Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines: Jewish Historians Roundly Reject Cultists’ Appropriation of Masada

April 2, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Judaism didn’t escape the theological stew that led members of the Heaven’s Gate cult to kill themselves last week.

The 39 people found dead at a mansion outside San Diego were adherents to a philosophy based on a loose amalgamation of extreme millennialist Christianity and New Age attitudes, overlaid by science fiction.

Information that cult members had posted on the Internet cited the dramatic saga of the Jewish suicide at Masada in the first century as the model for their mass suicide.

It is an analogy soundly rejected by Jewish historians.

Another Jewish connection to the eerie story that has rocked the country was the claim of Heaven’s Gate founder Marshall Herff Applewhite — who was not a Jew — that he worked as the cantorial soloist at a Houston-area Reform temple.

The congregation in question is Temple Emanu El, where, according to Rabbi Roy Walter, Applewhite did not work as a cantorial soloist, but may have sung in the choir at some point in the mid-1960s.

It is not unusual for Reform temples to employ non-Jews to sing worship liturgy as cantorial soloists or as members of a paid choir.

Meanwhile, the Masada connection made by Heaven’s Gate members to their own plans was a misappropriation of Jewish history, historians say, because the Jewish zealots who killed themselves in the year 73 on the top of the desert plateau did so under siege by Roman troops.

From a statement, “Our Position Against Assisted Suicide,” which was published on the Heaven’s Gate Web site and reprinted in The New York Times, members wrote:

“We fully desire, expect and look forward to boarding a spacecraft from the Next Level very soon (in our physical bodies) …

“It has always been our way to examine all possibilities, and be mentally prepared for whatever may come our way.

“For example, consider what happened at Masada around 73 A.D. A devout Jewish sect, after holding out against a siege by the Romans, to the best of their ability, and seeing that the murder, rape and torture of their community was inevitable, determined that it was permissible for them to evacuate their bodies by a more dignified, and less agonizing method.”

According to Yael Zerubavel, director of the Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers University and an expert on Masada, “Obviously this was really a paranoid state” that they were in.

“Masada can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. “If you think everyone’s after you, that you will be enslaved, then you may get to the point where you think you have no way of surviving.” Heaven’s Gate mass suicide was antithetical to Judaism, which rejects suicide except when the threat of death at the hands of an enemy is imminent, said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, a historian who serves as chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

Under such conditions, self-inflicted death is considered martyrdom and a sanctification of God’s name.

The Jewish community’s rejection of suicide is embodied in the principle that people who kill themselves should be buried outside the gates of a Jewish cemetery.

In practice, though, Jewish law permits most suicides to be viewed as victims of mental illness so that they can be interred normally.

The basic approach is that “Judaism embraces life,” Schorsch said. “Judaism is a this-worldly religion, and suicide flies in the face of embracing life.”

Although universally known as the site of a Jewish mass suicide, Masada was initially used as refuge by the very people from whom the Jews later tried to escape.

King Herod, the Roman ruler of the region, built an enormous official palace on the rocky promontory in the year 40 B.C.E., when he took his family and fled Jerusalem to escape Mattathias Antigonus, who had been crowned king by the Parthians.

Herod built a fortress on the site as well, between 37 B.C.E. and 31 B.C.E., according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, and later used it for refuge from the Jewish people and from Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt.

After he died, a Roman garrison was stationed there from the years 6 C.E. to 66 C.E., when, at the outbreak of the Jewish war against the Romans, a Jewish zealot named Menachem captured it. After Menachem was murdered in Jerusalem by Jewish rivals, his nephew Eleazar ruled it until its fall in 73.

In the year 72, the Roman governor Flavius Silva marched against Masada, which was the last remaining zealot stronghold of 960 defenders, bringing thousands of troops as well as thousands of Jewish prisoners of war.

After a prolonged siege, the Romans breached the Jewish stronghold and, according to tradition, Eleazar persuaded his followers to kill themselves rather than fall into Roman hands. Two women and five children survived by hiding in a cave.

But the story of the Jews’ final chapter, which is based largely on the writing of the historian Josephus — who himself was the only survivor of a Jewish mass suicide in the Galilee and later defected to the Roman side — is historically questionable, said Schorsch.

Nevertheless, it became a myth central to the national Jewish psyche only after the Holocaust, said Zerubavel, when Jews needed to reinvent their national self-image from a people led helplessly to Nazi slaughterhouses into a people ready to die in self-defense rather than be victimized by persecutors.

Indeed, it is atop Masada’s summit that Israel’s Armored Corps recruits swear their oath of allegiance, that “Masada Shall Not Fall Again.”

But the iconization of suicide as heroic has come under fire in Israel in recent years, Zerubavel said.

Gaining popularity is the notion that Jewish survival in and of itself is a form of resistance, she said.

“If Jews committed suicide during the Holocaust, many more Jews would have died. By their sheer survival, this is a form of resistance. Sanctifying life is very much in the spirit of Judaism.”

Recommended from JTA