To Save a Life

Kedoshim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On May 6, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary | Interreligious Israel

Passover this year was not a festival of freedom for Alisa Flatow of West Orange, New Jersey. The Brandeis junior was rendered brain dead by a piece of shrapnel on April 9, when a Palestinian suicide bomber drove his van of explosives into a busload of Israelis near Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip. But before her father Stephen allowed his daughter to be taken off the respirator in Beersheva Hospital, he snatched the last measure of life from her limp body: her undamaged organs and corneas were removed “as a lasting contribution to the people of Israel.”

That inspiring act of selflessness has now been sullied by travesty. Last week a quick and reckless halakhic ruling by a distinguished member of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate has reversed the long–standing Orthodox opposition to organ donations on the condition that the organ go to another Jew. The nefarious distinction between Jew and non–Jew, not made by Mr. Flatow, who is himself Orthodox, however, serves to nullify any liberalization on the issue. The ruling appears, in fact, to border on the same demonization of the other that drove a deranged Baruch Goldstein on Purim a year ago to desecrate the mosque in Hebron with wanton murder. Is the horrifying spate of Hamas kamikazes since then a direct response in kind to the twisted martyrdom enacted by him? In the volatile climate of militant nationalism, the heated words of religious leaders often carry deadly consequences. To its credit, Israel’s Transplant Association swiftly rejected the offensive ruling.

I raise the incident because its blatant hostility toward non–Jews is at such odds with the spirit of our parasha. Surely the quest for holiness, the ultimate goal of the Torah and the subject of this week’s reading, must have some bearing on how we ought to interact with our fellow humans, both those who are like and unlike us! And indeed the Torah enunciates two complementary precepts that constitute a still unsurpassed ethic of interpersonal and intergroup relations.

The first is the justly famous and oldest formulation of the Golden Rule. From the context and choice of words it may not be quite as universal as we intend it to be when we quote it with pride. “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:18).” The emphasis on “kinsman” and “kinsfolk” strongly suggests an injunction restricted to the affairs between members of the same ethnic group, though we should not make light of such a limitation. There is no assurance that just because two Jews are joined by common ancestry or religion that their dealings will be governed by respect and empathy. Given the religious polarization that prevails today in Jewish life it is not unimaginable that someday we will be treated to a halakhic ruling that the organs of an Orthodox donor may be donated only if they go to ameliorate the life of an Orthodox recipient. That is sadly the principle that already dictates philanthropy in much of the Orthodox community.

But the Torah adds a second demand of us that significantly expands the ethical horizon: Israelite society will most likely harbor a mixed ethnic population; what sort of treatment is to be meted out to non–Israelites? Unequivocally the same as to members of the dominant nation. The Torah repudiates any notion of a double standard: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33–34).”

This inclusive commandment marks the pinnacle of biblical ethics, the critical extension of the Golden Rule. The language is strikingly similar to that used above with reference to other Israelites. Both Israelites and non–Israelites are to be classified as citizens of the state and treated with equal magnanimity, because that is God’s will. And as if that were not quite cogent enough, the experience of Egyptian slavery is invoked to reinforce the ideal. We must never forget the tears we shed when we were oppressed. It is precisely the difficulty of loving the other, the person least like us, which prompts the Torah to repeat this particular law more than any other. True justice has to include the most vulnerable member of society, the outsider.

Nor does rabbinic Judaism depart from this lofty conception of justice. The Talmud has Hillel tell a gentile shopping for religion that the essence of Judaism is a synthesis of both verses in Leviticus: “What is repugnant to you, do not do to your fellow human being…. All the rest is commentary.” In the same expansive spirit, the Rabbis taught: “We support impoverished gentiles along with impoverished Israelites; we visit sick gentiles along with sick Israelites and we bury deceased gentiles along with deceased Israelites because of paths of peace.” And finally, the Mishnah declared that saving the life of a single human being (Jew or gentile) as equivalent to saving the entire human race, for the human family began with the creation of a single ancestor. Nothing in any of these normative texts would imply that Judaism holds the contemptible view that one life is more sacred than another.

It is not the long medieval experience of degradation and persecution that corrupted Judaism, but the corrosive alliance with militant nationalism. The bloody history of the twentieth century abounds with examples of weak–kneed clergy succumbing to the lure or intimidation of power cloaked as national salvation. Even in Israel the territorial imperative perverts religious values as it dehumanizes the other.

The Orthodox responsum on organ donations shows once again that great learning is no guarantee of common sense or human decency. At the beginning of his commentary on this week’s parasha, the incomparable thirteenth–century Spanish scholar Nachmanides speaks bitingly of a “boor in the realm of Torah,” that is, of a learned and observant Jew who, though not in violation of single precept of Jewish law, still brings disgrace to the Torah. If the author of the organ ruling were but a rare instance of the type, there would be little cause for alarm. But, alas, as the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel continues to veer to the right, with ever increasing contempt for general education and life experience, the exception has become the norm, and threatens to discredit us all.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat K’doshim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.