Truth and Consequences: A Postscript

Rabbi Shalom Carmy

“Truth and Consequences” was not intended as a major treatment of intermarriage or anti-Semitism or halakhot pertaining to Gentiles. I wrote to a teacher who wanted to be prepared if his students brought up the Noah Feldman article.

I did not comment on the alleged Stalinism of the school in altering the photograph, in part because the opening paragraph of the New York Times article labored strenuously to avoid stating outright that the photograph was altered. The article successfully created that impression while protecting the distinguished author from the professional consequences of being caught out in a barefaced lie. The verbal subterfuge to which he resorted testified like a hundred witnesses that something was not kosher about his story. (And then we wonder why anti-Semites regard shyster lawyers as prototypically Jewish.)

I did not say that Feldman impugns the reliability of Jewish doctors. I did imply that he must be familiar with the history of this argument in anti-Semitic agitation. But then again, in the 1890’s, the Austrian anti-Semites I cited did not seriously intend to drive Jewish doctors out of the profession either, since many of them patronized Jewish physicians. Nor did they foresee the consequences of their agitation forty years later.

On a more important matter: I wrote harshly about the high school rebbe who suggested that, in treating a Gentile on Shabbat, it’s important to have the intention that one is acting only mi-shum eiva and to exclude any “humanistic” motive. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 4) states that whosoever saves one human being it is as if he saved an entire world. [That this is the correct text was established by Professor Urbach; more significantly for me, it was also championed by maran haRav Soloveitchik, as I have noted elsewhere.] Acts of hesed for human beings (including non-Jews) come under the verse “God is good to all, and His mercies on all His creatures” (Rambam, Hil. Melakhim, end of ch. 10).

To be sure there are occasions when our ethical impulses must be dethroned in the face of overriding halakhic imperatives. In those cases, which are relatively uncommon in Judaism due to the primacy of legalistic reasoning in halakha, even our noblest ethical impulses must be sacrificed temporarily. It is for this reason that the Rav, in an oft-quoted conversation with Professor Yaakov (Gerald) Blidstein, confessed that allowing the pikkuah nefesh of a Gentile on Shabbat on the narrow grounds of mi-shum eiva was morally unsatisfactory to him.

Now a person who believes that Halakha indeed prohibits saving a life on Shabbat faces a difficult situation, like that of Abraham at the Akeida. If, however, the prohibitions of Shabbat are suspended (and the background for the suspension does not matter in this connection), then the opportunity to save a life should not be the cause of long faces and morose soul-searching. The element of imitatio Dei and the moral value in saving life are no different, it seems to me, than on Friday.