Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: Morality in Hell

Please note: I am not a rabbi and am not certified in any way to make decisions about Jewish law. This article is intended solely as food for thought. It is based on what I was taught, supported by my review of the relevant passages in the Talmud.

Thou shalt not murder...
Thou shalt not steal...
Thou shalt not covet...

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as the social order in New Orleans crumbled, many intellectuals contemplated their navels in their cozy living rooms and debated the morality of the behavior we see on our TV screens. Most agreed that ethical constraints need to be adapted to the situation, though some took a hard-line approach and maintained that rules are rules.

It is worth noting that Jewish law addressed these issues long ago, not from the safety and security of ivory towers, but from a desperate real-world situation where oppressors routinely ordered Jews to violate Jewish law or suffer death. The Talmud takes a practical approach to the situation that is quite close to what most people's "gut instinct" looking at the New Orleans situation dictates.

Judaism teaches that human life is of incalculable value, and to save a human life (either our own or someone else's), almost any law may be transgressed. Almost all of the 613 rules that gentiles think of as the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism are secondary to the value of human life. The only laws that cannot be violated to save a human life are murder, incest/adultery and idolatry.

As I understand it (and as I said, I'm not a rabbi), Jewish law would say that a person who finds himself in a life-and-death situation like New Orleans is permitted to steal food, water, clothing or tools needed to survive (yes, it's still stealing, even when it's permitted), as long as he does not take them from somebody else who also needs these things to survive (that would be tantamount to murder). It is permitted to take goods from a store or home whose owner has left for higher ground or who – G-d forbid – is already dead. Before you judge the morality of such things, consider the morality of a store or homeowner who, having found safety before the storm, would begrudge survival necessities to those who are still in danger.

In the atmosphere of lawlessness that we saw in New Orleans, Jewish law might even permit stealing guns for self-defense. Although Jewish law does not permit murder for survival and would not permit you to, for example, kill someone to get their food, it does permit you to kill a “pursuer” (not an innocent third party) in self defense. If someone came after you with a gun trying to take the food or supplies you needed for survival, Jewish law might permit killing to protect yourself and the supplies you need; and in an environment where it is known that people are doing this sort of thing, Jewish law might permit stealing a gun to be able to protect yourself.

Unlike some of the pundits, Jewish law doesn't seem to concern itself about the quality of the goods stolen for this purpose. Some pundits and government officials have suggested that those who steal bread and cold cuts are entitled to leniency while those who steal caviar and fancy crackers are not; Jewish law doesn’t seem to make that distinction. Jewish law would allow a person to steal and eat non-kosher food on the Sabbath if that were necessary to survive (though kosher food should be taken if both are equally available and readily identified as such). On the other hand, it is difficult to see how wide-screen TVs and DVD players could contribute to survival, so Jewish law would not permit that sort of thing.

Some pundits have also suggested that the theft isn’t necessary; food and water are being shipped into the region and people should just go to where the food is. Assuming that the people in need had this information, they certainly have ample reason to doubt it. The news has reported that many people were sent to the Convention Center for food and water, only to find that there was neither food nor water and once there they could not leave. Jewish law does not require people to act on such dubious information. For example, a rabbi noted that denying charity to beggars, though it is a sin, can be forgiven because we know that some beggars are frauds.

Although the Jewish law in this area sounds like situational ethics, there is a subtle but important difference: in Jewish law, there are specific rules with built-in exceptions, though application of those rules is sometimes complicated. Situational ethics is much more fuzzy. To put an example in concrete terms that I think everyone can relate to:

  • Jewish law: You can’t drive faster than 65 mph on the highway, unless you are an emergency vehicle responding to an emergency call, in which case you can drive faster but you should have your lights and sirens active if it is possible and will not interfere with your emergency task.
  • Situational ethics: You can’t drive faster than 65 mph on the highway, unless it’s really important to get somewhere quickly.

See the difference?

Examples of these principles in the Talmud:

  • Sanhedrin 74a et seq., which says, among other things, "if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death,' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, incest [which includes adultery] and murder."
  • Pesachim 25a et seq., which says, among other things, "We may cure ourselves with anything except idolatry, incest and murder" (regarding using forbidden items to effect cures of serious illnesses)
  • Yoma 82a, "There is nothing that can stand before [the duty of] saving life, with the exception of idolatry, incest and bloodshed" (regarding eating on Yom Kippur)
  • Kethuboth 19a, "There is nothing that can stand before [the duty of] saving life, with the exception of idolatry, incest and bloodshed" (regarding sworn falsehoods under duress)