Is the Value of Human Life Infinite?

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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 ∞.

 

  1. 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”. []

And your thoughts...?

  1. Loving the blog!

    Based upon the translation of Moreh Nevuchim that I was able to find (http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp154.htm), the Rambam DOESN’T deny universal Divine Providence. Rather, he states that “the greater the human perfection a person has attained, the greater the benefit he derives from Divine Providence.” In other words, a person will ***receive more benefit*** from Providence when he is attuned in word, thought, and deed with the Divine will. This is NOT to say that others do not HAVE said Providence, only that they do not receive BENEFIT from it.

    This is the meaning in both 3:18 (linked above) and 3:51 (http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp187.htm). It may be worthwhile to discuss how the Rambam understands the concept of “deriving benefit” and “enjoying” Divine Providence, but that is distinct from the existence or non-existence of said providence on an individual basis.

    Rambam later refers to “providence” meaning “Divine protection” as something specifically contingent on our awareness of the Divine, but this is a separate matter entirely.

    This site (http://revach.net/article.php?id=857) seems to have a different understanding of the Sefer HaChinukh than you do.

    In fact, the idea that Rambam uses (miracles are just calibrated natural events set into motion at the moment of creation) and your previous concept of Hashem acting “without resorting to power” are consistent with a concept of perfect pre-ordination – the meaning of your use in this post of Divine Providence.

    Personally I solve the hasgacha vs. free will (false) paradox by pointing out that linearity is a limitation of human perspective, and Chazal clearly understand Hashem to be above linear time. Ergo, there is no distinction in the Divine perspective between the moment of creation and every moment thereafter – creating light and “reacting” to my free will are all performed in the same “breath.”

    • I am glad you enjoy this blog!

      You appear to be misled by Fraedlander’s aging English. He doesn’t mean “enjoy” in the sense you’re taking it. For example, here is R’ Yosef el-Qafih (“Kapach”)’s translations.

      3:18: “שכל אחד מאישי בני אדם, אשר השיג מאותו השפע מנה יתרה כפי עתוד החומר שלו והכשרתו, תהיה ההשגחה בו יותר בהכרח”. He says the hashgachah will necessarily be greater. And indeed this is the only way it fits the argument the Rambam is making — that human understanding of theology is the conduit by which hashgachah reaches a person.

      And 3:51:

      כי לפי ערך דעת כל בעל דעה תהיה ההשגחה בו. והנה האדם השלם בהשגתו אשר לא תחדל דעתו מהי תמיד, תהיה ההשגחה בו תמיד. והאדם השלם בהשגתו, אשר רוקן את מחשבתו מה’ בעת מסוים, הרי תהית ההשגחה עליו בעת מחשבתו בה’ בלבד, ותתרוקן ההשגחה ממנו בזמן עסקיו. ואין התרוקנותה ממנו אז כהתרוקנותה ממי שלא השכיל כלל, אלא תתמעט אותה ההשגחה, כיון שאין לאותו שלם ההשגה בזמן עסקיו שכל בפועל, אלא הוא אותו השלם אז משיג בכוח קרוב, והרי הוא דומה אז ללבלר מהיר בעת שאינו כותב.

      Nothing there about enjoyment or benefit, just proportion — the more often you are thinking of G-d, the more often hashgachah is involved in your life. Which is different than 3:18 where the intensity of hashgachah is said to be proportional to the perfection of one’s understanding, since in ch. 51 he is comparing frequency.

      As for hashgachah vs free will, I had reached the same conclusion. See “Divine Timelessness“:

      … G-d doesn’t know today what I will decide tomorrow, because G-d doesn’t have a “today”. G-d simply knows. The nearest way in which we can assign a point in time to His knowledge is when speaking of when His actions impact creation. And Hashem assures us, using Yishma’el as an example, that man is judged “ba’asher hu sham as he is there” not based on his future. Within time, the direction of causality is preserved.

      Similarly, our opening issue. Miracles were written into creation because Hashem has no “initially” and “later”. The decisions were made “simultaneously”, for want of a better word to say “not separated by time”. And in fact, they were therefore the same decision.

      This is true for every event of all of creation. God created a 4d sculpture. Not a watch that He could then leave to run on its own. (The use of the word “then” in the previous sentence is a tip-off. It makes sense only in the context of time.) Picture the printing of a timeline in a book. The spot of ink representing 1702 was printed in the same act as the spot representing 2004. Because from the perspective of His Action there is no time, all of the history of the universe is equally ma’aseh bereishis — the act of creation. Our persistence from one moment to the next is the same “strike of the printing press” as the six days at the far end of the timeline. Deism is simply not tenable if time is a created entity.