The Talmud and End of Life Issues

While I am not Jewish, I strongly believe that the Jewish people have a lot of insight into understanding God and His ways. I don't believe that this role is limited to giving us a better understanding of the historic and cultural underpinnings of the Bible, but includes serious thinking by Jewish scholars of the logical consequences of the Biblical revelations -- especially where it concerns what God wants from us in acting ethically.

This is why I found the essay "The Value of a Life" by Yanki Tauber to be very interesting. In the essay, he takes what could be considered a rather uninteresting teaching from the Talmud on the surrender of citizens to others and draws from it a very strong criticism of the Teri Schiavo incident.

Yanki Tauber begins his essay by quoting the Talmudic teaching about when it is proper to surrender a citizens of a city to a third party who threatens to put the city under siege if he is not turned over.

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.

The teaching seems at odds with our current society. Remember Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn where Mr. Spock dies saving the Enterprise from certain destruction? Mr. Spock's explanation, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one," seems more in line with our approach to issues of ethics. But the Talmud teaches that the entire city should die rather than surrender the life of the one if that one is innocent. What gives?

Mr. Tauber notes:

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 places 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-Ã -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, homosexuals 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.

I am sure you can see the application of the foregoing to the Teri Schaivo situation -- as well as many other similar end of life situations. I highly recommend Mr. Tauber's essay as a "must read."

(Cross-blogged on the Apologia Christi blog.)


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