How Halakhah Differs from Philosophy in Solving the Trolley Problem

In the moral dilemma known to contemporary philosophers as the “trolley problem,” an out-of-control streetcar is on its way to killing five people. It can’t be stopped, and the potential victims can’t be pushed out of harm’s way; but by simply pulling a lever, the driver can divert the trolley to a different track. The catch is that a single person standing on the second track will be killed in the process. In the early 1950s, the great talmudist Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (known as the Ḥazon Ish) considered a nearly identical problem; like the vast majority of both philosophers and ordinary people, he ruled that it is better to allow one person to be killed than five. But unlike the philosophers, who tried to approach the problem through various theoretical principles (e.g., “the greatest good for the greatest number”), he reached this conclusion through analogy to similar cases given in the Talmud. Moshe Koppel explains what the trolley problem implies about the role of intuition in halakhic decision-making:

Karelitz takes as his starting point those principles already established as normative, including the ruling of the Mishnah prohibiting handing over a hostage and other principles suggested by later commentators. He suggests an intuitive difference between the hostage case and [his version of the trolley problem]; this intuition is almost universal, as recent wide-scale studies suggest. Karelitz then translates this intuition into a rule that hinges on whether the resulting deaths are a direct consequence of the contemplated act or mere collateral damage of a defensive maneuver. He does not suggest that this is the only relevant criterion—and indeed philosophers raise numerous other possible criteria that Karelitz might very well accept as relevant.

Now, if we would . . . collectively reach the same conclusion based on our intuition, what advantage is there in deferring to rabbinic analysis of the sort that Karelitz and his colleagues offer? . . . Well, we pay a heavy price for formalizing halachic intuition, but we gain a great deal as well.

First of all, one can easily construct intermediate cases—say, diverting the train saves five people but kills four bystanders or kills a relative—where most people don’t have any clear intuition. A theory of trolley decision can serve us well in such cases. More broadly, then, articulated principles of halakhah serve us when we don’t have clear intuitions on the matter at hand.

Also, rules are easier to preserve than intuitions. Thus, under traumatic conditions—persecution, exile, dispersion, the sort of things in which Jews specialize—when our collective memory is likely to fail us, clear rules are more likely to remain stable than vague intuitions, especially if the rules are committed to writing. This is the meaning of [several] talmudic stories regarding the reconstruction of halakhah during periods of upheaval.

Read more at Judaism without Apologies

More about: Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, Ethics, Halakhah, Philosophy, Religion & Holidays

Hamas’s Hostage Diplomacy

Ron Ben-Yishai explains Hamas’s current calculations:

Strategically speaking, Hamas is hoping to add more and more days to the pause currently in effect, setting a new reality in stone, one which will convince the United States to get Israel to end the war. At the same time, they still have most of the hostages hidden in every underground crevice they could find, and hope to exchange those with as many Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, planning on “revitalizing” their terrorist inclinations to even the odds against the seemingly unstoppable Israeli war machine.

Chances are that if pressured to do so by Qatar and Egypt, they will release men over 60 with the same “three-for-one” deal they’ve had in place so far, but when Israeli soldiers are all they have left to exchange, they are unlikely to extend the arrangement, instead insisting that for every IDF soldier released, thousands of their people would be set free.

In one of his last speeches prior to October 7, the Gaza-based Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar said, “remember the number one, one, one, one.” While he did not elaborate, it is believed he meant he wants 1,111 Hamas terrorists held in Israel released for every Israeli soldier, and those words came out of his mouth before he could even believe he would be able to abduct Israelis in the hundreds. This added leverage is likely to get him to aim for the release for all prisoners from Israeli facilities, not just some or even most.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security