A well-worn anecdote has it that a teacher assigned the writing of an essay with the requirement that it relate to elephants in some way. Looking through the submitted papers, the teacher came upon the one authored by the only Italian in the class entitled “Eating Habits of the Elephant.” Next was a piece by the lone Frenchman headlined “Romantic Interests of the Elephant.” Reaching the last essay in the pile, he found the essay of the token Jew. His topic? “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem.”
One elephant that hasn’t left the room, so to speak, a full month after the publication of that article, is the one relating to the non-Jewish question — that is, the issue of what conclusions are to be drawn from the halacha that requires suspension of melacha proscriptions on Shabbos to save the life of a Jew but not that of a non-Jew, except where failure to save the latter’s life would foster enmity towards Jews, with potential violent repercussions.
I’m fully mindful that, with the onset of Feldman Fatigue Syndrome, this post might go by entirely unnoticed. But I’ve decided to launch it into the blogosphere anyway if only as a way of registering my non-acquiesence in the two significant treatments of this topic that I’ve seen presented in response to the Feldman piece.
I take strong exception, based on my understanding of the Torah view, to elements of both essays. I’ve set forth below the passages I find unacceptable, with brief accompanying comment. In my intended Part II of this post, I hope to share a differing perspective on the subject.
First, there is Rabbi Norman Lamm’s response to Noah in the Forward. On the the topic at hand, Rabbi Lamm has this to say:
Why, then, can you not be as generous to Jewish law, and appreciate that certain biblical laws are unenforceable in practical terms, because all legal systems — including Jewish law — do not simply dump their axiomatic bases but develop them. Why not admire scholars of Jewish law who use various legal technicalities to preserve the text of the original law in its essence, and yet make sure that appropriate changes would be made in accordance with new moral sensitivities?
. . . . This is a legitimate way for the Talmudic and post-Talmudic rabbis to protect the sacred Shabbat laws, and by appropriate halachic legislation enable us to live without violating our moral conscience.
Let me clarify my stand, as an Orthodox rabbi, on the issue you raised: It is strictly forbidden by the Halacha to deny a non-Jew whatever is necessary to save his or her life. There must be no discrimination whatsoever. Every human being is created in the Image of God and has a right to life and health.
Briefly, I don’t believe that the notion that “scholars of Jewish law who use various legal technicalities to preserve the text of the original law in its essence, and yet make sure that appropriate changes would be made in accordance with new moral sensitivities” accords with normative Orthodox Jewish belief.
Moreover, the statement that “Every human being is created in the Image of God and has a right to life and health” is correct but inapposite to this topic and, in any event, is not the basis put forth for this halacha by the preponderance of, or perhaps any, halachic sources that I’m aware of.
For his part, author Shmuley Boteach, writing in the Jerusalem Post, criticizes Rabbi Lamm’s approach for its “obtuseness.” Instead, he writes
Is the Jewish religion really so heartless as to give a Jew pause before rescuing a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath? Could it be possible that a religion that so courageously declares, at the very beginning of its Bible, that all humans are equally created in the image of God suddenly reverses itself and declares a non-Jewish life to be not only inferior to that of a Jew, but scarcely worth saving? Of course not. . . .
The Talmud was written at the time of the vicious Roman occupation of the Holy Land. The unbearable cruelty of the Romans led to two Jewish rebellions that were quashed so mercilessly by Rome’s mighty legions that millions of Jews were slaughtered in cold blood. . . .
The Talmud’s discussion, therefore, centered on whether brutal, gentile oppressors like Roman centurions, who were the principal non-Jews with whom the Jews had contact at the time, ought to be saved on the Sabbath. . . .
But when it came to everyday non-Jews, the Talmud was emphatic about their equal place before God and the equality and sanctity of every human life. . . .
Witness the fact that Judaism is the only religion that does not actively proselytize people outside the faith, because we do not believe that a non-Jew upgrades his existence by becoming a Jew.
Where to begin?
First, in positing that Judaism “courageously declares, at the very beginning of its Bible, that all humans are equally created in the image of God,” I believe Boteach confuses a renowned statement of America’s Founding Fathers with another renowned statement in Genesis; the two are not identical. Boteach also needs to cite where specifically the Talmud posits “the equality . . . of every human life.” None of the citations in his essay stand for precisely what it is that he wants them to. [An aside: I'm not sure why it is "courageous" of G-d to declare in His Torah that humans are created in His image. If humans were doing the authoring, that might require courage in a world filled with bloodthirsty pagans, but not for G-d, at least not an omnipotent One.]
Second, Boteach identifies the issue at hand as not only one of Judaism’s supposed ” outrageous . . . particularism,” in Feldman’s phrase, but also its seeming “heartlessness”. But wouldn’t Judaism be seen as equally heartless were it to require that Jews, as well, not be treated in violation of Shabbos? The fact is that the Talmud in Yoma exerts itself greatly to find Scriptural justification for precisely that permit.
Moreover, the Torah indeed does adjure Jews to render their lives forfeit rather than transgress several enumerated sins. In Judaism, we don’t call that heartlessness; we call it, rather, recognition that there are ideals for which it’s worth forfeiting even precious, albeit temporal, earthly existence, a notion which, as it happens, any society that sends its men out to war apparently subscribes to as well.
Thirdly, Boteach writes as if the entire discussion of suspending Shabbos for the saving of life in Yoma and elsewhere in Shas and the commentaries thereon doesn’t exist, and so his writing, as a halachic discussion, can’t possibly be taken seriously. His conjecture that the “Talmud’s discussion, therefore, centered on whether brutal, gentile oppressors like Roman centurions . . . ought to be saved on the Sabbath” is an incredibly narrow reading of this halacha to make without supporting sources — and Meiri isn’t one of them.
Lastly, I would be keenly interested to learn the source for his statement that “Judaism is the only religion that does not actively proselytize people outside the faith because we do not believe that a non-Jew upgrades his existence by becoming a Jew.” I’ve never seen a rationale remotely resembling that one for our discouragement of conversion.