Is the Value of Human Life Infinite?
Does Yahadus view the value of a human life to be very large, or actually infinite?
There are famously three prohibitions that one must avoid even at the cost of one’s life even outside the context of an active campaign against Yahadus or the Jewish People: gilui arayos (sexual immorality), avodah zara (idolatry) and shefichas damim (bloodshed). (Sanhedrin 64a) The natural first attempt to explain this is to assume that these represent values that Yahadus places ahead of even life.
(Murder has to be on this list because if it weren’t we would argue “chayekha qodmin — one’s own life comes first”. If someone must die, one is supposed to put oneself first. As R’ Aqiva does in the case of two people in the desert with only enough water for one. [Bava Metzia 62a] Thus we can break the circle of reasoning without headaches.)
The Maharal explains (Derekh Chaim on Avos 1:2), the problem with the three prohibitions that one must avoid even at threat is that they undercut what Shimon haTzadiq called the pillars of the world: Torah, Avodah (worshiping Hashem) and Gemilus Chassadim (supporting acts of lovingkindness). It is assumed in the gemara (Yuma) that they are opposites: The gemara says that the first Temple was destroyed because of an epidemic of these three very since. Then it asks: but what about the second Temple, when people busied themselves with Torah, mitzvos, and gemillus chassadim, why was it destroyed? And the gemara answers: because of sin’as chinam (pointless hatred). Notice the words chosen to describe the lack of these sins at the end of the second Temple period.
I am unclear about how they are paired off. Avodah zara is obviously the antonym of avodah of the Creator. But the other two… Is it that Torah’s development of ruchnius (spirituality) that is uprooted by sexual immorality and the fixation on physicality that are opposites, leaving murder as the opposite of lovingkindness? (Reasonable enough.) Or is sexual immorality, which is called in the Torah “ki chessed hu” (at least among siblings, Vayiqra 20:17) that is a dropping of interpersonal boundaries that are destructive rather than lovingkindness? In which case, the Torah’s development of a person’s ability to think, his person-ness, that is the opposite of murder. Each seems equally likely.
According to the Maharal, the three yeihareig ve’al ya’avor only take priority over one’s own life because of their role in giving life its value. So we’re back to finding human life the highest value in Judaism, but perhaps now we should say “a meaningful human life”.
When confronted with bandits who say, “turn one of you in or you will all be killed!” we do not turn anyone over to them (Yerushalmi 8:4, vilna ed. 47a). Even though whomever you would have chosen to turn over will end up being among the all who are killed anyway. In general, halakhah is deontological — interested in making sure you do the right thing, rather than consequentialist — interested in maximizing the outcome. (Or in other words: deontology minimizes the number of killers; consequentialism looks to minimize the number killed.)
The question is why.
One way to explain this would be to invoke hashgachah peratis, individualized Divine Providence, and say that it’s my job to do what’s right because whatever they get in their life will be tuned by Hashem regardless of my choices.
But the rishonim who do not believe in universal Providence (not even universal to all people) can’t use that answer. This is possibly the dominant opinion amongst rishonim: Rambam (Moreh 3:18,51), Chinukh, #546, Sefer haIqarim 4:10, maybe the Ramban (see Bereishis 18:19, Iyov 36:7, on the other hand, Shemos 13:16), Or haChaim (Bereishis 37:24), etc…
So another way to explain why halakhah cares more about my not doing the wrong thing than minimizing the amount of tragedy in the world is to give life infinite value. And therefore one life is equal in value to the whole group’s, making consequentialism impossible — all outcomes are equal.
The mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says that one of the things we learn from the fact that Hashem made all of humanity from a single Adam that “kol hameqayem nefesh achas ma’alim alav ke’ilu qiyeim olam malei — whomever maintains a single soul is accounted for as though he maintained a full world”.1 Within Adam laid the possibilities of all of humanity, so we cannot say that all 7.3 billion of us today are more morally valuable than he was then. And if that is true of post-sin Adam, that’s true of every human being. The point here might be just that; the value of human life is actually infinite and ∞ = 7.5*109 ∞.
- I am assuming the Parma manuscript of the Mishnah, the Kaufman manuscript of the Y-mi and the autographed Rambam manuscript are correct when they do not mention Yisrael in that quote. See also standard text for Mishnayos, Y-mi and Rambam today. “MiYisrael” is a distinctly Bavli artifact. FWIW, the Qur’an’s version [5:32] is “On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be in retaliation for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew all mankind: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all humanity.” So whomever quoted the mishnah to Muhammad didn’t say “Yisrael”. [↩]