Saturday, March 19, 2016

in extremis.

In college I took a seminar on the Holocaust: I majored in computer science, but it was a liberal arts college which I'd chosen for its theater department, and its computer science department turned out be tiny. Senior year left me lots of credits for "Oh, That Looks Interesting." (I took Racquetball!)

The lecturer was a catankerous guy in his 60s, with a loud speaking voice and a moderate New York City accent. I liked him, on balance, but I don't actually know if he had some kind of hidden soft side, nor could I tell if he was crotchety from studying the Holocaust, or if that's just how he was. He ranted at us a lot, repeatedly disappointed with the quality of our educations up to that point.

"And who was the central figure of Italian reunification?"
[120 undergraduates sit in stony silence, because who the hell studied Italian reunification?]
"Come on, you refugees from social studies class!" 

(Did you know that? I didn't know that. I'd never heard of him.)

He really wanted us to learn--since the Holocaust, like, you know, matters--and he worked pretty hard at it.

One day he was talking about one of the Polish ghettos, about how they'd been reduced to eating horse meat, even though it's not kosher. He told us about the idea of pikuach nefesh, which he called "the saving of a life": circumstances where the value of human life outweighs the value of observing Jewish law. It was better that they should eat non-kosher meat than that they should starve.

The same concept arises in other cultural contexts, but I've always really liked that Judaism has a pithy term for it.

It's worth thinking about what you might be willing to do, to save a life.

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