People of the Book – Eleazar
The Second Book of Maccabees tells the story of the heroic Jewish scribe Eleazar, “a man of advanced age and noble appearance.” When the tyrannical Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire forced the Jews to adopt pagan customs, including prostrating themselves before idols and eating pork against the Mosaic law, Eleazar valiantly refused to violate his religious principles.
Because he was so highly esteemed in the community, a number of his friends and associates approached him secretly and suggested he smuggle kosher meat into the court and eat that while pretending it was the forbidden flesh. In such a scheme, Eleazar could avoid punishment and yet keep the religious code to which he had sworn himself.
Eleazar refused to privatize his faith in such a manner, not only because of his own witnessing relationship to the one true God, but also so as not to serve as a scandalous role model for younger Jewish men and women in similar tribulations.
He willingly strides to the torturers’ chamber, asserting, “At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many young people would think the 90-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. Should I thus pretend for the sake of a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring shame and dishonor on my old age. Even if, for the time being, I avoid the punishment of men, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by virtuously giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and generously for the revered and holy laws” (2 Mac 6).
Such a profound and courageous stance reminds me of Plato’s account of Socrates’ death scene in the Phaedo. Socrates, about to be put to death for scandalizing the Athenian youth, claims the reflective life of contemplation in which the philosopher participates is actually nothing other than “the practice of dying.”
Philosophy comes from two words, philia literally “loving friendship with” and sophia, “wisdom.” For Socrates, it would be absurd if one who has spent his life cultivating this love of wisdom, achievable only through death-to-self, should in the end be disturbed when the very thing for which he has been preparing himself arrives. It was not only the coheirs to Sinai, but also those of Athens and Sparta, who realized it was problematic to “store up treasures in this world where moth and rust doth corrupt” (Mt 6:19).
Having worked for the past two years at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life on issues of immigration, morality, Catholic social teaching, and the intersecting nexus of religion, culture, demography, law, sociology and theology in the public arena, I find Eleazar’s adamant refusal to cower to a broader culture without giving public witness to his ideological beliefs inspiring and timely. In our increasingly crowded contemporary bazaar of voices, viewpoints and polemics, it is crucial that we as believers live a life of faith firmly committed to the dialectical tension of productive dialogue with the larger world and of prophetic refusal to accept injustice or evil in it.
It is a project of “creative fidelity”: remaining faithful to the eternal promise and gift we have received through no merit of our own, and yet unafraid to be innovative in articulating the reality of these truths in ever-better formulations, fashions and self-assessments. We must be critical of those things which impede development of a holy relationship with God in the world around us, and frank enough to admit that those impediments are not only embodied in the “culture of death” somewhere out there, but also manifested in the interior spiritual roadblocks within our own hearts.
Eleazar provides us with a challenge to continue to find our voice in the public square, but to ensure that that voice is compassionate and softened by personal transformation.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.