Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?

Sometime in the last week of April, 230 cosignatories sent a petition to Yad Vashem, requesting that they give special recognition to two particular families, the Hollebrands and the Egginks, who hid three children from the Sanders family, which had converted to Christianity before World War II.

In this tragic WWII story, the father registered the family as Jewish and sent the children into hiding with the Hollebrands and Egginks. The Gestapo arrested the father in 1943 and tortured him into divulging their whereabouts. In the end, he, his wife and children—Eline, 10, Egbert, 8 and Marie Lena, 6—were murdered that year.

Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Recognition of the Righteous among the Nations decided that the Hollebrands and the Egginks were ineligible for the title since the honor is reserved for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust; since the children were not Jewish, they could not receive the award.

How would Jewish tradition and ethics respond to this kind of case? Was the Yad Vashem acting properly?

When I came across this article, I decided to look up the Shulchan Aruch, which is the authoritative Code of Jewish Law that has governed Jewish life for many centuries. The law is clear: an Israelite who has embraced another religious identity still remains an Israelite; should he get married to a Jewish woman, the act of marriage still remains intact even though he has retracted his Jewish faith. [1] Moreover, this same principle also applies to any person who officially converted to Judaism from another faith, who later relinquishes his Judaic faith–that individual is still considered a Jew [2] — contrary to the views espoused by today’s Haredi rabbinical community in Israel.

Moreover, if  that wayward Israelite ritually slaughters an animal and someone attests that his knife was adequately sharpened, the meat from the animal may be eaten [3]. There are literally hundreds of other cases in rabbinic literature that stress this point: Jewish identity does not disappear just because that person rejects his heritage. The door is always open for the possibility that he might repent and return to his ancestral faith.

That being said, in the case of the Sander children, we do not know all the facts regarding this case. It is possible the father had the family converted in order to avoid persecution by the Nazis. Such conversions gave the Jewish person(s) extra protection from the Church, but not always. Conversions under duress are nothing new in Jewish tradition and the Halacha—especially as interpreted by Maimonides—tends to be fairly liberal and compassionate. Indeed, Maimonides ought to have known, because he himself was forcibly converted to Islam in his youth.

In short, the Sander children were truly and halachically תינוק שנשבה בין הנכרים — the tragic victims of circumstances that were beyond their conscious control and as a result certainly need to be viewed with the utmost of compassion. Even though they were converted to Christianity, they still died as Jews. The two families who risked their own lives and the lives of their families deserve recognition.

Saving a life of a person who is facing imminent danger is considered to be one of the greatest acts of human decency. Although most texts rabbinic texts speak about the saving of a “‘Jewish’ life is considered as if one saved the entire world,”[4] one must remember that the social context this rabbinic dictum referred merely to someone who was already a member of their community; it would be analogous to laws that we have in this country that are written for the general welfare of Americans, but do not necessarily exclude the rights of foreigners. In fact, with the recent wave of immigrants coming in from Mexico, American laws across the nation have been established to protect their rights as well. Continue reading “Should Yad Vashem Honor Gentiles Who Saved Converted Jews?”

What does “rabbi” mean and when was the title first introduced?

What does “rabbi” mean, and when was the title “rabbi” first introduced?

This question is much more complex than most people realize. However, antecedents to the term רַב (rab) has some basis the Tanakh, where it denotes “great,” or chief (2 Kgs 18:17;  Isa 36:2). Elsewhere the expression rab māg means “chief of princes” (Jer 39:3, 13), while rab tabbāım, is “captain of the guard” (2 Kgs 25:8, etc.). By the time of the 1st century, the title of “rabbi” probably derived from the term, “Raboni,” meaning, “My Master” and was roughly the equivalent of saying “Sir,” or “My Lord”–especially if one happens to be wealthy or politically powerful!

The author of Mathew in 23:1–3, 8 suggests that “rabbi” might have been used for individuals who engage in public teaching. The gospel of John uses the term rabbi of Jesus eight times (1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 20:16), Reflecting an older and probably more correct tradition, Luke never refers to Jesus by this title at all, but simply refers to him as Luke uses διδάσκαλος (didaskalos = “teacher,”) 7:40; 8:49; 22:11. According to this reading, Jesus criticizes this group of scholars for enjoying the public recognition that came with appearing to be “pious” men before the masses. However, there is reason to believe that this particular passage is an example of what is commonly called an interpolation that was added long after the death of Jesus. A similar feature occurs in the Talmud, where Hillel is called, “Rabbi Hillel.” Since the writers of these ancient wrote for a later audience, they took certain poetic licenses with respect to the text.[1]

According to the Mishnah, the Sages of the 1st century never used this title at all. The Sages simply went by their ordinary names, e.g., Simon the Just, Jose b. Joezer, Joshua b. Peraiah and Nittai the Arbelite, Judah b. Tabbai and Simeon b. Shetah, Shemaiah and Abtalion, Hillel and Shammai never used the title, although sometimes Hillel was referred to as “Rabbi’ but I suspect these citations reflect unconscious tampering with the original names by scribes who may have assumed the name “Rabbi” was already in vogue in the 1st century, when in actuality it wasn’t.

One of the greatest rabbinical scholars of the 10th century, Rav Sherira’ Gaon of Babylonia, writes that the title “rabbi” was not used before the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. He explains, “The designation rabbi came into use with those who were ordained then after the Temple’s destruction beginning with Rabbi Tsadok and Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov. The practice spread from the disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakk’ai.” Before that time, great sages (like Hillel the Elder) were cited without honorific title. However, sometime during the first century C.E., the title “rabban” (Aram., “our master”) was accorded to the patriarch and other especially distinguished sages. Later on, the epithet “Rav” was later employed in Babylonia as equivalent to rabbi in Palestine.

Rabbinical ordination often claims that “semicha” (ordination) is a tradition holds that derives from the time of Moses; leaders of every generation are thus purported to have been conferred by this unbroken succession of “laying on of hands.” Even Moses is referred to frequently as “our rabbi.” Verily, based on the literature and history we know about ancient times, no such specific ceremony existed—especially during the first century C.E.[2]

[1]The Gospels confirms, there was no class of “rabbis” as we have today, but instead there were classes of scribes (i.e., “Scripture experts,” γραμματεῖς, (grammateis), who functioned as the “undisputed spiritual leaders of the people,” as well as “lawyers” (νομικοί, nomikoi) Matt. 22:35; Luke 7:30; 10:25) or “teachers of the law” (νομοδιδάσκαλοι, nomodidaskaloi, cf. Luke 5:17; Acts 5:34).

Did Jesus Believe in Original Sin?


Q. I know that Christians and Jews share many religious beliefs and are very close to each other in spiritual brotherhood. But Christians basically believe that they are created sinful and unclean and, therefore, need a Redeemer, Jesus, to take the sins of believers on Himself so that they may come to God’s Kingdom when they pass over.

Since Jews do not have this Redeemer, how do they become pure enough to enter God’s Kingdom? I realize there is the Law, but human beings, being who and what they are, cannot keep these laws sufficiently to reach purity and freedom from sin. Christians also believe that they are able to receive the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit directs their lives and brings them to true belief in God through Christ.

How does Judaism look at the Holy Spirit and is the Holy Spirit considered to be active in bring Jews to true belief? I can answer this question myself, from a Christian point of view, but that would be a one sided answer. I would very much appreciate learning what Judaism teaches in this matter.
Thank you very much.

Answer: You are correct in assuming that most Christians believe in Original Sin to a greater or lesser degree. As to whether Jesus himself really believed in Original Sin or not, I have some serious doubts. In one of the Gospels, we read about how Jesus’ disciples once asked Jesus, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:2-3).

As a Jew reading the Gospel narrative, it seems to me that Jesus explicitly disapproved of any idea that man suffers from an inherited sin. By extension, every human fault we are born with, serves a spiritual purpose so that we may glorify the Creator despite our natural shortcomings.

Please bear in mind that many scholars have considerable doubt as to what Jesus actually said, and I think that the work of the Jesus Seminar is most instructive in this manner. The theological notion that man is born in sin has more to do with the theological teachings of Augustine, who perhaps with the exception of Paul, formed the Christian doctrine of man and sin after his own personal image and likeness.

Regarding the question whether the “Law” (or “nomos” – which we Jews prefer to refer as “the Torah”), we believe very strongly that the Torah is not too difficult to observe and those who live by it are not “under a curse” (see Gal. 3:13).

The Book of Deuteronomy makes this plainly clear: “For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, ‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out . . . ”(Deut. 30:11-14).

Curiously, instead of interpreting this passage for its obvious meaning regarding the Torah, Paul alleges that these words refer to how Christians can come to faith and salvation in Christ (Romans 10:6-10).