According to Jewish Law and Custom, Must a Captain Go Down With His Ship?
The Costa Concordia captain wasn’t obligated to sacrifice his life. But he shouldn’t have abandoned his passengers.
This ethos, however, was strongly criticized by Rabbi Haim Hirschensohn (d. 1935), who noted that Jewish law unequivocally asserts that a person is entitled to save himself above others when there is little hope of saving everyone. Directly criticizing the rescue priorities on the Titanic, he argued that men were equally entitled to board lifeboats—as long as it was done in an orderly fashion without pushing anyone aside—and they certainly should not have been kicked off them. “Those who kicked men off lifeboats for the sake of women … ,” he declared, “are killers! We do not push aside one person to save another.” He further stressed that when it comes to determining life-saving priorities in triage situations, ethics, not honor or emotions, must rule the day. One cannot demand of someone else to put the lives of others ahead of their own, even as one might hope that people will take non-suicidal risks to try to help others.
In fact, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (d. 1926) went further to claim that one is not obligated to gravely endanger himself even if his actions might be necessary to save masses or the entire Jewish people. This position was strongly criticized by many scholars, including Rabbi Abraham Kook (d. 1935), who argued that one must give up his own life to save the nation or possibly even a large number of people. According to Kook, however, the captain may be required to stay on board to lead the evacuation, but at the moment of truth, he is not required to give the last spot on the lifeboat to someone else.
Yet while the captain is not legally required to rescue others instead of saving himself, he may, according to most halakhists, choose to do so. Indeed, many spiritual leaders during the Holocaust refused to flee their communities, including Rabbi Avraham Kahane Shapiro, who after the war broke out returned from Switzerland to Lithuania, contending, “The ship’s captain is the last to abandon the burning ship, not the first. … My place is with the community.” It remains doubtful that a captain shares a similar bond to his passengers as a spiritual shepherd does with his flock. If the Costa Concordia’s captain had responsibly and bravely remained on board close to the end, but then decided to save himself, Jewish law would have fully respected that balance of altruism and self-interest. Ultimately, what makes the heroic leadership of people like Korczak and Shapiro so remarkable is the loyalty displayed in the absence of moral or legal responsibility. While always notable, self-sacrifice remains most laudable when it’s a choice, not an obligation.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
Daf Yomi: For generations, Talmudic training has meant exercising the mind in logical thinking, not just learning laws