An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought.
There are times when one's love for God must be so strong that he or she is ready to be martyred for His sake. We are commanded, "Love the Lord your God ... with all your soul" (Deut. 6:5), and this is interpreted to mean that one must continue to love God even at the expense of one's life and soul.
The commandment, "I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:32), is a specific edict to publicize the greatness of our faith, and we are taught that this must be done even at the expense of one's life. Martyrdom thus establishes the veracity of our faith more dynamically than anything else, since one must accept the Torah as absolute Truth to be martyred for it.
This commandment applies to all Jews, even children. Non-Jews are not required to martyr themselves for their commandments (i.e. the Seven Noahide Laws as delineated by the Torah).
This commandment specifically requires one to be martyred rather than publicly transgress any religious law where religious persecution is intended. A situation is considered public if it is known to 10 Jews, even if they are not present.
It is considered a desecration of God's name for any power to usurp His absolute authority over us, and we are thus required to choose martyrdom rather than compromise our religious freedom. Therefore, if any government passes an edict forbidding the practice of any religious law, one must be martyred for it, even in private. This is only true, however, if the decree is aimed specifically at the Jewish people, and religious persecution is intended.
The heritage of our martyrs is apparent, since those commandments for which they died, such as Passover and circumcision, are still observed by most of our people, while other precepts are often ignored.
Even in a time of religious persecution one should not give up hope, as God has promised that no power can destroy our great faith: "No weapon fashioned against you shall prosper, and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you shall indict. This is the heritage of God's servants, and their vindication from Me" (Isaiah 54:17).
Three Cardinal Sins
There are three cardinal sins which one may not transgress under any circumstances, even at the expense of one's life. They are: idolatry, murder and sexual crimes. Since these sins outweigh life because of their intrinsic severity, one must be martyred rather than transgress them under all circumstances, even in private and where no religious persecution is intended.
One must be martyred for idolatry since absolute love of God implies that one not even appear to forsake Him under any conditions.
One must be martyred rather than kill a fellow Jew, since all life is equally dear to God, and one life may not be destroyed for another.
One must be martyred for sexual crimes, since they are equated with murder, as the Torah states in the case of rape, "The [rapist] is no different from a man who rises up against his neighbor and murders him" (Deut. 22:26).
These three cardinal sins require martyrdom because of their intrinsic severity, and not because of the punishment prescribed for them. One must therefore be martyred for any Biblical law associated with them, no matter how minor it may seem. However, one need not be martyred for a rabbinical prohibition.
Martyrdom is only required for the individual involved in the act. One need not give one's life rather than be an accomplice to a cardinal sin.
Martyrdom is only required for an act. Therefore, one need not be martyred for a passive sin, he need not resist at the expense of his life, even in public.
Martyrdom is only required when one is certain that he can sanctify God, but not where there is any question of his chances for success. Therefore, in the case of a government decree or public display, one need not be martyred for a positive commandment which the government can forcibly prevent one from performing in any case. Nevertheless, during a period of religious persecution, most authorities agree that one should not abandon one's religious observances or studies out of fear of detection.
In the case of idolatry, one must be martyred rather than profess belief in any idolatrous religion, engage in its religious practices, or even honor its religious images or symbols in any way. These are all included in the commandment, "Do not bow down to [any idol] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship." (Exodus 20:5)…
In the case of murder, one must be martyred rather than kill any Jew, whether he be a newly born child or a very old man. However, if the victim is wounded so badly that he will certainly die of his injuries, one need not be martyred to avoid ending his life. Similarly, one need not be martyred rather than take the life of an unborn child.
One must be martyred rather than hand a fellow Jew over to be killed, since this is akin to murder. In such a case, one is more than a mere accomplice, since this is expressly forbidden by the commandment, "Do not stand still when your neighbor's life is in danger" (Leviticus 19:16).
Destroying a person psychologically is comparable to killing him physically, since the mind controls even the most basic bodily functions. Therefore, rather than publicly shame a person, thereby causing him permanent psychological damage, one must give his life.
Sexual crimes include all forms of adultery, incest, and forbidden intercourse with a Jewish woman. Also included is sexual contact with a menstrually unclean woman, even one's wife. In all these cases, one must be martyred not only for intercourse, but for all forms of indecent bodily contact which are included in the negative commandment, "No person shall [even] approach a close relative to commit a sexual offense" (Leviticus 18:6).
A woman need not be martyred rather than submit to rape, even where a sexual crime is involved, as long as she is not forced to actively participate.
Intercourse between a non-Jew and an unmarried Jewish girl is only forbidden by rabbinical decree and, therefore, the girl need not be martyred, even if she is compelled to actively participate. However, if the woman is married, it is considered a sexual crime for which she must be martyred rather than actively participate. Intercourse between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman is considered a sexual crime and is therefore forbidden.
Individual vs. Community
The value of life does not depend upon number, since one life may be worth more to God than many others. Therefore, even an entire community must be martyred before they kill a single Jew or even hand him over to others to be killed or tortured. Experience has shown us that when Jews are not ready to defend and die for their fellows, an even greater number are killed in the end.
If the individual being sought is a criminal, however, he may be handed over, since he placed both himself and the community in danger.
Sin and shame are similarly not measured by number. If a group of women are given the choice of giving up one of their number for immoral purposes or all being raped, they must all submit rather than hand over the one. In such a case it makes no difference whether the individual is single or married, or even if she is otherwise immoral, since she may have repented her former deeds and should not be punished for them now. However, the group need not give their lives rather than hand one over [for rape], since even she need not be martyred in such a case.
Public vs. Private Setting
In private, where there is no government decree, one need not be martyred for any law other than the three cardinal sins. Regarding other laws, the Torah states, "Keep My decrees and laws, since a person can [truly] live only by keeping them" (Leviticus 18:5) -- live by keeping them and not die by keeping them. Therefore, one need not be martyred if there is any question of its being required. In any case, the decision must be made by the individual alone, since no authority today can decide a question of life.
If one gives his life when not required, he is considered culpable for his own death.
In any case of religious persecution or public display, one may be martyred even when not required, if an example is needed, and especially if one is a known religious leader. However, if one gives his life when not required, in private and where no persecution is intended, he is considered culpable for his own death.
Wherever one is required to be martyred, he must also suffer torture and mutilation to sanctify God. However, a person may take his own life to avoid suffering and torture.
If one breaks under pressure and is incapable of martyring himself when required, he is guilty of desecrating God's name, and has lost the opportunity to sanctify God, which is the greatest merit a person can acquire. However, he is not punishable for any sin he may have committed, since it was done under duress, as the Torah states in the case of a girl who is victimized by a rapist: "You must not impose any penalty upon the girl, since she has not committed a sin worthy of death" (Deut. 22:26).
The same is true of one who cannot hold up under the psychological strain of being forced to do something which is forbidden by the Torah and thereby desecrates God's name. Even if he now commits a sin, it is considered involuntary and he is not punished.
However, a person who has an opportunity to escape or avoid a predicament where he may be forced to sin, and does not take advantage of this opportunity because of monetary or other considerations, bears full responsibility for his actions. Even if he is then forced to sin, he is guilty of any sin committed in addition to that of desecrating God's name. With regard to such an individual, it is written, "Like a dog that returns to its vomit, so is a fool who repeats his folly" (Proverbs 26:11).
The Highest Level
One who is martyred sanctifies God, and one is as dear in His eyes. Even if he committed evil all his life, he attains the highest eminence before God as a martyr. Regarding such a person, the Psalmist said, "Gather My pious ones to Me, those who have made a covenant with Me by [self] sacrifice" (Psalms 50:5).
One who is publicly martyred fulfills the commandment, "I shall be sanctified among the children of Israel" (Leviticus 22:22), and should therefore say the blessing: "Blessed are you… Who has sanctified us with His commandments and instructed us to publicly sanctify His Name." With his last breath, he should have the "Shema Yisrael" on his lips…
One who is killed because he is Jewish, even though he is not given any choice, is considered a martyr. Even an evildoer who goes to his death as a Jew sanctifies God and is considered holy. Regarding such a person, it is written, "For He who avenges blood has remembered them; He has not forgotten the cry of the humble" (Psalms 9:13).
One who resolves to give his life for God if called upon has the merit of an actual martyr, since God considers a good intention as an accomplished deed.
Since public humiliation is equivalent to death, a Jew who suffers shame for the sake of his religion is considered a martyr.
The greatest respect should be paid to the memory of our martyrs. Where possible, the place of their death should be preserved as a memorial, and even their bloodstains should not be removed. It is thus written, "O Earth, do not cover my blood, and give my cry no resting place!" (Job 16:18), and "I have placed her blood upon a bare rock, that it not be covered" (Ezekiel 24:8)…
An excerpt from Rabbi Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought.