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Chevruta: Understanding Aaron Bushnell’s Sacrifice
Duration
0:00 / 38:51
Published
April 26, 2024

Chevruta is a column named for the traditional method of Jewish study, in which a pair of students analyzes a religious text together. In each installment, Jewish Currents will match leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar. The activists will bring an urgent question that arises in their own work; the Torah scholar will lead them in exploring their question through Jewish text. By routing contemporary political questions through traditional religious sources, we aim to address the most urgent ethical and spiritual problems confronting the left. Each column will include a column, podcast, and study guide.

On February 25th, Aaron Bushnell, an active-duty member of the US Air Force, self-immolated outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” Bushnell said in a livestreamed video, broadcasting what he declared an “an extreme act of protest”—though, he added, “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all.” Bushnell, who was dressed in his army uniform, then doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire, shouting “Free Palestine” until he collapsed. He died later that day. While some were quick to dismiss Bushnell’s action as a manifestation of mental illness, many on the left expressed admiration for his sacrifice—which, as intended, drew global attention to US complicity in Israel’s brutal, ongoing assault on Gaza.

In this chevruta, Rabbi Lexi Botzum and Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel engage with Jewish texts that examine the concepts of martyrdom, sacrifice, and public spectacle, considering how our tradition might help us to engage with Aaron Bushnell’s act, and the question of how much we must sacrifice for justice.

You can find the column based on this conversation and a study guide here.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles Mentioned:

All Jewish sources are cited in the study guide, linked above

Aaron Bushnell’s Act of Political Despair,” Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

The Work of the Witness,” Sarah Aziza, Jewish Currents

The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” John Berger, International Socialism

Burnt Offerings,” Erik Baker, n+1


Transcript:

Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. My name is Arielle Angel, editor in chief of Jewish Currents, and today we’re bringing you the third installment of our column, Chevruta. Chevruta, of course, is the name for the traditional method of Jewish study in which a pair of students analyzes the religious texts together. Jewish Currents, for this column, is matching leftist thinkers and organizers with a rabbi or Torah scholar. The querent will bring an urgent question that arises in their own work, and the Torah scholar will lead them in exploring their questions through Jewish text.

For this installment, I’ll be talking with Rabbi Lexi Botzum about Aaron Bushnell, the active service member who self-immolated in Washington DC in February to protest American complicity in the war on Gaza. We’ll be using Jewish texts on martyrdom and sacrifice to explore Bushnell’s choice. Content warning: we will be talking about suicide in this episode, as my father took his own life four weeks before Aaron Bushnell’s act of protest. This confluence of events is part of the reason I wanted to do this Chevruta with Lexi. As with our other installments of Chevruta, you can find a written version of this conversation alongside a standalone study guide with all the texts that Lexi and I discussed in this episode at JewishCurrents.org/sacrifice-chevruta, and we’ll also put the link in the show notes. Thanks a lot. We hope you enjoy this installment of the Chevruta column.

Lexi Botzum: Hi, I’m Lexi Botzum. I’m here with Arielle Angel to do an installment of Jewish Currents’s Chevruta segment. Today we’re going to be talking about Aaron Bushnell. So Aaron Bushnell was an active serviceman of the US Air Force who self-immolated outside of the Israeli embassy in DC on February 25. He live-streamed this act and said this was an extreme act of protest against, basically, the US complicity in the ongoing genocide in Palestine, and that this was nothing compared to what the people in Palestine were experiencing at the hands of their colonizers. And so, he set himself on fire in his army uniform and shouted “Free Palestine” until he collapsed, and cops came, and some pointed guns at him, while others asked for fire extinguishers. He later passed away from his injuries.

So his self-immolation caused a huge round of discourse and a lot of attention, as it was intended to. And there have been a lot of questions, a lot of people who relate to this as a brave act of martyrdom, someone who has sacrificed their life for the cause, who refused to be complicit in the ways in which the US broadly (and particularly, the US military) is actively enabling this ongoing genocide, and those who have framed it as a mentally-ill person committing suicide, not something that should be glorified or emulated by any means. We’re going to be talking about this today and using a few texts to unpack some of the questions we’re sitting with about: How do we understand this action? How do we understand forms of protest, martyrdom, sacrifice? We’re going to dedicate the learning today to his memory. You know, obviously, these segments are motivated by trying to use text to unpack some big questions that we’re sitting with. So, Arielle, what questions are you really most interested in investigating? What feels most urgent and interesting to you?

AA: Well, first of all, Lexi, thank you so much for leading this learning session today. I’m really happy to have the chance to work through some of the things that I’ve been feeling. I have been unsatisfied with the ways that some of this conversation has played out. On the one hand, there’s sort of an embrace and a glorification of this act of sacrifice, and on the other hand, there’s sort of a negation of it; and neither has felt comfortable for me. For those that don’t know, I just lost my father to suicide six weeks ago, now. And though I do not think that there is a reason to read Aaron Bushnell’s act in the context of mental health (as suicide showed up in my own life, I think this is very clearly a protest and intended and pointed in a different direction), I do think that the pain of being survivors of suicide, as family members of suicide, raises the question about what this act means to a community, to the fabric of community. And of course, we’ve had a lot of Aaron Bushnell’s friends in his anarchist community, come out and talk about—just the fact that, personally, they would have tried to stop him from doing this, even though they do understand what he did as an act of commitment. And this, for me, raises questions about what a life-centered politics looks like, generally, and a question about what this tactic might mean, more generally. Masha Gessen, in their piece in The New Yorker, framed this as an expression of a politics of despair, and that raises questions for me about: What kinds of sacrifices are we required to make in extreme circumstances? I’m curious how you approach this question, first of all, and also why you’re interested in this.

LB: First of all, obviously, as somebody who spends pretty much all of my time either teaching Gemara or engaged in solidarity work, generally when I have a burning question about what our organizing efforts need to look like, and what it is that we need to contribute to a cause, I do fundamentally believe that the Torah has a lot to say. And, at the same time, as you’ve just acknowledged, I don’t think that any of these texts are remotely going to be a perfect analog to the case that we’re discussing. The goal here isn’t to come out with a specific judgment about Aaron Bushnell; it’s to use these texts to think about some of the questions that you mentioned. I think what you said about both the politics of life versus the politics of despair is something that I’ve thought about a lot, and also, the question of: How much of ourselves do we need to give? I think the despair motivating this and the idea of an extreme act of protest—I think a lot of people for these past few months have been so overwhelmed by the absolutely ineffable horror of what is happening and the sense that nothing we are doing is enough. I can devote all of my time to writing, or to protesting, or to trying to do this form of direct action, and none of it’s enough. None of it is stopping the genocide, right? How can I be doing anything in my life that’s not geared towards that? And so, I think the question of: How much of ourselves are we obligated to give to the cause? What does it look like to sacrifice in a way that accomplishes something?

AA: And also, what does it look like to sacrifice in a way that tips over into something that is so self-negating that it negates even the cause that it is for? When is it not helpful?

LB: Exactly. So the biggest source that we’re going to be looking at today is a source from the Shulchan Aruch. So the Shulchan Aruch is a halachic legal compendium compiled in the 16th century by Rabbi Yosef Karo, a Spanish Jew. This is broadly considered to be the most foundational or authoritative body of halacha. It was an incredibly influential code. So it’s on the subject of martyrdom, right, which is also often referred to in the halacha as kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name.

AA: “All of the transgressions which are in the Torah, with the exception of idolatry, sexual prohibitions, and murder: If someone is told to transgress them or he will be killed, so long as he is in private, he should transgress and not be killed. If he wants to be stringent upon himself and be killed, he may do so if the idolater intends to make him violate his religion.”

LB: A lot of people are familiar with this idea that in general, in halacha, if somebody tries to get you to violate halacha and says they’ll kill you if you don’t; most of them, you’re actually supposed to violate it rather than be killed. There are only three mitzvah that you always have to die rather than transgress: murder, improper sexual relations, and idolatry. But if somebody puts a gun to my head and says: Eat pork—I’m supposed to eat pork. I think a lot of people focus on this as a sort of life-centered orientation that Judaism has. The Gemara literally uses the pasuk of “v’chai b’hem,” and “you will live in my commandments,” right, live in doing them and not die in doing them. But the last sentence there is really huge. He uses the language of the person wants to “lehachmir,” to be stringent upon themselves. They can choose to be martyred, even when it isn’t required. So this would, for example, be: I’m alone in my home, and the idolator comes in and tells me: “Eat pig or I’ll kill you,” the halacha does not require me to say “Shoot me.” But Rev Yosef Karo is saying if I do not want to do that—the idea of actually violating even this lesser mitzvah than “the big three” is just totally anathema to me—I can decide to be martyred rather than violate that mitzvah.

AA: I mean, that’s already kind of fascinating. Suddenly, the whole web of personal and political reasons that someone might make that choice are on the table. Should I continue to read?

LB: Yeah, so there’s the Rema, Moshe Isserles, who is a contemporary Ashkenazi rabbi based in Poland, who basically was working on the same project as Rav Yosef Karo simultaneously, of trying to put together a halachic code. The Rema, that’s his acronym, right? The Rabbi Moshe Isserles. So he comes in with a comment:

AA: “If he can save himself with all he possesses, he must give it all rather than transgress one of the negative commandments. When they [Chazal] said that anyone who has the ability to protest and does not, he is considered responsible for the same sin. Here, where there is a chance of danger, he does not need to give up his money over this.”

Lexi Botzum 11:24

This is an ambiguous section. Part of what’s confusing—he’s quoting when he said “When they [Chazal] said.” He’s quoting a section from the Gemara in Shabbat. It’s actually an incredibly powerful source when talking about our obligations and notions of complicity, where the Gemara in Shabbat says that anybody who has the ability to protest the sins of their household and doesn’t—

AA: He is considered responsible for the same sin.

LB: Right, anyone who has the ability to protest the sins of their town and doesn’t, they’re considered responsible; anyone who has the ability to protest the sins of the entire world and they fail to do so, they are considered responsible.

AA: And this is a direct commentary on the Shulchan Aruch text about martyrdom, like, when they should be killed?

LB: Correct

AA: We’re immediately in the realm of questioning how complicit a person actually has to be in order to choose martyrdom.

LB: We started off by talking about an obligation to die rather than transgressing something when that’s the options before you; when it’s like: Either you do this or you will be murdered. The Rema comes in to talk about: What if the only option isn’t either violate the commandment or die? What if there is the possibility of like, I can use all of my available resources to avoid transgressing, and I won’t be killed, I’ll just become destitute, for example. Say I have to pay a massive bribe to leave this country, or I have to lose my job, or I have to sell all of my belongings. He says: If that’s an option, I have to do that.

AA: I mean, we’re seeing a lot of people are making a lot of really complicated decisions about whether to, for example, quit their jobs or be complicit in a genocidal war on Gaza. It seems like the rabbis are saying that to not participate in these transgressions—of which murder is one of the transgressions—losing your livelihood is an appropriate sacrifice.

LB: I think this is also where the quote from Shabbos is coming in, though, right? The quote from the Gemara about if somebody else is transgressing, and you could have done something to protest—and you don’t—that you’re considered liable. What the Rema seems to be saying is that if you are actively being given the choice of: You yourself will have to do a transgression or you can, again, give up all or some significant portion of everything you own to avoid doing it, you have to give up anything you own to avoid actively committing that transgression. But he seems to be saying that the requirement to avoid being complicit is not quite as extreme. He’s saying you don’t have to give up every single thing you own to ensure that you are sufficiently preventing somebody else from doing that transgression. So then, that becomes a really interesting question of: How much do we understand ourselves as actively ourselves contributing to something, versus when are we simply not sufficiently preventing others from causing harm?

AA: That’s a really good question. Is there guidance offered about when you switch over from being a person who is merely complicit in another person’s transgression or the person themselves? I mean, we know the way that complicity works is through mass acquiescence to what others are doing. That is the very nature of complicity.

LB: He’s not saying that we don’t have an obligation to try and resist that complicity. We talk a lot about this notion about tochecha—our obligation to give rebuke to our fellows who are doing wrong. And there are various discussions in the Gemara of: Up until what point are you required to give tochecha to somebody? Basically, how much do you have to risk in trying to change somebody else’s behavior? Some say it’s up to you being beaten up; there are some saying it’s up to you being really harshly cruelly shouted at but not physical harm. But nobody says that you have to die in trying to get somebody else to not transgress. And the Rema is saying you also don’t have to give up the entirety of your possessions, that there is somewhere in between.

AA: Okay, so we’re switching back to the Shulchan Aruch, the Rav Karo: “If he is in public—that is, in front of ten Jews—he must allow himself to be killed rather than transgress, providing the idolater intends to make him violate his religion (even if this is over a minhag such as the way one ties one’s shoes).” Oh my God. “But if he [the idolater] intends only for his own benefit, he [the Jew] should transgress rather than be killed. If, however, it is a time of persecution (only against Jews), even if it’s about the strap of one’s shoes, he should be killed rather than transgress.” Interesting. I mean, here’s the entire political context, that if it is a political statement to kill you, it should be a political statement to die, on some level.

LB: Exactly, that you’re not expected to martyr yourself when it’s some person who just thinks it’s funny to try and get a Jew to eat pork, like he just gets kicks out of it. Even if you’re in public, if it’s a time where that isn’t part of a larger trend, then you aren’t obligated to martyr yourself. But if there’s a particular purpose it’s trying to serve as part of a larger political program, part of a larger structure of oppression, of forced assimilation, or cultural or literal genocide, then even the tiniest detail is considered a sufficient reason to do kiddush Hashem—rather than, again, even change the way you dress, if that’s a distinctive form of Jewish dress. If they’re like, “You have to wear the non-Jewish sandals,” and that’s part of a program of forced assimilation, you’re supposed to be martyred rather than change your sandals.

AA: I’m interested in the public aspect of this, about the potential transgression happening in front of ten Jews. There’s a great fear about how it will degrade the fortitude of the people who are also trying to persist in their way of life. I want to bring in the Muslim conception of the word martyr, shahid, which is about being a witness. We had a very beautiful piece by Sarah Aziza that talks about the ways that the word martyr have been misconstrued in Western media as an idea that Islam worships death or something like that. But actually, it literally means to witness—and the idea of being marked or touched by that violence is also a testament to that violence that should move us, that should change the public narrative on some level. And I think we see that here, as well. We see that in what we talked about in the beginning, the idea of being witness to that violence, creating a narrative that would allow for a strengthening of resolve, to be able to continue to live and be in a certain place, and to be who you are in a certain place, and to claim your rights to do those things.

LB: You know, obviously, we’ve been using the term martyrdom because that’s the classic terminology in English. But as you said, there’s different valences in Arabic and in Islam, and we talk about it in halacha, as “kiddush Hashem,” literally the sanctification of God’s name; that there is a holiness that comes from refusing to transgress, refusing to do harm, setting an example for others in your community. We see the whole idea of “farhesiya;” purely the act of it being public is such a central factor in how we understand this obligation. But we basically are worried about transgression, even the most minor sort, being contagious.

AA: Should I continue to read?

LB: Yeah, let’s read the Rema.

AA: “And this is only if they wish to make him violate a negative commandment. If they made a law that one should not fulfill positive commandments, however, he does not need to fulfill it if he will be killed. Nonetheless, if the hour requires it, and he wishes to fulfill it and be killed, he may do so.” Negative commandments, to explain to people, are things that you cannot do. So a negative commandment would be like, “You shall not eat pork,” or whatever. Positive commandments are things that you’re supposed to do, like light the Shabbat candle. And if you are prevented from doing a positive commandment, there’s an even lesser requirement—yet you are still permitted to die.

LB: If you’ve ever been to a Yom Kippur service, we read this really grim story about these ten rabbis who were martyred by the Romans. And a lot of them, it’s because they continued teaching Torah when there were edicts against that. They, according to this halacha, could have chosen to not teach Torah. They could have avoided it, and, nonetheless, they chose to do so. Also, just like a small resonance that I’ve been thinking about is Rabbi Akiva. Again, it’s a very gruesome image, where they “combed” at his skin. But there’s this famous story that he was smiling as this was happening. And his students are like, “Why are you smiling?” And he says, “Well, I’ve always wanted to be able to say the Shema, and that you will love Hashem with all your strength, with all of your might, and to really mean it—and now I can.” And so, he recited the Shema as he was dying, which is also a thing that many martyrs did across history. And I’m thinking about that in context of—a lot of people found it incredibly moving that Aaron Bushnell shouted Free Palestine until he could literally no longer speak. This idea of your final words and breaths being used—

AA: —to affirm the belief system.

LB: Exactly.

AA: Yeah, I mean, I think something that is so hard about suicide, generally, is the narrative itself. It’s a very, very hard kind of death to accept because the aspect of choice becomes so painful for the people who are left behind. I think something that seems very clear in reading the halacha around this is that the rabbis are very aware of the stories that are going to come out of this. Like, this halacha seems very pointed towards the story you can tell about the person who was martyred: That they said no rather than debase themselves in this particular way. And I think the way that choice plays into it—even having someone saying, like, “Do this, or I’m going to kill you,” and somebody standing up to that—this seems to constrain the sense of choice in the matter, which actually really distinguishes these cases of martyrdom from cases of suicide quite strongly. That can allow, for example, family members or community members to get strength from that, even within the grief. And I think that a lot of people are looking at Aaron Bushnell in the same way because there’s a way in which, as a service member, he had that level of complicity. And there is a refusal happening. But of course, his situation is different. Right?

LB: Yeah, as you’ve said, also, there’s a difference in that up till now, we’ve been dealing with when there’s another (at least one other) active figure. It’s the question of, even when we talk about people “opting in” to this martyrdom that wasn’t required of them, it’s letting yourself be killed rather than killing yourself.

AA: And that seems to introduce more doubt into whether he had to make that decision to die, as opposed to the decision to live and keep fighting. I mean, either way, it’s clear that a huge part of this is about the story you can tell afterwards, and whether that story is sufficiently strong enough to strengthen rather than weaken.

LB: Exactly. But in this last section, I think this will get into the question of choice,

AA: “Any place where it is said ‘Be killed rather than transgress,’ if he transgressed and was not killed, even though he has desanctified the Name, nonetheless, he is considered forced and is not liable. This is only where he could not have fled—if he could have fled, and did not do so, he is like a dog sitting on his vomit and is considered to have transgressed deliberately.” Wow, like a dog sitting on his vomit.

LB: Here they’re clarifying that you can’t use that excuse of “Oh, I was forced —I didn’t choose this,” when you actually did have an alternative; when it wasn’t actually either “you die or you do this”; there was a way in which you simply escaped the situation and were able to not transgress and not die. Which, I think, also gets a little bit into the case of Aaron Bushnell. Obviously, there is the huge endeavor that is being a conscientious objector and leaving the army, but it’s not that we’re in a scenario where the only options were continue to be actively contributing to X or die.

AA: Right, there was an option that was just to leave the position of complicity and take another position. And also, to be public about that.

LB: Right, public resignations and refusals have garnered a lot of attention in this time. It does give a lot of strength and “chizuk” and raises attention. Even like not refusing the army, but quitting jobs and things from a principled position.

AA: Yeah, I want to say to the listeners: Do not think that this is at all an invitation to self-immolate. But I do think that it’s useful to recognize that there is, in halacha, this kind of squishy place that has to do with the question of public narrative, and levels of choice as it relates to when death is a more powerful public narrative than life. It doesn’t map onto this situation, as we’ve said, but it’s interesting. Should we move forward?

LB: Yeah, so we’re gonna look at a couple commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. So this first bit that we’re going to look at is from the Be’er Hetev, who was an Ashkenazi commentary in the 18th century.

AA: “And the Beit Yosef also wrote that, if the person is an important and pious figure with fear of Heaven, and sees that their generation is failing in this matter, they are permitted to sanctify God’s name and give over their life, even for a minor mitzvah, in order that people should see the need to love and fear Hashem with all their hearts, and the Bach ruled like the Rambam, that everyone whose judgment is that they should transgress rather than be killed, and instead they choose to be killed, this person is held accountable for their life.” I feel like there’s this new statement that’s sort of like, “Everyone whose judgment is that they should transgress rather than be killed, and instead they choose to be killed, this person is held accountable for their life,” right? This is kind of a new idea. Like: Don’t go too far with this; you need to be able to tell the difference between when you have to die and when you don’t.

LB: Right. The Rambam and the Bach are disagreeing pretty strongly with the opinion expressed by Rav Karo, which is that you can choose to martyr yourself even when you’re not obligated to, and that this can even be a pious choice. The Rambam and the Bach hold that there’s an absolute binary: Either you are obligated to be martyred, and you must, or if it doesn’t meet those criteria, you are obligated not to be martyred, and that martyring yourself in those cases where you are not obligated is, in fact, akin to killing yourself (and is its own form of transgression). So the rabbis in general are really conflicted about this question of what is the most pious choice in a scenario where you aren’t obligated to give your life.

AA: Something else that is interesting here is that they specify that it matters who the person is who does the martyrdom. It’s an important and pious figure with a fear of Heaven. I’m focusing here on the word important. The idea, actually, that one must already be a leader in order for their martyrdom to have the public narrative that it could have. I think it’s sort of interesting, you know: What would be the difference between Aaron Bushnell self-immolating, and, like, Anthony Blinken? Like someone with a high degree of complicity and a high degree of personal name recognition and importance to the machine. But it is interesting that something like what Aaron Bushnell did—for at least right now, his name has brought Gaza into the public conversation in a different kind of way, and links it to American empire directly in a different kind of way, even though he was not “an important person,” or a person whose previous deeds were known to a broader community. So there is something interesting about the fact that, in this case, it kind of temporarily elevated someone who didn’t have that kind of status, as being able to speak in that way.

LB: It’s also the second person who has self-immolated in protest to the US’s ongoing support of the genocide. There was a woman who self-immolated in Atlanta, I believe in December, but she survived and didn’t make headlines in the same way, I think, for a variety of reasons—not being an active service member, not live-streaming, having survived the action.

AA: Totally. So should I read the Ramban on Leviticus?

LB: Sure. For this next text, it will transition from the discussion of martyrdom to the topic of sacrifice. This is a famous commentary of Nachmanides—otherwise known by his acronym, the Ramban—on the nature of sacrificial offerings and how this relates to notions of atonement and the human body.

AA: “Since man’s deeds are accomplished through thought, speech and action, therefore, God commanded that when man sins and brings an offering, he should lay his hands upon it in contrast to the evil deed committed. He should confess his sin verbally in contrast to his evil speech, and he should burn the innards and the kidneys of the offering in fire, because they are the instruments of thought and desire in the human being. He should burn the legs of the offering, since they correspond to the hands and feet of a person, which do all his work. He should sprinkle the blood upon the altar, which is analogous to the blood in his body. All these acts are performed in order that when they are done, a person should realize that he has sinned against his God with his body and his soul, and that his blood should really be spilled and his body burned, were it not for the loving kindness of the Creator, who took from him a substitute and a ransom—namely this offering—so that its blood should be in place of his blood, its life in place of his life.” This is interesting. When we get into the word sacrifice, in Jewish parlance, we’re immediately in the realm of the body. There seems to be both an admission that our bodies are implicated and that our bodies are really where the site of the punishment or where the site of the justice should take place—and, at the same time, a recognition that that is wrong, and that that would never do, basically, and that a God that would require that of us is the wrong god. And that, instead, there is a substitute.

LB: Yeah, although something that I think is an interesting distinction between the conversation we’ve been having up until now about martyrdom and this topic of sacrifice is that our conversations around martyrdom are like: What are you expected to give up to avoid transgressing? Whereas the sacrifices (at least the ones the Ramban is referring to) are ones that are about alleviating responsibility for sin that has already been done.

AA: So there is this requirement to bring a substitute. As I’ve been witnessing what’s happening in Gaza and also surviving a suicide of a close family member, thinking about like, “How dare he do this? There are all these people who are struggling to live.” I think in the case of Aaron Bushnell, you could ask the same question, and yet, there is a way that he considered himself the sacrifice; like, he has made of himself the substitute, or the symbol. And that’s an interesting transposition and one that I’m not really sure how I feel about.

LB: So when we talk about substitution, a large part of how we evaluate an act is dependent on whether something actually effectively substitutes. So, in other words, it’s difficult to say that Aaron Bushnell was fully a substitute for the death of people in Gaza because he isn’t actually dying and suffering in place of people in Gaza but rather in addition to their death and suffering—even though, obviously, it has the intended goal of stopping it. And it’s also worth noting that the general belief is that after the destruction of the temple, prayer is what takes the place of sacrifice. So we sort of have multiple levels of substitution occurring here.

AA: It’s almost like we would need a whole other Chavruta on prayer: What makes prayer the sacrifice? It’s hard to figure out what an analogue for prayer in secular language is. Obviously, if Aaron Bushnell filmed himself in front of the Israeli embassy just shouting “Free Palestine” or reading a beautiful text that he wrote, we wouldn’t be here. I think this is where we get back to the question of despair, because we are in a situation where the words, the protest, the discursive power of what we are trying to convey has been very much diminished.

LB: I do think one of the more humanistic (or secular, as it were) ways that some people, including religious figures, have articulated part of the role of prayer is not only as, for example, a relationship to and gratitude towards God, but also a way of envisioning the world as we wish it were rather than how it is. There’s a lot of things that we say in prayer that, descriptively, are not actually true of the world around us. That forces you to constantly be in the mindset—both the mindset of gratitude, and also a mindset of imagination: What would the world that is worth thanking God for look like?

AA: What doesn’t add up for me is that I know in Judaism, speech acts are sort of downgraded; that certain kinds of speech acts don’t have the same weight as embodied action. And, at the same time, we’re expected to believe that speech acts are going to stand in or make the difference when it comes to personal sacrifice.

LB: I also do want to clarify that it’s not that, in halacha, we think speech acts accomplish nothing, right? There are actually many, many cases in which a speech act fundamentally alters a particular halachic legal reality. So we do think they’re able to accomplish things—and, at the same time, we don’t think that speech acts are fully equivalent to physical action.

AA; Right? And also, our choice isn’t speech acts or self-immolation, either.

LB: One more thing I’ve been thinking a lot about, that I think is sort of situated within this conversation, is the question of public fasts. There’s an entire section of the Gemara that’s on these public fasts that are pronounced when there’s a drought, when there are certain forms of plague, when there are certain forms of war. And these public fasts consist of both particular forms of prayer and wailing (and also, obviously, fasting). But something that the rabbis are really explicit about (and that, frankly, Isaiah is really explicit about in the section we read on Yom Kippur), is that the fasting itself doesn’t accomplish anything; that we don’t view it as if our fasting flips a switch and automatically changes this reality. Part of what Taanit talks about is something that the Beit Din is supposed to be doing throughout this time is basically examining the actions of the community, and thinking about what tangible actions could be causing this harm, and using this as an opportunity to reflect and try and actually change what people are doing. It’s meant to be something that prompts people to pay attention, to reconsider their action. So I think when we talk about speech acts or physical acts that in and of themselves don’t automatically accomplish the thing that we’re thinking about, the Taanit is an interesting paradigm, of both speech acts, prayer that we’re doing, and this physical act of physical deprivation. It’s a form of self-sacrifice that falls much short of the martyrdom but one that’s meant to create this public spectacle and reckoning—that that’s the prompt for action.

AA: So that’s interesting. I mean, these practices are not in themselves understood as the action that will contradict the harm; they’re meant to spur us toward that action. People often talk about the way that prayer changes the individual. And there is a way, also, that we can think about protests in that way, too. Like, John Berger talks about mass demonstration as a way of awakening the consciousness—rehearsal for revolution, basically. I think that the question about an act like Bushnell’s—that’s a question of tactics, whether you feel this is an act that brings people into the act of reckoning as compared to the speech act, or the street protest, or whatever.

LB: I think it’s given some people a greater feeling of urgency and action around this. And while I don’t wish that anybody actually emulate his action—because I do ultimately believe that we’re most useful to the movement as living, fighting bodies, and that our lives are deeply precious—I hope we’re able to feel the commanding force of his sacrifice. I hope it pushes us to feel, more viscerally, the deep horror of this moment, and to think about what more we could all be giving, and what sacrifices will actually bring this genocide to an end.

AA: I really appreciate this a lot. I’ve been really struggling with this one, and I don’t know that we figured it out (which is, of course, not our intention today), but I do feel like there’s at least a kind of universe to situate it in. I’m really, really grateful to you, Lexi. Thank you.


LB: Yeah, I’m really glad we got to do this.

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