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Can I Falsify My Religion on My Documents to Save My Life?

Can I Falsify My Religion on My Documents to Save My Life?

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Your question is quite a serious one, and unfortunately it has been posed many times throughout our tragic history. Here is how one rabbi answered.

Out of the Depths

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914–2003) was a young rabbi in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, when on June 23, 1941, the Nazis invaded the city and herded all the Jews into the ghetto.

As a rabbi in the ghetto, he was presented with many truly harrowing and heartbreaking questions of Jewish law relating to those dark days. As a twist of fate would have it, he had access to Jewish books, since the Nazis had made him custodian of a warehouse of Jewish books that they planned on using for an exhibit of “artifacts of the extinct Jewish race.”

He recorded brief notes of these questions and the answers given, and eventually hid them. Following the liberation of the ghetto in August of 1944, Rabbi Oshry recovered and expanded his notes, and soon began publishing his set of Holocaust-era responsa entitled She’eilot u-Teshuvot mi-Ma’amakim, “Responsa From the Depths,” some of which can be seen online.

He records the following question:1

Among those in the ghetto, there was a Jewish man who possessed a German passport issued before the outbreak of the war. Since his name was not a conspicuously Jewish one, he could have passed for a non-Jew, but in order to complete the deception, he would have to write the letters “R.C.” in his passport, indicating that he was a Roman Catholic. He asked Rabbi Oshry whether this was permissible, since adding these two letters might appear to be acknowledging a deity other than the G‑d of the Jews.

The issue at heart of this question is perhaps best summed up by Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot:

The 9th mitzvah is that we are commanded to sanctify G‑d's Name.

The biblical source for this commandment is G‑d's statement, "Sanctify Me amidst the Jewish people."2

This mitzvah requires us to publicize the true belief to the masses. This must be done without fear of retribution, to the extent that even if a powerful tyrant tries to force us to deny G‑d (exalted be He), we may not obey him. Rather, we must unquestioningly submit to death, not even allowing him to think that we have denied G‑d (exalted be He) [by outwardly denying Him], even if we still maintain belief in Him in our hearts . . .

Thus, the questioner wanted to know if adding “R.C.” to his passport could be considered denying his faith.

Levels of Deception

Rabbi Oshry responded that he could write the two letters R.C., for, though non-Jews would think the letters indicated that he was a Roman Catholic, in his own mind, he could think of the letters “R.C.” as a transliteration of the Hebrew word רק or rak.3 It was irrelevant how non-Jews would construe those letters.

This answer is based on the halachah in the Code of Jewish Law that in times of religious persecution, one is permitted to change his clothing so that he will not be recognized as a Jew, since doing so does not overtly declare that he is not Jewish.4 Additionally, Rabbi Moses Isserlis adds in his gloss to the Code of Jewish Law that it is permitted for one to make an ambiguous statement that could be interpreted to mean that the Jew declared himself to be a non-Jew, when in fact, he meant something else. Similarly, if he is able to deceive the non-Jews so that they believe he is not Jewish, it is permitted.5

How is this reconciled with Maimonides’ statement that one may not do anything that would cause the persecutor to think that he has denied G‑d? Rabbi Oshry went on to explain that Maimonides’ statement is referring to a situation in which it is already known that one is a Jew. However, if it is not known that he is Jewish, then, in times of persecution, one may make an ambiguous statement that could be construed by others to mean that he is not Jewish.

Thus, according to Rabbi Oshry, explicitly denying your faith is always forbidden. However, in times of danger, you are permitted to make statements or do actions that could be construed as implying that you aren’t Jewish.

Going Beyond the Letter of the Law

But though it is permissible to give the impression that you are not Jewish, there are countless stories of people who were ready to give up their lives rather than imply even for a moment that they weren’t part of the Jewish people.

When the Nazis entered France, they immediately ordered a census of all the inhabitants, including information regarding their race and religion. When they came to the Rebbe’s apartment, he was not home. Since their intent was obvious, when asked regarding their religion, the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, answered, “Orthodox.” This was not a lie, because it could have been interpreted as “Orthodox Jews.” Nevertheless, the implication was “Russian Orthodox.” When the Rebbe returned and heard of this, he hurried to the census office and asked to correct the matter by adding the word “Jew.”

On a similar note, here is a fascinating contemporary story that occurred during the First Gulf War: The Dog Tag Dilemma

Footnotes
1.
She’eilot u-Teshuvot MiMa’amakim 5:3.
3.
As in Deuteronomy 4:9 which warns one not to forget G‑d and His Torah “But (rak) beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children…”
4.
Although in many editions of the Code of Jewish law, the term “idolator” is used instead of non-Jew, this was changed due to the censors. Earlier editions have it as “non-Jew.” Indeed, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (known as the Chofetz Chaim), in his work Nidchei Yisroel (ch. 7), writes that this law apply even to simply saying you are not Jewish. See also Magen Avraham, Orech Chaim 128:54.
5.
Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deiah 157:2.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Artwork by Sefira Ross, a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Anonymous Scottsdale March 26, 2017

Is silly to falsify your identity. With an ADN test they will know. My last name doesn't look Jewish and I am. But it doesn't mean I am safe. Plus I think we are what we are. We should keep it that way. I am proud of being Jewish. Reply

Anonymous March 26, 2017

I just remembered a dream I had last night about a group of Jews on a remote wooded road trying to avoid capture by Nazis. In the group was a young handsome couple with two infants. The group asked the couple to go back nearer where the Nazis were coming on the road and act as decoys to allow time for the larger group to escape. The couple agreed without hesitation and separated themselves from the group. They went back towards the Nazis in a car they had and stopped it when they neared the Nazis. They got out and went into some woods by the road. When the Nazis arrived they came exited the woods cheerfully holding hands as if they didn't know the Nazis were coming. They wore coral colored cashmere sweaters and white shirts. The man had dark pants; the wife, a long dark pleated skirt. The babies were in the car trunk. The husband picked up the boy. The Nazis killed the husband. The woman began pleading that they spare the lives of her children. She did not plead for her own. I'm tired! Reply

Rabbi via kansasjewish.com March 26, 2017

Hi Myrna

There are three cardinal sins – adultery, idolatry and murder - we are commanded to sacrifice our lives to not prohibit.

However there are two circumstances of what is called Kiddush Hashem - sanctifying God's name.

The first is - as has happened numerous times - when Jews were offered “convert or die” (for example, the marauding crusaders on their way to Israel would give Jews the choice of “Kiss the cross or death,” and as there are aspects of Christianity that are idolatry, they heroically chose death.)

However a lesser know fact is that when a Jew is being persecuted for being a Jew - for example the Rebbe had a debate with a Rabbi if he would Halachickly (according to Jewish law) be permitted to sneak over the French and Italian border to acquire the more Mehudar (customarily better) Calabria Esrog, and as the persecution of the Nazis was specifically targeting Jews therefore the conclusion is that this either calls for, or permits.

Ultimately as the Rebbe says, toda Reply

Anonymous March 25, 2017

Chanaya, Mishael and Azarya could have avoided their situation altogether. I don't mean by bowing at the sound of the trumpets but by employing some business to, for example, be out of town that day. But, they chose to be there and make the stand they did. Reply

Mikhail Drabkin Brooklyn via chabadnp.com March 24, 2017

Not everything that is legal is ethical or moral.
The answers of the Rabbi (saved from physical death by the Red Army - how quickly we forget these inconvenient facts!), no doubt are legal from the standpoint of Jewish law. But it is not moral to act that way.
Singular acts may be legally justified, but what about a people doing so en masse?
To me this is an ultimate act denying G-d's supremacy in our fate.
Denying Jewishness in face of death is not even an act of free will - there is no uncertainty in this act, you save your life. It is an act of free choice - like a choice of dinner dish...
You save your life, but you kill your soul.
Your life ceases, from a moral standpoint, to be Jewish.
Foile shticks are such questions.
The Rabbi is bound to answer within the context of the Jewish law.
May we never have to make such a choice, but ultimately we make it not wearing kipot... it leads to assimilation and, ultimately - to Shoa. Reply

myrna solganick middleton March 23, 2017

I thought any law may be broken to save a life, except the taking of another life. Or does that only apply to saving a life other than our own?? Reply

S U.K. March 23, 2017

How easy it is to think of ones own decision to this dilemma sitting in a comfy armchair reading. Then I read the link of Protestant B.

I would like to think, in my heart, that whether someone changed clothes, initials or even dog tags, to survive, mankind is not as knowledgeable, compassionate, gracious or as forgiving as HaShem. If it were not for the good grace of HaShem, I would not have the blessing to be reading these experiences in comfort.

Pause for thought, it is HaShem only we are not to deny. Reply

O. Turcotte Cambridge, MA March 23, 2017

Many mansions. Some think their mansion is the best because they are confused between the mundane and the sacred. Reply

Ric Sydney March 22, 2017

Good question by Anonymous from Hoboken. Would be interested to hear what the Rabbi's interpretation is of these question. I also would like to add, that G-d is all powerful and can do anything. Reply

Anonymous Hoboken March 18, 2017

With all due respect...Isn't it true that there is only One G-d - Creator and Sustainer of everything and that people who ascribe to other religions have misinterpreted, misunderstood or have been misled? Reply