Thursday, 13 Mar 2014

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

Drawing the Line

When I was out for dinner last week I could not help but listen in to the conversation on the table next to us when I heard one man loudly exclaim, ‘I think we should only intervene if there was a genocide’.  They were debating the circumstances when a foreign power should use their military powers to intervene in another country’s affairs.  There have been many such debates globally about such issues and I am sure we could all supply a country and a time where we could argue foreign intervention may or may not be necessary.  According to this person, intervention was justifiable only when genocide could be proved to be taking place.  In this difficult issue he had drawn his line here. 

I have always been fascinated by the issue of where we draw the line in saving one person’s life over another. How can we possibly decide for whom to risk one life to save another?  When is it ok to kill?  What principles should guide us with these difficult questions?

In the Torah we have a clear example of a society drawing a line against child sacrifice.  This was an ancient Near Eastern custom and it was one which the Israelites rejected.  The Akedah – the near sacrifice of Isaac, can be read as a polemic against the custom of child sacrifice.  Here God explains, through the dramatic testing of Abraham, that this form of sacrifice is not acceptable. God draws the line at killing a child. 

In ancient Israel another form of sacrifice was acceptable within Israelite society.  This was animal sacrifice and this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, is filled with details about when it should be done and how.  The business of sacrifices was taken very seriously – the consequences for not sacrificing in the appropriate way could result in death or ostracism from your community.  God delights in the ‘pleasing odour’ of animal sacrifices – God expects and takes pleasure in this ritual.  The system of animal sacrifices was fundamental to the functioning of Israelite society.  So whilst the Israelites had drawn a line at human sacrifice, animal sacrifice was deemed acceptable.  The balance of taking a life and atoning for sins was tipped, on balance, against the animals.

In thinking about these questions, of when it is permissible to take a life and the balancing of one life against another, it may be useful to look at other examples within Judaism where lines are drawn.  One of the most useful examples is the rodef (‘the pursuer’) which is discussed in great detail in rabbinic literature (see bSanhedrin 73a).  Various examples are given as to when it is permissible to kill the rodef.  For instance, if you were to see a man pursuing another man to kill him or you saw a man pursuing a woman to rape her you are permitted to kill the pursuer.  However, if you saw someone about to desecrate the Shabbat or worship an idol (two major sins in Israelite society) you are not permitted to kill them.

Another instance where Judaism would permit us to kill is when a burglar enters our home – killing the intruder is allowed (bSanhedrin 72a).  This killing is justified by explaining that a burglar, if confronted with the owner of the house, would be prepared to kill and therefore the owner is allowed to kill in self-defence.  This ruling is qualified – if it was obvious to the owner of the house that the burglar would not kill him (say, for example, the burglar was his son) he is not permitted to kill the burglar. (With this example it is hard to not think of the trial of Oscar Pistorius where this exact issue is being examined). 

So here we can see examples of Judaism setting down principles for when it is acceptable to kill and when it is not. And of course, every society has their own laws concerning these issues.  In the UK the Human Rights Act 1998 (which implements the European Convention of Human Rights) sets out a person’s right to life and similarly sets out the qualifications – when it is allowed to forfeit a person’s right to life.  The instances given are if reasonable force is used against a person to effect a lawful arrest, or defend someone from unlawful violence, or to quell a riot (Schedule 1, Article 2).  Again lines are drawn.

We are, of course, all aware of the danger of drawing lines.  War crimes are committed following a decision that one life is worth more than another.  We need look no further than the Rwandan genocide or the Shoah to see the utter destruction and chaos that can be caused when lines are drawn based on race, religion, sexuality etc. 

This is why Judaism reminds us again and again of the value of life and the inherent equality of all human beings.  We are all made in the image of God.  In the same tractate of the Talmud we have been looking at so far, Sanhedrin, we see the famous teaching that ‘whoever destroys a single soul, scripture regards him as though he had destroyed a complete world and whosoever preserves a single soul, scripture regards him as though he had preserved a whole world’ (bSandhedrin 37a).  Another teaching in Sanhedrin, gives an example (usually seen only in dramatic films!) of a situation when someone is to told to kill another person, or else he will be killed.  Here the answer is – let yourself be killed for ‘who knows that your blood is redder? Perhaps his blood is redder?’ (bSanhedrin 74a). 

When discussing issues of when it is permissible to kill we must hold these values – of the equality and inherent value of life – in mind.  If we work from this starting point then decisions about when to kill will not be taken lightly and decisions will not be made based on race or religion or putting one life above another.   We must each struggle with determining where our own personal lines are drawn, and pray that we never have to test these decisions.

Student rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.