by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Suicide bombers baffle.
They continue to take a terrible toll on Iraqi civilians and American servicemen alike. Israel, which has suffered repeatedly
for years from such attacks, only recently intercepted several would-be suicide bombers before they were able to carry ou
t their plans. And quite an assortment of other lands, including of course our own, have experienced the murder and maiming
of civilians at the hands of people who chose to perish along with their victims.
For most civilized people, the idea of killing oneself just to kill others in the process is perplexing. To be sure, some
Islamist terrorists may be motivated by titillating tales of a pornographic paradise. But there are considerably less
deluded terrorists too, including many eyeing only the
carrot of a posthumous political goal's advancement -- and they seem equally happy to dispatch themselves
to what they believe to be oblivion.
A jarring thought, but one worth considering, is that such murderers are motivated by idealism. If the notion seems
outrageous, it is only because we tend to believe, mistakenly, that all ideals are inherently good.
The Talmud tells of a renegade Cohein Gadol, or High Priest, in the Second Temple era,
who confided to his father how he had managed to surreptitiously perform
the most important priestly service of the Jewish year, the
Yom Kippur offering of incense in the Holy of Holies, in the particular manner
of the Sadducee sect, against the prescription of Jewish religious law.
The Sadducees sought to change Jewish tradition and, of course, eventually failed;
but the renegade had done what he could to advance the Sadducee cause.
The father asked the son if he was not afraid of being discovered by the other, tradition-faithful, priests.
"All my life," the younger man responded, "I have been pained by the verse..." and he went on to
quote the Biblical words with which the Sadducees sought to justify their practice. "And I wondered," the
rebel continued, "when the opportunity [to fulfill it] might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not fulfill
It would be hard to describe the depth of the sin that the Talmud perceives in the undermining
of the Yom Kippur service's most momentous moment. Which makes it astounding to hear, in another Talmudic
account, an eerie echo of the Sadducee's words. The account describes the Romans' execution of the renowned
Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva, for his violation of an imperial edict against teaching Torah. As the great
rabbi recited the Shema, the Jewish credo declaring G-d's sovereignty and unity, his students were incredulous at
his presence of mind; he was being flayed alive by iron combs.
"All my life," the Jewish sage replied to his students, "I was pained by the verse '[and you shall love
the L-rd your G-d] with all your soul'" [which implies that one must be ready to give up his very life if necessary
for the glory of heaven]. "And I wondered when the opportunity might come before me. Now that it has, shall I not
The implication of the identical wording is inescapable. The editors of the Talmud were
subtly but powerfully imparting a life lesson: The Sadducee's conviction was no less sincere than Rabbi
Akiva's, only misguided. The Sadducee was an idealist, too, but his ideals were wrong. And that makes all the
Likewise the "martyrs" of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and of the insurgency in Iraq. They die convinced that they
are heroes in the service of the sublime. And their sincerity does not mitigate their evil a whit.
In these relentlessly relativistic times, it is commonplace to hear how "all points of view" are equally valid;
but they are not. Just because a particular culture or country or combatant is sincerely motivated doesn't make it
or him laudable, or even tolerable.
There are ideologies - and their attendant idealists - that are good, and others that are evil.
It will be a wonderful day - may it come soon - when the Iraqi insurgency finally expires, and an even more
wonderful day when terrorism altogether is decisively rejected by all human beings. But should those days be delayed,
we would do well to ponder the subtext of every suicide bombing: It's not enough to be an idealist.
If we are not right, if we are not good, it means nothing at all.
© AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]