Monday, January 17, 2011
To Destroy a Life is to Destroy a World
My continuing meditation on these verses which I presented last week…
For this reason was Adam created alone, to teach us that whosoever destroys a single soul, the Torah regards as guilty as though he had destroyed an entire world; and whosoever preserves a single soul the Torah ascribes merit to him as though he had preserved an entire world.
-Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a
Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. And indeed, there came to them Our Messengers with clear proofs, evidences, and signs, even then after that many of them continued to exceed the limits (e.g. by doing oppression unjustly and exceeding beyond the limits set by Allah by committing the major sins) in the land!.
-Qur’an 5:32 (The Noble Qur'an)
In Jewish thought, we distinguish between two kinds of religious knowledge, aggadata, stories and narratives which convey a moral or spiritual message, and Halacha, law. The verse above is clearly aggadata, a broad moral directive. Its lesson is clear. It teaches us that all killing is the spiritual equivalent of genocide.
Halacha (Law) is much more practical. The Torah’s justice sometimes demands a death sentence (albeit very rarely meted out). That is legal killing. War can also be legal killing. The law is that after a call to peace (which often simply means surrender) a defensive war is sometimes justified. Once justified, there is a recognition in the Halacha that it is a condition of war that both combatants and non-combatants will be killed.
There would seem then to be a kind of disconnect between the aggadata and the Halacha, between the moral ideal of Torah and the its embodiment in law.
It seems to me that the same situation exists in Sharia. The general principal is that all killing is the moral equivalent of genocide. The verse in the Qur’an even references the Jewish teaching. And again, justice sometimes demands a death sentence. And again, war is sometimes justified after an offer of peace. Sharia then limits attacks on non-combatants but again recognizes that sometimes civilian casualties are inevitable.
(This is a quick summary of the Halacha and Sharia. I would be happy to do a more in depth comparative study of the texts that relate to this, if anyone is interested. Please correct me in detail if I am mistaken.)
There would seem to be the same disconnect between the Sharia which allows forms of legal killing and the spiritual direction that all killing is equivalent to genocide.
One way to bridge the gap perhaps is offered by the medieval Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban) writing in 13th century Spain on the verse..
G-d spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to the entire congregation [of] Bnei Yisroel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Hashem your G-d, am holy. (holy=qodesh = quds)
-Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:1-2
“You shall be holy” Just as I keep away from worldy pleasure so you should keep away from wordly pleasure. According to my opinion this is not just referring to keeping away from inappropriate sexuality as suggested by Rashi. That kind of separation is mentioned many times in scripture with the word “separation”. The fact is that the Torah warns us about forbidden relationships and foods but permits us to have relations with our wives and to eat meat and wine. So we find that a person of a lusty nature has room to engage in licentious behavior with his wife and to guzzle wine and be a glutton with meat. He can do as he pleases in all the areas of foolishness which the Torah otherwise forbids. Observe, that one can be a boor within the bounds of Torah (or with the permission of the Torah) Naval b’ reshut ha Torah..
In other words, a legal system, even a Divine one, in order to be livable by real people in real societies needs to take into account the basic sometimes base drives of human beings . It must be able to accommodate special cases and circumstances. We believe that G-d knows his creatures. It will have loopholes and allowances they may allow people to act pretty badly and still be “within the letter of the law.”
To kill one human being is to destroy a world. It seems to me that these verses are reminders to us that compelling and disturbing spiritual reality to inspire believers to restrict ourselves from the allowances of the law, to be strict with ourselves in our respect for human life. In a generation where so many demonstrate their piety by strictness in ritual observance, this is a call to express our piety in the observance of morality, to choose to refrain from violence against one another.
It also calls us to think very differently about when we do choose to use violence. For example, in western Just War theory, there is as the “doctrine of proportionality.” Here is a scholarly description.
According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante. That said, experts say the proportionality principle is open to interpretation and depends on the context. "It's always a subjective test," says Michael Newton, associate clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School. "But if someone punches you in the nose, you don't burn their house down."
This is a profoundly civilized concept and it makes perfect sense that when it comes to killing more is worse, that a violent response even in self-defense should not be excessive. This is a big part of how we talk about the use and abuse of violence. It is a big part of how we justify violence and for why we decry violence. We weigh the numbers. These verses come to challenge our thinking. They tell us that, in relation to the act of killing, the core of the concept of proportionality is ultimately spiritually obscene. There are no formulas for the weighing of human life. You cannot put infinity on two sides of an equation in any meaningful way. The deeper reality is that human life is infinitely precious. Anyone who has lost anyone they love knows this and yet its so easy to overlook and so easy to forget.
Baruch Hashem, Alhamdulilah - G-d sends us reminders.
Ribbono shel Olam / Rab ul Alameen, help us to be mindful always of the absolute value of each and every one of us. In the acknowledgement of that reality, please help us set the highest standards for ourselves and to encourage others around us to sanctify ourselves even in what is permitted to us for the preservation of every human life, for the preservation of Your world.