02/11/2008 08:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Racist Jewish Court?

It is time to finally put to bed a malicious libel against Jews and Judaism that is getting increasing attention in modern media, namely, that Judaism will not allow for the breaking of the Sabbath to save a non-Jewish life. Given that Judaism is the religion that introduced the idea that all humans are created equally in the image of G-d, and the Rabbinical sages wrote 2000 years ago that 'even a gentile who studies G-d's law is equal to the High Priest,' and 'the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come,' (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13) it would seem incredible that anyone would believe this slur. Yet, the latest to repeat the libel is the gifted writer Christopher Hitchens who wrote of Boruch Goldstein, in his book, G-d Is Not Great: "While serving as a physician in the Israeli army he had announced that he would not treat non-Jewish patients, such as Israeli Arabs, especially on the Sabbath. As it happens, he was obeying rabbinic law in declining to do this, as many Israeli religious courts have confirmed." (pg. 208)

In our second debate on religion, held last week, I asked Hitchens to identify even one Jewish court that would uphold such blasphemy. As his source he cited not a court but his dear friend, the late Israeli writer Israel Shahak. Research on the incident reveals the following. In 1965, Shahak sent a letter to Ha'aretz saying he had witnessed an orthodox Jewish man refusing to allow his telephone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew because it would violate the Sabbath. In the same letter Shahak also alleged that a rabbinical court in Jerusalem confirmed that the man acted according to the dictates of Jewish law. From the beginning the story was curious. What prohibition could there possibly be in allowing someone else to use one's phone on the Sabbath? Then, in 1966 the story was investigated by Immanuel Jakobovits, one of the worlds' leading medical ethicists who would later become the internationally-respected Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and a member of the House of Lords, and found to be a hoax. Writing in the journal Tradition under the title, "A Modern Blood Libel," Jakobovits noted, "Dr. Shahak, challenged to substantiate his personal 'testimony' was eventually forced to admit that the Orthodox Jew he had 'witnessed' refusing the use of his telephone simply did not exist. The whole incident had been fabricated in true Protocols style. Equally overlooked was the circumstance that the Rabbinate, far from having confirmed Dr. Shahak's allegation, had in fact ruled that the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish no less than Jewish lives."

In further of refutation of Shahak's libel, Jakobovits cited lengthy responsum by Isser Yehuda Unerman, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, who stated unequivocally that "the Sabbath must be violated to save non-Jewish life no less than Jewish lives." Such libels about Jews were par for the course for Shahak who also alleged that Jewish children are taught 'whenever passing near a cemetery, to utter a blessing if the cemetery is Jewish, but to curse the mothers of the dead if it is non-Jewish,' (Jewish History, Jewish Religion, pg. 23-24) and even accused Jews of worshiping Satan: 'both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God... but on the other he is worshiping Satan...' (page 34)." The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America calls Shahak "one of the world's leading anti-Semites," and Shahak's work is regularly referenced by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, his articles appearing prominently on websites like Jew Watch.

Eli Beer, Chief Coordinator of the United Haztalah Emergency Ambulance Service of Israel, who oversees 1100 medical volunteers, approximately 60 percent of whom are orthodox, told me, "If someone would say we won't save a non-Jewish life on the Sabbath, he is a liar. If he is Jewish, Christian, or Muslim we save everyone's life on any day of the year, including the Sabbath and Yom Kippur, and I have done so myself. Indeed, as an orthodox Jew it is my greatest honor to save the life of a non-Jew, and I would violate any of the Jewish holy days to do so." The Talmud itself, of course, reiterates the point that the Sabbath is desecrated to save non-Jewish life, and even its original question on the subject was provoked by the fact that the non-Jews known to the Jews of the time were the brutal Roman occupying force who slaughtered Jews with impunity.

It would behoove a scholar like Mr. Hitchens to remove this defamatory, bogus teaching of 'many' Jewish courts from future editions of his book, along with other gratuitous and inaccurate attacks on Jews and Judaism.

Principal among them is his unfortunate statement that Jews are not 'blameless' for anti-Semitism (pg. 250), and his characterization of the festival of Hanukah as 'an absolutely tragic day in human history' without which 'the Jewish people might have been the carriers of philosophy instead of arid monotheism.' (His accusation that Jews plagiarized 'shamelessly' from Christianity to have a holiday that 'coincides with Christmas,' is bizarre given that Hanukah predates the birth of Jesus by 250 years.) Hitchens sees the heroic Jewish revolt against the Assyrian Greeks as that of a primitive nation fighting against superior Greek enlightenment in order to sustain their superstitious ways. But such criticism is beneath a courageous pundit like Hitchens who consistently supported the invasion of Iraq because of his objection to Saddam's brutality and tyranny and his slaughter of our Arab brothers and sisters. The Greek leader, Antiochus IV, was the Saddam Hussein of his time, with his own people calling him Epimanes, "The Mad One" (Britannica). The Book of Maccabees relates how Antiochus indiscriminately slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem. After killing a pig in the Temple and insisting that the Jews eat its meat, took those who refused and 'cut their tongues out, scalped them, cut off their hands and feet, and burnt them on the altar of the Lord.' Rather condemning the Jews for fighting for their lives, Hitchens should applaud them. Because in the same way that non-Jewish life of infinite value, Jewish life is equally so.

Rabbi Shmuley's Latest Article and Post-Debate Correspondence with Christopher Hitchens

February 1
From e-mail written by Christpher Hitchens to Neil Gillman, moderator of January 30th debate between Hitchens and Boteach

I am writing on a point of principle and a point of information. I quote from the opening page of Chapter 1 ["A Closed Utopia?"] of Dr Israel Shahak's book Jewish History, Jewish Religion (Pluto Press 1994): This book, though written in English and addressed to people living outside the State of Israel, is, in a way, a continuation of my political activities as an Israeli Jew. Those activities began in 1965-6 with a protest which caused a considerable scandal at the time: I had personally witnessed an ultra-religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to have collapsed in his Jerusalem neighborhood. Instead of simply publishing the incident in the press, I asked for a meeting with the members of the Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem, which is composed of rabbis nominated by the State of Israel. I asked them whether such behavior was consistent with their interpretation of the Jewish religion. They answered that the Jew in question had behaved correctly, indeed piously, and backed their statement by referring me to an authoritative compendium of Talmudic laws, written in this century. I reported the incident to the main Hebrew daily, Haaretz, whose publication of the story caused a media scandal.

As you may remember from the event at the 92nd St YMHA on Wednesday evening January 30th, I was challenged by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to provide a source for an assertion I had made on Orthodox teaching in this respect, and promised by him that he would buy 100 new copies of my book if I could materialize my point. I hereby submit this excerpt, and beg three things of you:

1. That those who subscribed to the broadcast version of the debate are made aware of my response.
2. That Rabbi Boteach is likewise made aware of it (I have no channel of communication to him).
3. That one of you agrees to act as arbiter until the task - surely quite easy - of consulting the relevant Haaretz files has been completed. I think the burden here now rests with Boteach, though I shall meanwhile institute some inquiries of my own.

I take this opportunity to say that it is always a distinction to be invited to appear on your platform.


Christopher Hitchens

February 4
E-mail written by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to Christpher Hitchens

Dear Christopher,

Thank you very much for your email which I only received this morning. Forgive me for dictating a response, but we have an important event tomorrow night, and I am heavily involved in its organization. And, let me thank you for agreeing to the debate the other night. Please also use this email address to communicate with me.

Your email divined my own weekly article on the subject which was written Saturday night and Sunday. After you mentioned that Shahak was your source, I investigated the incident. As you surely know, Lord Immanuel Jacobovits, one of the world's leading medical ethicist's and the highly respected late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and member of the House of Lords, exposed Shahak's letter as a fraud a year after it was written. I enclosed my article on the same. Interestingly as you will see, Shahak does not mention name of the Rabbinical court (there are hundreds of Rabbinical courts in Jerusalem). Less so does he cite a single source within Talmudic law, because he knows the Talmud says the exact opposite, that the Sabbath is desecrated to save the life of a non-Jew. Even if Shahak were to be a source, and Shahak, as you know (he was a close friend of yours) has made many sourceless defamatory allegations against Jews and has been accused as being of the world's leading anti-Semites, such as my article says, your book still says that, "many" Rabbinical courts say that Jews must not save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. I ask you to please therefore cite another source which would justify your statement of "many." Shahak refers to a single incident, and even then, not one where the Sabbat would even be desecrated. There is no prohibition in allowing one's phone to be used on the Sabbath, as you no doubt know. The prohibition is against using it yourself. And, second, after reading my article on the subject, would you please respond? I believe that if you cannot find a source other than Shahak's exposed fraud, you should please do the right thing and remove the libelous reference from your book.

I, too, asked Asha that the readership of the 92nd Street Y please be made aware of my article on the subject, and of Christopher's email citing Shahak as the source, and my comments on the same. I welcome the appointment of an arbiter and I agree that those who watched the debate around the world should be made aware of my article and Christopher's email. And, I will await Christopher to bring more sources to justify the "many" he cites.

No doubt you can appreciate, Christopher, that this is an issue of the utmost importance. For centuries Jews have been accused of blood libels that led to unending massacres of innocent Jews. We must all be exceptionally careful before perpetuating the same.

Wishing you all the best.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach