It is time to finally put to bed a malicious libel against Jews and Judaism that is getting increasing attention in modern media, namely, that Judaism will not allow for the breaking of the Sabbath to save a non-Jewish life. Given that Judaism is the religion that introduced the idea that all humans are created equally in the image of God, and the rabbinical sages wrote ‘,000 years ago that "even a gentile who studies God’s law is equal to the High Priest," and "the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come" (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13), it would seem incredible that anyone would believe this slur. Yet, the latest to repeat the libel is the gifted writer Christopher Hitchens who wrote of Baruch Goldstein, in his book "God Is Not Great," "While serving as a physician in the Israeli army he had announced that he would not treat non-Jewish patients, such as Israeli Arabs, especially on the Sabbath. As it happens, he was obeying rabbinic law in declining to do this, as many Israeli religious courts have confirmed…."
In our second debate on religion, held last week, I asked Hitchens to identify even one Jewish court that would uphold such blasphemy. As his source he cited not a court but his dear friend, the late Israeli writer Israel Shahak. Research on the incident reveals the following. In 1965, Shahak sent a letter to Ha’aretz saying he had witnessed an Orthodox Jewish man refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew because it would violate the Sabbath. In the same letter Shahak also alleged that a rabbinical court in Jerusalem confirmed that the man acted according to the dictates of Jewish law. From the beginning the story was curious. What prohibition could there possibly be in allowing someone else to use one’s phone on the Sabbath? Then, in 1966 the story was investigated by Immanuel Jakobovits, one of the worlds’ leading medical ethicists who would later become the internationally respected chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and a member of the House of Lords, and found to be a hoax. Writing in the journal Tradition under the title "A Modern Blood Libel," Jakobovits noted, "Dr. Shahak, challenged to substantiate his personal ‘testimony,’ was eventually forced to admit that the Orthodox Jew he had ‘witnessed’ refusing the use of his telephone simply did not exist. The whole incident had been fabricated in true Protocols style. Equally overlooked was the circumstance that the Rabbinate, far from having confirmed Dr. Shahak’s allegation, had in fact ruled that the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish no less than Jewish lives."
In further refutation of Shahak’s libel, Jakobovits cited a lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unterman, the chief rabbi of Israel, who stated unequivocally that "the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives." Such libels about Jews were par for the course for Shahak, who also alleged that Jewish children are taught, "whenever passing near a cemetery, to utter a blessing if the cemetery is Jewish, but to curse the mothers of the dead if it is non-Jewish" — see his "Jewish History, Jewish Religion," in which he even accused Jews of worshipping Satan: "Both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God … but on the other he is worshiping Satan…." The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America calls Shahak "one of the world’s leading anti-Semites," and Shahak’s work is regularly referenced by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, his articles appearing prominently on Websites like Jew Watch.
Eli Beer, chief coordinator of the United Haztalah Emergency Ambulance Service of Israel, who oversees 1,100 medical volunteers, approximately 60 percent of whom are Orthodox, told me, "If someone would say we won’t save a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, he is a liar. If he is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim we save everyone’s life on any day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, and I have done so myself. Indeed, as an Orthodox Jew it is my greatest honor to save the life of a non-Jew, and I would violate any of the Jewish holy days to do so."
The Talmud itself, of course, reiterates the point that the Sabbath can be desecrated to save non-Jewish life, and even its original question on the subject was provoked by the fact that the non-Jews known to the Jews of the time were the brutal Roman occupying force who slaughtered Jews with impunity.
It would behoove a scholar like Mr. Hitchens to remove this defamatory, bogus teaching of "many" Jewish courts from future editions of his book, along with other gratuitous and inaccurate attacks on Jews and Judaism.
Principal among them is his unfortunate statement that Jews are not "blameless" for anti-Semitism and his characterization of the festival of Chanukah as "an absolutely tragic day in human history" without which "the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism." (His accusation that Jews plagiarized "shamelessly" from Christianity to have a holiday that "coincides with Christmas," is bizarre, given that Chanukah predates the birth of Jesus by ’50 years.) Hitchens sees the heroic Jewish revolt against the Assyrian Greeks as that of a primitive nation fighting against superior Greek enlightenment in order to sustain its superstitious ways. But such criticism is beneath a courageous pundit like Hitchens, who consistently supported the invasion of Iraq because of his objection to Saddam’s brutality and tyranny and his slaughter of our Arab brothers and sisters. The Greek leader, Antiochus IV, was the Saddam Hussein of his time, with his own people calling him Epimanes, "The Mad One." The Book of Maccabees relates how Antiochus indiscriminately slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem. After killing a pig in the Temple and insisting that the Jews eat its meat, he took those who refused and "cut their tongues out, scalped them, cut off their hands and feet, and burnt them on the altar of the Lord." Rather condemning the Jews for fighting for their lives, Hitchens should applaud them. Because in the same way that non-Jewish life is of infinite value, Jewish life is equally so.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of the "The Rabbi Shmuley Show," airing daily on "Oprah and Friends" on XM Satellite Radio. He has just launched his new book, "The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him" (St. Martin’s Press).