Truth And Consequences

Rabbi Shalom Carmy


The premise of Noah Feldman’s article is that being an alumnus obligates your school to be supportive of everything you do. Based on this logic Democratic conventions from 1968 on should have featured celebrations of Ronald Reagan’s political achievements, a prominent Democrat for 20 years who had made good. Likewise Republicans should now be honoring Hillary Clinton, a dedicated Goldwater Girl until she switched orientations in college. These personalities have even greater right to recognition than Feldman due to their records as thoughtful and enthusiastic advocates of their early loyalties.

Feldman incredibly insists that he has, after all, tried to live up to school ideals in his own fashion, presumably meaning that the school cultivated the intellectual sharpness that has made him an acute and resourceful lawyer. By that token, Reagan and every other bright person owe something to their first training. They would not, in return, expect those whose way they renounce to happily publicize a failure to inculcate principles considered, rightly or wrongly, more essential than professional success and personal renown.

There is a danger in bringing out the premise of Feldman’s article. His outlook is not his alone. Freudians speak of “His Majesty the Baby” who expects the world to revolve around his whims and offer him unconditional approval. Many contemporary liberals exemplify “His Majesty the Adolescent,” offended when the grown-ups have the temerity to disagree with his views and choices. They may resonate to the mantra that a school must, above all, affirm the choices of its graduates. In particular, while they may concede that a person who has rejected his earlier political convictions cannot expect the endorsement of those he now opposes, they maintain that this does not apply to religion, which is supposed to be warm and fuzzy and intellectually vacuous.  Down the line parents of prospective students, who have not fully considered what a yeshiva education entails, whose religious commitments are lukewarm and who respect the best yeshiva day schools as Jewish prep schools, may think twice if they realize that the social advantages through life of having gone to the “right” school may not be assured.

We should not minimize the real sadness, like a little death, of a person who, through accident of parental decision or his own half-formed commitments, identifies for many years with a way of life or with a group of people, and then must distance himself from them for the rest of his life: “where strangers would have shut the many doors, that many friends had opened long ago.” John Henry Newman’s life was intimately intertwined with that of Oxford for a quarter of a century, like the ivy he describes in an unforgettable passage in his Apologia. Yet his wish to dwell there all his days was denied. Abandoning the attractions of Oxford for the indignities of the Roman Catholic priesthood, its gates were shut to him, and when he penned his autobiography 25 years later, the spires of Oxford were visible to him only from afar. The tragedy and the grandeur of Newman’s life is that our decisions carry a cost. Such are the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of truth.


In settling his scores with his alma mater, Feldman ascribes to his high school rebbi the claim that a doctor who treats a Gentile on Shabbat violates the day unless his explicit intention is to do so only in order to avoid animus. Though this sounds like nonsense, I am informed that a high school teacher actually said it.

The insinuation that religious Jewish doctors cannot be entrusted with the care of non-Jewish patients was, as we all know, part of the arsenal of 19th century European anti-Semitism. It was not meant in earnest: as an Orthodox deputy once remarked, during a debate on the licensing of physicians in the Austrian Parliament, several of the most outspoken leaders of the anti-Semitic party used Jewish doctors.

An honest understanding of the Halakha about saving a Gentile on Shabbat is grounded in the fact that not all mitsvot can be violated to save life. Idolatry, sexual offenses and murder may not be allowed even to save life, however this flies in the face of our utilitarian mentality. Shabbat has much in common with the so-called “big three.” [Note R. Shimon’s view in Yerushalmi that a bystander may intervene to prevent Shabbat violation even at the cost of the transgressor’s life.] For Jews Shabbat may be violated to save life, but only on the basis of a special limmud (inference)—“desecrate one Shabbat so that he may observe many Shabbatot.” Where this principle does not apply, Shabbat is inviolable.

Where people understand that religion may on occasion make life and death demands, the law that Shabbat is so important that it is overridden only for those who are members of the community that observes it is difficult but not scandalous. In our culture this understanding is lacking; thus the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Jew, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death. It will provoke hatred, and understandably so. In this case, the theoretical gulf separating secularists from halakhists is not universalism vs. particularism but the recognition that Shabbat is, in principle, worth the sacrifice. It is common to stress that Judaism, compared, let us say, with Hinduism, affirms the value of human life and eschews such sacrifices. That the value of human life is overridden only in exceptional circumstances is a significant element in generalizing about Jewish ethics. But an almost absolute principle is not the same as an absolute one. [See on this my “Flowing Upstream: Reflections on Reading Gandhi at Yeshiva” in Torah uMadda Journal 10.]

In any event Feldman presumably knows very well that his high school teacher’s remark is not representative of grown-up halakhic thought, and he knows even better that it is not a guide to the practice of Orthodox Jewish doctors. Nonetheless, in his desire to satisfy himself against those who failed to properly esteem his choices and flatter his vanity, he has resorted to one of the most potent weapons of 19th-20th century anti-Semitism. He has made it easier for individuals or groups in medical schools to sideline or bar Orthodox Jews, in the name of high-sounding universalistic moral ideals, from positions in the medical profession. Whether he intends these consequences or not, and whether or not he envisions, in his wise shrewdness and genteel outrage, further punitive consequences to his classmates and their children, he has employed his power and prestige to those ends. He, and we, must live with the consequences of his decision.

Not only Feldman’s actions have consequences. There are rabbis and teachers, who sometimes feel that they must show their cleverness at any cost. At times it seems that the less they have to contribute, the more they wish to stand out. Like precocious children impressing the adults, they vie for the attention of their students with forced displays of cleverness and provocation. The point is to come up with something that nobody else would think of saying and to say something shocking and memorable. Surely the teacher whom Feldman quotes succeeded eminently in this game of pedagogical one-upmanship. He, and we, will have to live with the consequences of his judgment.