When life’s on line, can we change our habits?

By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried

I’m curious on your take on the following:
If wearing traditional (yeshivish, Chasidic, etc.) garb renders one more readily identifiable to a potential attacker (car rammed into ultra-Orthodox, according to newspaper), why wouldn’t pikuach nefesh (danger to one’s life) argue for abandoning that garb (at least while tensions are running high) in favor of clothing that “blends in”? What halachic tenet is being advanced by maintaining such distinctive garb in juxtaposition to the heightened risk?
I understand the idea that no one wants to permit the terror episodes to dictate where we live, whether and where we travel, etc., but that is not a halachic principle (I’m not suggesting moving out of Israel, so yishuv haaretz, living in the land, is not being questioned here).
Richard R.
Dear Richard,
It’s interesting to note that a couple years ago the Chief Rabbi of France issued a ruling that no Jew should wear a kippah in the street, as this invited anti-Semitic incidents and constituted a danger to life to appear visibly Jewish in public. In the case of France it was not the appearance of being religious per se, rather the religious garb would distinguish its wearer as being Jewish, and that fact was the real reason for the attacks. (Nothing, unfortunately, has changed; if anything it’s gotten worse, the reason for an exodus of a great number of Jews from France in recent years.)
With regards to the recent wave of terror, I don’t believe there’s any concrete evidence that the terrorists are targeting the religious more than others, although there have been a disproportionate number of religious harmed in these attacks. The secular nature of some Jews waiting at a bus stop has yet to deter a terrorist from ramming his car into them, given the opportunity.
Even if, however, we would learn that these murderers are, indeed, focusing upon distinctly religious Jews, I believe there’s a strong argument for them not changing their dress mode under the circumstances. I would agree with you that the tenet of pikuach nefesh, which teaches that danger to life supersedes all mitzvos (besides the three cardinal sins), would certainly override the need to wear certain clothing, as many did to escape the Nazis in World War II.
Although the Talmud famously rules that if the gentiles have decreed to uproot Torah observance, one must forfeit one’s life even to not change the most simple of Jewish mode of dress (i.e. one’s Jewish shoelaces), that ruling would not apply to our situation since the terrorists have not declared intent to uproot Judaism, rather the Jews themselves. They are not attempting to have us change our mode of dress.
I still feel, however, that it would be inappropriate to do as you suggest for another reason. I will draw an analogy from a question posed to the leading sage of our generation, R’ Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ob’m. The rabbi was asked if it would be appropriate for the municipality of Jerusalem and other cities to sell their public parks and use that money to provide more sorely needed hospital beds to be available in case of a catastrophe. R’ Elyashiv replied, with his sagacity, that the state of mind of the nation is just as important as medical response, and to have a demoralized nation is just as perilous, or even more, than having a lack of hospital beds.
Parks are important for the moral health of the nation, and the knowledge that its parks are being sold in preparation for terror attacks would demoralize the nation, putting it in grave danger.
Similarly, if a sizeable population within Israel would be asked, even by its leaders, to change something as dear to them as their religious mode of dress due to terror, this could cause a ripple demoralizing affect across the nation, as all would be well aware of this phenomenon, secular and religious. This could potentially be far more dangerous than the attacks themselves. Furthermore, sadly, there has been no time limit set upon the current tensions.
May we see the end of this untenable situation speedily with peace and tranquility in Israel.

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