"There are two types of informers (lit., 'giver overs,' Heb: 'moser'):
(a) One who gives his fellow over into the hands of the Gentiles to kill him
or to hit him. (b) One who gives his fellow's property to the Gentiles or to
a seizer who is [considered] as a Gentile. Neither [type of person] receives
a share [in the World to Come]."
For the past several weeks, we have been covering the Rambam's very short
list of sinners so evil as to merit no share in the World to Come. This week
the Rambam discusses the informer, one who turns over his fellow Jew to the
In rabbinic writings and throughout the ages, the "moser"/informer has been
considered one of the most evil and despicable characters in Israel, the
Jewish Benedict Arnold who sics our worst enemies on us. Either to avenge
his own petty hatreds or to curry favor with the authorities, he snitches on
his fellow Jews, generally giving the all-too-willing authorities all the
excuse they need to go in for the kill.
An important counterpoint to this is in line. Judaism is not against
informing because it makes it difficult for Jews to evade the law. Abidance
to the secular law is a Torah obligation ("dina d'malchusa dina"). Jews are
obligated by the Torah to pay taxes and obey the law of the land. Rather,
informing is viewed so negatively because throughout most of our history,
informing on a fellow Jew was tantamount to killing him -- as well as
endangering the greater Jewish community once suspicion is aroused on its
behavior. Not only is snitching in itself viewed as a very lowly and
cowardly act, the danger is real, immediate and more than likely to get
terribly out of hand.
In more recent years, scholars have debated to what extent this law applies
today. Some are of the opinion that the law is virtually inapplicable in
countries whose governments serve to uphold just laws rather than
capriciously oppress and discriminate. Others are less sure of this --
arguing in part that although many governments today are just (for the most
part), the punishments they administer may not be justified according to
Torah law. Incarceration, for example, in itself very dangerous, is almost
never warranted in Jewish law. According to virtually all opinions, however,
if a person is a direct danger to society -- say a physically-abusive father
-- the authorities must be involved almost immediately.
(It should be noted that throughout our history there have been many
societies in which the Jews were given a fair degree of legal autonomy --
the authority to rule over religious issues in particular, but almost never
were they granted a police arm to enforce the courts' decisions. To enforce
compliance, courts would often resort to such means as applying social
pressure to the recalcitrant -- ostracizing him from the Jewish community.
Yet there was much less they could do against a person who posed a physical
threat to his surroundings. For such, the temporal authorities would
generally have to be involved.)
Throughout history, there have been fascinating, if tragic, applications of
this law. There is a Mishna (Terumos 8:12) which discusses the following
scenario. A group of women are out standing together. A gang of Gentiles
approaches them, saying "Hand over one of you or we'll violate you all!" Are
they permitted to willingly cede one for the sake of the many? Or should we
never go along with the evil wishes of such people in any way, regardless of
Needless to say, scenarios of this type have repeated themselves throughout
history more times than we'd care to know. During the Holocaust the Nazis,
in the process of liquidating the ghettos, would require of the Judenrat the
orderly handing over of say, 1000 people a day for "deportation". Failure to
comply would result in not only the deaths of the Judenrat members and their
families, but perhaps the wholesale and immediate destruction of the entire
ghetto. Should they comply in the hopes of slowing down the process? Or
should they never condescend to collaborate with the enemy?
Of course, far be it from us to judge the behavior of people in such trying
and tragic circumstances. As might be expected, there were those refused to
cooperate in any way, shape or form, there were those who collaborated in
the sincere hope they were ultimately helping the Jewish cause, and there
were those who collaborated primarily in the hope of saving their own skins
at the expense of their brethren. In fact, many who did collaborate
subsequently committed suicide -- on account of the terrible burden of guilt
placed upon them, and especially once they recognized that all their noble
efforts were utterly futile.
What I *will* do below, however, is offer a few of the primary relevant
sources, providing some of the basic framework underlying so difficult and
tragic an area of Jewish law.
Returning to the case I quoted above, in which a Gentile gang demands a
Jewish girl, the mishna concludes: "Let them violate them all, and let not
one Jewish soul be handed over."
It thus seems fairly open and shut. We may never collaborate with the
Gentiles whatever the consequences. We may never willingly hand over a
single Jew to the enemy come what may.
We must now, however, turn to a second relevant source. In II Samuel 20 we
read of Sheva ben (son of) Bichri, who fomented a rebellion against King
David. Towards the end of the chapter, he was besieged in the town of Availa
which sided with him. Yoav, David's chief general, came with his men to
destroy the entire rebellious city. A wise woman -- whom the Midrash
identifies as the extremely long-lived Serach daughter of Asher (whom Jacob
had earlier blessed with a long life) -- called out to Yoav asking why he
wanted to destroy an entire city on account of one man. Yoav demurred,
stating that he was really only after Sheva ben Bichri. The townsfolk, on
the wise woman's behest, delivered.his head and the rebellion ended with
The classical commentators deduce an important law from the above episode.
Yoav was prepared to destroy the entire city of Availa for harboring a rebel
to the throne. In the eyes of the townsfolk, who sided with Sheva, Yoav was
the temporal authority wrongly demanding one of their number. Could they
deliver him over? Does not the Mishna state that a Jew must never be
unjustly handed over the the authorities? Yet that is precisely what they
did in order to save themselves! What was their justification?
(Note that although the Availites (whatever) were engaged in open rebellion
against the King of Israel, the commentators assume we can infer Jewish law
from their behavior -- especially from that of the wise woman at their helm.
They may have been wrong about Sheva, but the general assumption is that the
behavior of the Israelites was fully in accordance with Jewish law.)
Many of the commentators, based on a source contemporary to the Mishna,
answer based on the following distinction (see Rashi and Yad Ramah to Talmud
Sanhedrin 72b). In the case in Scripture, Sheva himself was holed up in the
city with the townsfolk. Had Yoav attacked, not only would the rest of them
have perished, but he would have as well. Thus, it was not a matter of
handing over one Jew in order to save others. It was a matter of either
having him *plus* them killed or having him alone killed. The wise woman
rightly realized nothing would have been gained by sacrificing them all.
By contrast, in the case of delivering a woman to the Gentiles, the Gentiles
were not asking for a specific woman; any one would have done. And if the
women would not comply, they were going to attack them all. Well, perhaps
the Gentiles would have been sated without violating every last one of them.
If so, willingly handing over a single one is not a case of violating one
versus violating all. It is a case of handing over one woman who may have
been spared in order to protect the others. And that the Sages never condone.
This discussion actually gets far more complex than this first taste of
Talmudic logic. And likewise the application to Holocaust scenarios is far
from clear. (Would they have all been killed or deported had they not
complied? Perhaps some of those who would have been delivered would have
managed to save themselves. Or perhaps refusing to comply would have
confused and slowed the entire process. Usually not really answerable
questions.) Regardless, I will not attempt to build further upon this
discussion. I thought, however, it was valuable to provide this brief
introduction into the process of determining Jewish law in so sensitive an
area -- as well as appreciating both the legal and ethical dilemmas Jews,
both simple and great, have been faced with throughout the ages.