…You refer in anger to the Talmudic view on whether a Jewish doctor may violate the Sabbath laws in order to save the life of a non-Jew. You are critical of the Sages of the Talmud who permitted such violations of laws of the Sabbath because of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. You suggest that, on the one hand, it is an “instance of laudable universalism,” but, on the other, it is “an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking.”
Surely you, as a distinguished academic lawyer, must have come across instances in which a precedent that was once valid has, in the course of time, proved morally objectionable, as a result of which it was amended, so that the law remains “on the books” as a juridical foundation, while it becomes effectively inoperative through legal analysis and moral argument. Why, then, can you not be as generous to Jewish law, and appreciate that certain biblical laws are unenforceable in practical terms, because all legal systems — including Jewish law — do not simply dump their axiomatic bases but develop them. Why not admire scholars of Jewish law who use various legal technicalities to preserve the text of the original law in its essence, and yet make sure that appropriate changes would be made in accordance with new moral sensitivities? Plato — as well as Maimonides — taught us that every law must leave some who are thereby disadvantaged, that it is in the nature of law to serve the community even when individuals are injured. We then must seek ways to ameliorate the situation as best we can. This is a legitimate way for the Talmudic and post-Talmudic rabbis to protect the sacred Shabbat laws, and by appropriate halachic legislation enable us to live without violating our moral conscience.
Let me clarify my stand, as an Orthodox rabbi, on the issue you raised: It is strictly forbidden by the Halacha to deny a non-Jew whatever is necessary to save his or her life. There must be no discrimination whatsoever. Every human being is created in the Image of God and has a right to life and health. “The Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works” (Psalm 145).
Because the issue is subtle and highly sensitive, do you not think that it would have been more responsible of you either not to mention an issue which for centuries has inflamed antisemitic vindictiveness and exacerbated irritation for those Jews ignorant of the method and subtleties of the law, especially since such subtleties are beyond the reader not trained in legal theory? But if you are compelled to write about it, would it have been a violation of some professional code to give precedence and preference to the universalist bias of the halachic tradition?
But you took the easy way out, and thereby succeeded in holding up the Torah, the Talmud, the rabbis and especially Modern Orthodox Judaism to public ridicule, making the whole Talmudic enterprise look bigoted and racist.…
Rabbi Yehiel Yakov Weinberg, the Sredei Aish, in 1965:
In my opinion, it is fitting to put an end to the hatred of the religions for each other. More than Christianity hates Judaism, Judaism hates Christianity. There is a dispute if stealing from Gentiles is forbidden from the Torah, everyone holds that deceiving a Gentile and canceling his debt is permitted, one is not to return a lost object to a Gentile, according to R. Tam intercourse with a Gentile does not render a woman forbidden to her husband, their issue is like the issue [of horses]... We must solemnly and formally declare that in our day this does not apply. Meiri wrote as such, but the teachers and ramim whisper in the ears of the students that all this was written because of the censor.
So, Rabbi Lamm gets a point for "solemnly and formally declar[ing] that in our day th[ese discriminatory laws do] not apply." Of course, he loses that point by pretending that the legal fiction he endorses is the only and correct way to see the halakha. The fact is, most of the haredi world does not understand it that way. They reflect ed's position more than Rabbi Lamm's. Rabbi Lamm knows this. But he has made his choice – clearly, it is more important to Rabbi Lamm to make Orthodoxy look good than it is to tell the truth and, if that deception further estranges Noah Feldman and others – so be it.
This is a shame. Rabbi Lamm made very good points regarding Feldman's bizarre expectation that Modern Orthodoxy would somehow approve of his marriage to a non-Jew. But he had to cross the line, he had to intentionally deceive.
Rabbi Lamm includes this letter he says he received from Daniel, a recent YU graduate:
Like most Yeshiva University graduates, I interact on a daily basis with gentiles for most of my day. My Orthodox Jewish identity has never become an issue or conflict. However, following last week’s New York Times article by Noah Feldman… I have frequently been getting questions like, ‘Is it true that according to your law you wouldn’t save my life on the Sabbath’ or, ‘Do you really believe that Jewish life is more important than gentile life?’ How does a young Modern Orthodox professional answer these questions in a respectful and diplomatic way so as not to demonize others and at the same time be true to his faith?
What that tells me is that Daniel also understands the law the way Feldman does – but he does not know haw to spin the law to placate his non-Jewish co-workers while at the same time remaining true to the law. This supports Noah Feldman's position.
More and more, I see secularism as the only solution to Judaism's problems. Our rabbis are deceitful. Many (not including Rabbi Lamm, thank God) are open thieves. While it is possible to separate God from Orthodox Judaism, it is impossible to separate rabbis from Orthodox Judaism (or any other Judaism, for that matter)– and that is our greatest problem.