Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dropping onto Babies and Dropping Bombs

There is a discussion in the gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) about whether you are required to give up your life to avoid being a passive participant in a murder. If someone threatens to kill you unless you allow him to throw you onto a baby, thereby killing it, should you passively allow him to? Tosfos on the gemara says that just as we learn that you may not kill another person to save your own life because "his blood may be redder than yours," that is, his life might be more important than yours, so too you do not have to resist being a passive participant in a murder, because your life may be more important than his. You are not in a position to judge whose life is more important. Resisting would be a judgment that the baby's life is more important. So you shouldn't interfere, and should allow the baby to be killed.

After the Holocaust, Jews around the world (rightly) condemned the world powers for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They excoriated the lack of resistance in Germany, in nations the Nazis conquered, the reluctance of people to help their Jewish neighbors escape the Nazis, and the refusal of the Allies to bomb the camps, railroads, and other infrastructure that made the mass slaughter possible. But why? The world was just following halacha according to Tosefos! You don't have to risk your own life to not be a passive participant in a murder. Whether that means Germans resisting the Nazi government, or Poles hiding their Jewish neighbors, or American and British airmen risking their lives to bomb railroad lines to concentration camps.

For halacha l'maisah, it becomes more complicated. The Yerushalmi learns from the pasuk, "Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa," “Do not stand by your brother's blood.” that one is obligated to put himself at risk to save another's life. But can we fault the world for paskening like Tosofs?

This is what happens when you turn moral questions into legal questions. The question of whether to allow yourself to be thrown onto a baby is strongly reminiscent of the Trolley Problem, and is a question for  philosophy, for ethicists, not jurists. Most people would find it immoral to be complicit in a murder. Turning it into a legal question strips it of its ethical dimension, and allows the question to be decided in a legalistic rather than a moral framework. Even the Yerushalmi, which obligates one to risk himself to save another person, comes to that conclusion on legal grounds based on a proof text, without consideration of the morality of the question.

I wonder if this might tie into the recent spate of arrests in Lakewood. In a community immersed in Talmudic legalism, there may be some who have lost sight of the moral dimension of their actions. They have learned to judge the permissibility of an action based on its halachic legality, without considering its morality. If it's muttar, it's allowable, even if, when on the other side of it, they might complain about its immorality.


  1. exactly. This is one of the issues I have looking back at the "frum" worldview I used to have: everything is framed in these legal terms, instead of considering the "moral" perspective. A good litmus test question is: if you come across a mother bird on her nest, should you shoo it away to do the mitzva of shiluach haken, even if you don't need the eggs? The inner 'moral' voice which recoils at the idea often gets lost in the ensuing halachic debate. (maybe this trend has become more pronounced in recent times due to the rise in popularity of the "Brisker" derech of learning, which emphasizes the focus on these legal/conceptual ideas). Also related is the question of whether there can be an independent morality outside of Hashem, ie. is it moral because Hashem said so or did Hashem say so because it is moral, but that's another discussion...)

  2. In Nazi occupied regions if somebody helped a Jew escape that individual and his family risked severe penalty and even death. To those Jews who complain that many gentiles did not shelter Jews, I would ask would those Jews help a gentile if doing so placed Jews at risk ? According to Halacha I am pretty sure Jews do not have to, and I think should not risk their own neck or their families to save a gentile.