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Jewish Teaching on the value of life​

Maimonides (aka Rambam), one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, provides a Jewish ethical framework for the value of protecting life in Hilkhot Rotzeah u’Shmirat Nefesh (Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life).  

In discussing obligations of Jews to intervene when they see someone’s life in danger (in the text’s example, because they are being pursued by a murderer) Rambam wrote “every Jewish person is commanded to [attempt to] save the person being pursued, even if it is necessary to kill the pursuer” (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:6). 

What’s more, according to Rambam, the obligation to protect life is not merely someone’s personal responsibility but also extends to include the agents an individual can employ or direct: “Similarly, [this commandment applies] when a person sees a colleague drowning at sea or being attacked by robbers or a wild animal, and he can save him himself, or can hire others to save him (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:14).” 

Protecting life

Rambam wrote “Whenever a person can save another person’s life, but he fails to do so, he transgresses a negative commandment, as [Leviticus 19:16] states: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Hilkhot Rotzeah 1:14).’”

Moreover, in Hilkhot Sanhedrin12:3, Rambam invokes the principle of adam hayahid (that God originally created one human being alone) to argue that the preservation of a single human life is equivalent to saving the entire world. In doing so, describes the mishna (Sanhedrin4:5) not as “nefesh ahat m’yisrael” (i.e. one Jew) to “nefesh ahat min ha-olam” (i.e. one person). The implication is that all human life is sacred and demands protection.  

Rambam also describes the obligation to anticipate and prevent any danger which poses a threat to life. Not only are we required to intervene in a “murder in progress,” we are bound to identify threats to human life and mitigate them in advance.  Using the direction from Deuteronomy 22:8 to “build a guardrail for your roof,” Rambam derives a comprehensive ethic for the preservation of human life, writing

“There is no difference between a roof or anything else that is dangerous and likely to cause death to a person who might stumble. If, for instance, one has a well or a pit in his courtyard — — he must build an enclosing ring ten handbreadths high, or put a cover over it, so that a person should not fall into it and die. So too, any obstruction that is a danger to life must be removed as a matter of positive duty and extremely necessary caution.”

Rambam also wrote, “Similarly, it is a positive mitzvah to remove any obstacle that could pose a danger to life, and to be very careful regarding these matters, as [Deuteronomy 4:9] states: ‘Beware for yourself; and guard your soul.’ If a person leaves a dangerous obstacle and does not remove it, he negates the observance of a positive commandment, and violates [the negative commandment]: ‘Do not cause blood [to be spilled].’”

Rambam writings are illustrative of a long Jewish tradition upholding the primacy of the value of life, viewing each life as precious, and taking great care to preserve life.  The EA for Jews community is part of this tradition, and in conversation with it.  We are seeking to use reason and evidence to figure out how to save as many lives as possible and act on what we find out. 

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Ben Schifman

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