Jewish Perspectives on Bioethics

When Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali were kidnapped, many of us scoured the internet to learn even a little bit about what happened. But something strange happened. There was nothing to read and no radio broadcasts to listen to. There was an official media blackout – IDF Command prohibited media outlets from commenting on active investigations. Only after several hours were a scant few details made public.

During those long few hours, we wished to know more, desperately wanting to learn that they were recovered safely. Tragically, no such good news was forthcoming.

Amid the early morning confusion, various news agencies reported drastically different stories, some with tragic endings and others heroic – but all erroneous. All this wild speculation came to a sudden halt when the IDF Spokesman requested that as a matter of national security, any and all stories about the kidnapping, whether accurate or merely hypothetical, be immediately removed. He did not elaborate, he did not explain his rationale, nor justify his request – but nonetheless, to their credit, almost every news agency complied. Notably, one news site – representing an Orthodox Jewish perspective – refused to withdraw their story of the boys’ rescue. Even after the IDF Spokesman dismissed any reports of a rescue, this media outlet stood by their erroneous claim that their report of a heroic rescue was indeed issued by IDF Command. The story was a complete – but nonetheless, because “people have a right to know,” this particular media outlet refused to take down their story.

If this were simply poor journalism, it would not be worthy of comment, only ridicule. The problem though is far more significant. The IDF Spokesman was clear that since the operation was still unfolding, all news reports – verified or otherwise – potentially endangered the lives of the kidnapped boys. But how could that be? Worse comes to worse, it’s just speculation. Would it really give the kidnappers an update on where rescue operations were being focused (enabling them to move elsewhere)? Or perhaps even embolden the kidnappers, who might realize that the rescue efforts are completely misguided? For the non-military experts among us, we don’t even have a basis to make this evaluation. That’s why we rely on military experts.

When a doctor says that a person’s life is in danger – we are obligated to take his or her word seriously and act accordingly (going for a second opinion is proactive). In a matter of pikuah nefesh (life-saving), Jewish Law dictates that we take the concern so seriously that we must drive on Shabbat and eat on Yom Kippur to avoid, prevent, and treat any potential risk to life. It’s not that Jewish law steps aside for pikuah nefesh, but rather that Jewish Law demands that its laws be violated. Saving lives taking precedence over [almost] all commandments is part and parcel of the system.

At the same time, it is vital to recognize our own limitations. We aren’t all heart surgeons or even paramedics – we lack the requisite knowledge, skills, or resources necessary to make a meaningful impact on actually saving a life. We therefore rely on experts, those who’ve studied, learned, understand, and have a lot more experience than we do. Nonetheless, the Torah does not let us off the hook.  It also enjoins us, “Not to stand idly by” (lo ta’amod) when somebody is in danger. We may not be passive; if we cannot actually perform a life-saving service, we must still seek out those who can. We dare not be apathetic, we must act.

Lo ta’amod is not merely limited to medical conditions, but applies equally to all life-saving situations. So when the IDF Command requests that all news stories about the kidnapped boys be removed because they pose a security risk – we must act. Most of us have very limited military knowledge or training, if that much. Just as regarding ‘standard’ life-saving, we don’t have to be sure that a life is at risk, or even if certainly in danger, if a given therapy may work. Safek pikuah nefesh le-hahmir – when it comes to a questionable case of saving a life, we must act stringently – doing whatever is even possibly necessary to save a life. We don’t second guess, we don’t pretend we know better (unless we are uniquely qualified and undoubtedly confident to determine that we indeed do know better). The Talmud severely sanctions a person who, unsure whether or not to violate Shabbat to save a life goes and asks his or her rabbi first. It similarly strongly sanctions the rabbi, who should have taught his congregants better. Whenever a risk to life exists, we do whatever we can to mitigate it.

Journalists are in the business of discovering hidden stories that the public may not otherwise be aware. The public’s “right to know” about that which affects us, is insured by quality journalism as a system of checks and balances. But as important as this is, it cannot and does not trump pikuah nefesh.

There is no excuse to ignore the IDF’s request. If they believe that publishing any news story puts people’s lives at risk, then we violate lo ta’amod if we refrain from doing so – even if we don’t really understand the rationale. When it comes to life-saving, we err on the side of caution and heed the experts’ warning.

Just to be clear, this in no way places any blame for the boys’ tragic fate on this particular media outlet – blame lies squarely with the Hamas terrorists who, to paraphrase Golda Meir, hate our children more than they love their own. It’s nonetheless vital to recognize our roles and responsibilities when it comes to life-saving. We can never let apathy or passivity ever blind us to the plight of another. We are a people of action – let us learn to harness this power to look out for each other.