Saving One’s Own First

On Areivim, we’re discussing how history remembers or should remember Rudolf Kasztner. Yad Vashem is trying to rehabilitate his memory. Here is some of the metzi’us behind the question, from The Star:

Kasztner … headed the Relief and Rescue Committee, a small Jewish group that negotiated with Nazi officials to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment.

In June 1944, the “Kasztner Train,” with 1,684 Jews, departed Budapest for neutral Switzerland. His negotiations also diverted 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labour camp instead of a planned transfer to extermination camps, according to Yad Vashem.

But detractors accused Kasztner of colluding with the Nazis to spare his well-connected and wealthy Jewish friends, while hundreds of thousands of others were shipped to death camps.

The Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf in a trial that lasted two years and riveted the nation. The court acquitted Grunwald of libel, concluding that Kasztner “sold his soul to the German Satan.”

Kasztner insisted his dealings with top Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher, an envoy of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, who organized the extermination of the Jews, were necessary to save lives.

Kasztner was demonized by the Israeli public. A year after he was killed, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling in the libel case, clearing his name.

One last note:

Kasztner himself didn’t board his famous train to freedom, instead staying behind and negotiating the further release of Jews, risking his own life.

So Kasztner saved his people at the possible expense of others, but it wasn’t self-motivated. To discuss the question in general:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel is the “bible” of a school of psychology called Logotherapy. The majority of the book is his recollections of life in the camps and his observations of the people there.

In it he claims that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people; that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others.

Speaking halachically, if the same number of people are going to live either way, is it appropriate to try to save your own? In other words, is Frankel right in calling such people less moral or idealistic? Or did he inadvertently reflect a Christian ethic rather than a Jewish one?

In the introduction to Maqdishei H’ by R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels he tells the following heart-wrenching story. A man came, r”l, because his son, his only child, was among 1,400 children on a train which according to rumor was headed for the crematoria. He had the opportunity to bribe his son’s way out. Should he risk it; is he permitted to?

RADK refused to provide a ruling. How can anyone take on a question so great without being able to collect his thoughts, without access to his library? The story continues (as translated by R’ Yoel Schwartz). The father replies:

“Rabbi, I have done my duty as the Torah requires me to do. I brought my question before the rabbi. There is no other rabbi here. If His Honor, the rabbi, cannot answer that it is permitted for me to redeem my child, that is a sign that he is not completely sure that the halacha permits [it]. If it were permissible without any doubts, certainly you would tell me so. To me this means that according to the halacha it is forbidden to me. I accept this with love and joy, and I shall not do anything to redeem him, because that is what the Torah commanded…”

All my pleadings to him not to put the responsibility on me were to no avail. He only repeated what he had said, with heartrending weeping. He fulfilled his words, and did not redeem his son. That whole day, Rosh Hashana, he walked and spoke to himself joyfully, saying that he merited to sacrifice his only son to God, since even though it was in his power to redeem him, he would not, seeing that the Torah did not permit him to do such a thing. This would be considered by the Holy One, Blessed is He, like the Binding of our Father Isaac, which also had taken place on Rosh Hashana.

Speaking on a more philosophical plane, it’s certainly the implication of the Shaarei Yosher’s definition of chessed that it would be appropriate to save someone closer to you at the expense of someone with whom you’re less connected. Chessed is motivated by enlarging one’s “I” to include ever more people. Self interest is described by Rav Shimon Shkop as a positive thing, one to be leveraged in this way to create chessed (loving-kindness), not abnegated. A few paragraphs, just to motivate reading the whole thing. Note that his quote of R’ Aqiva is a halachic one — chayekha qodemin (your life comes first).

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect. His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created.

But what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.

In this, Rav Shimon Shkop would seem to indicate that Frankel’s comment draws more from Christianity’s influence on Western Civilization than Jewish values. After all, Christianity phrases its ethic in the positive sense, “Do unto others…” And so, they would not reach Rav Shimon’s conclusion that when all else is equal, it is fitting to place one’s own good first.

There are also grounds for asserting that in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” — even if from the Hand of the Holy One! — if the present is unearned.

From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.”…

3 thoughts on “Saving One’s Own First

  1. I feel presumptuous in commenting on this topic, but here goes. While I find the level of emuna demonstrated by the father in R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels’ story admirable, I also find the story troubling. There are 2 ways to look at the world and our interactions with it: either the world and all action has a default value of permissible except where there is a specific prohibition that excludes our participation. or the world and all participation in it has a default value of prohibited except where we have specific exemption from the prohibition of action and are thus permitted to participate in a narrowly circumscribed circumstance. It appears to me that the father is of the first school – all human activity is forbidden unless we are given a specific dispensation from the general prohibition of Jewish participation in the world. This outlook clashes badly with my deeply held (but not deeply educated) view of G-d as wanting us to enjoy and use the world He created for us. It is not wrong to enjoy and appreciate G-d’s world. That is why we have blessings to recite when we enjoy the things that G-d put in the world for us or appreciate the wonders of nature. To me, the ooposing view seems almost blasphemous, or at least deeply lacking in an appreciation of all the good that G-d does for us.

  2. AISI, Avniut of Moshe was his total submission to G-d, a kind of ego-lessness. It does not mean he was paralyzed by worthlessness, rather he had not personal axe to grind and was totally dedicated to the Divine w/o any personal gain. A mother’s self-less devotion ot her child might mimic this kind of selfless unconditional love. this maternal instinct may bring a mother to logically-defying feats of sterngth to protect her beloved child [think of the prvoerbil little lady lifting a car to save her chlid!] So ws Moses’ dedication, replete with superhuman devotion!

  3. Pingback: Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 2 | Aspaqlaria

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