Why do heroes have to be selfless

Not everyone has to be a hero

The attacks in Paris shook the whole world. We have once again witnessed how cruel and unscrupulous people can be. But there is also a ray of hope in these terrible events. The story has spawned a hero, namely Lassana Bathily, the Muslim employee of the raided kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher. He risked his own life to save 15 other lives.

Bathily showed the world that people can be not only brutal and merciless, but also compassionate and selfless. In recognition of his deed, he was granted French citizenship.

Society But was Bathily's act really that heroic? Shouldn't we expect everyone to feel obliged to save another person's life when they can? Failure to provide assistance will be prosecuted. This shows that we as a society have to expect a certain amount of courage from each and every one of us.

So how far do you have to go to save another person? Is it just a manageable effort - like calling the police or an ambulance - or do you have to step in and spend your own resources to save someone else's life? Do you also have to put your life in potential danger?

The case of Tugce Albayrak from Offenbach showed the world how disinterested, courageous and courageous a young woman can be. Their deed also showed that such a selfless commitment to the rescuer can end in death under certain circumstances.

Duty So is it a duty to risk one's own life to save another life, or does our own life always come first? What does Judaism say, what do our sages say about it?

The Talmud asks in tract Sanhedrin 73a: “How do we know that if someone sees his neighbor drowning in a river, like a wild animal dragging him away, or like robbers attacking him, he is obliged to save the other? Because the Torah says: 'You shall not stand by your neighbor's blood' "(Leviticus 19:16).

By asking, "How do we know ...?" The Talmud already assumes a certain obligation for each of us to save the life of another. This thesis is confirmed by the above verse from the Torah. So if one has an opportunity to save another's life and does not do so, he is breaking a direct Torah commandment.

The logic behind this command can also be found in tract Sanhedrin 73a, where it says that the first man was created alone to teach us that if someone destroys a human life, he destroys the whole world. But when someone saves a human life, he saves the whole world. Because all of humanity descends from just one human being.

Body But the Talmud goes on in Sanhedrin 73 and again questions the fact that we derive this commandment from the verse in Leviticus 19:16. And in another Talmudic passage, in Bawa Kama 81b, it says: “How do we know that one should give back a person's body?” This relates to the case that someone is about to lose his body: “Because it is there : 'You shall give him back' "(Deuteronomy 22: 2). From this sentence in the Torah, our sages deduce that one must give back to an owner not only a lost object, but also his body.

Now we have two Toraverse that actually want to suggest the same thing to us. From this we conclude that one verse must teach us what would not be apparent to us from the other alone. In this sense the Talmud goes on and states that the verse from Deuteronomy tells us: An individual is obliged to save the person affected by himself, insofar as he is able to do so. The verse from Leviticus 19:16, on the other hand, teaches us that if an individual cannot save the person affected from danger on his own, he must endeavor to find helpers.

Drowning So if you discover while walking that someone is about to drown, he has to help - because the Torah says: "You should give him (his body) back." But what if you can't swim? In this case, can you keep walking? "No," says the Torah: "You shouldn't stand next to your neighbor's blood." So you have to look for helpers.

The Shulchan Aruch also decides in Choshen Mishpat 426.1: “When someone sees another drowning, or how robbers or wild animals threaten his life, and he has the opportunity to save the person in danger himself or someone else with it to commission and not do so; or when someone realizes that a Gentile or slanderer is planning something evil against another and does not warn him about it; or if someone knows that someone who incites violence wants to harm his neighbor and has the opportunity to appease this person, but does not do so: They all violate the Torah prohibition: ›You shouldn't stand next to the blood of your neighbor.‹ «

Kidnapping Now we come back to the question that many have asked themselves after Bathily's act of rescue, namely: does one have to potentially put one's life in danger in order to save the life of another? There is a famous passage about this in the Talmud Jeruschalmi, Trumot 47a. There it is said that Rabbi Ami was kidnapped. Rabbi Jonathan said there was no hope of his salvation. But Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: "Either I will kill or I will be killed." With these words he went on his mission and saved Rabbi Ami.

What can we learn from this Talmudic passage? Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish risked his life to save Rabbi Ami's life. Although Rabbi Jonathan himself was not ready to do so, he did not say that Rabbi Shimon violated the Halacha.

Some commentators, such as Hagaot Maimoniot, understand this passage to mean that the Talmud Yerushalmi wants to present it as a law that, like Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, one must put oneself into potential danger in order to save another. Kessef Mishnah explains the reason for this by stating that the endangered person is definitely in danger, with the rescuer "only" putting himself in potential danger. The definitive danger is therefore to be weighted higher than the potential danger.

Halacha But the Talmud Bawli, which we usually follow, seems to have a different view here. So from a halachic point of view there is no obligation to put your life in potential danger in order to save another person.

Meschech Hochma derives this from another passage in the Torah, namely when Moshe is said: "Return to Egypt, for all who have tried to kill you are dead" (Exodus 4:19). From this Meshech Hochma draws the conclusion that Moshe need not go to Egypt if his persecutors were to live - although the Jewish people were in danger and longingly awaited Moshe and salvation. But as soon as the danger to life for Moshe was over, he was obliged to go to Egypt.

Punishment Another famous response from Radvaz discusses a case where a Jew was convicted of theft in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. His hand was supposed to be chopped off as punishment. To escape this punishment, the Jew fled to Egypt.

The Turkish sultan took another Jew prisoner and sent the escaped Jew a message: Should he return from Egypt and take the punishment, the sultan would release the captured Jew. If not, the captured Jew would be killed.

Organ donation The refugee turned to Rabbi David ben Zimri (Radvaz) with the question of whether he should sacrifice his hand to save someone else's life. This response is also often cited in connection with organ donation, which is also about saving lives. Radvaz concludes that the Torah cannot ask to go that far. But it would be very praiseworthy and rated as "Kiddush Hashem" (sanctification of the Name of God) if the refugee did it anyway.

From a halachic point of view, there was no duty for Lassana Bathily to risk his life. Yet his act was heroic in every way. Bathily saved 15 other "worlds" and thus demonstrated how people can stand up for one another regardless of origin, view or religion. He himself said in retrospect: “This is not about Jews, Christians or Muslims. We're all in the same boat."

This text should only be viewed as an introduction to a very complex topic. There are numerous other sources that unfortunately could not be listed here due to lack of space. May none of us get into situations where we have to make such decisions! But we have to deal with these issues in order to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

The author is a rabbi of the Jewish community of Osnabrück and a member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference (ORD).