Friday, April 20, 2007

A conflict of halachot, or . . . ?

The other day, a co-worker and I were talking about the horrifying events at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, in which an emotionally-deranged student massacred 32 people (students and faculty members) in a meticulously-planned mass murder-suicide.

One of the dead is Holocaust-survivor Liviu Librescu, an Engineering Science and Mechanics Department professor, last seen blocking the classroom door in an attempt to save his students, many of whom escaped almost-certain death by jumping out the second-story window. The killer, y'mach sh'mo (may his name be blotted out) shot him dead right through the door.

My co-worker expressed reservations about the nature of Prof. Librescu's sacrifice. "It was a suicide." (Suicide is forbidden by halachah, Jewish religious law).

"Yes, but he saved all those people."

"But do we know whether any of them were Jewish?"

I was so shocked that I just stood there with my jaw hanging open, stunned into silence.

Finally, I managed to snarl, "What does that have to do with anything?," and stormed away.

Another co-worker who'd overhead me took the first opportunity to ask why I'd raised my voice. When I told her what co-worker A had said, her jaw dropped, too.

Later that day, when I'd had time to cool down and consider an appropriate, and, I hoped, convincing response, I found an opportunity to speak to co-worker A again, and said, "Hashem m'rachem al habriyot (the L-rd has compassion on the creatures [of His creation])--why don't you?" She hedged, saying, "Of course, it was a great Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of The Name [of G-d])."

I'm not sure whether it's exactly a halachah, a Jewish religious law, to sanctify G-d's name under such circumstances, but it comes darned close. I'd like to believe that co-worker A was sincerely conflicted between the law against suicide and the principle of sanctifying The Name, but . . .

It doesn't seem to have occurred to co-worker A that bigotry is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of The Name. It also seems to have escaped her notice that the Torah commands us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.


Blogger Maven said...

it wasn't a suicide, it was a homocide.

librescu was a hero, as were others that day.

Sun Apr 22, 12:02:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Lion of Zion said...

"When I told her what co-worker A had said, her jaw dropped, too."

i really hope co-worker B was jewish (and from my perspective, orthodox). A's comment was uncalled for, but i would hesitate to repeat it to others who might think this is how we all think.

Sun Apr 22, 12:29:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Co-worker B is a secular Jew, co-worker A is Orthodox, which is one of the reasons why I found her statement particularly appalling. Good L-rd (literally speaking), I certainly *hope* that that attitude is not typical of the Orthodox community!

Sun Apr 22, 03:57:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Maven, sorry if I wasn't clear--it was a mass homocide followed by a suicide.

And Librescu was most certainly a hero.

Sun Apr 22, 04:01:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Elie said...

Coworker A's remarks displayed blatant ignorance of practical halacha, as well as extreme insensitivity. There was nothing (large-or-small "o") Orthodox about them. I would have gotten even angrier than you did.

Mon Apr 23, 12:55:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A famous gemara(I think in Bava Metzia, but I forgot exactly) discusses the topic. Two unrelated people are in the desert, one has water, one does not have water, and there is no other water around. Does the one with water have an obligation to share? After a bit of discussion, R. Akiva says "chayecha kodmim", your life comes before the life of anyone else. There is no halachic obligation to give up your life to save the life of another.

More to the point of this post, is it permissible to give up your life for the life of others? Obviously it is not permitted to commit suicide. However, the rabbis recognize that self sacrifice for the greater good is permissible, especially if/when one is not looking at certain death, only possible death. Therefore, I don't think that any legitimate halachic authority would have any problem with the actions of Prof. Librescu regardless if the students were Jewish or not Jewish.

Not in defense of the co-worker, but halacha defines a heirarchy of who one should save in a situation, starting with a talmid chacham, cohen, and on down. However, in situations where I have seen the practicalities discussed, there are so many caveats thrown in that the actual heirarchy becomes moot.


Mon Apr 23, 03:15:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ari would have hesitated to repeat A's comment, lest others get the mistaken impression that this way of thinking was common.

Elie would have gotten steaming mad at A's ignorance of practical halachah and at her insensitivity.

Noam breaks it down. "There is no halachic obligation to give up your life to save the life of another.

. . .but "the rabbis recognize that self sacrifice for the greater good is permissible, especially if/when one is not looking at certain death, only possible death."

The consensus seems to be that co-worker A doesn't have a halachic leg to stand on, and not much by way of derech eretz (common decency), either.

Mon Apr 23, 03:37:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a clarification. A strict interpretation of Halacha does not allow you to sacrifice your life for that of a stranger, or even a bunch of strangers(no matter if they are Jewish or not Jewish). However, there is a recognition that people do sacrifice their lives for the sake of those with whom they have a previous relationship, and those actions are not condemned.

The distinction between people is more complex than just Jews and non-Jews. The usually accepted view in the Modern Orthodox world is that non-Jews who essentially observe the 7 mitzvot of b'nai Noach(no murder, no stealing, marriage laws, fair courts, no idol worship...etc) are similar to Jews in this respect. Obviously there are other views as well.

As an example, think of Roi Cohen, who jumped onto a hand grenade and died while saving the lives of his company in Lebanon. Certainly no one can or would condemn that action, although he sacrificed his life to save others(and even said Shma while doing so).


Tue Apr 24, 09:29:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Noam, what I see in your explanation of halachah here (and in previous posts) is that strict interpretations of halachah are one thing--and perhaps my co-worker has a toe to stand on--but an understanding of what often happens in real life tempers the law. That is, I think, as it should be. Life does not always give us the types of choices that we would prefer.

Tue Apr 24, 09:14:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

It wasn't a suicide, because it was not a direct result of his actions. In blocking the door, he was at risk (and we certainly try to be stringest in terms of risk), but his actions were in no ways a suicide. That said, he may (or may not) have saved many gentile lives. While not as strict a Mitzvah as saving Jewish lives, there is more involved than that.

The world universally recognized him, Israel, and the Jewish people in their fight against the Nazis, the Communists, and apparently crazy people. Instead of the usual anti-semetic diatribe, the media portrayed Jewish heroism. Without a doubt, that is a Kedusha Hashem.

However, your repeating the story was in no way acceptable. You took a statement from someone, and used it to reinforce negative stereotypes. Beyond the issue of Lashon Hara, your going out of your way to make Judaism look bad to a non-practicing Jew -- attempting to show religious Jews as intolerant -- is certainly a stumbling block making it less likely that "B" will turn to a life of observance.

Further, "A" was commenting on the tragedy of a Jewish death as they understood it. There was certainly no obligation for this man to give his life for his students, and his saving of gentile life may have been heroic, but not necessarily the halachically preferred decision, but certainly not something that he is liable for punishment over. "A" has not been indicated to be a Rabbi, or even a particularly learned individual. It may come as a shock to you, but many people are Orthodox without dedicating their life to learning, yet remain Shomer Mitzvot because they believe Hashem wants them to observe the Mitzvot. Going to them for Halachic opinions is unlikely to net you a good answer.

Tue May 01, 12:04:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Co-worker A is most certainly not a rabbi, nor, as best I can judge, a particularly learned individual. I did not go to her for a halachic opinion--she volunteered it without being asked.

That said, I honestly hadn't thought of my action--repeating her words to someone else--as being a classic case of lashon hara ("evil speech," negative gossip). It hadn't quite registered with me that the truth can also be lashon ha-ra. Thank you for reminding me. Apparently, I, too, need lessons in derech eretz (courtesy, appropriate behavior).

I have no dilusions that co-worker B will ever become an observant Jew, but making Orthodoxy look bad certainly doesn't help. I'm trying to think of a way to speak to her privately--not easy, given the constant presence of other employees and visitors in our organization's offices--and remind her that there are many fine frum folks among our co-workers, and that she should not be put off by one person's occasional slip of the tongue.

Wed May 02, 10:20:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Alex in Miami said...

I remembered your forum, looked it up today, and when I reread my post, I realized how rude and judgemental I sounded. For that I apologize. We're all guilty of repeating things the people have done that was inappropriate... Avoiding truthful Lashon Hara is probably the most difficult time.

If you knew me in college, frat boy extradoinaire, with a different shiksa of the week, you'd never expect me to be observant within 4 years of graduation. It took a few chance encounters with religious individuals who weren't judgemental or rude to get me to drop my prejudices and explore my heritage. So while you may not think that "B" will ever become observant, one never knows, and should certainly never push them away from Yiddishkeit.

Repeating the words of ignorant, rude, "frummies" is not a good way to show religious Judaism to secular Jews, because it reinforces the stereotypes that do not require investigation of their fair.

Mon May 07, 10:55:00 PM 2007  

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