Many Americans may assume that Muslim extremists get the inspiration to
engage in suicide bombing from the words of the Koran, the holy book of Islam.
The genesis of their motivation to martyr themselves, however, reaches back
much further in history—to Judaism around 170 B.C.
So argued Naomi Janowitz, Ph.D., at the January meeting of the American
Psychoanalytic Association in New York City.
In fact, all forms of Muslim and Christian martyrdom hark back to Judaism
of this period, she contended.
Janowitz is chair of religious studies at the University of California at
Davis and a candidate at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. She is
also the winner of the American Psychoanalytic Association's 2004 competition
for the best essay on psychoanalysis and culture. Her essay is titled"
Lusting for Death: Some Unconscious Meanings of Martyrdom
More than 2,000 years ago in the Judaic world, Janowitz reported, animal
sacrifice was a way of atoning for one's sins, of becoming reconciled with
God. Then someone or some group came up with the idea of replacing animal
sacrifice with human sacrifice. The notion was that "you had to go one
up from an animal"—that animal sacrifice was not enough to make
amends for the sins that Jewish people committed.
Exactly when human sacrifice started to replace animal sacrifice is not
known, she continued. However, the first chronicle of Jewish martyrdom can be
found in the Book of Second Maccabees in the Bible, in which a mother and her
seven sons die rather than agreeing to the demand of a king that they eat
pork. These instances of martyrdom probably occurred between 175 B.C. and 165
B.C., although the text was probably written 50 to 100 years later.
Moreover, such cases of martyrdom would not have occurred if those
committing them had not believed in an afterlife, Janowitz asserted. The
mother in the Maccabees story, upon urging her sons to accept martyrdom, cries
that "the Creator of the world.. .will in his mercy give life and breath
back to you again since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his
In addition, martyrdom was based not only on the expectation of an
afterlife, but on the anticipation of being united with one's mother, Janowitz
said. The mother in the Maccabees story, upon urging the last of her seven
sons to accept martyrdom, exclaimed, "Accept death, so that in God's
mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers."
And in a deeper sense, martyrdom represents hope of being united not only
with one's mother, but with a divine father, Janowitz declared. In the
Maccabees story, no mention is made of a father, suggesting that the
biological father was replaced by a divine one.
Finally, animal sacrifice had been an exclusively male preserve, a
patriarchal system, where women were not allowed to participate, Janowitz
pointed out. But when some Jews moved from animal sacrifice to human
sacrifice, women got involved as well. Also, a number of Christian martyrs
throughout the ages have been women, as are some of today's Islamic extremist
All in all, Janowitz concluded, martyrdom is crucial to the Jewish,
Christian, and Islamic traditions, and the phenomenon, which emerged more than
2,000 years ago, still "haunts headlines today." ▪