Who Shall Live, and Who Shall Die

SiBaw muses:

A Question of Morals and Ethics…

There are many interpretation and arguments as to what is ethics and what is the origin of ethical reasoning. One common line of reasoning as taught in many professional and theological capacities is “the golden rule” or the ethic of reciprocity. Basically, one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. Another line of reasoning is known as the greater good; wherein the solution that benefits the most people is the most ethically sound. Those theories sound reasonable and rather agreeable. However, while those explanation should for the most part answer a significant portion of ethical dilemmas, there are many that do not fall within their domain or worse, some of these ethical conundrums question the validity of these premises. So here is one that I was always troubled by, a quintessential classic ethical dilemma.

Hypothetically, let us say one was standing in the middle of train-yard right next to a railway manual switch. Currently there is a runaway train fast approaching the juncture. (Such as in Runaway) In its current path there are three people on that segment of the track who will definitely be killed by this speeding train. However, if you flip the switch and send the train down the other track, those three people will live, but one person on that segment of the track will be killed because of your actions. The question is, do you flip the switch? Under the reasoning of the greater good, one would be obligated to flip the switch. However, under The Golden Rule things become a little murkier. Who’s perspective are we supposed to protect? Personally, I always contended that I wouldn’t be able to flip the switch because I couldn’t in good conscience kill another human being in any capacity.

This is British philosopher Philippa Foot’s classic Trolley Problem, extensively analyzed over the last half century in the literature of both academic moral philosophy as well as the Halachah, as documented by the erudite and indefatigable Menachem Butler:

Some months ago I mentioned that during a recent North American lecture tour, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks took part in a public conversation with Prof. Michael Sandel, whose amazingly popular seminar on “Justice” at Harvard University is available online; and just two weeks ago, I received an update from a friend in Cambridge, Mass., that a video of “Judaism and Justice – A Conversation Between Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Professor Michael Sandel,” was now available online at the Harvard Hillel’s website. In that earlier post at the Michtavim blog, I mentioned how the first episode of Sandel’s Harvard seminar on “Justice” — “The Moral Side of Murder” available here — discusses Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, which has been discussed within rabbinic literature, as noted in the recent articles by Michael Harris, “Consequentialism, Deontologism, and the Case of Sheva ben Bikhri,” Torah u-Madda Journal 15 (2008-2009): 68-94, esp. 93n56, available here; J. David Bleich, “Sacrificing The Few To Save The Many,” Tradition 43:1 (Spring 2010): 78-86, available here, and which follows on the immediate heels of an article published several months ago by Gerald J. Blidstein, “Talmudic Ethics and Contemporary Problematics,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism 12:2 (2009): 204-217, available here.

R. Yosef Aryeh Lorincz (son of the famous Haredi politico R. Shlomo Lorincz) also discusses our topic in his valuable encyclopedia of the Halachah of life and death Mishnas Pikuah Nefesh.1

  1. משנת פיקוח נפש (האיר יוסף) (תשס”ג) שער ה’ סימן מ”ט []

“Squeezing the Rich”, Or Stopping Them From “Flaying the Poor”?

Halachic and Hashkafic Perspectives On Rent Control Legislation

I recently gave a lecture on the intersection of native Halachah, Minhag and Dina De’Malchusa, using the (primarily) twentieth-century Halachic literature on rent control legislation as a case study. The discussion comprises some basic consideration of the theoretical justification, as well as the practical contours, of the principle of Dina De’Malchusa Dina, and a variety of Halachic attitudes toward rent control legislation, from several perspectives, including Dina De’Malchusa Dina and Minhag. One important and fascinating aspect of the topic is the sharply divergent socio-political attitudes of the Poskim toward such legislation, and their influence on their adherents’ Halachic conclusions.

The audio, in various formats, as well as a comprehensive accompanying collection of sources and notes, is available, as usual, from the Internet Archive.

Rights and Responsibilities

Over Shavuos, I read Rebbetzin Feige Twerski’s explanation of the misguidededness of the modern feminist push for religious egalitarianism, in which she asserts a fundamental distinction between the Torah’s value system and that of modern American society:

The Equality Debate

Professor Elaine Viders from Touro Law School posits that the fact that the underpinning of American society, the U.S. Constitution, guarantees the right of equality under the law motivates women to seek “equal” status with men. Nurtured on this tradition, the modern woman has absorbed the notion of equality within the American democratic paradigm. The mistake, however, she continues, is that the underpinning of the Jewish people is not the U.S. Constitution, but the Torah, a G-d given code of law that does not speak in terms of rights for either men or women. It bestows no rights at all, only commandments (mitzvos). Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Torah and the legal corpus that derives from it (halachah), cannot be amended by a majority vote of any legislature.

It is reasonable to say that if a woman feels she is equal to a man only through donning a religious object or fulfilling a public synagogue role, which she misguidedly interprets to be a significant expression of her religious identity, she is missing out on something important – not men’s commandments, but her own. Indeed, a conceptual short circuit has occurred. The “equal rights” mind-set has crossed wires with “Divine obligation” reality. It is worth noting that in Hebrew there is no word that denotes “rights.” The word zechus, which is popularly used, actually means “merit” rather than “right”.1

[Sentence emphases added.]

Our Rav, too, frequently promulgates this idea, that Judaism differs fundamentally from Western value systems in that it focuses on obligations rather than rights. But my father always counters: is not חושן משפט expressed in the language of rights, where man’s obligations to his fellow man generally derive from rights held by the latter? Indeed, also over Shavuos, I browsed a detailed, interesting study of the Halachah of intellectual property by the venerable Haredi Dayyan Rav Yehudah Silman of Bnei Brak, one of the most highly esteemed and experienced contemporary Israeli Dayyanim, in which he makes exactly this point. The context is Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson’s remarkable, bold creation of a fundamental Halachic concept of intellectual property based on nothing more than the recognition of such by the non-Jewish government, and R. Silman’s contrast between Halachah and its secular counterpart is in the opposite direction of Rebbetzin Twerski’s:

ואמנם לא כתב [השואל ומשיב] שם מקור מההלכה לזה – מלבד סיפור שסיפר, … [ולענ”ד פשוט שאי אפשר לבנות דין מחמת קל וחומר כזה – ולהניח שיסוד חוקיהם אינם בנויים על זכויות וקנינים אלא על סברות של מה שנראה להם כיושר, – מה שאין כן בדיני תורה בכדי לכפות, צריכים בעלות].2

Apparently R. Silman is not rejecting out of hand the basic legitimacy of deriving Halachah by analogy to foreign legal systems; his objection is merely to this particular argument of R. Nathanson, based on the claim that whereas in Halachah, a cause of action must derive from ownership, non-Jewish jurisprudence is rooted merely in some vague notion of equity. While a serious analysis of these important and fundamental assertions is well beyond the scope of this post, we note that at least under American law, the matter is not quite that clear. On the one hand, our intellectual property jurisprudence is rooted in a Constitutional provision which indeed does not acknowledge any fundamental, “natural right” concept of ownership of such “property”, but merely empowers Congress to create such rights for pragmatic goals:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

But on the other hand, my (admittedly limited) understanding of the legal framework erected upon this foundation is that the end result is indeed a system of rights and ownership similar to the one governing actual, tangible property.

Another interesting point of R. Silman’s analysis is his adducing of the ban against the republication of a grammatical work of Eliyahu (Levita[s]) Bahur as proof that the prohibition against such unfair republication (השגת גבול / עני המהפך בחררה) is not limited to sacred works:

ובאמת למעיין בנוסח הסכמות ישנות בנושא זה, יראה שכבר בדורות קודמים, היו שדנו לאוסרו מצד הדין, ולדוגמא, מצינו כבר בשנת רעט. חרם בספרו של ר’ אליהו הבחור ושם מבואר בהדיא דנחתי לה, מדין עני המהפך בחררה, שנקרא רשע, לכ’ כפירוש ר’ מאיר בדגים. ולמדנו כאן שלש נקודות דלא כחתם סופר:

  • א) שהחרם קדם לרמ”א
  • ב) שאיסורו מצד השגת גבול ובחת”ם סופר נראה שהסתפק בנקודה זו
  • ג) ומ’ שהאיסור לא רק בספרי קודש, וכמו שדן החת”ם סופר3

R. Silman seems to be tacitly assuming that Hebrew grammar is not Torah, an attitude that some may find surprising, although I have long noted that Rav Ya’akov Emden explicitly rules this way (although he concedes that as a practical matter, one may nevertheless not study it in the bathroom, for such study will inevitably involve the Biblical text):

נסתפקתי אם מותר לעיין בבית הכסא במשקלי השמות והפעלים. והיה נראה לכאורה דמותר דהא קיימא לן דברים של חול מותר לאומרן בלשון הקודש. … שמע מינה בלשון עצמו ליכא משום קדושה. אלא בתר ענין אזלינן. והא נמי ליכא ענין קדושה כי אם להרהר ולחשוב באופני הדבור הנאות והלשון המדוקדק. ואפילו לדבר בם להוציאם בפה היה מותר. הגע בעצמך כשהיו ישראל על אדמתן ולשונם לשון הקודש. היו בודאי משתמשין בו אף בבית הכסא ולכל צרכם (אף על פי שבלי ספק יש קדושה בלשון גם מצד עצמו. וזהו דעת קצת במה שנקרא לשון הקודש)4

איברא לדידן מסתברא לאיסורא כיון שאין דרך להגיע לידיעת לשון הקודש על נכון כי אם על פי הכתובים אשר יורו באצבע על כללי הדקדוק. שלא נשארה בידינו ידיעת דרכי לשון הקודש אם לא על פיהם. ועל כן אי אפשר לעמוד בהם בלי הרהור דברי תורה ופסוקי המקרא ואסור:5

We close with an interesting dispute between R. Silman and the great Hungarian Posek Rav Shlomo Yehudah Tabak of Sighet (from another discussion in the same volume):

וראיתי מביאים בשם ספר תשורת שי, סימן תקמ”ט [אין הספר תחת ידי]. שמי שמכר בחנות לגוי בהקפה והגוי לא פרע בזמן והישראל המוכר רוצה להוסיף בחשבון הגוי כפי שיעור הריבית בדיניהם וכתב שם דאסור דהוי גניבה ממש – ואין זה ברור לענ”ד, דכל שרשאי להוציא בדיניהם נראה דרשאי לבא עליו בעקיפין לא מיבעי לשיטת הרמב”ם שאיסור הטעיה משום גזל – אלא אפילו נימא דאסור משום גניבת דעת – נראה דרשאי לשקר כדי להציל ממונו וכמש”כ6

The citation from Teshuras Shai is indeed accurate:

חנוני מוכר בהקפה לנכרי וקבע זמן פרעון והנכרי לא פרע עד אחר זמן אם אסור בעל החנוני לכתוב יותר בפינקסו על חשבון של נכרי …

הנה זה גנבה שנוטל שלא מדעת הנכרי וגם להטעותו אסור כדאיתא בחו”מ סימן שמ”ח סעיף ב’ …

ואפילו אם מחשב לו יותר רק מה שהיה יכול לגבות בדיניהם בשכר אגר נטר כגון ששה פערצענט למאה לשנה ואם כן יכול הישראל לומר לו כך הדין בדיניכם היינו כשמודיע להגוי אבל להטעותו בחשבון יש בו איסור משום גנבת דעת אף היכא דרשאי ליטול מדינא וכמו שכתב בשער משפט סימן שמ”ח סעיף ב’ ס”ק ב’ לענין אם נתן גוי מעות לישראל לקנות לו איזה דבר וקנה בזול פחות ממה ששוה דאסור לחשוב להגוי ביותר ממה שנתן להמוכר.7

The question of the persuasiveness of R. Tabak’s analogy to the case of Sha’ar Mishpat is left as an exercise for the reader.

  1. Rebbetzin Feige Twerski, A Woman’s Place Is … at the pulpit?, in Ami Magazine, 28 Iyyar, 5771 / June 1, 2011 (Shavuos), Ami Living, p. 51. []
  2. רב יהודה סילמן, דרכי חושן (מהדורא שניה: תשס”ב) חלק א’ עמודים רמה-רמו []
  3. שם עמוד רמט []
  4. עיין בספרו של המחבר בירת מגדל עוז, בית מדות – עליית הלשון, פרק שני (קשר) עוד בסוגיא זו, ועיין מאמרינו פה []
  5. שאילת יעב”ץ חלק א’ סימן י’ – קשר []
  6. דרכי חושן שם עמוד שפב []
  7. שו”ת תשורת ש”י (סיגעט תרס”ה) חלק א’ סימן תקמ”ט – קשר []