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
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
He records the following
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
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
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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