On the morning of April 16, Dr. Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor and aeronautical engineering professor, blocked the door of his classroom in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech so that his students could escape through the windows.
One month later, on the shloshim of his death, the University of Washington Chabad brought Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe to the UW campus for a memorial lecture in Librescu’s honor that looked at, among other things, how his actions should be viewed through a Jewish lens.
Shlomo Yaffe serves as rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, Conn. and the founding director of the Institute for Jewish Literacy and the founder of the Connecticut Symposium on Contemporary Legal Issues and Jewish Law in Hartford. He is well known for his ability to make Jewish mysticism accessible to people to make use of it in daily life.
After studying rocket science and WWII history, Yaffe turned to Talmudic law and Hassidic philosophy. He has written and lectured on the Judaic perspective of contemporary, legal, scientific and social issues. Rabbi Yaffe is also an expert on secular law and legal ethics who serves as a legal consultant and lecturer for the New York Legal Assistance Group.
Rabbi Yaffe began his talk with the question: “From the standpoint of Jewish ethics and law, did [Prof. Librescu] do the right thing? He put himself against the door, which someone could, and did ultimately, shoot through and kill him. Was he really supposed to give his life for others?
“This is not such a simple question,” Yaffe explained, “because if someone’s life is no less valuable than your own, then it’s certainly no more valuable than your own.”
He promised to answer that question, but first took an hour-long digression that began with the question of how German society, with its long traditions of scientific and philosophical leadership, could emerge in the 1930s as the author of the Holocaust, one of the most horrific moments in modern human history.
“How did a very large group of people from a highly developed society…engage in and justify such a pervasive, long term abuse of ethics? The Holocaust was not the passionate, vicious bloodletting of the mob that ultimately runs itself out,” he said. “It was a cold and calculated societal choice devoted to the extermination, destruction and utter and complete cruelty and disregard, first of all to Jews, but also many others.”
His answer was that the people making those choices believed that they had evidence that the Jews, the Gypsies, the handicapped, homosexuals and other outcast groups were a blight on the society and, that by removing them, they were improving the world as a whole. Then, like the teacher that he is, he led the dozen or so people that had come to hear him on a journey of exploration into the essential question of what makes a human life inherently worth preserving.
“There’s this premise that we have that people have a fundamental right to live, that people have a fundamental right to express themselves, that people have a fundamental right to equal opportunities,” he said. “The question is: is there really any quantifiable truth to them — can they be proved logically, or should we say scientifically?
“Scientifically, differences between human beings on a racial or national level are far less than their similarities. But that doesn’t mean anything because someone else might have a different way of looking at things and, like the German scientists of the ‘20s and ‘30s, come to the conclusion that the shapes of skulls and the colors of skin and the like may be terribly important,” Yaffe said. “And who’s to say that it couldn’t happen again?”
Once an idea becomes entrenched in the scientific or popular beliefs, he explained, the data tend to be read in a way that support that belief.
Making a case analogous to the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, he said, “I could identify any one of five racial groups that have a much higher rate of indictment, convictions and incarcerations for murder. There are certain minorities that commit crimes and get convicted for them at a much higher rate than other minorities. It probably has nothing to do with race and a lot to do with history….These statistics do exist.
“Put yourself in the shoes of these German scientists,” Yaffe said. “Once you believe that this group contains a greater percentage of social pathologies and that once you get rid of them you get rid of the social pathologies ... I ask all of you, is there any reason why we should not exterminate this group?”
His comments counter the ethical calculus in Jewish tradition that the fundamental belief that human beings are made in the image of God and, as such, each and every one of us is imbued with an inherent value that cannot be reduced by the “greater good” for society as a whole.
“We can argue from today to tomorrow about God and religion and everything, but if you do not bring in a being that is the source of everything whose purest expression is in a human being, a being that assigns a special value to the human being, a being that says its most profound and indivisible irreducible expression is in a human being, then you can never, ever find a reason why I should not do something wrong to another person,” Rabbi Yaffe said.
“The only thing that would seem to guarantee such a thing is that there is a sensibility that assigns an absolute value as part of itself to the human being. That value says there’s nothing more precious than a human life, so I need to do everything I can to protect it and preserve it unless that other person forfeits its life by seeking my destruction.”
Under that precept, he said, one person cannot, under Jewish law, sacrifice his own life for another person’s, no matter how much better or more deserving they believe that other person to be.
“On the other hand,” he said, drawing back to where he began, with the sacrifice made by Prof. Librescu, “can someone risk [his] life to save someone else’s life? Yes, as long as it’s not a definite one-on-one sort of thing. Can someone risk [his] life to save many? It would seem the answer is yes — that answers the original question that we started with.”