Friday, February 10, 2006

Sin or Die

Essay One: Sin or Die
From the moment that Avraham jumped into the fiery furnace under the command of King Nimrod for resisting idolatry, the Jewish nation inherited a certain character trait. That hereditary characteristic is the drive for one to give up his life in martyrdom to sanctify the holy name of HaShem. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner (1749-1821) explains[1] that this will is now engrained in all descendants of Abraham and accounts for their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the sake of G-d[2]. However, in Halacha, a person is usually obligated to violate a transgression if human life is at risk. This justifies desecrating the Holy Shabbos in order to save someone's life or eating pork when having a gun stuck to one's head (heaven forbid[3]). When someone's life is at risk, any transgression is considered ones (meaning "accidental" or even "forced") and the transgressor is therefore exempt from punishment. The scriptural source for exempting ones is the verse, which states[4] “…and to the [forced] girl do not do anything”; even though she committed adultery, she is exonerated because she was forced. Nonetheless, there are certain instances in which one must give his or her life up instead of committing a sin; these are called cases of yaharog v'al ya'avor. A Beraisa quoted by the Talmud[5] records that only three cardinal prohibitions supersede a human life; they are, namely, idolatry, murder, and the sexually forbidden relations. Concerning these three grave transgressions, the Talmud teaches that one is obligated to give up his life rather than to commit the transgression.
If one is sick on the fast of Yom Kippur to the extent that if he did not eat, he would, die, then the Torah allows him leeway and this person has an exemption from the fast, and can eat[6]. The same law applies to eating chametz (leavened grain products) on Pesach, when such foods are normally forbidden[7]. (In both cases, it should preferably be done in a way where the person has the least amount of pleasure while utilizing this dispensational leniency.) This is true even though under normal circumstances eating on Yom Kippur is grounds for the strictest of punishments[8]. However, if one had a lethal sickness that could only be cured by having relations with a woman who is forbidden to him, or even by looking at the naked flesh of such a lady, the law is that he should be left to die rather than to commit such an act of licentiousness. The same rule seemingly applies to one with a mortally dangerous addiction to idolatry or murder. The Rambam rules that if one ended up saving himself from a disease through committing one of these three cardinal sins, he still gets his befitting punishment from Bais Din. The person is supposed to allow his or her own self to die rather than to heal through dubious means.
According to various additional sources, there may be more than three of these cardinal sins. An addition to the list comes from the Maharshal (Rabbi Solomon Ben Jechiel Luria, 1510-1574), who rules[9] that one should give up one's life rather than to lie about Torah. Perhaps the logic behind this is because lying about the Torah can be tantamount to idolatry for which one is also obligated to give up his life rather than commit. In modern times, many later day achronim decided certain prohibitions should also be considered yeharog v’al ya’avor: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) ruled that an American Jew should rather allow himself to be killed rather than to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Similarly, the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz, 1878-1953) decreed that the prohibitions for a Jewish girl to join the Israeli Army and of negiah (lit. “Touching,” refers to the rule barring a Jewish male from coming into any physical contact with a non-related Jewish female) supersede life[10]. The Ramban quotes[11] an apocryphal Baraitha in which Rabbi Meir adds to the aforementioned list the prohibition of stealing (and damaging other people's property). Indeed, the Chasam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839) codifies[12] this minority opinion of Rabbi Mayer into practical use. A footnote to the Otzar Meforshei HaTalmud [13] proposes[14] that perhaps the rationale of Rabbi Meir is the dictum that stealing any amount, even an iota, is tantamount to murder, as the Talmud records elsewhere in the name of Rabbi Yochanan[15].
Additionally, in his glosses to Kesubos 19a, Rabbi Akiva Eiger of Posen (1761-1837), the father-in-law of the Chasam Sofer, refers the reader to a passage from Tosafos in Sotah: The Talmud teaches[16] that it is better for one to throw one’s self into a fiery pit rather than to embarrass a fellow person (“whiten his face”) in public. Tosafos in Sotah[17] give[18] technical reasons as to why embarrassment is not considered one of the three cardinal sins[19].
The Brisker Rav (Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, 1886-1959) points out[20] that the question of Tosefos assumes that humiliating others does indeed require the ultimate sacrifice in its avoidance. Indeed, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona (circa. 12th century) rules[21] that this prohibition takes precedence over one’s own self-preservation. Perhaps one can again say that embarrassment is tantamount to murder, as Rabbenu Yonah himself seems to say in his commentary to Avos 3:11, and thus was not required to be enumerated in the list of yeharog v’al ya’avor cases. The comparison between embarrassment and murder is traditionally explained by assuming that one loses blood in his face when embarrassed, which is similar to death; this explains the Rabbinical Hebrew term for “embarrassment,” which is “malbin pnei chaveiro,” literally, “whitening the face of his friend.” Nonetheless, the Rambam omits[22] lying about the Torah, embarrassing others, and stealing in his enumeration of the cardinal sins.
The underlying foundation for each accepted cardinal sin is found throughout the Talmudic literature. Every Jew is supposed to love HaShem “with his might”[23]. A Braisa explains[24] that this teaches that a man whose body is overly important to him should give up his body in service to HaShem, if forced to commit idolatry. The reasoning behind why one must give up his life rather than to be forced to murder someone else is based on[25] a logical question, “Why is my blood redder than his [the potential victim’s] blood?” This means that a person cannot assume that his life is more precious than another’s and should another’s life be at stake, he should allow himself to murdered rather than to actively commit murder himself. All of the sexually forbidden relations are exegetically compared[26] to murder based on Deuteronomy 22:26, which considers raping a betrothed girl to soul-murder, and thus one is obligated to give up his life in order not to commit one of those forbidden sexual acts. Some explain that since one cannot have an erection without proper intent to do so[27], any case of the forbidden sexual relations must be considered willing and thus can never be classified as completely ones[28].
Tosafos elucidate[29] at great length the deep intricacies of the laws of yeharog v’al ya’avor. They explain that one is only obligated to sacrifice himself if he would otherwise be committing the transgression actively. However, explain Tosaphos, if either a person would otherwise be committing a transgression indirectly or submissively, he is not obligated to allow himself to be killed. Committing a sin merely causatively—instead of directly—is like one being pushed on top of a baby to kill him as opposed to choking the baby with one’s own hands. Classic examples of passively sinning include two people physically being forced upon each other by another or any female in sexual relations (who is qarqa olam). This explanation justifies the acts of Esther, a married woman according to Megillah 13a, who had an adulterous relation with the Persian-Median king, King Achashverosh[30]. Since as a female she was only a passive partner in the relationship, she was not considered actively transgressing the law and thus was allowed to lie with him instead of allowing herself to be executed. However, the Talmud[31] was not satisfied with this answer because she nonetheless gained some pleasure from her relations[32] with the wicked king and thus should have refrained from that. Tosafos answer that just as the Talmud said by Yael[33] that when a righteous person causes pleasure for a wicked person it is displeasure for the righteous person, with reference to Esther, since she pleasured the evil king Ahasuerus, their relations was displeasure for her. Others answer that sex with a non-Jew does not have the legal status of sex; however, this is a difficult answer. The second understanding answers the problem with the first answer in that since their relationship was on public display, transgressions involved should have had stronger stringencies attached to it.
In the story of Purim, Mordechai HaYehudi refused to prostrate himself in front of Haman the Agagite; he was even willing to give up his life in order not to bow down to Haman[34]. This is because, as the Rambam rules[35], in a situation where one is forced to commit a transgression in public, one must always choose death. Furthermore, at a time of persecution (shmad) or under a regime or influence of anti-Torah forces that purposely cause people to commit sins, any ultimatum given between death and sin should result in death. The Talmud says[36] even though one who is physically forced beyond his control to commit a sin is usually not responsible for his sin; there is no such dispensation for idolatry. Thus, even if one is physically forced to submit to an idol, even if he does not have any heretical intentions when committing the abominable act, he is still liable. These reasons justify Mordechai in not bowing down to Haman even though it could have potentially caused the death of world Jewry[37] in his time. The Rambam says that an important person (e.g. the Gadol HaDor) should not use a leniency and should sacrifice himself. Mordechai put himself in danger by not bowing to Haman because Mordechai, as a member of the Sanhedrin, was one of the leading Rabbis of his generation and it would thus be unfitting to allow himself to commit a sin, especially in public. Mordecai did not have the heter (permission) of being passive (elaborated in Tosafos above) like his wife had, because obeisance in submission to an idol is an active action even if it is being caused by another person. Rabbi Chaim Solveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918), father of the Brisker Rav, assumes[38] that the Rambam did not concur with Tosefot concerning that heter and felt even by a passive one is obligated to give up his life. The Chazon Ish was in doubt whether the Rambam agreed with the heter of Tosafos or not[39]. This can explain why Mordechai did not use the heter[40].
In practical Halacha, Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger (1798-1871) writes[41] that it is forbidden for one to embarrass another in order to save his own life[42]. He writes that although embarrassing another is not actually considered an active action, one is still obligated to give up his life. Perhaps this is because talking (which presumably is the means of embarrassment) can be considered a semi-action in Halacha[43]. Rabbi Ber Oppenheim argues on Rabbi Ettinger[44]; he maintains that the passage in Sotah 11a is merely an Aggadic citation and bears no relevance in practical Halacha[45]. The Brisker Rav[46] points out a discerning feature in the text of the Gemara: It literally states that it is “better for one to throw him into a fiery pit and not embarrass his friend.” This seems to imply that it is only “better” for one to do so, but not that he is obligated to do so.
The Rambam and Tosafos both agree that if a person does not give up his life, but instead allows himself to be forced into a sin, then he cannot be held liable. This is because his transgression was forced (because of the threat of losing his life) and as explained above, the Torah exempts an accident. In an amazing novel idea, the Rambam says that since when one sacrifices his life in order to not sin, he sanctifies the name of heaven (like those who died in the Holocaust), then the converse should also be true and when such a person does the sin, he is profaning the name of G-d (chillul HaShem). A Noachide does not have this obligation to sanctify the “name of heaven”[47], therefore is not considered desecrating the name of G-d by commit these sins instead of allowing himself to be killed. It seems from here that a Noahide is not allowed to risk his life to avoid one of these sins. However, Shifrah and Puah[48] disobeyed the King of Egypt and thereby put their own lives in danger by not committing infanticide on the Jewish baby boys[49]. This seems to imply that a non-Jew is allowed to risk his or her life in order not to commit murder. The Maharitz Chayos (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, 1805-1855) explains[50] that the two midwives evaluated the situation and concluded that not killing the babies would actually not put their lives in danger, so they helped save the babies. However, under normal circumstances, a Noahide is not permitted to put his life in danger in order not to commit one of the cardinal sins. Doing so is tantamount to stealing from G-d, for one’s body and soul is not his own, but is rather His.
Under normal circumstances, a person committing suicide is forbidden. When Chur, the grandfather of Betzalel, refused to help the Jews build a Calf of Gold for idolatry, he was put to death. This is because “the world in its entirety belongs the Creator”[51], and killing oneself is akin to stealing from Him. Furthermore, under normal circumstances a person may not give up his life in order to perform one of the mitzvos because it says[52], “v’chai bahem,” meaning that one should live through the commandments, decrees, and laws of the Torah, and not that one should, god forbid, die through them. However, given certain criteria, the gravity and seriousness of certain sins have the power to obligate the potential transgressor to give up his life rather than to commit an atrocity. It should be the will of G-d that the merit of those who have died as martyrs in the name of heaven should come and redeem His people from their current situation and bring upon the days of Moshiach, speedily and in our days. Amen.

[1] Ruach Chaim, Avos, Chapter 5
[2] Perhaps this explains the suicidal extremists of Islam – an Abarahamic religion—who feel their actions are the wishes of G-d.
[3] In the interest of brevity, this phrase will be omitted many times in the following paragraphs, even in instances where it should really be present.
[4] Deuteronomy 22:26
[5] Kesubos 19a
[6] Yoma 83a
[7] Exodus 12:20
[8] Kerisos 2a
[9] Yam Shel Shlomo to Bava Kama, 4:9
[10] Perhaps the source of the Chazon Ish is Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of Torah, 5:9 who says that even two single people cannot engage in relations to save one’s life, and the Rabbis even flogged someone (Yevamos 91b), even when the law did not call for it, in order to distance the Jewish people from promiscuity and to maintain the nation’s purity and innocence.
[11] Kesubos 19a
[12] See responsa Chasam Sofer on Choshen Mishpat, §1
[13] Compiled and published by Machon Yerushalayim in the 1990’s
[14] Bava Kama 50b
[15] Bava Kama 119a
[16] Sotah 10b
[17] Attributed to Rabbi Baruch ben Shmuel of Mainz (d. 1221), the author of the Sabbath poem “Baruch Kel Elyon”
[18] Ad loc.
[19] It seems that since the prohibition of embarrassing others is not written explicitly in the Oral Torah, it lacks the magnitude of the three cardinal sins, which were unequivocally written in the Chumash multiple times.
[20] Chiddushei HaGriz to Sotah ad loc.
[21] Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:139
[22] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of Torah, Chapter 5
[23] Deuteronomy 6:5
[24] Brachos 60b
[25] Yoma 82b
[26] Sanhedrin 74a
[27] See Yevamos 53b. “Rabbi” Bradley Shavit Artson had the audacity to argue with this Talmudic dictum and state that it cannot be true based on stories of “Tzaddikim” who had nocturnal emissions through unintentional erections (Jewish Spectator, Winter 1990, “Gay and Lesbian Jews: An Innovative Jewish Legal Position”). However, he is mistaken because in Halacha erections while asleep are considered ones, not merely unintentional.
[28] Forbidden relations while he is flaccid according to this understanding must be permitted.
[29] Ad loc. and Yoma 82a-b
[30] Albeit she cohabited with him using a contraceptive device, see Tosafos, Megillah 13b.
[31] Sanhedrin 74a
[32] Bava Kama 32a
[33] Yevamos 103b
[34] Esther 3:2-5
[35] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of the Torah, 5:2
[36] Avodah Zarah 54a
[37] Achashveyrosh ruled the entire world and thus had the authority to instate a worldwide killing of Jews, as proven in Megillah 11a
[38] Chidushei Rabbeinu Chaim HaLevi Al HaRambam, Laws of Foundations of the Torah, 5:1
[39] See Chiddushei HaChazon Ish Al HaRambam, ad loc. and the footnotes of the Chazon Ish on Reb Chaim Brisker, cited above
[40] However, see responsa Chasam Sofer on Yorei Deiah, §133 for a completely different rationalization of Maimonides’s opinions. See also Tosafos to Shabbos 72b concerning Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman.
[41] Responsa Binyan Tzion §182 and §183
[42] Based on the passage from Sotah 11a cited above
[43] Specifically regarding false witnesses who receive lashes for their testimony or a blasphemer who verbally curses the Lord
[44] As recorded in the responsa from Rabbi Ettlinger
[45] He bases himself on the Terumas HaDeshen §108.
[46] Chiddushei HaGriz to Sotah 11a
[47] See Sanhedrin 74b. The Bais HaLevi (Parshas Yisro) interestingly explains why non-Jews are not obligated to give up their lives for certain commandments, while Jews are. He says that at Mount Sinai, HaShem acquired the Jews as His slaves and therefore, they are bound by His command to the Torah (yet concerning most commandments, He says one is not obligated to die for, but for others He says one is). Non-Jews are only bound by His commandments as part of humanity, but not in the fashion that a slave must heed to his master/owner. Therefore, gentiles are commanded in their Noahide laws, but are not obligated to sacrifice themselves for them.
[48] Identified as either Yocheved and Miriam, or Jochebed and Elisheva, respectively, see Sotah 11a
[49] Exodus, Chapter 1
[50] Glosses to Sotah 11a
[51] see Psalms 24:1
[52] Leviticus 18:5

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