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Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?

Sometime in the last week of April, 230 cosignatories sent a petition to Yad Vashem, requesting that they give special recognition to two particular families, the Hollebrands and the Egginks, who hid three children from the Sanders family, which had converted to Christianity before World War II.

In this tragic WWII story, the father registered the family as Jewish and sent the children into hiding with the Hollebrands and Egginks. The Gestapo arrested the father in 1943 and tortured him into divulging their whereabouts. In the end, he, his wife and children—Eline, 10, Egbert, 8 and Marie Lena, 6—were murdered that year.

Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Recognition of the Righteous among the Nations decided that the Hollebrands and the Egginks were ineligible for the title since the honor is reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust; since the children were not Jewish, they could not receive the award.

How would Jewish tradition and ethics respond to this kind of case? Was the Yad Vashem acting properly?

When I came across this article, I decided to look up the Shulchan Aruch, which is the authoritative Code of Jewish Law that has governed Jewish life for many centuries. The law is clear: an Israelite who has embraced another religious identity still remains an Israelite; should he get married to a Jewish woman, the act of marriage still remains intact even though he has retracted his Jewish faith. [1] Moreover, this same principle also applies to any person who officially converted to Judaism from another faith, who later relinquishes his Judaic faith–that individual is still considered a Jew [2] — contrary to the views espoused by today’s Haredi rabbinical community in Israel.

Moreover, if  that wayward Israelite ritually slaughters an animal and someone attests that his knife was adequately sharpened, the meat from the animal may be eaten [3]. There are literally hundreds of other cases in rabbinic literature that stress this point: Jewish identity does not disappear just because that person rejects his heritage. The door is always open for the possibility that he might repent and return to his ancestral faith.

That being said, in the case of the Sander children, we do not know all the facts regarding this case. It is possible the father had the family converted in order to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Such conversions gave the Jewish person(s) extra protection from the Church, but not always. Conversions under duress are nothing new in Jewish tradition and the Halacha—especially as interpreted by Maimonides—tends to be fairly liberal and compassionate. Indeed, Maimonides ought to have known, because he himself was forcibly converted to Islam in his youth.

In short, the Sander children were truly and halachically תינוק שנשבה בין הנכרים — the tragic victims of circumstances that were beyond their conscious control and as a result certainly need to be viewed with the utmost of compassion. Even though they were converted to Christianity, they still died as Jews. The two families who risked their own lives and the lives of their families deserve recognition.

Saving a life of a person who is facing imminent danger is considered to be one of the greatest acts of human decency. Although most texts rabbinic texts speak about the saving of a “‘Jewish’ life is considered as if one saved the entire world,”[4] one must remember that the social context this rabbinic dictum referred merely to someone who was already a member of their community; it would be analogous to laws that we have in this country that are written for the general welfare of Americans, but do not necessarily exclude the rights of foreigners. In fact, with the recent wave of immigrants coming in from Mexico, American laws across the nation have been established to protect their rights as well.

A different variant of rabbinic tradition clearly stresses that the rescuing of human life is of such paramount importance, saving any life—Jewish or Gentile—is considered in the eyes of Heaven as though one saved an entire world. In one ancient rabbinic text, Benjamin the Righteous was in charge of the communal charity box. On one occasion, a widow came before him and made a request for financial assistance.

The Talmud tells the following story about Binyamin the Righteous who supervised the charity fund. One day, during a year of scarcity, a woman came to him and said, “Master, provide sustenance for me.” Binyamin replied. “There is no money left in the charity fund.” She said, “Master, if you do not provide for me, a woman and her seven children will perish.” He provided for her out of his own pocket.

Sometime afterward, he became very ill and he was at the point of death. The angels above said to God: “Master of the Universe, You have said that he who saves the life of one soul is considered as if he had saved the entire world. Shall Benjamin the Righteous, who saved the lives of a woman and her seven children, deserve to die at such a young age?”The Talmud concludes that, as a result, twenty two years were added to his life!”[5]

This is an interesting case that calls for an explanation. It is possible that the person who asked Benjamin the Righteous for charity was a non-Jew. Feeling no obligation to help the widow, Benjamin lied and said that there was no money left to distribute. The widow would not let Benjamin avoid his ethical obligation and she informed him that if he refused to assist her, both she and her seven children would perish. Benjamin felt guilty because he had originally decided that he would not assist the woman, but that was until the woman persuaded him to help her—he could discern in her voice, the Voice of God.

As Levinas has pointed out numerous times, the human face demands an ethical response—and this applies universally to all human beings regardless of their faith. Hence the response of the heavenly angels now becomes clear. The rescuing of human life is not limited merely to “Jewish lives” or other member’s of one’s ethnic community, it is a universal principle that must be the bedrock of all ethical relationships. Saving a human life is of paramount importance because it is world-saving. Fortunately, the pious Benjamin realized his obligation to assist, it is my hope that the Yad Vashem act with equal compassion toward the heroes and heroines who risked life, limb, and family to save their Jewish neighbors.

Postscript:

The story about Benjamin the Righteous bears a striking similarity to a well-known story found in the book of Mathew 15:21-28:

And Jesus left there, and withdrew to the districts of Tyre and Sidon. And, look you, a Canaanite woman from these parts came and cried, “Have pity upon me, Sir, Son of David! My daughter is grievously afflicted by a demon.” But he answered her not a word. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she is shrieking behind us.” Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” She came and knelt in entreaty before him. “Lord,” she said, “help me!” Jesus answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and to throw it to the pet dogs.” She said, “True, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the pieces which fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was restored to health from that hour.

Christian commentaries wonder whether Jesus had indeed snubbed the woman or perhaps he was testing her. Judging from the context, it would seem that Jesus did not feel any particular ethical or legal obligation to assist the woman, and so he ignores her, but her persistence pays off and forces Jesus to realize that he unjustly dismissed a desperate woman in her time of need. Like the story of Benjamin the Righteous, Jesus soon realizes the justice in the woman’s request; from this point on, Jesus learns from his experience and strives to become more of a healer to all who would call upon him for assistance. Although Jesus’s original reaction to the gentile woman does not cast him in a particularly positive light, he nevertheless heard the Voice of God speak through her complaint; from that point on, he aspires to act like a healer to all of God’s children who needed him. The moral of the story is clear: even the most righteous of human beings  make errors in judgment.

———

Notes:

[1] T.B. Yebamoth 47b; Maimonides, MT Hilchot Biah 14:17.

[2] Y.D. Hilchot Gerim 268:12.

[3] Maimonides, MT Hilchot Shechita 4:14.

[4] T.B. Sanhedrin 37a.

[5]. מסכתות קטנות מסכת אבות דרבי נתן הוספה ב לנוסחא א פרק ג