July 31, 2007

by Reb Yudel
Shalom, Carmy: A Confrontation

One must judge one's teachers on the balance of merit. So I can assume that Rabbi Shalom Carmy -- who I considered my rebbe when I was an undergraduate at Yeshiva College in the 1980s -- has decided to place his role of pedagogue before that of essayist, and has couched utter nonsense behind eloquent and nuanced words to test whether we are now, and have been, paying attention.

I refer to R' Carmy's comments on the Feldman affair; that is, the New York Times Magazine essay written by Noam Feldman concerning his  relationship to the modern Orthodoxy of his youth. It is an essay that clearly hit a sore spot in the Orthodox community, and is worth responding to on that basis. Such a response will have to wait; this is rather a reading and an analysis of R' Carmy's response.

After discussing the general question of graduates who embrace a different orientation than their alma mater might have preferred, R' Carmy engages in a halachic question raised by Feldman, namely, the propriety of violating the Sabbath to save the life of a gentile.

R' Carmy writes:

"Where people understand that religion may on occasion make life and death demands, the law that Shabbat is so important that it is overridden only for those who are members of the community that observes it is difficult but not scandalous. In our culture this understanding is lacking; thus the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Jew, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

Clearly, R' Carmy is challenging us with the clear absurdity of that statement.

For one thing, our American culture (I assume this is the culture that our teacher refers to, in light of his use of recent American political history as a primary frame of reference in the essay's opening) indeed understands that religion makes life and death demands. (See, for example, the starving Pilgrims of the Mayflower Compact; Harriet Beecher Stowe's incitement against slavery; and Mohammad Atta's suicide flight.)

American culture does not lack understanding that religion may make life and death demands. In fact, American culture, rooted as it is in Christianity and its founding myths of crucifixition and martyrs, has deep sympathy with those who accept the demands of religion even unto death. What America does lack, of course, is sympathy with those who wish to kill others in the service of God.

R' Carmy's willful misreading of American religious sympathies serves to highlight how ridiculous this paragraph is. (That it is taken at face value by learned and knowledgable commentators such as Gil Student and Jefrey Woolf indicate either the pressures on bloggers to post without properly contemplating the contents of what they read or write, or, most likely, that R' Carmy has let them in on the joke.)

The sheer silliness of R' Carmy's statement, that is, the impossibility of taking it at face value, can be seen by translating it slightly from the point of reference generated by Noah Feldman to a historical Christian context:
"When people understand that religion may on occasion make life and death demands, the law that Jews and others who teach false doctrines must be put to death is difficult but not scandalous. In our culture this understanding is lacking; thus, the failure to treat Christians and heathens identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Christian, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

Is R' Carmy lamenting the fact that we no longer live in the culture of Inquisitions, Crusades and Dhimmihood? Is he -- less than a week after Tisha b'Av -- mourning the end of the medieval culture whose cruelties spawned so many kinnot?

Such an interpretation is impossible.

What we are to understand -- again, reading this section of the essay together with the essay's earlier references to "contemporary liberals" -- is that the core liberal values of modernity are not rebutted by the possible excesses of contemporary culture and contemporary liberalism. Where political standards and allegiances may waver, the modern universalism that demands that all be treated equally is a timeless corollary of humanity's genesis in the image of God. Through masterful indirection, R' Carmy warns us to resist the temptation, understandable in this contemporary world of narcisstic heiresses and corrupt government officials, to turn our back on the world and universalism. R' Carmy is reminding us of what his teacher (and ours) wrote in the essay "Confrontation":
"The Westernized Jew maintains that it is impossible to engage in both confrontations, the universal and the covenantal, which, in his opinion, are mutually exclusive."
But of course, Rav Soloveitchik z'l teaches, it is a mistake to think we have to choose between being human beings or Jews. Where others see contradiction or paradox, the Rav sees a dialectic and the acceptence of multiplicity. We are human beings (Adam I) and we are Jews (Adam II). The Rav implies that our contemporary engagement within the world is not a bidieved adjustment to the conditions of modernity; rather, our exclusion and ghettoization was a necessary, yet bidieved, adjustment to external oppression. (This thrust of "Confrontation," which we might characterize today as anti-Haredi, has been too little noted by polemicists on both sides of the Haredi/Modern-Orthodox divide.)

That Noah Feldman's teacher at Maimonides -- whose status as "the Rav's school" grants it an importance in our communal conversation closer to Volozhin or Slobodka than an American out-of-town yeshiva high school -- failed to understand this clearly caused R' Carmy as much pain as it did Feldman. (Cf. Rabbi Gerald Blidstein's report that when the Rav was asked whether he was morally satisfied with the prudential mipnei eiva justification for saving a Gentile's life on the Sabbath, "he answered flatly 'no.' ")

Hashem emet ushmo emet, God is true and his name is Truth, so when R' Carmy resorts to dishonest weasel words, we are again challenged to read closely to find the true, perhaps even esoteric, meaning in the passage which I will repeat, only this time with the clues in bold:
"...the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically will be interpreted as indifference to the fate of the non-Jew, and will be perceived as tantamount to connivance in his death."

R' Carmy here is warning us strongly against the temptation to retreat into a defensive relativism. It is easy to ignore Rav Soloveitchik's teachings and barricade ourselves inside a parochial community where the cries of the Other are received by us only as "interpretations" and "perceptions." Ignoring what it means to worship a God whose name is Truth, we can fall prey to the temptation of the ad hominem fallacy, of dismissing a critique because of its source, whether it be a wounded Muslim, an existentialist Christian, or even an embittered alum.

We want to ignore the truth of criticism leveled against us, but particularly those coming from outside our comfortable circle of family, friends, and fellow travellers. Their objections, we are inclined to argue, are only the misguided "interpretations" and "perceptions" of an outsider; were he on the inside, he would understand the truth of our self-evident virtue and rightness. Wounded by criticism he fails -- to again borrow language from "Confrontation" -- to appreciate the ezer of the k'negdo.

For indeed, it is not just an "interpretation" and a "perception," but rather the obvious and correct truth that "the failure to treat Jews and Gentiles identically" (as regards Sabbath rescues) is "indifference to the fate of the non-Jew" and "tantamount to connivance in his death.

(One might be able to apply a more charitable interpretation to the Christian formulation I invented, as our Christian persecutors often claimed that their indifference to Jewish lives simply reflected their profound concern for the ultimate fate of Jewish souls.)

So R' Carmy clearly means for us to understand that we cannot hide behind fancy rhetoric or be distracted by "forced displays of cleverness and provocation" in confronting moral issues. Whatever the hermeneutical problems posed by saving a gentile on the Sabbath, the practical moral imperative to do so was equally clear to Hazal and contemporary poskim. (See blogger Menachem Mendel for a neat analysis; see also Gil Student's lengthy explication of relevant sources, an article alas deeply flawed because, no doubt to avoid self-promotion, he forgot to apply the complex of meta-halachic values summarized in the mitzvah of ve-asita ha-yasher v'hatov [on which see Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits z"l, Not in Heaven, p.26]).

The masters of mussar remind us that those who worry for their own souls and their neighbors' belly are righteous, while those who worry for their own belly and their neighbors' souls are wicked. One might question the logic of this; after all, a crass utilitarianism might suggest that since my neighbors' souls outnumber mine, I can do more ultimate good by improving their many souls than I can by fixing my lone soul. As framed by Rav Soloveitchik, this is no problem; because, ultimately, our "inner recesses" are locked in "ontological seclusion." Except insofar as we can form a true community of equals -- what a professor of English might be tempted to call "the marriage of true minds" -- the burdens of each other's souls, unlike the burdens of each other's bodies, cannot be understood, let alone shared.

R' Carmy alludes to this distinction, fundamental to a "grown-up" religious life, when he distinguishes between a law that is "difficult" and one that is "scandalous."

 When religious law prohibits me from taking an aspirin on the Sabbath, R' Carmy clearly means us to understand, that is indeed difficult, not scandalous. But when it prohibits me from offering you an aspirin -- that it is not difficult! Your headache does not disturb my Sabbath rest. Yet such a law is indeed scandalous, and woe to the culture that is not scandalized by such a law! (To those who would insist on taking the immature attitude toward the law, let me ask: When I fulfill a Divine command to refrain from saving someone else's life, how much of my Heavenly reward must I share with the gentile whose misfortune has enabled me to demonstrate my righteousness?) While I can well empathize with the youthful, immature desire to "transcend the ethical" as a self-styled "knight of faith," mature reflection makes clear that Emmanuel Levinas was correct to denounce "Kierkegaardian violence," with its violence, passion and amoralism.

R' Carmy's essay, therefore, has pointed us toward Levinas, and the understanding that the ethical must not be left behind in the religious life; rather, the ethical is sanctified. From a Jewish perspective, of course, the religious life is a halachic life, and here the teachings of R' Berkovits (as well as the Talmudic readings of Levinas) make clear that halacha comes to sanctify ethics.

One could indeed summarize this whole argument by noting that "Shalom" is a sacred name of God. (One naturally assumes that our teacher R' Carmy would have concluded his essay in such a fashion, were he not sensitive -- perhaps overly so -- to appearing self-serving with this declaration.)

The failure of Maimonides to teach this to Feldman -- the failure of the Rav's school to reflect the Rav's teachings -- shows that the issue at hand should not be Feldman's "Orthodox paradox"; rather, it is a very real Orthodox disgrace.

To sum up: It is not a "paradox" that Noam Feldman was taught this pernicious and false doctrine of letting the gentile die for the good of the Jew's soul; it is a disgrace. The failure of the Rav's school to embody the Rav's teachings is indeed the real scandal we need be concerned about, not the Stalinist actions of a petty editor with a trigger-happy finger on his airbrush. It is a disgrace that the fundamental teaching that "Shalom" is a sacred name of God was not at the forefront of the Maimonides curriculum in the 1980s. One can leave it to the professional educators to debate whether it should have been taught through the Talmudic sources; through Berkovits' meta-halachic legal analysis; or through a close reading of the Rav's profound, thoughtful essays. I suspect that all are necessary.

Meanwhile, we should all be grateful to Feldman for bringing this ubiquitous, shallow teaching to the forefront of our attention; indeed, this is the true scandal of Orthodox indifference. And we should be grateful as well for R' Carmy in resisting the temptation to come out and say so forthrightly, instead leaving us clues of fuzzy logic and vacuous reasoning designed to force us to conclude on our own -- not on appeal to his or other authority -- that there is ultimately no rational alternative to the understanding of halacha promoted by R' Berkvoits. In so doing, R' Carmy has not only proved that his writings demand a close reading; he has proven that my teacher's mastery of pedagogy has only redoubled since I had the privilege of sitting in his classroom many years ago.


I agree that R. Carmy's comment on this halakhah is not logical, but it seems to me that your analysis skews it in the opposite direction. It is true that what is troubling about this law (or this interpretation of the law, if you prefer) is not so much that it demands the sacrifice of a life but that it demands the sacrifice of someone else's life. That said, failing to save a non-Jew on Shabbat is not morally equivalent to hunting down heretics and burning them at the stake. (There are halakhot that are more analagous, but that is another subject.) The action taken in this case is inaction. The Jew is not required to kill a non-Jew in order to observe the Sabbath, but rather, to refrain from saving a non-Jew if doing so would constitute a Sabbath violation. I believe that this is what R. Carmy means when he states that this halakhah will merely be "interpreted" and "perceived" as indifference to the life of a non-Jew. He is implying that a non-Jew's life is indeed valuable, but that it is not as valuable as Sabbath observance. The Jew who fails to rescue a non-Jew on the Sabbath is not "indifferent" to the latter's life; he is simply deferring to a higher value.

Those of us raised in the Western humanistic tradition recoil at the idea that something like Sabbath observance could outweigh the life of a fellow human being. I consider myself an heir to this tradition, and I believe that Rav Soloveichik zts"l, l'havdil, was heir to it as well (although he would no doubt have argued that his humanism derives at least as much from Jewish tradition). I find the idea that Sabbath observance could outrank any human life appalling, but I readily concede that this reaction is subjective, based on my own hierarchy of values, which differs from that of those who uphold this position on the law.

Posted by: elf at July 31, 2007 8:53 AM


My problem with using the justification "in order that they observe more Sabbaths" is that IMHO it completely ignores the moral and ethical side of the matter. If one understands this as THE reason behind the prohibition, then meta-halakhic reasons, e.g. eivah, are used, but what if this isn't THE reason and there really is a moral stand being taken here. I fail to see the use of eivah as a "practical moral imperative" or that it was so clear to Hazal or to many contemporary poskim. I think that for some there was no moral imperative, but rather a political one.

Posted by: Menachem Mendel at July 31, 2007 8:59 AM

I replied to your comments here on my blog.

Posted by: Jeffrey Woolf at July 31, 2007 3:18 PM


This comes back to Dennis Prager's critique of those who would save the life of their pet at the expense of a drowning human. Shalom Carmy could argue that it is not that the pet-owner doesn't value the life of a human being; he just values the life of his pet more.

That is a position; it just isn't one that is moral. I understand the existence of immoral philosophies; but I feel compelled to speak out against them.

Posted by: Reb Yudel at August 5, 2007 11:35 PM
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