8/30/2011

No Praise for Folly

The New York and Jewish media is abuzz with the tragic story of Rabbi David Reichenberg, who lost his life in an attempt to save two neighbors, a father and son, who were entangled in live downed electrical wires during Hurricane Irene. R. Reichenberg is being nearly unanimously hailed as a hero for his act of supreme altruism and selflessness.
[Note: Reports differ in their descriptions of the events. Compare the first report I read to the one that later appeared in the New York Daily News].
Yet it is probable that R. Reichenberg was halakhically forbidden to do what he did, and there is a danger in lionizing actions that were, by all indications, misguided. I therefore write the following not, God forbid, to minimize the heroic virtue displayed by R. Reichenberg or to argue that he was anything less than deserving of the praise that will undoubtedly be heaped upon him. My goal is rather to argue that his actions (as opposed to his virtues) are not worthy of emulation, and that it is important to teach what Jewish law says about such instances, so that lives are not unnecessarily forfeited in the future.
The question of whether one may endanger himself to save another has arisen often, and in various contexts, over the years. It is obviously a very thorny issue, but the nature of the beast is that everyone must have some kind of guideline, since there is little time to start clarifying positions when cases arise (though occasionally there are - for example the dilemma of whether to donate a vital organ such as a kidney or partial liver to save a life). These are the basic guidelines:
  • There is a duty to save another's life. The Torah enshrines this duty in Lev. 19:16: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." In Judaism, there is such thing as a "guilty bystander".
  • One is not required to risk his life to save another life.
  • One is permitted to risk his life to save another life as long as the risk to the would-be-savior is justified by a greater (or possibly equal, as long as it is not a definite case of trading one life for another) reduction in the risk to the endangered party.
Obviously, it is impossible to conduct a statistical evaluation at the zero hour. Yet the would-be-savior must quickly assess that the risk he incurs to himself is not greater than the chances that he saves the endangered party. Risk can be assessed in terms of how things are generally perceived by society. The case of R. Reichenberg seems to clearly have been such a case where one should not act. Perhaps it will emerge that this assessment is incorrect, but when live wires and copious amounts of water are involved, I suspect it will stand.
I hope that I never have to make such a decision, and I can imagine that it would be excruciatingly difficult to decide not to act. On some level, though, deciding to act is easy - either I will be a hero or will fail; I will not have to live my life thinking that maybe I could have saved that kid.
So where does that leave us with R. Reichenberg? Ambivalent. We can certainly praise the virtues that motivated him to act, but Judaism is a religion of duty before virtue. We ought to resist what Prof. David Shatz calls the "halo effect" created when someone does a morally wrong act as an expression of virtuous character. And if the final analysis shows that R. Reichenberg's actions were indeed reckless and foolhardy - that he incurred significant risk to his own life without much of a chance of helping the others - it would be warranted to apply another epithet - that of hasid shoteh, or 'pious fool'.
With the school year beginning now, and this tragic case still all over the news, it behooves Jewish (and non-Jewish) educators to devote a lesson or two to clarifying the question of when self-sacrifice and altruism are unwarranted and even morally problematic.

Sources and further reading:
Igrot Moshe YD II:174:4 [Heb]
Radbaz III:627 [Heb]
David Shatz, "As Thyself: The Limits of Altruism in Jewish Ethics" in Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahmanut: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung
Yitzchak Blau, "The Implications of a Jewish Virtue Ethic", Torah U-Madda Journal 9
Naftali Bar-Ilan, "Be-inyan Mi  She-torem Lev O Kaved Le-hashtala" [Heb]
Eliezer Melamed, "Hatzalat Nefashot" [Heb]
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