By Rabbi Moshe Kesselman, Rav of Congregation Shaarei Tefila
A recent New York Times article reported the story of Dr. Craig Spencer, who risked his life to treat deathly ill patients in West Africa. For six weeks he worked with Doctors Without Borders, and somewhere out in Guinea he was exposed to that deadly virus ‘Ebola.’ He tested positive on October 23rd and was then held in strict isolation for 20 days where he was successfully treated, and released. His fiancée was also quarantined but did not contract the virus.
It got me thinking. According to Halacha, is a Jew ever obligated to risk his/her life to help save another? Is a Jew permitted to risk his life in the hope of saving other lives? Put more delicately, is that permissible? It seems preposterous. Wouldn’t a doctor’s death be a waste of a brave and meaningful life? And a senseless waste at that, after all what can he accomplish if he is dead?
Of course Halachah has an answer for every situation. The Tosefta to the Mishnah of Terumot instructs a Jew to give their life rather than surrender a fellow Jew to execution. There are three things that Jews are commanded to refrain from, even if this means being killed themselves: committing or abetting murder, incest and engaging in idol worship. “Any other infraction of the laws of Judaism, no matter how grave, is permissible in order to save one’s own or someone else’s life. This is the principle of piku’ah. nefesh, saving life”
I’d like to present Two Halachik scenarios, where this question is relevant, and a poignant story of a Jew who risked his life to save his fellow Jews’.
Watch me die?
Imagine, G-d forbid, you and I are travelling through the dessert and we have almost run out of water. I have nothing left; you have merely enough water to last you long enough to get to civilization. If you drink it all, you will survive and I will die. If we split the water, we will both perish.
The Talmud discusses this harrowing scenario, and two Tana’im argue over the Halacha. ‘Ben Petura’ maintained that we split the water and both die. ‘Let one man not see the death of his fellow.’ Rabbi Akiva disagrees, ‘the one who is in possession of the water drinks it all and saves himself. He may watch his fellow die. After all, ‘Your own life comes first.’
The Halacha follows Rabbi Akiva, but it’s still not that simple. The Poskim who codified the Halachah, argued over Rabbi Akiva’s intentions. Did Rabbi Akiva mean that you may save yourself first? Or that you have to save yourself? What if you chose to share the water with me? Is that permissible? This question has practical ramifications in a contemporary Halachic debate, for example: Falling on a Grenade.
Falling on a grenade
Is one allowed to ‘fall on a grenade’ and absorb the impact of the explosion, in order to save the lives of others? Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion, that the man has the ability to jump away and save himself, but he chooses to jump onto the grenade, in order to save others . What is the Halacha?
According to Ben Petura, he would be obligated to kill himself, in order to save others. According to Rabbi Akiva, he is under no obligation to do so because his own life comes first. But Poskim are still unclear whether Rabbi Akiva allows for the man to kill himself. Does Rabbi Akiva maintain that the man has the right to jump away and save himself? Or does Rabbi Akiva mean that he has the obligation to jump away and save himself?
Example No. 2 Donating a Kidney
Harav Eliezer Waldenberg maintained that it is forbidden for a Jew to donate a kidney, if there is a chance that the donor’s life might be endangered. He claims that although the risk to the donor is uncertain and the benefit for the recipient is certain, he is forbidden to donate it even though the kidney would save his life. R’ Moshe Feinstein disagreed. He maintained that it is permissible to donate a kidney in order to save someone’s life, provided, that the benefit for the recipient is definite and the danger for the donor is indefinite.
In the case of Dr. Spencer, there is more involved. He went to Guinea to save the lives of many people, not just one. So we need to rephrase the question. Halachikly, would a Jew be allowed to risk his own life, in order to help save many lives? It seems most opinions would agree that for the sake of a Tzibbur/community, one may do anything to save them. No holds barred.
A Heroic story
R’ Ephraim Oshry was one of the few European rabbis and Poskim to survive the Holocaust. In 1949 he printed a set of 5 books filled with many tragic Halachic questions that he dealt with throughout World War 2 .
In one example Rav Oshry writes that when the Germans entered Lithuania, in 1941, he was approached by Rabbi Avrohom Grodzinsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of the famous Slobodka Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva wanted Rav Oshry to prevail upon the secretary of the Agudat Harabonim – Rabbi Itzkovitch – to ask the Lithuanians to release his yeshiva boys who had been jailed. Rabbi Itzkovitch knew these officials from before the war, and it was believed that he had the best chance of success. For Rabbi Itzkovitch to even make this request was Sakanat Nefashot, he would be risking his life by even showing up at the office of the anti-Semetic Lithuanians.
Rav Oshry ruled, ‘One could not ask Rabbi Itzkovitch to endanger himself in order to save the Yeshiva students. However, if he volunteered to endanger himself, on the chance that he might save them, he was certainly not to be stopped.’
In the end, Rabbi Itzkovitch decided to make the appeal and he courageously made the effort on behalf of the Yeshiva students. He was successful, and the Yeshiva boys were freed.
A Chassidic Rebbe once said: ‘It is sometimes more difficult to live with Mesirut Nefesh, (giving our life, giving everything we have,) than to die with Mesirut Nefesh. Boruch Hashem, many of us do not have to face life threatening challenges, in our daily lives. In order to help those around us, we don’t have to risk our lives. But we have much to learn from those who do. May our halachah guide us and may their courage and bravery inspire us.