Is "looting" permitted under Jewish law (halakhah) after a disaster? I received this email:
I think a strong argument can be made that according to Jewish law, one can violate most laws in order to save one's life (except for the big 3--idolatry, murder, illicit sexual relationships) as the key is v'chai bahem [i.e., you shall live by the commandments -- K]. It seems that for some of the people, they have reached that state of desperation. Whether the situation is so dire that looting and stealing is justified would probably depend case by case.
This email then correctly cites Talmud Sanhedrin 74a and an article at J-Law "Stealing To Save Someone's Life" by Charles J. Harary, Esq. The article's conclusion doesn't do justice to its thorough halakhic analysis, but here is the bottom line:
In conclusion, the dominant view in Jewish law follows the Shulchan Aruch and the Rambam, which allows a person to steal or damage property of another to save his own life. Thus, one may break in to the house of another, or steal insulin if that was necessary to save his life. However, such a person must compensate the owner of the property.
The Jlaw.com article also compares Jewish law to Anglo- American law on stealing to save a life.
[I also wonder whether Jewish law might allow the taking of food and other perishable goods, which have been de facto abandoned by the owners (ye-ush). However, abandonment (ye-ush) usually cannot take effect unless the goods are outside of the possession (reshut) of the owner.]
This post does not refer to any specific cases of taking or stealing due to the Katrina hurricane and disaster. Certainly, Jewish law condemns indiscriminate theft and looting. Still, I agree that Jewish law may readily condone situations where people are in doubt about feeding and otherwise caring for themselves and their family. The situation in New Orleans is quite shocking.* Prayers...
* See the agonizing Times-Picayune editorial that "Hurricane Katrina has created a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions."