On Holocaust Remembrance Day, whic we commemorated last week, I always think about the most difficult moral choices people had to make in unbearable situations.
One well-known story is that of Yitzhak Wittenberg, the head of the Jewish resistance group in the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania. On the 8th of July, 1943, the Nazis demanded that Jacob Gens, head of the ghetto, arrest Wittenberg. One week later, on the 15th of July, Gens summoned resistance leaders to a meeting in his house. During the gathering, Lithuanian police entered the room and demanded that Wittenberg be turned over to them. Gens pointed him out to the police and he was taken away in handcuffs.
Shortly afterwards, members of the resistance attacked the Jewish police and the Lithuanians that were transporting Wittenberg and succeeded in freeing him. In retaliation, the Nazis threatened to liquidate the ghetto if Wittenberg was not handed over to them.
A delegation from the ghetto leadership and public figures turned to the underground command requesting that Wittenberg, who was in hiding, be turned in to save the rest of the ghetto. Once even the communists asked for Wittenberg’s arrest, he turned himself in to Gens and then to the Nazis. Two days later while in prison, he took poison and died in his cell.
This terrible story reveals the difficult dilemma that every society has to deal with (though luckily not to such extreme) when weighing an individual’s life against the safety and security of the greater society. When there is a serious threat to society, the tendency is to sacrifice the individual on behalf of the greater good.
Our weekly parashah – Tazria-Metzora – discusses the case of a leper, who is considered a danger to the community and has to be placed outside of the camp. The description in the Torah is not easy: As for the person with tzara’ath, his garments shall be torn, his head shall be unshorn, he shall cover over his upper lip and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Leviticus 13: 45)ץ For the leper, this treatment is akin to death: the clothes are torn, the loneliness is complete.
Vayikra Raba (16:3) ) teaches us about Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, who would not enter the street where the leprous person lives, and Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish, who would throw stones at the leprous person. The sages were uneasy with those descriptions and tried to explain it as moral deficiencies, such as improper speech.
For me, the real dilemma is when there is not necessarily a moral deficiency of the person who is put outside the camp, but the need to find a balance between safety of the larger society and the rights of the individual.
To give a more current analogy, can the person who is not vaccinated be restricted from entry to public spaces such as a theater or synagogue? Can a person whose opinions are considered dangerous be prohibited from serving in the Israeli parliament? Should we put outside of the camp people whose ideas endanger the society? How do we measure whether those opinions really so dangerous? What’s the process of reaching these decisions?
It is interesting that the Torah focuses on the ritual for returning the leprous person to the community, as if to say, whatever you decide in your specific case, remember to minimize the damage to the individual. The stronger the society, the less often people will be required to find themselves outside the camp. However, there is still a concern that even the strongest society can be ruined from inside and needs to be protected.
I wish us all years of plenty, without wars or illness and with no tough decisions to confront.
Irina Gritsevskaya directs Midreshet Schechter, Schechter’s program offering bet midrash study to the general public in Israel and Midreshet Yerushalayim, Schechter’s network of Jewish educational programs, camps and communities in Ukraine. She holds a BA from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a law degree from Bar Ilan University and was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. A native of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Gritsevskaya made aliya as a teenager and currently lives in Ramat Aviv.