Righteous Gentiles and the Shoah: Altruism of the Highest Order

Would you be willing to sign an organ donor card? Donate a kidney? A lobe of your healthy liver? Have a child, or two or five? Would you throw yourself on a hand grenade to save your comrades in arms, or five strangers in a shopping mall? Would you rush into a burning house after hearing a child scream even if you did not know the family?

Everyone answered yes to some of these questions. It is unlikely that anyone answered yes to them all. Most people will say that they possess altruistic tendencies. But how many of us, in the middle of a war would be willing to risk everything –your property, your life and your children’s lives – to rescue a total stranger? We as Jews do know these stories. Non-Jews who rescued Jews (and others) from the reaches of the Nazi regime. Individuals who acted in truly altruistic ways. Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have yet to find any common denominator to explain the behavior of those Righteous Gentiles.

There may be some readers who will say, we don’t need a reason, rather we need to offer thanks and gratitude and not delve into the human psyche. Many prefer to leave the allure of moral elevation unexamined by social scientists. Simply conjuring up the images of the truly righteous makes us feel better about ourselves and about humanity. Indeed, that is the one of the current theories that tries to describe the motives of the Righteous Gentiles of the Shoah: Moral Elevation

Moral elevation is the feeling that overwhelms us when we hear stories of extremely altruistic behaviors. Soldiers feel it for fellow soldiers. Commanders count on this during basic and advanced training.

For what and for whom are you willing to die? For many, thankfully, this question remains theoretical; only a select few confront this in the reality of combat. But those who have will tell you that at the necessary moment they were willing to sacrifice everything for their brethren. Soldiers who train together become as “brothers,” achva, in Hebrew. In Hebrew it does not draw to mind gendered images, rather achva can be felt equally towards women and men. This incredibly profound connection will implore otherwise “ordinary” people to great altruistic self-endangering and even self-sacrificing actions.

Anthropologist Craig Palmer has proposed that it was this sense of moral elevation that Righteous Gentiles drew upon, perhaps recalling parental instruction to “do the right thing.” Further, the rescuers’ altruistic behaviors may have had the below-conscious intention of influencing their own kin by inducing morally elevated experiences. Palmer’s theory suggests that altruism and the induction of moral elevation would be a good evolutionary strategy for long term reproductive success; that is the measure of reproductive success not measured by how many children one has, but measured by numbers of offspring some n generations down the line. In fact, in a paper the we have co-authored, we examine Judaism in light of this theory.

This descendant-leaving strategy can help us understand altruistic acts. This is not the altruism commonly referred to by philosophers. Philosophers have the advantage of remaining in the ivory tower and need not worry about things such a descendants and progeny. But evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists and biologists do not have that luxury. We try to understand how behaviors are adaptive to leaving offspring. Altruism, left unchecked and in its purest form, would ultimately lead to the annihilation of the group by selfish individuals who would in turn lead to the annihilation of the species. Unless there was an ulterior motive, unknown even to the behaver him- or her-self. That motive being long term descendant-leaving.

Let’s look at it this way: Genes are “selfish-” not in the classic sense of “what’s in it for me-” but in the sense that a gene has one objective: replication. As genes and environment play off each other, beings with many genes –humans and other animals – find the most efficient, effective ways to replicate. Organisms that carry around genes learn that altruism is a good investment and the pay-off is more replications way down the line. (Genes have a nearly four-billion-year memory and learning curve.) In a sense genes of Righteous Gentiles impelled them to rescue victims of Nazi atrocities “in order to” ensure more offspring many generations in the future.

I do not presume that any rescuer ever thought about this. They acted in a fashion consistent with their upbringing, education and morality. I simply wish to understand how this enigma of extreme altruism, could exist.

Nor do I presume that presenting a biological-genetic understanding of Righteous Gentiles detracts one bit from their deeds and motivations. Rav Kook said it over a century ago. If we can increase our knowledge of what makes humans tick, then we will be drawn closer to understanding God’s intentions. The study of these issues will bring us closer to our religious heritage, not alienate us from it. This understanding will intensify the elevating feeling we have when we learn the stories told of the Holocaust Rescuers.


Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is a Lecturer in Family and Community Studies. He received his PhD in psychology from The New School University and rabbinic ordination from Schechter. His research interests include Judaism in Evolutionary perspective, the evolution of altruism and the interface between science & religion.

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