This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Whose Life Is It Anyway?*

In July 2005, a number of North American Muslim organizations published a fatwa that contained a powerful condemnation of terrorism, extremism and violence against civilians.

The pronouncement evoked mixed reactions in the Jewish community. The message was indeed gratifying, and one that had been rarely expressed. Nevertheless, many of us remained somewhat skeptical about whom the council represents, why it took so long to make its declaration, and whether the fatwa also renounced violence against Israelis and Zionists.

In addition to those thorny political questions, many raised eyebrows were provoked by one of the proof-texts that was cited in support of the plea for moderation. The authors quoted the Qur'an as teaching that Whoever kills a person…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.

A quote from the Qur'an? Anyone with a smattering of Jewish literacy will recognize the passage as identical to a saying of the Jewish sages, a tradition that appears in the Mishnah and Talmud!

The quote is indeed found in the Qur'an. For historians of religions, such overlaps between Islam and Judaism come as no surprise; and this is just one more example of the powerful influence that Judaism and Jewish teachers exerted on the Muslim prophet.

The talmudic version of the saying has an intriguing history of its own. In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:6), it forms part of a lengthy instruction that was given to witnesses in capital cases, designed to remind them of the sanctity of human life and of the grave damage that will result from the extinguishing of a human soul.

In that passage, the infinite worth of a human life is derived from the creation story: It was for this reason that the first man was created alone--so that we might appreciate that the life of each individual is as precious as the entire race.

The universal scope of this teaching underwent some modification during the medieval era, as Jews became more insular and were less likely to be considerate of the hostile gentile world around them. The Mishnah was often quoted with a significant modification, as Whoever destroys a single Israelite life is considered by scripture as if they had destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves a single Israelite life, scripture counts them as if they had preserved an entire world.

To be sure, this more parochial version of the teaching was appropriate to the specific contexts in which it appeared in ancient rabbinic literature, all of which involved Jews; such as the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, which describes the trial of a Jewish defendant; or the Talmud's story (BB 11a) where the angels praise a pious charity officer who supported a starving Jewish family out of his own pocket; or in the midrash about Achan, who confessed to stealing from the forbidden ruins of Jericho in order to bring an end to the internecine bloodshed that he had provoked. Nonetheless, the foremost medieval commentators, including Rashi and Maimonides, knew only of the original universalistic formulation of the teaching.

With the beginnings of Hebrew printing in the late fifteenth century, the version that specified Jewish life became entrenched in several editions of the Babylonian Talmud.

An important milestone in the history of Jewish booklore occurred towards the end of the sixteenth century, when Hebrew publications began to be subjected to stringent censorship, designed primarily to remove passages that might be offensive to Christians. Several of the changes that were introduced then continue to leave their mark on standard editions of the Talmud. Not only were the handful of references to Jesus excised, but even expressions that might vaguely be construed as negative allusions to Christianity were replaced by ones that referred unambiguously to ancient heathens. It is to this process that we owe the substitution of the newly invented phrase worship of stars and constellations instead of the Talmudic expression for idolatry [avodah zarah], and of Edom for Rome (since the latter could theoretically be applied to the Roman church). The Jewish communities usually appointed their own internal censors who screened the books for offensive expressions before submitting them for official government approval.

As it happened, the Christian censors were not particularly perturbed by the editions of the Mishnah and Talmud that extolled the value of Israelite (rather than human) life. It was not until 1832 that an edition of the Mishnah printed in Grodno-Vilna deleted the words in Israel from the passage, a policy that was continued through subsequent printings of rabbinic texts in Vilna, Warsaw and elsewhere. Similarly, when Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschütz succeeded in obtaining permission from the local bishop to publish an edition of the Talmud in Prague, the permit specified that it would contain no portions that were offensive to Christians. The resulting edition did indeed omit the words of Israel from the Mishnah.

Occasionally, the Jewish censors were more zealous in their work than their Christian counterparts. To be more precise, some of those the Jewish censors were motivated by theological or pedagogic agendas that went beyond the mere need to avoid affronts to Christians. Often, the individuals who were appointed to these posts were advocates of the Enlightenment who realized that Jewish survival in the modern world depended on the cultivation of greater openness and tolerance towards the gentile world and its culture. They wanted Jews to be acknowledged as an enlightened people worthy of acceptance into European society. This was the spirit that inspired the brothers Wolf and Jakob Tugendhold, both of whom served as Jewish internal censors during the 19th century, and both of whom took care to ensure that the universalistic formulation of the Mishnah was the one that appeared in print. Neither of them was an expert in the textual history of rabbinic literature, so it was almost inadvertently that they succeeded in restoring the authentic readings of the ancient documents.

And just in case there remained room for doubt as to the correct meaning of the text, an edition of the Mishnah printed in Stettin in 1863 spelled it out unmistakably: …whoever destroys the life of a human being... In this case, evidently, the publisher's concern was less about promoting religious tolerance than about getting their books past the Russian censors.

Interestingly, the Jewish censors were more ardent about imposing their emendations on popular works, like the Mishnah and Midrash, than on the Talmud, which was ostensibly a work of greater importance and authority. This anomaly is, in fact, consistent with their focus on educating of common folk, among whom the need was more pronounced, and with whom they were more likely to achieve successful results. That target audience was less likely to be studying the specialized intricacies of talmudic dialectic.

Whatever the vagaries of the text, there can be no doubt that the ancient rabbis did not intend to distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish lives with regards to their fundamental sanctity. The universality of the teaching is clearly demonstrated by the fact that it was inferred from the creation of the first man--the common ancestor of all humanity. It would appear that the same observation should hold true about the version in the Qur'an.

Hopefully, it is not utterly naïve to hope that this moral axiom is self-evident to decent people from all faith communities, in spite of the efforts of assorted chauvinists and extremists to obscure it.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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