Not So Quickly…
I wasn’t planning to post on Noah Feldman’s article in the NY Times, so I am going to respond to one of his responders. Jeff Woolf at My Obiter Dicta brings a response by R. Shalom Carmy regarding one of Feldman’s comments, that of violating the Shabbat in order to save the live of a non-Jew. The problem which one encounters when discussing this issue is that, as noted by Jeff, it is part of the bread-and-butter of many anti-Semites, as any internet search which show. So, here are my comments.
R. Carmy writes that,
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.
The main source for the claim that “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,’” is a midrash halachah from the Mechilta (Parshat Ki Tissa, Massechta de-Shabbata, chapter 1, p. 340-341, 343. See also Yoma 85a-b).
R. Nathan* says: Behold it says: “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath to observe the sabbath throughout their generations” (v. 16). This implies that we should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person so that that person may be able to observe many Sabbaths. (Lauterbach ed. pp. 198-199).
The problem is that this very opinion is rejected in the Babylonian Talmud. It is quoted elsewhere as an authoritative opinion (Shabbat 151b), and Gil Student has attempted to show that this is the central principle behind the laws of pikuah nefesh on Shabbat, but while this opinion may have been accepted by many rabbis, it is far from universally accepted. One need only to look over a number of sources to see that for some rabbis this opinion was not accepted, and some even said that it was no more than rhetoric and not some overarching legal principle (see Responsa Hatam Sofer, OH par. 83; Responsa Tziz Eliezer, vol. VIII, par. 15, Kunteres Meshivat Nafesh chap. 3; Biur Halachah on OH par. 329 s.v. Elah lefi sha’ah). Also R. Carmy says,
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.
I am not sure what “grown-up halakhic thought” is, but two comments. While it is true that most modern poskim do say that a religious Jew should violate the Shabbat in order to save the life of a non-Jew, some restrict it to only cases where one violates rabbinic prohibitions, and none other than the Mishnah Berurah has written some very strong words against it (MB on OH 330, sub. par. 8). So far the written evidence. As to the unwritten evidence, I know of a well-respected rabbi in the NYC area who, at least at one time, instructed his students who were doctors to try and avoid situations in which they would violate the Shabbat in order to administer to non-Jewish patients. They even went so far as to ask a friend of mine to remove his kippah when he worked on Shabbat so people wouldn’t think that it was permissible. Don’t nudge me about who this rabbi is, you don’t have to believe me, but let us just say that my friend has to this day refused to daven in the above mentioned rabbi’s shul. Can you imagine what would happen if a priest taught in his seminary that Catholic doctors should try and avoid situations in which they would have to save the life of people who don’t accept Jesus as their savior? OK, they shouldn’t act that way every day, but maybe just limit it to Christian holy days.
Lastly Jeff has written that,
Jewish Law realized that the question of treating a non-Jew on Shabbat had to be addressed and allowed. Halakhah came up איבה. Yes, in marketing terms it’s terrible. That, however, is not the point. The genuine, Jewish moral impulse did find a cogent, principled legal category within which to function. Halakhah doesn’t operate in philosophical categories, it operates in legal categories.
I used to agree with Jeff that איבה, “enmity”, must be understand within the limits of legal reasoning, and that those searching for overarching moral statements are looking for language and terminology which was not used. I have come to disagree with this for two reasons. The first is that my examination of many sources which discuss the question of איבה has convinced me that some, and I am not ready to guess whether it the majority or minority, only permit the violation of Shabbat not because of some “Jewish moral impulse”, but rather they just felt that it wasn’t conducive to good relations. If they could have gotten out of it, they would have. In addition, we now know that the Meiri in his far-reaching redefinition of the relations of Jews and non-Jews, includes the topic of violating the Shabbat to save the life of a non-Jew as one of the categories which must be redefined in the light of the changed moral framework within which non-Jews now live (see Moshe Halbertal’s book, Bein Torah le-Hochmah, p. 89). My intention is not to judge the generations before us by the morals and expectations of today’s world, but just to be honest about what Jewish tradition teaches, with the understanding that their world was not our’s, yet to have an expectation that those in our world would behave and teach differently.
*In the Babylonian Talmud this is brought in the name of R. Simon b. Menasiah.