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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.

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The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies stricken off the shore of the Italian island of Giglio on Jan. 21, 2012. (Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images)
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The trial starting today of Francesco Schettino—the captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the coast of Italy in January 2012, killing 32 people—has raised many legal and ethical questions regarding a captain’s responsibility to stay aboard a capsizing ship. Schettino was charged with manslaughter, in part, because he apparently steered his ship negligently off its automated route and then failed to report the severity of the accident in a timely fashion; the bigger issue, though, is that he allegedly failed to administer an evacuation plan and fled the boat before many of its passengers had been rescued. This is not the first time such allegations have been made against a cruise ship captain: In the case of the Oceanos, which sank off the coast of South Africa in 1991, the captain was accused of abandoning his passengers, leaving hired entertainers to bravely take charge in helping the South African navy save all 571 passengers and crew.

While the Italian court in the town of Grosseto will ultimately decide Schettino’s fate, we might ask where Jewish law stands on such questions. According to Jewish law, would Schettino be required to remain on board his sinking ship until the very last passenger had been evacuated? Would he still be liable, according to Jewish law, if he had remained on board for several more hours, yet ultimately abandoned the remaining passengers when he determined he would no longer be able to save himself? Must a captain never abandon his ship, even at the cost of his own life?

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Jewish history does not have extensive discussions of maritime law. In the Book of Jonah, lots are cast to identify the culprit who brought divine wrath upon the ship after the captain ostracizes Jonah for not praying. In the modern era, Menachem Begin reportedly refused to abandon the sunken Altalena until the wounded had been evacuated. In 1961, 43 Moroccan Jews drowned during an unsuccessful attempt to immigrate to France when the captain and other crew members refused to pull any of them onto a lifeboat.

But while maritime Jewish history may be limited, the broader dilemma of endangering oneself to save the life of others—ranging from cases of kidney donors to travelers in the desert with only one bottle of water—is discussed at great length by Jewish scholars and bears relevance to the issue of whether “a captain never abandons his ship.”

The most compelling argument for a captain to remain on board during an emergency is that he is best equipped to direct life-saving measures while helping to maintain discipline and order. According to industry standards originally established after the Titanic sank, and updated in 1974, every ship must sail with an emergency plan, with the assumption that the captain will lead the evacuation on board. Yet, as some observers noted after the Costa Concordia disaster, there remains no legal or moral obligation for the captain himself to die with the sinking ship. His obligation is to do the best he can for as long as possible—a standard that cannot be easily measured. But this is not meant to be a death sentence, and if a lifeboat had been available, then even the famed Capt. Smith of the Titanic could have justified abandoning ship in the end. The critical question thus remains whether the captain may save himself even if it entails leaving behind passengers and prioritizing himself over them.

Within Jewish law, the answer, at least initially, seems to be clear. The Torah directs us with an overarching imperative, “You shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), determining that with the exception of three cardinal sins, one is not required to die to fulfill any commandment—including “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16). As such, in an acute triage situation, one may prioritize one’s own life before others. Halakhists debate to what extent specialists must endanger themselves to save someone under their supervision, as in the case of doctors treating patients with transmittable diseases or during viral outbreaks. Yet no one obligates them to perform heroic efforts when the danger is acute and the chances of success are small, as with experimental treatments to treat a contagious, incurable disease. While soldiers are expected to endanger themselves to save their comrades, the army presents unique moral obligations because by definition, soldiers take upon life-threatening roles. It is hard to make the same claim about others, like teachers. Everyone admires Janusz Korczak, the pediatrician and children’s author who accompanied his orphanage to Treblinka in 1942 even though he was repeatedly offered sanctuary. His self-sacrifice to calm and comfort his children on their way to death is undoubtedly the stuff of which legends are made. (A new musical about his life is opening next month in New York.) Yet if he had fled before being forced with the children onto trains to the concentration camps, no one would have accused him of moral turpitude.

The same would seem to be true about sea captains. They should do everything they can to help their passengers, yet they are not obligated to die in the place of others. Moreover, the notion of not abandoning one’s ship, either to protect one’s financial stake or for the sake of honor, remains foreign to Jewish law.

Interestingly, some historians have argued that the notion “a captain never abandons his ship” fully developed at about the same time as “women and children first,” the other famous (but controversial and less established) maxim of maritime evacuation. Until that time, it was believed that Providence alone would determine one’s fate, as evidenced in the Book of Jonah, thereby allowing every person to save himself. Yet by the 19th century, great emphasis was placed on abandoning self-interest through displays of selflessness that would earn eternal beatitude. This was highlighted during the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead in 1852, when soldiers stood at attention while women and children were loaded onto lifeboats, and most famously, with the Titanic.

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.

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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.

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