A short film, a bunker mentality,  and a huge conundrum

It ran for just 11 minutes, and it successfully got laughs in all the right places, but intentionally humorous though it was, the short film “Bunker Burger” presented a nightmare no-win scenario of a kind favored by the Sages of Blessed Memory as a device to explore often thorny issues — including this one.

The brilliant, tightly scripted “Bunker Burger” had its world premiere at the recent Tribeca Film Festival and garnered a spate of extraordinary reviews. It is the product of Adam Yorke, a young Canadian Jewish filmmaker who wrote, produced, and directed the film, which he hopes to turn into either feature-length or a television series — as do I and as do virtually all who reviewed it. (If, at some point, PBS or some other outlet airs the film, I urge you to watch it. I also urge rabbis to build discussions based on it.)

Something terrible has happened in and to the world in the film; a mushroom cloud at the end suggests what that something was. The film, however, does not dwell on the outside world — no collapsed buildings, no burning cities, no zombie-like humans walking the streets. The people we do meet appear perfectly normal, and none of them ever mention the catastrophe.

These men and women — there are 12 in all — live in a lavish underground bunker. Several are medical professionals of some sort.

The leader of the group, Rico, is played by Enrico Colantoni (he starred in the Canadian series “Flashpoint,” which aired for several years over CBS). Either Rico on his own or the group as a whole decided that the bunker could host only 12 adults, if everyone is to survive there for an indeterminate amount of time.

At some point, these people decided that they lacked a psychologist. Enter Eve, played by Sara Mitich, who is better known as the synthetic-human hybrid Lt. Commander Airiam on the CBS All Access series “Star Trek: Discovery.” Eve is ushered into the bunker by a very chatty but rather impersonal Rico, who brings her to be interviewed by the group. Before the interview begins, he sets a luscious-looking cheeseburger in front of her, which Eve rushes to devour, so desperate is she for something to eat. The burger, however, is swiftly pulled away from her. She can have it, she is told, but only after being accepted by the group.

Eve is told she is the seventh psychologist to be interviewed. The other six were rejected and “disposed of,” meaning they were killed, presumably in what the group would consider some humane fashion. Unless Eve can convince the others she has a value to them beyond her abilities as a psychologist, she, too, will be disposed of.

The stakes for her are almost insurmountable. Anyone who votes to keep her risks being the one to be eliminated.

The issue posed by the film is clear: This is a world in ruins, and the survival both of individuals and the human race itself are at stake. With limited resources available and with no likelihood of replenishing them from the outside, does any one person or group have the right to decide who will live and who will die? Is not the first responsibility of each of us to extend a helping hand to others in desperate straits? For us as Jews, are we not bound by laws we read just last Shabbat in Leviticus Chapter 19, not to “stand idly by the blood of [our] fellow” (verse 16), to “love [our] fellow as [ourselves]” (verse 18), to not wrong a stranger and, in fact, to love him or her as we would love ourselves (verses 33 and 34)?

(This issue is dealt with in the Ethics of Jewish Living curriculum of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, from which much of what follows is based.)

A mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava M’tzia 33a has relevance here. A man and his father both lost something of great value. If the man first helps his father, he is fulfilling two mitzvot — honoring parents and returning lost objects — but he may be doing irreparable harm to himself because of the serious nature of his own loss. Does the man, nevertheless, search for his father’s lost object before searching for his own? Says the mishnah, “his [own] lost item takes precedence.”

The gemara that follows informs us that this rule derives from Deuteronomy 15:4, which tells us: “Only so that there shall be no needy among you,” which means, among other things, that each person must take great care not to become needy him or herself. Therefore, we are told, “your [property] takes precedence [over the property] of all other people.”

In other words, we cannot help others if we allow ourselves to become destitute by doing so. Not only will we not be able to help others in the future, we may have to rely on others to help us. It follows that if we risk our lives to save others when doing so likely will result in everyone dying (the situation in the bunker), halacha puts our lives first.

The film’s underlying premise echoes a discussion in BT Bava M’tzia 62a, which begins with its own no-win life-and-death scenario: Two people apparently are lost in a barren area. One of them has a jug of water; the other does not. Because they assume they are much too far away from civilization, they conclude that if they were to share the water, both of them would die, because there is not enough water to sustain them both. According to an otherwise unknown sage named Ben Petura, it is “preferable that both of them drink and die.” This, we are told, was the accepted view “until Rabbi Akiva came and taught [that Leviticus 25:36 says,] ‘let him live by your side,’ [which in such a case means] your life takes precedence over his life.”

For Ben Petura, the verse cited by Akiva means that both men must share the same fate. It must always be “we first,” not “me first,” regardless of the consequences. For Akiva, the problem the two men face is the one facing the 12 people in the bunker: whether to use a limited resource to help another if it could mean that neither would be saved. According to Akiva and to the earlier citation in Bava M’tzia 33a, therefore, the one who brought the jug of water is the only one allowed to drink from it.

That leaves only one matter to be dealt with: In the bunker situation, is it also permissible to “dispose of” those who have limited or no worth to the group, or should such people be forced to go back outside the bunker, where they might be able to muster enough others to storm the bunker down the road?

Regarding deciding who is worthier to live, the Talmud in BT P’sachim 25b tells us of a man who was commanded by a tyrant to kill another person, or be killed instead. He asked the Babylonian sage Rava whether it was permissible for him to do so. Said Rava, “Do you think your blood is redder [than his, meaning that your life has more value]? Perhaps that man’s blood is redder.” That applies even if the man doing the killing is a sage and the one to be killed is an ignorant pauper. That would seem to settle the question, but it does not.

True, we are commanded not to commit murder, and “disposing” here is murder. On the other hand, there is the matter of the rodef, the pursuer who seeks to kill another. It may be argued that if the bunker can only sustain 12 people, any other person is a “pursuer.” While it is permissible to kill a rodef, that is only if there is no other way to stop him or her, such as by maiming the rodef in some way. (See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of the Murderer and the Preservation of Life 1:7.) This would suggest that expelling the extra person is the only proper course, especially “because one life may not be taken to save another” (see BT Sanhedrin 72b).

To be considered a rodef, however, requires an intent to kill someone. The intent of the extra person here is not to kill anyone, but to save him or herself, even though that almost certainly will result in the death of others. That person, therefore, would be committing a sin, and it is permissible to kill a rodef in order to prevent him or her from committing a sin (in this case, causing the death of others; see BT Sanhedrin 73a).

What is your opinion? Should the bunker be available to all comers, or limited to a few so that they might survive? Should the group be allowed to kill those whose survival could threaten everyone’s survival — or is Rava’s statement regarding whose blood is redder the operative one? Please write and let us know.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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