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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter July 16, 2001

One Life for Another in the Holocaust: A Singularity for Jewish Law?

  • Melech Westreich

Millions of Jews who were committed to the Halacha, the Jewish code of law, were under Nazi rule and control during the Second World War. Various sources indicate that during the Holocaust, such Jews petitioned rabbis and Halacha sages with questions on halachic matters, both of a ritual nature as well as a legal nature. Due to the tremendous profusion during the Holocaust of situations in which the matter of preferring one life over another arose, one would expect to find an abundance of halachic questions dealing with subjects related to this matter. There are two main situations in which the matter of preferring one life over another emerges. The one typical case involves saving the life of a person in peril, where the central question that arises is whether there is a duty to endanger oneself in order to save the life of another, whether there is a prohibition on doing this, or whether this is permitted and, perhaps even recommended, but not a duty per se. The second typical instance is when a power-wielding entity with authority demands that someone be handed over and if this is not complied with, another person will be harmed. A great deal of comprehensive discussion was devoted to these two sitituations in the halachic sources throughout the ages, beginning from the period of the Talmud and thereafter. These matters were given particularly prominent and thorough consideration in the teachings of the halachic sages of Poland during the period in which the Jews enjoyed broad judicial and community autonomy. These sources could have served the halachic ,sages during the Holocaust, the overwhelming majority of whom were to be found in Poland and the neighboring countries in Eastern Europe. However, most surprisingly, we have almost no evidence of any real hcilachic grappling with situations of weighing one life against another during the Holocaust. The author maintains that the reason for this silence does not derive from a massive loss of testimonies during the Holocaust, but, rather stems from the fact that the Holocaust is a "black hole" in the human experience. In the face of this experience, created by the Germans, even the Halacha, which regulates totally the life of the observant Jew, stood dumbfounded, regarding it as a Singularity, in the physics sense of the term - that is to say, a situation in which defined laws and legal rules cease to exist

Published Online: 2001-7-16

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