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The New (Jewish?) Ethicist

New columnist makes an abrupt, and Jewish, break from the past

Dan Klein
March 04, 2011
The new Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer.(Gawker / Nikola Tamindzic )
The new Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer.(Gawker / Nikola Tamindzic )

Randy Cohen, who recently ended his reign as Ethicist for New York Times Magazine, always felt more interested in manners then anything else. His judgments seemed divorced from any real ethical tradition except, as Rachel Shteir pointed out in her grand takedown a couple months ago, that of the Borscht Belt.

On the other hand, Ariel Kaminer, who is taking over the column, is flaunting her differences from Cohen in her very first column.

In her first outing she tackles a true life-or-death question: whether a woman should reach out to her sister’ suicidal ex despite her sister forbidding it. It has no obvious answer; the ex- certainly has done harm to their family. Kaminer, however, cuts to the quick and invokes—maybe on purpose, maybe not—the core Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life takes precedence over religious obligation) with her sage, “the ethical obligation to save a life is greater than that to avoid offense.”

Most of the discussion around pikuach nefesh has to do with violating the Shabbat or other religious laws to literally save a life. The idea that it is better to save a life rather then offend a person certainly falls under that rubric. That is to say, if you can offend against God to preserve life, you can certainly offend against a person.

Rabbis in general, and apparently Kaminer, tend towards a broad interpretation of pikuach nefesh, which can sometimes get into a grainy area—it’s obvious that saving someone from a fire is permissible, but is checking up on someone who may or may not harm themselves?

The other question, while not as dire, is even more obviously breach from Cohen’s approach.

As Shteir wrote in her piece, Cohen never quite let got over his 2002 advice to a young woman, who was offended that her Orthodox real-estate agent refused to shake her hand, to tear up her contract—for which the Times received 4,000 complaints and was forced to get sensitivity training from the Orthodox Union.

Kaminer’s question involves a businessman, who allowed a Hindu client to perform a ritual that required no women be present–to the offense of some of his employees, can’t help but be compared. Her answer isn’t based on accusations of sexism like Cohen’s (He argued it was in line with Brown v The Board of Education), but rather is based on which relationship is longer standing—her employees are right to be angry, because he valued a stranger over them.

So a good first go! Not only are the issues more pressing, they’re more nuanced as well. After a single column it’s probably to soon to determine whether Kaminer’s Jewishness will play a role in her pronouncements, or how important it is to her. It’ll be fun finding out though.