I'm not going to pretend that I have the answer to that question. I have to state up front that I am not a rabbi and not a posek. A commentator on a previous post of mine said that it's an explicit halacha in Shulchan Aruch that one may not perform melacha on Shabbos to save the life of a non-Jew. He may well be right, but he may also be wrong in that circumstances have changed since the SA was written. Others have indicated and brought sources that this may not be the contemporary halacha. In short, I simply don't know.
But there are some things that I am fairly certain of -- and one of them is this: I don't think I would be able to avoid saving a life on Shabbos if the situation presented itself.
Imagine the scenario: It's 11PM on a pleasant summer Friday night and you are sitting on your front porch. Most of your neighbors have left for the country, giving your block an unusually quiet and peaceful Shabbos evening. In the place of the usual sounds of neighbors, pedestrians and the various other noises in your community, you can actually hear the crickets chirping. It's a welcome change.
Suddenly, the peacefulness is broken by a careening car that appears from down the street and appears out of control. Loud honks fill the air as the car swerves from one lane to the other, clearly out of control. You worry as it starts to head in your direction, but at the last minute, the car swerves and hits a telephone pole right in front of your house with enormous force.
It takes you a minute or so to get over the shock of the accident. The car is a wreck -- the front is totally crumpled. Thank heavens the telephone pole withstood the crash, or it might have gone right into your home. There's a fair amount of smoke coming from under the hood and rear and you think you might have seen a flame as well. Rushing over to the car, you quickly note that there are two occupants -- a barely conscious driver and an eighteen month old toddler strapped into a car seat in the back screaming hysterically. Both are obviously not Jewish.
You quickly glance around to see if anyone else is coming who might be able to help the crash victims or at least call 911. No one appears -- it looks like it's just you and the crash victims.
Through the broken window, you can quickly sum up the situation. The driver is hurt - bad. Blunt trauma for certain, possible (probable?) spinal injury. Bleeding coming from somewhere on his torso, but you can't see where. A nice gash on his head where his skull met the windshield. Moving him would almost certainly be a bad move but for the fact that you're now certain that you smell smoke and see flames coming up under the hood. Nonetheless, whether you move him or not, he needs an ambulance and a doctor - and quickly. The child, while frightened and screaming, seems to be okay. You're no automotive expert... is the car about to blow? You have no way of knowing for sure... but you know that smoke and flames in a car can't be good.
The guy groans and grabs your attention. He holds out his phone and begs you to get his daughter and himself out of the car before it blows and call 911 for an ambulance.
What would you do? Make the following assumptions:
- There are no non-Jews (or even other Jews) around to do any prohibited actions.
- No one else saw the accident. No one else is calling 911.
- There is no question of aiveh (hatred) as there is no one else around and you could (if so were so inclined) just waltz back into your house and claim you were sleeping and missed the whole accident should anyone question you.
- In order to save them, you will have to perform an action that is a melacha d'oreissa.
Could you just look the guy in the eyes and say "Sorry, my religion doesn't allow me to get you out of the car or call 911." Could you just walk away and almost certainly doom the man to death from his injuries and possibly the kid from an explosion? Could you ignore his pleas and just walk away? Could you be so callous if your religion demanded it of you?
Not me. Even if you told me the halacha is that I have to walk away and let him (or them) die. I just couldn't do it. Of course, I would do what I could to minimize the melacha done, but if push came to shove and I had to open the door to grab the kid (thereby turning on the lights in the car) before the car went kaboom, I'd do it. In an instant. May God never give me such a test.
That being said, I'm curious what that says about me.
Let's assume, for the moment, that the halacha is that it is absolutely forbidden to save their lives. I have just admitted that, under a certain set of circumstances, I would violate Shabbos - knowingly. That being the case, perhaps I should not be considered Orthodox anymore. Yes, I'll grant you that (despite having been an EMT in a former life) I haven't actually been in this circumstance yet (and let's hope I never am) and therefore I haven't actually knowingly been mechallel Shabbos. So perhaps for now, as long as I don't act on my beliefs/feelings/impulses I'm still "in the clear." But let's say that this coming Shabbos I am put in the situation? Should I call my rav after Shabbos, tell him that I'm no longer shomer Shabbos so that he can get a new ba'al kriah?* Should I just consider myself non-shomer shabbos even though 99.9999% of the time I do not knowingly perform melacha on Shabbos?**
At first, I thought about this in terms of some of the recent scandals that we have seen in our community. We still call people who commit financial crimes (and even, in some cases worse crimes) "frum" despite their transgressions. For the most part (and, granted, there are exceptions) they don't get thrown out of shul or suffer other communal punishments. Certainly, then, I might still be considered frum.
But then I thought about it again and realized that there is a fundamental difference between myself and the other cases we've seen. In the case of the Spinka Rebbe, for example, he certainly didn't mean to sin publicly. It was only the fact that the authorities discovered the crime that led to the public knowledge of his actions. Otherwise, he certainly would have continued hiding it. I, on the other hand, have no such defense. In the above situation, given the assumption that saving the driver and his daughter is forbidden, I would probably sin and so publicly and openly. That's a far cry from those who simply give into temptation once in a while and do so secretly and wish that they wouldn't do it.
Orthodoxy (in the modern sense) is usually defined by the "big three" mitzvos. We tend to consider people Orthodox if they publicly keep Shabbos, kashrus and taharas haMishpacha. Now that I find my status of being a shomer Shabbos in potential jeopardy, I wonder if I can, in all honesty, consider myself Orthodox anymore.
* The question of whether or not a non-shomer shabbos person can serve as a ba'al kriah aside, I'm willing to bet that most Orthodox shuls would want their official functionaries to be Orthodox and shomrei shabbos.
** Would you consider someone to be shomer Shabbos if they refrained from melacha most of the time but occasionally cooked a meal in public?