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

Ramban comments..

“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.


  1. OK, its working -- so here goes again:

    Excellent post! As I read it, I could not help thinking about how Israel reacted when Hezbollah abducted 5 soldiers ("a punch in the nose") and the IDF retaliated by bombing south Lebanon into rubble ("burning the house down.") The whole world saw this as illegal overeaction and, by the normal rules of engagement in war, it cerainly was.

    One area that is not mentioned here is the principle of the rodef (pursurer) which gets invoked a lot by Jewish militant groups such as Kahanists and others. For the benefit of readers here, a rodef is someone pursing another with the intent to do harm. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8:7) it is stated that, if Person A sees Person B running after a third person in order to kill or rape that person, then Person A may kill Person B in order to prevent the crime. This law is explained at length by the Talmud and codes (see Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 73a; Maimonides Laws of Murder 1:6).

    However -- and this is important! -- one may kill a rodef only if one actually sees him pursuing another person with the clear intention to kill that person (such as he has a weapon aimed, or is grabbing a woman to rape her, etc.) and killing the rodef is the only way to save the victim. If there is a way to sopt the pursuer without killing, then lethal force is NOT justified.

    The Rabbis also ruled, in terms of self-defense, that: "If someone is coming to kill you, rise early and kill him first" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 72a and parallels.) In other words, a "pre-emptive styrike" is permissible in cases where, say, an army is gathering outside the city with a clear intent to attack. However, one may kill in self-defense only when one's own life is in danger right now. This is not a general rule to go out and kill anyone who might come after you sometime in the future. There must be clear and present danger for it to apply.

    However, there are now people who want to apply the principle of rodef to entire populations at anytime, anyplace. For example, a West Bank rabbi named Yitzhak Shapira has written, in a widely publicized 2009 book, Torat HaMelech, or " The King's Torah," that non-Jews are "uncompassionate by nature," and that gentiles could be killed in order to "curb their evil inclinations." "There is justification," the rabbi proclaimed, "for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults."

    I want to say clearly that I DO NOT AGREE with Rabbi Shapira, that I CONDEMN this distortion of the rodef law. There is no way to tell what an infant will grow up to be, it would never be "clear" that he or she would "grow up to harm us," so this argument is bogus. And racist besides. Nevertheless, this book and its author are getting widespead publicity on the Web, and being cited as an example of "how Jews think," so it is very important to state here that this is NOT true Judaism.

  2. It's similar with Islaam. The "terrorists" have hijacked the dialogue. It's difficult to quote the above Qur'an to non Muslims sometimes, and to tell them that Islaam is a religion of peace. Their reply, "yeah right: piece by piece." The terrorists have destroyed us without firing a shot. While self-defense is permitted in Islam, murder and suicide are not. These people do not speak for Muslims and Islaam, and what they are doing is not Islaam.

  3. וטהר לבינו לעבדך באמת

  4. As we know any and all traditions can be hijacked, whether by Kahane or bin Laden, I know in the case of bin Laden as well as his ideological ancestor Sayyid Qutb, there was a serious lack of religious education-they would themselves cherry pick verse after verse to prove their awful points; even within bin Laden's declarations, he will quote ayahs from the Qu'ran, out of context and conveniently "forget" the follow up verse that may negate or offer an alternative to whatever action he is trying to justify.

    I know on the Muslim side of things; we are facing a youth who is being “educated” by those who themselves fail to grasp the intricacies of Islam, and rather than seek, they fall prostate at the feet of those who channel Sayyid Qutb, who himself was a quasi- theocratic-nationalist who for all his hatred of the west and its various forms of government still managed to find a way to blend Marxist theory with his revolutionary rhetoric that influenced an entire generation of extremists..

    Instead of apologizing for these individuals actions; we need to get to the source to stop the madness that emanates from these lost souls, we need to educate our children, they need to know that we can and will exist in a pluralistic society; whether it was the consideration of the Jews of Medina to be one and the same with the Ummah, according to the Constitution of Medina drafted by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) in 622, or the society that existed in Al-Andalus before the Almoravid take over,

    When I think of extremists, it reminds me of a quote by one of my favorite secular politicians of the past, Robert F. Kennedy:

    “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents”

  5. To Reb Yonasan- if all military responses were always "proportionate" as you defined it, it would lead to endless conflict, since the aggressor could aggress as much as they wanted to, knowing that the response would be predictable and enabling them to act accordingly. What if the aggressor doesn't care as much as the defender does about the damage done, and hates the "other" more than they care about themselves, or their human shields?
    It should also be mentioned that in the war in Lebanon Israel wasn't wantonly destroying Southern Lebanon- they were dismantling the Hezbullah military infrastructure- thousands of missiles and rockets pointed at Jewish (and Arab) towns and cities. The tragic destructiveness was mainly due to the fact that Hezbullah had deliberately placed all these items in civilian locations deliberately.
    In their strategic logic this was a "win-win" for them- either Israel refrains from striking those places, leaving them free to point thousands of missiles at Israeli communities with impunity, to be fired whenever they (or Iran) found it most advantageous, or Israel would strike and suffer a PR disaster because of the collateral damage, causing them international political damage and isolation. It's a Catch-22.
    The reality is that people who value human life would never use human shields in such a cynical way, but unfortunately that is what we have to deal with in Israel. When those that employ such cruel and cynical measures are removed from power and influence, this increases the peace and safety of innocent people in the world.
    It's not a simple situation and it is made even more morally complex for us because of the tactics employed by our enemies- no one wants to hurt innocent people.
    I just didn't feel like your description captures the complex reality of the situation.