The issue of a Jewish doctor violating the Shabbat to treat a non-Jew has come up again in Israel. The Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that one of Israel’s prominent rabbis, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was quoted as telling his students during a class that, "If a gentile were to get injured in a car accident during Sabbath, and he is brought to the hospital – Israel must not treat him." He then goes on to explain loop holes in the law that would allow a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jewish patient on the Shabbat under certain conditions.
It is certainly unfortunate that this law was expounded upon in the way by Rabbi Yosef – if in fact the quote represents correctly and fully what he actually said, something that I find doubtful.
Far be it for me to argue with Rabbi Yosef on issues of Jewish law. However, this law has been used –erroneously in my view – for centuries by the opponents of the Jewish people and by anti-religious radicals to discredit my religion.
The most notable case of this was in 1965 when Professor Israel Shahak claimed that he witnessed a religious Jew who refused to allow his phone to be used to call an ambulance for a non-Jew on the Shabbat. Shahak himself, only a year later, admitted that he fabricated the story and that no such incidence had occurred. More recently, however, that story was revived by the late Christopher Hitchins in his book, “God is not Great.” Hitchins was apparently unaware of the fact that Shahak’s story had been discredited by Shahak himself. But in the tradition of all good mythology, the story persists. The fact that the only story used by opponents of Judaism to prove their point is a discredited one, talks volumes.
It has been my observation that religions, dogmas and philosophies do not make people good or bad. Rather, good people will focus of positive dogmas and philosophies and bad people will find the negative elements and stress those. This case is no different. There is a long list of prominent rabbis both past and present who disagree strongly with Rabbi Yosef’s position on this.
The most notable authority to expressly obligate Jewish doctors to treat non-Jews on the Shabbat was the great rabbinic decider of the previous century Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Orech Hayim, 4:79). In addition the former Chief Rabbi of Israel Chief Rabbi I. J. Unterman has explicitly ruled that all Jewish doctors are obligated to treat non-Jewish patients even on the Shabbat.
In fact this is a cardinal Jewish principle. Jewish sages have long accepted as an overarching Jewish principle that “All the ways (of the Torah) are the ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” (Proverbs, 3:17).
Rabbis throughout the ages saw this principle as an ethical concern that guided their enactment of laws. Thus, in this case in order to “operate an ethical corrective” the rabbis used “a bold and ingenious” legal maneuver to completely override the Biblical law that seems to disallow the treatment of non-Jews by Jewish doctors on the Shabbat, (Words in quotations taken from an article by former British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, Tradition, Summer 1966 – 8:2).
According to this view Judaism not only allows Jewish doctors to treat non-Jews on Shabbat, it obligates them to do so. There may be some who do not think that the principles of “peace and pleasantness” are absolutely paramount in Judaism. But, make no mistake; their view speaks nothing of the Judaism I love and believe in.