Going Talmudic on Lance Armstrong

Can Legend's Cheating Be Justified Under Jewish Law?

Cheater’s Always Win: Lance Armstrong has been accused of systematically cheating, and lying. But what if he did it all for the right reasons?
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Cheater’s Always Win: Lance Armstrong has been accused of systematically cheating, and lying. But what if he did it all for the right reasons?

By Micah Kelber

Published October 18, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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So how does one know if the transgression one commits is in this category? Here Wieder cited the 19th century rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the “Nitziv”) who wrote in his commentary on the Chumash that two things must be established for the concept of aveirah lishma to apply: 1) You have to calculate accurately whether the benefit outweighs the harm (which in the case of Armstrong, it seems to). And 2) It has to be with pure motivations, so that one can’t benefit from the transgression. The gemara in Horayot demonstrates this also by asking about Yael’s enjoyment of the experience with Sisera, but then roundly rejects it (a move many today would soundly applaud). Given the fame and fortune Armstrong received from winning those Tours, it is impossible to say he did not benefit from his alleged cheating (consider also his dates with Tory Burch and Kate Hudson and those stylish yellow jerseys, if you’d like).

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, there is the question of whether this counts as pikuach nefesh, saving a life, a notion in Judaism that justifies almost anything. Rabbi Wieder cited an opinion the Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the Noda b’Yehudah, an 18th century commentator who was asked whether the usually impermissible autopsy might be permissible if it is done to save someone else’s life? His answer was that if there were someone nearby who was dying with the same symptoms, who might benefit immediately, then the forbidden would be permissible, establishing an imminent danger standard. Wieder implied, although again, he stressed that these things are very complicated and should be dealt with much study and consideration, that committing an aveirah for the sake of research, despite the many who are dying (and dying soon), did not immediately rise to that standard.

At first glance, then, even if Armstrong decided that he was going to cheat so that he could help cure cancer, the permissibility of this act would be hard to justify, to say nothing of its praiseworthiness.

In BT Horayot 10a, the column before the Yael example cited above, the gemara gives some good advice for the hypothetical Armstrong. It says, “Happy is the generation in which its leader brings a sacrifice for a sin he committed unwillingly.” If whatever Armstrong did was done with an eye towards making the generation better, how much better would the generation be with the leader who brings a “sacrifice” for a sin he committed willingly, if he did.

And while all this might seem a closed case, from a halachic perspective, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the hypothetical Armstrong and the amount of money the real one raised. I am left with more questions: What if he cheated at tiddlywinks instead of on the international stage of Tour de France and managed to raise $500 million dollars. The halacha would still call this wrong, it’s genevat dat, but could we really side with the halacha? And what if one of the doctors his alleged cheating funded actually went ahead and rid the world of cancer? Would we really believe it contemptible? How much would the halacha matter? I suppose this is one of those times that we might allow ourselves to say “yes and.” Until the world is redeemed and all good things come about with good means, we are stuck with tires that go flat and roads that are slippery. A peloton of rabbis may help block the wind and make the ride easier.

Micah Kelber is a Brooklyn-based private investigator, writer and rabbi.


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