Q: You are out for a walk one night and you see a man running towards you. He looks terrified, stressed and panicked. He comes up to you with tears in his eyes and says, “I am going to hide right here. I can’t run anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. Please, promise me you won’t tell them where I am!”
So you promise the man, he hides behind a bush and you keep walking.
Ten seconds later four men turn the corner where the panicked man had come from and head towards you. As they get closer you see that they are, indeed, police officers. They walk up to you and ask if you have seen the man they were chasing. What do you do? Do you lie? Why?
A: Turn him in – probably.
In America we begin with a presumption of innocence. What matters most in Jewish law, however, is the preservation of innocent life. Virtually all obligations and prohibitions may be suspended in order to save a life. That concept, known as pikuach nefesh, can guide us here.
There are other competing principles at play, including the sanctity of vows, the value of truthfulness, and the need to respect the law of the land (in Hebrew: dina d’malchuta dina). The police are the embodiment of that law.
The Talmud (Niddah 61a) records a situation where Rabbi Tarfon refused to hide an accused murderer fleeing the Roman authorities in the Galilee.
Although he recognized the possibility of a false accusation, he did not presume innocence and he did not want to place his household in danger and risk incurring the wrath of the Romans. Later commentators discuss in great depth the ethics of this case, including whether it’s OK to turn over a fellow Jew to non Jewish authorities.
Let’s presume that the cops in this case are acting in the genuine interest of public safety and protecting innocence, and that we are not dealing with the likes of Sheriff Clark’s state troopers, Himmler’s S.S., Andropov’s KGB or Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert. In those corrupt societies, harboring fugitives would have been a mitzvah. An entire section of Yad Vashem is dedicated to the righteous men and women who did just that.
So the question comes down to, whom can you trust? This man or the police? And what would be more likely to happen as result of your decision – will the authorities hang an innocent man or will a fleeing criminal claim new victims?
If these really are the police that you are talking to (and it would not be impolite to ask to see badges), then you are under no moral obligation to protect the man. Your promise, which was understandable albeit reckless, had an implied caveat. “Yes I’ll hide you…provided it puts no innocent lives in danger.” The appearance around the corner of the policemen (rather than, say, the neighborhood bully or a furious wife waving a frying pan) changed that scenario dramatically.
But if the man is an illegal immigrant and you’re in Arizona, that’s another question entirely!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at HammermanOnEthics@gmail.com
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