Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Value of a Life Part I: The texts

For the next two weeks or so, with the help of G-d, and with your assistance, I want to explore some of the implications of these two texts, one from the Talmud and one from the Qur’an. I think they contain very fundamental insights into how we should regard and value human life, including our own. For the moment, let me put them out there for your contemplation and comment. In a few days, I will try to share some thoughts about them.
I am especially counting on my Muslim friends to point me to appropriate tafseers and related Hadiths to help me understand. Please don’t be shy.

Here are the texts…

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.

Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men,
That one might not say to his fellow, ‘my father was greater than
yours, and that heretics might not say, there are many ruling powers
in heaven.
Again, [we are taught that we descend from one man] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be
He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one
of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged
to say: the world was created for my sake.

-Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a

[* In many versions, the term “of Israel” will appear here, narrowing the application only to Jews. In the context though, given that it is talking about Adam as the progenitor of all mankind the more narrow wording just doesn’t make sense to me. I am certainly open to hear other’s insights.]

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)


  1. Hi! I just wanted to let you know that Yusuf Ali has grave mistakes in his translating and you are better off getting your translations of the Qur'an from "The Noble Qur'an" version(its online too).

  2. Thank you so much and I apologize. I had actually meant to post asking folks if there was a preferable translation. The Noble Qur'an is generally what I use at home (I was looking for a less classical sounding , fresh language, I guess) I will follow your suggestion. Again thank you for taking the time.

  3. I have corrected it. If others have translation preferences do let me know. I can also include multiple translations. The Torah translations will mostly be from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and the Talmud translations will mostly be my own.

  4. the insertion "of Israel" into the Bavli passage has created a lot of mischief. Jewish terrorists on the West Bank point to this to justify treating the killing of a non-Jew as a lesser crime than killing a Jew. Plainly the texts of both Genesis and the Qur'an make clear that all of us--Jew, Muslim and other--are descendants of Adam, each of us endowed with inestimable dignity, each of us precious

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  6. (sorry for removing the previous post- I was ashamed of my own typos)

    There is no question that those to words could and have been deployed in destructive ways. While I have heard some fairly convoluted defenses of the wording (based on a kind of kabbalistic picture), the context makes it hard to even consider.

    Its interesting that there seems to be a kind of parallel in Al-Nasā'ī's collection of Hadith, on the authority of 'Abdallah bin 'Amr, that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: 'Allah deems the perishing of the entire world less severe than the killing of one Muslim.'

    So here it the paraphrase of that life=world idea specifies a Muslim life.
    This would seem to turn the universality of the ayat 5:32 on its head. I would be interested to see how commentators relate the two.

    It also leads me to ponder whether there is some value to ascribing a special value to the lives of those people to whom you are intimately connected by bonds of faith and common purpose. Part of me finds that idea so dangerous that I can't even entertain it (for the reasons you pointed out, the other side sees a kind of emotional logic to it.

  7. Back in the 1980s when I was studying with Rabbi Zalman Schachter in Philadelphia (He was not yet Shachter-Shalomi back then) he use to do this exercise, sort of like a Sufi zikhr, where we would stand in a circle and chant "us and them." At first he put the emphasis on the "us" and the "them", making it come out as "US and THEM, US and THEM." Then he would change the rhythm and put the emphasis on the word "and": "us AND them, us AND them." It was a very powerful lesson in changing consciousness. The words were the exactly same, but the emphasis changed from exclusiveness to inclusiveness. Over the years, I have also taught this zikhr.

    So in this dialogue, the equivalent would be going from "JEWS and MUSLIMS" to "Jews AND Muslims." We each retain our group identity, but the "and" becomes a bridge instead of a wall. When that happens, then we begin to see each other as having equal value.

  8. To AlabasterMuslim: I am very glad to hear that there is a better translation than Yusuf Ali. I have had his annotated version for years because it was the only one I could find out here in rural America, and frankly, I find his references to Jews demeaning -- so much so, I quit reading his commentaries. As for example, his intro to the Surah of Yusuf (Joseph) where he says: "The Biblical story is like a folk-tale in which morality has no place. Its tendency is to exhalt the clever and financially-minded Jew against the Egyptians... The Quranic version, on the other hand, is less a narrative than a highly spiritual sermon or allegory..." This implies that Jews have no morals and are only interested in money, which is nothing but an antisemitic stereotype.

    But the fact is, the Quranic version contains a lot of the VERY SAME spiritual, allegorical interpretations that can be found in Jewish commentaries that were already in circulation at bthe time of Muhammed. I won't go into the question of whether or not Muhammed was influenced by rabbinical Judaism, but I will say that Yusuf Ali is TOTALLY WRONG about the meaning of this story for Jews. I have never in my life seen Joseph as a "financially-minded" Jew ripping off the Egyptians.

    I was taught from childhood that it is a story about faith, that even in his darkest hour, sold as a slave and thrown unjustly into prison, Joseph never lost his faith in God. It was part of God's plan for him to be there, in order to save the Egyptian people, as well as his own family, from famine. This, in turn, set into motion the series of events which, many years later, results in the Exodus and receiving the Torah at Sinai. In modern terms, we could say it was a spiritual example of "the butterfly effect" where a seemingly minor event (Joseph sold as a slave) sets up ripples that affect generations to come. This is a far cry from Yusuf Ali's "financially-minded Jew."