Desecrating a Holy Name
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Desecrating a Holy Name

The decision by the executive board of the Jewish Center of Teaneck to ignore an offer from Holy Name Medical Center may well violate both Jewish law and civil law.

From the civil standpoint, not even allowing the full board to consider Holy Name’s offer-far and away the most generous and potentially most beneficial to the Center-would seem to violate the fiduciary requirements found under Title 15A of New Jersey’s statutes. Holy Name’s offer was $5 million. The accepted bid from a yeshiva was for $1 million. More startling is the other bid the executive board did allow to be considered; it was for no money down and no money ever. Instead, Chabad was offering to pay for the building in expanded programming.

As far as Jewish law is concerned, at least as I see it, the decision created a chilul ha-Shem, a desecration of God’s Holy Name. To dismiss the offer out of hand because non-Jews own the hospital embarrasses the Jewish community, and brings disrepute to the Torah and, more to the point, to the God Who gave us that Torah.

That is a serious violation of a specific Torah commandment (see Leviticus 22:32).

It also violates a large body of rabbinic rulings. In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Gittin 61a, for example, it states, “We provide support for the non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel, visit the non-Jewish sick along with the sick of Israel, and bury the non-Jewish dead along with the dead of Israel, out of concern for the Ways of Peace (Darchei Shalom).”

Obviously, this text, written early in the first millennia of the Common Era, has an element of fear attached to it. We need to do such things, it says, in order to protect ourselves from murderous non-Jewish wrath.

Over time, rabbis created a growing list of acts in which Jews had to engage to the benefit of the general community, including requiring Jewish physicians to treat anyone who was ill, and to do so without a fee in poor communities.

The “Ways of Peace,” however, was a rationalization for performing such deeds, not the reason for performing them. Jews were under constant siege. They had no interest in helping non-Jews, especially because they knew non-Jews had no interest in helping them. So the rabbis attached the Darchei Shalom rationalization, to make the law more palatable.

Maimonides, however, makes clear that such acts are required because we must emulate God. As support, he cites Psalms 145:9, which states, “The Lord is good to all and His mercy is upon all His works.” (See Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 10:12.)

An 18th century rabbi, Yaakov Emden, also known as the Ya’avetz, argued that a law discriminating against a non-Jew in matters of lost property – and by extension all such discriminatory laws – no longer applied.

As he explained, “this [law regarding not returning the lost property of a non-Jew] only applies to those nations that knew no Creator or Torah, i.e., they had no fellowship with us. However…, the present day nations who believe in the principles of the Torah [meaning Christians and Muslims] cannot be regarded as strangers by us,” in which case Jews are obligated to return a non-Jew’s lost property. (See Joseph Munk, “Non-Jews in the Light of Halakhah,” published in the March 1994 issue of the British journal Le’ela, published by Jews College.)

At the very least, then, Jews need to consider the needs of the entire community. In this case, the entire community would benefit greatly from an expanded physical rehabilitation center, from the added classrooms for Holy Name’s nursing school, and from the space freed up in the hospital itself that would enable it to expand its medical services.

The Jewish community also would benefit, because the Center’s building would be used for Jewish-oriented health-related programming. On top of all that, Holy Name would also allow the Center to continue to use its main sanctuary for services – and would employ a rabbi for the Center, freeing it up from having to pay a rabbi from its own coffers.

What makes this an even worse case of chilul ha-Shem is that Holy Name has gone out of its way to accommodate the needs and concerns of its Jewish patients. It has a Shabbat elevator and a Shabbat lounge, among others Shabbat amenities. It offers kosher meals for both patients and guests. Its staff perform mammograms on Sundays for Shabbat-observant women. It even erects a sukkah during Sukkot. Its hospice programs are accredited by the National Institute for Jewish Hospice.

Beyond chilul ha-Shem, to deny the full board the right even to consider Holy Name’s offer because it is a Catholic-owned institution violates what arguably can be called Judaism’s prime directive: Life comes before almost everything else.

A hospital is not a church. HNMC stands for Holy Name Medical Center, not Holy Name Missionary Center. It has no interest in “saving” anyone’s soul. Its sole purpose is saving people’s lives. That is the business it is in every minute of every hour of every day of the year. Anyone who helps it in any way to do its business is helping to save lives.

Nothing is more sacred. No mitzvah can compare. As the Talmud teaches us in BT Sanhedrin 37a, “whoever destroys a single life, Scripture considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, Scripture considers it as if he saved an entire world.”

The good news is that the sale to the yeshiva is not a done deal. The board likely will be asked to reconsider its vote. Even if it does not, the membership must approve the sale to the yeshiva, and it will take a two-thirds majority for it to do so.

We can only hope the Center’s membership has a greater sense of what is just and right than its executive board has.

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