument. One can argue about the emotional impact this has on us, but to use it practically is difficult.

As Nietzsche explains (I have chosen to bold the most important phrases):
    The deaths of martyrs, incidentally, have been a great misfortune in history: they seduced. The inference of all idiots, women and the people included, that there must be something to a cause for which someone goes to his death (or even, like early Christianity, generates death-seeking epidemics)- this inference has immeasurably thwarted examination, the spirit of examination, and caution. The martyrs have harmed truth.

    Even today it takes only the crudity of a persecution to give an otherwise completely indifferent sectarianism an honorable name. How? Does it change the value of a thing if someone gives his life for it? An error that becomes honorable is an error which is that much more seductive. Do you believe, my dear theologians, that we would give you an occasion to become martyrs for a lie? One refutes a matter by laying it respectfully on ice- this is how one also refutes theologians. This precisely was the world-historical stupidity of all persecutors, that they gave the opposing cause the appearance of being honorable- that they gave it the fascination of martyrdom as a gift. Even today woman lies on her knees before an error because she has been told that somebody died on the cross for it. Is the cross an argument?

    ~ from The Antichrist
So long as this is the fourth rather than sole reason in Confrontation, it can pass, but to argue that one must remain an Orthodox Jew because there are those who died for this religion seems foolish. To do that is to open the door to anyone to believe anything, so long as someone died for it.

14 comments:

Tobie said...

One major halachic affect of the widespread martyrdom during the Crusades was its impact on a lot of the halachic writing about Christianity afterwards. Although people in Europe really wanted Christianity not to be idolatry so that they wouldn't have to worry about their wine businesses suddenly becoming all assur, they were reluctant to call it that because that would have transformed the martyrs of the previous generations into suicides and/or murderers. The stance may not be fully logical, but when people are coming to you asking whether they can say kaddish for slain relatives or whether they must be considered suicides, your opinion is going to be affected.
Rav Soloveitchik is not talking about a proof of the correctness of Judaism or a reason to continue to be Jewish, he's talking about the halachic and communal stance that we take on Christianity and, insofar as halacha is not fully objective and is affected by our preferences and tendencies, I think that the martyrdom of millions serves as a legitimate halachic interest in maintaining certain attitudes.

Mordy said...

See, Chana, this is one of the reasons that the Rav does nothing for me. This statement is fairly essentialist and yet, it precludes so many ideas we hold dear. He isn't saying we need to be Orthodox Jews because of martyrs. He's saying that we cannot "even hint to another faith community that we are mentally ready to revise historical attitudes, to trade favors, pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, and to reconcile "some" differences."

Historical attitudes? So we can't hint to another faiths that we're willing to change our historical (not even necessarily religious) attitudes? Or trade favors? We can't reconcile differences? I understand the "fundamental matters of faith" part. But the others are mind-boggling and only lead to one question: Why not?

Anonymous said...

Gosh, Chana and Mordy, you both must be so much smarter than the Rav. I should trade in his books for your blogs.

I.M. Simpleton said...

I agree! The Rav probably never saw that quote from Nietzsche. Maybe he never even knew who Nietzsche was.

Chana said...

That's why this was a question. Obviously the Rav knows who Nietzsche is and was. That's why I don't understand why he would argue in this fashion, since he himself would have known it's flawed.

If you understand it and could explain it to me, I'd appreciate it.

If you've read anything I've written in the past, you know how much respect I have for the Rav. It is precisely that respect that leads me to question the seeming (seeming being the operative word) oddity of this argument.

e-kvetcher said...

"argue that one must remain an Orthodox Jew because there are those who died for this religion seems foolish. To do that is to open the door to anyone to believe anything, so long as someone died for it."

I read it as a more subtle point, (which is why it is #4) which is to say that if thousands of people have sacrificed their lives for something over millenia, that something is worth examining as non-trivial. Meaning, I wouldn't necessarily accord it uncritical acceptance, but certainly would elevate it out of the myriad of things not worth examining...

Chana said...

E-kvetcher,

So you're placing the emphasis on quantity. It's not the martyrdom that is important; it's the martyrdom of millions, that is, x amount of people. When x amount of people give up their lives to one cause, this means we have to pay attention to the cause.

Interesting approach, but still shaky as far as I am concerned. After all, why not focus on the quality of the people concerned? One of the most moving kinnos focuses on the deaths of the 10 great sages of the generation, obviously stressing their martyrdom in particular.

One could easily make the argument that the quality of the person is what matters; Jesus is a "quality" person- his death ought to equate to x amount of people's deaths. (I mean, the concept even occurs in our Torah, where Eliezer=318 men.)

But even leaving that aside, this still puts us in a problematic position. What if there were a religion other than Judaism where more people died? What if one day however many million and one Muslims/ Christians/ insert other religion were martyred? That throws our quantity ratio out of whack, and according to that logic, we would then have to believe (or at least critically examine) the idea that that religion is the true one because more people died for it!

I understand it's only hypothetical, but the possibility for the argument to be so easily undermined bothers me.

e-kvetcher said...

That throws our quantity ratio out of whack, and according to that logic, we would then have to believe (or at least critically examine) the idea that that religion is the true one because more people died for it!

If you want to be intellectually honest, you should critically examine it. Critical examination doesn't equal admission of truth.

I understand it's only hypothetical, but the possibility for the argument to be so easily undermined bothers me.

Arguments can be effective without being rational. Nietzche is a philosopher, so he see it from a particular point of view, he wants to "lay the matter on ice". But appeal to emotion,heritage, etc... is a very powerful tool. So you can say it is a weak argument from the point of view of logic, but you cannot say that it is an ineffective argument.

Chana said...

E-Kvetcher,

And I agree with that. As I said, "Why use martyrdom as an argument? It is an essentially flawed argument. One can argue about the emotional impact this has on us, but to use it practically is difficult."

The Rav had a halakhic, logical mind; I don't understand why he would have chosen to appeal to the emotions in order to explain why we cannot engage in "trades" with other faiths. This argument is very shaky and flawed and unlike his usual approach.

As a sidepoint, it's quite amusing that we've switched positions. I'm questioning the Rav and you're defending him.

ClooJew said...

"Obviously the Rav knows who Nietzsche is and was. That's why I don't understand why he would argue in this fashion, since he himself would have known it's flawed."--Chana

I find it, lulei demistafina, strange that you question the Rav, but not Nietzsche. Just because Nietzshe declares it flawed doesn't make it so.

Nietzsche says: "The inference of all idiots, women and the people included, that there must be something to a cause for which someone goes to his death (or even, like early Christianity, generates death-seeking epidemics)- this inference has immeasurably thwarted examination." I disagree. In fact, I would argue that the presence of martyrs increases examination. The rational person would ask, "Gee, why'd he go ahead and get himself killed over that?"

Obviously, that won't always lead to respect. It may even lead to disgust: witness Islamic suicide bombers. But it will lead to examination.

In any event, I believe that the Rav's comment, "...sanctified by the martyrdom of millions...," is essentially parenthetical and meant to give weight to the seriousness of the issue, and not necessarily function as a blanket proof.

In a nutshell, he is saying, some of your grandparents were killed for being Jewish, so pay attention.

Tobie said...

Um...the Rav isn't saying anything about the correctness of Judaism or why we should practice it. He's talking about the motives in halachic decisions about the relationship with Christianity. It has nothing to do with martyrdom determining truth, it has to do with determining policy. And emotion and history are plenty important to policy/value-related decisions.

Not that this position is necessarily wonderful- the corollary would be that if Islam wished to re-evaluate its position on other religions, it would have to take into consideration the fact that thousands have already died for the current position. They would have to either renounce those thousands or keep the current policies. Just as to re-evaluate our halachic stance on Christianity, we would have to say that the millions were incorrect, died in vain, and perhaps should be reviled as suicides, or at the very least, idiots.

haKiruv said...

Rabbi Soloveitchik said "sanctified", not "justified".

Diet Dr. Pepper said...

Chana,
My initial reaction to your post was that your analysis is sound, but that perhaps the Rav's comment could be understood differently--not that the existence of martyrs is a fundamental reason to act in a particular manner, but rather that it is an additional, secondary factor, warning us to be extra cautious. Basically, I agree with cloojew's comment.

Also, about your question, "Why use martyrdom as an argument? It is an essentially flawed argument. One can argue about the emotional impact this has on us, but to use it practically is difficult."--the Rav's brother, Rav Ahron Soloveichik wrote a book entitled, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, which discusses the necessary fusion of both--the emotional and the rational--in Judaism. Perhaps the Rav is hinting to a similar idea here.

Thanks for raising a very thought-provoking issue.

David Fryman said...

Chana, the excerpt you quote from Confrontation isn't an argument. The Rav doesn't mean that it's because of the martyrdom of millions, that we can't "revise historical attitudes, . . . trade favors . . . and . . . reconcile 'some' differences." I think the reference to martyrdom is to emphasize just how seriously we take the sanctity of our history.

Re: Nietzsche's question, "Does it change the value of a thing if someone gives his life for it?" Of course not. But the martyrdom at issue here isn't merely giving up one's life. It's performing the great mitzvah of kiddush Hashem.