Home
In this issue

Jonathan Tobin: Defending the Right to a Jewish State

Heather Hale: Compliment your kids without giving them big heads

Megan Shauri: 10 ways you are ruining your own happiness

Carolyn Bigda: 8 Best Dividend Stocks for 2015

Kiplinger's Personal Finance editors: 7 Things You Didn't Know About Paying Off Student Loans

Samantha Olson: The Crucial Mistake 55% Of Parents Are Making At Their Baby's Bedtime

Densie Well, Ph.D., R.D. Open your eyes to yellow vegetables

The Kosher Gourmet by Megan Gordon With its colorful cache of purples and oranges and reds, COLLARD GREEN SLAW is a marvelous mood booster --- not to mention just downright delish
April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review Feb. 19, 2007 / 1 Adar, 5767

The ethics of torture

By Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir


Printer Friendly Version

Email this article

The duty of rescue and the right to self-defense


http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Q: What does Judaism say about torturing suspects in order to obtain life-saving information?


A: This highly topical question is the subject of a recent article by Rabbi J. David Bleich in the latest issue of Tradition magazine, devoted to the topic of "War and the Jewish Tradition". This column is basically a summary and brief commentary on Rabbi Bleich's analysis, rather than an original approach to this complex issue.


Rabbi Bleich adopts what seems to me an entirely novel ethical approach to the torture issue, based on two concepts of particular importance in Jewish law: the duty of rescue, and the right to self-defense.


In the European and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions, the duty of rescue is very limited. Rabbi Bleich writes that very few jurisdictions impose any sanctions at all on someone who is able to rescue but fails to do so. Many reasons have been suggested for this omission. One is that sanctions could be counterproductive by encouraging people to remain far from the site of disaster so that they could not be punished for not rescuing; when there are a number of potential rescuers there is a difficulty in singling out whom the duty falls on; and so on. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the orientation of European law towards rights and punishments as opposed to affirmative duties.


By contrast, Jewish law imposes a binding and very demanding level of obligation to help others when their well-being or even their property is in danger. The Torah commands us, "Don't stand idly by the blood of your fellow" (Leviticus 19:16); rather, we are obligated to take affirmative action to help him.


Jewish law, like other legal systems, recognizes the right to self-defense. Harming another person is of course normally forbidden, but when that person threatens us we are allowed to act aggressively to protect ourselves. A critical question here is, what is the ethical justification for this right? Is it self-defense per se or is it the culpability of the attacker? Rabbi Bleich explains that in Jewish law, a person may be considered a "pursuer" even if they have no culpability. For example, if the mother's life is threatened during childbirth, the emerging infant can be endangered to save her even though he or she obviously bears no culpability for the tragic medical situation.


Putting these two principles together, Rabbi Bleich concludes that any person with life-saving information is obligated to reveal it (duty of rescue), and that the right of self-defense would justify aggressive actions to compel the knower to disclose his information. Rabbi Bleich writes: "By failing to act the potential informant makes it possible for a calamity to occur. . . It is thus clear that the law of pursuit sanctions any form of bodily force, including mayhem, when necessary to preserve the life of the victim."


As Rabbi Bleich points out, this analysis applies fully only when there is certainty that the person in question can and will provide the information needed to defuse a "ticking bomb". Uncertainty can arise here in many guises: is there a threat at all? Does this person indeed possess the information needed to neutralize the threat? And will torture be effective in eliciting the information? (Rabbi Bleich makes it clear that torture can never be sanctioned when less painful methods will be fruitful.) Obviously these are serious doubts, and experts are divided on whether torture is generally an effective means of obtaining information at all.


Another reservation here is that we have to clearly establish the informant's duty to disclose. Since his status as a "pursuer" is due to his passive refusal to reveal information he has, there can be no right to harm him if he has valid reasons for keeping his secret. Rabbi Bleich devotes some discussion to this complex angle.


I want to comment briefly on Rabbi Bleich's analysis. The "ticking bomb" scenario is a well-known ethical dilemma, and Rabbi Bleich's approach is quite different than the usual ones. In a "duty ethics" approach, some acts are considered absolute wrongs. Either they can never be sanctioned, or can only be sanctioned in the presence of a higher duty. So we would either prohibit torture categorically, or else weigh its harm against the interrogator's ethical duty of rescue. In a "consequentialist ethics" approach, the question is more quantifiable: does the benefit to the potential victims outweigh the suffering of the informant as well as the potential for ethical deterioration if torture becomes commonplace?


According to Rabbi Bleich, in Jewish law the hinge of the argument is the obligation of the informant himself to help others. In this surprising fashion, the sanction for torture becomes an expression of his humanity, rather than of his inhumanity. We are allowed to cause him pain precisely because we insist, despite his enmity, on viewing him as someone who has his own ethical obligations to his fellow human beings. This seems to me an innovative and uniquely humane way of looking at this challenging ethical dilemma.

ARCHIVES

Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes inspiring articles. Sign up for our daily update. It's free. Just click here.


JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology. To comment or pose a question, please click here.

THE JEWISH ETHICIST, NOW IN BOOK FORM

You've enjoyed his columns on JWR for years. Now the Jewish Ethicist has culled his most intriguing — and controversial — offerings in book form.
HARDCOVER
PAPERBACK
Sales help fund JWR.









© 2007, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics