The Value of Life


By Yanki Tauber *

The Talmud – the voluminous anthology of Jewish law that’s widely regarded as the greatest legal work of all time — is famed for its rigorous logic. Indeed, “Talmudic logic” has become a catchword for a process of deduction that is deep and insightful on the one hand, and at the same time adheres meticulously to the laws of logic. It is therefore quite surprising to find a landmark Talmudic law — a law dealing with issues of life and death, no less — that, on the face of it, is profoundly illogical.

Here’s the scenario: A town is surrounded by an army, which demands that a certain individual be handed over to them. The townspeople are given a choice: “Hand over Mr. So-and-So to us and we’ll kill him and spare the rest of you; if you don’t, we’ll kill you all.” The Talmud’s ruling is: if this person is indeed guilty of a capital offence, he should be handed over; if he’s innocent, he may not be given over to die, even at the cost of the lives of all of them.

What’s amazing about this law is that the issue at hand is not even a matter of one life versus 10,000 lives. Mr. So-and-So is going to die in any case! Rather, the issue at hand is whether one is permitted to take action that will result in the destruction of a human life in order to save the other 9,999 lives. But why should thousands of people die in vain? It seems utterly illogical.

But upon closer examination, this is a law that is not only profoundly logical, but crucial and indispensable. Without this law, it would only be a matter of time until a society deteriorates to a state in which human lives are taken with impunity.

Think of it: if one life can be sacrificed to save 10,000 lives, then one life can be sacrificed to save ten lives. And if it can be sacrificed to save ten, it can be sacrificed to save two. And if quantity is a factor, why shouldn’t “quality” be a factor? Is not the life of a young person in the prime of life more “valuable” than that of a senile 95-year-old who anyway has only a few years left to live? What if a society place greater value on a male life than a female life – would it then be justified to sacrifice the life of a woman to save a man’s life? Nor does it stop there: the moment a human life is assigned a relative “value” vis-à-vis other lives, its relative value will be measured against other quantifiable values as well: “the good of society,” “the national interest” (“the economy”?). Taken to its extremes (and any logic can, and eventually will, be taken to its extremes) this is same logic by which millions of Jews, and mentally or physically handicapped people were exterminated in Europe sixty years ago — because these lives were regarded by the powers-that-be as inferior. There is, of course, no moral equivalence between these actions, but the logic behind them is the same.

The Talmud’s law incorporates two crucial principles. Firstly, that every individual human life has absolute, not relative, value. One times absolute is just as absolute as 10,000 times absolute. Seventy years of absolute value is just as absolute as one year or one hour of absolute value.

The second, equally crucial principle is that there is a clear, absolute distinction between taking action to end a life and not taking that action, even if the “end result” is the same. To hand that person over to be killed is an act of murder. The argument “he’s going to die anyway” has no bearing on the significance of the act, for this is an act of absolute moral significance.

Thus, when it comes to “end of life” situations, Torah law distinguishes between action and inaction. According to Torah law, we must do everything in our power to preserve and prolong life, regardless of its so-called “quality” (if, indeed, we can presume to gauge the quality of a life). However, once a person enters the state of what Torah law calls gosses (“dying”) we are no longer obligated to take action to prolong that person’s life. However, even at this point, taking an action that will shorten life is tantamount to murder, even if that person will die “anyway” within a few hours or minutes.

On the face of it, this seems like little more than legal “hair-splitting” of the most technical sort. Does it really make a difference?

Yes it does – it makes all the difference in the world. We have no control over the greater issues of life and death; there is a Higher Authority who decides these things. We do have control over our own actions. And the action of taking an innocent life can never be justified — certainly not by the arrogant notion that we can place a relative value on a human life.

An old Chassidic saying teaches that no person ever gets “suddenly” lost in the forest. First the person is walking on the path; then he strays one step off it, than another, and then a third. Eventually, he will find himself many miles off track.

Can anyone imagine Terri Schiavo’s husband being granted judicial dispensation to starve his brain-damaged wife to death twenty years ago? Can we but shudder to think where we’ll be on “right to die” (and “right to kill”) issues twenty years from now?

When a society loses sight of the divine, absolute value of life, the change is at first all but imperceptible. At first it is only the weakest, most defenseless lives that are affected. Lives that have no voice — society doesn’t hear them, or even goes so far as to put words into their mouths for them. But that first step is, in many ways, the most crucial one. Unless the trend is halted and reversed, it will lead to a second step and a third, and before long, we will be deep in the barbaric woods where everything is relative, where the right to life is entirely relative to power, wealth and physical strength.

For unless life has absolute value, it ultimately has no value. And unless we accord absolute moral significance to our actions, they are ultimately of no moral significance, and before long, we’re back in the jungle.

* Yanki Tauber is content editor of Chabad.org

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