Prof. Lawrence Kaplan Responds to R. Shlomo Riskin

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In the comments section to another post, Prof. Lawrence Kaplan expressed the following (edited) objections to a recent letter to The Jewish Week by R. Shlomo Riskin(link):

I just checked Tradition, Summer, 1966, which has the article “A Modern Blood Libel: L’Affire Shahak,” by Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz. It turns out that Rabbi Riskin’s letter is even more incorrect than I had previously thought.

1) The supposed event, as Rabbi Riskin recounts it, of the religous doctor refusing to save a Gentile on Shabbat was first reported in a letter to Haaretz in Dec, 1965, by Dr. Israel Shahak. So Rav Unterman could have lectured at YU on the subject at the earliest in 1966, some 40, not 50 years ago.

2) As I already pointed out, contrary to what Rabbi Riskin said, the event NEVER happened, but was a malicious fabrication by Dr. Shahak, who is well known as a despicable sonei Yisrael.

3) Rabbi Riskin gets the supposed story wrong. It had nothing to do with a regligious doctor. According to Dr. Shahak he witnessed an incident where an Orthodox Jew (not a doctor) refused to let his phone be used on the Sabbath to call for help for a non-Jew who had collapsed nearby. Shocked by this, Dr. Shahak called the Rabbinate for a ruling and, so he claimed, they confirmed that the Sabbath could be violated only to save the life of a Jew. Of course, this story was a lie from beginning to end.

4) What does Rabbi Riskin mean he thinks it was Rav Unterman who was the Chief Rabbi at the time? Of course it was Rav Unterman.

5) Rabbi Riskin misrepresents the point of Rav Unterman’s talk. Rabbi Riskin states that its main point was that one should save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath “mi-shum eivah.” Wow. Rather Rav Unterman’s main point, as is clear from his written responsum on the subject, which appeared in Kol Torah, Nissan 5726 (and which I assume was his main point in his talk at YU) is that “mi-shum eivah” is not just a prudential ruling, but is an integral element of Rabbinic ethics and is the other side of the coin of “Derakheha Darkei Noam” and “Darkei Shalom.”

6) Rabbi Riskin reports that the Rav termed parts of Rav Unterman’s talk nonsense, but does not identify which parts. Rabbi Riskin assumes it was Rav Unterman’s claim that the reason for saving a non-Jew on the Sabbath was “mi-shum eivah.” But 1) we just saw that the main point of Rav Unterman’s talk was that “mi-shum eivah” is an ethical principle equivalent to “Darkhei Shalom;” and 2) We have reports from Rav Prof. Blidstein, from Rav Charlap, and from Rav Schachter (a wide ideological range)that the Rav’s ruling to religous doctors to save non-Jews on the Sabbath was based on “mi-shum eivah.” I would therefore very tentatively suggest the following: Rabbi Riskin got it exactly backwards. What the Rav found to be nonsense was Rav Unterman’s argument that “mi-shum eivah” was an ethical principle equivalent to “Darkhei Shalom”! (IIRC, Rav Schachter in either Nefesh ha-Rav or Mi-Peninei ha-Rav, without mentioning names, reports that this, indeed, was the substance of the Rav’s criticism of Rav Unterman.) Of course, as Prof. Blidstein famously related — a point not mentioned by Rav Schachter — the Rav found the rationale of “mi-shum eivah” to be morally problematic, but, nevertheless, intellectual honesty compelled him to say 1) that that was the rationale found in the sources; and 2) that, as much as he and we might like it to be otherwise, “mi-shum eivah,” contra Rav Unterman, is NOT an ethical principle but a prudential one (which is precisely why the Rav found it to be morally problematic) and that to say otherswise is mere apologetics.
I emphasize that this is pure speculation. But it accords with more reliable reports of the Rav’s position on this issue, and, for what it’s worth, in light of everything I know about the Rav it rings true.


The main lesson we should draw from Rabbi Riskin’s unfortunate letter is that we should be very wary of reports 30 or 40 or 50 years after the event of what the Rav said to A or R or T.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. A minor correction: R. Unterman’s article was published in the Adar 5726 (1966) issue of Kol Torah (vol. 20, #6), pp. 95-99.

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