Human Dignity

Jewish ethical tradition assigns ultimate value to each human life. Human lives are inherently valuable, and are not to be regarded in terms of their utility or usefulness to other ends. Across the diversity of circumstances and traits that differentiate one human from another, we are equal with regard to our dignity whatever our age, background, wealth, gender, physical appearance or ability. The value of human life is grounded in our relationship to God.

In this time of pandemic, any decisions about the distribution of health care, education, food, employment opportunities and other goods can be measured against the standard of human dignity that all people share. How do our decisions--in everyday life and also in emergencies--honor Jewish teachings about the irreducible worth of every human life?

Creation in God's Image

(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

(26) And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (27) And God created the human in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

(א) זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ (ב) זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם׃ (ס)

(1) This is the record of the generations of humanity: On the day God created the human, He made him in the likeness of God; (2) Male and female He created them and He blessed them and called them Human on the day of their creation.

These two passages from Genesis describe humanity's creation "in the image of God."

  • How do you understand the idea of creation in God's image? How is your understanding supported or complicated by the language of these verses?
  • What aspect of humanity resembles God?
  • Genesis 1:26 uses the terms "image" and "likeness." Do they mean the same thing? Why do you think both these terms appear?
  • When does the differentiation of gender enter the human story? Do the two passages convey the same message with regard to gender?

"ואהבת לרעך כמוך" –

רבי עקיבא אומר זה כלל גדול בתורה.

בן עזאי אומר "זה ספר תולדות אדם" – זה כלל גדול מזה.

. . . "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).

Rabbi Akiva says: This is a great principle in the Torah.

Ben Azzai says: "This is the record of the generations of humanity" (Genesis 5:1) — This is an even greater principle.

In this early midrash, two great sages promote essential principles of Jewish teaching.

1. In what ways can the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself serve as a foundation for ethical decisions?

2. For the Torah, who counts as a neighbor? How do you know? Do you think Rabbi Akiva understands "neighbor" in any particular way?

3. Why do you think Ben Azzai thinks he has found a greater principle than Rabbi Akiva? How can the story of humanity's creation serve as a foundation for ethics?

4. Why do you think Ben Azzai refers to Genesis 5:1 and not to earlier verses about humanity's creation?

5. Can you think of circumstances in which Rabbi Akiva's principle and Ben Azzai's principle would point to different ethical decisions?

Honoring Human Difference

(ה) כֵּיצַד מְאַיְּמִין אֶת הָעֵדִים עַל עֵדֵי נְפָשׁוֹת? הָיוּ מַכְנִיסִין אוֹתָן וּמְאַיְּמִין עֲלֵיהֶן:. . .

. . . הֱווּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁלֹּא כְדִינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת. דִּינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת, אָדָם נוֹתֵן מָמוֹן וּמִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ. דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו תְּלוּיִין בּוֹ עַד סוֹף הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְקַיִן שֶׁהָרַג אֶת אָחִיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ד) דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים, אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר דַּם אָחִיךָ אֶלָּא דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו. . .

. . . לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל*, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל*, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.

וּמִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ.

וְשֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ מִינִין אוֹמְרִים, הַרְבֵּה רָשֻׁיּוֹת בַּשָּׁמָיִם.

וּלְהַגִּיד גְּדֻלָּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁאָדָם טוֹבֵעַ כַּמָּה מַטְבְּעוֹת בְּחוֹתָם אֶחָד וְכֻלָּן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה, וּמֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טָבַע כָּל אָדָם בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן וְאֵין אֶחָד מֵהֶן דּוֹמֶה לַחֲבֵרוֹ. לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם.

(5)How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying]. . .

. . . Take note that capital cases are not like property cases: in property cases a person may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases, the blood of him [who is accused] and the blood of his descendants hang in the balance until the end of the world. For so have we found it with Cain who murdered his brother when it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10). It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. . .

. . .Therefore Adam was created alone, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel,* he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel,* he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world.

And for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”.

And, against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven.”

And to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first human, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

*The words "from Israel" מישראל are in the printed edition but do not appear in earlier manuscripts and are likely late additions to the text.

This passage appears in the section of the Mishnah that lays out procedures for the administration of justice. The immediate context deals specifically with procedures for capital crimes, i.e. where the penalty for one who is found guilty is execution. The Mishnah here provides a speech for judges to use in admonishing witnesses. The speech emphasizes the gravity of capital cases--the gravity of the death penalty-- to ensure that the witness don't undertake their testimony lightly. In the context of this speech, the judge cites the story of Cain and Abel, and this leads to an extended discourse on the value of each individual human life. It is unclear how much of this extended discourse--the material presented above-- is meant to be part of the judge's speech and how much was interpolated because it so powerfully extends the central message of the speech, that every human being is unique and irreplaceable.

  • How does the context for the teachings about human dignity influence your understanding of the passage? What is the effect of invoking the blood of Abel, the first murder victim, when addressing witnesses in a capital case?
  • This Mishnah collects multiple answers to the question "Why was Adam, the first human being, created alone?" How would you characterize the different answers that are provided? In what ways are they different from each other? In what ways do they work together?
  • As noted above, there are different versions of the wording of this tradition. The printed version of the Mishnah and Talmud add the phrase "from Israel" though there is good evidence that this was not part of the original teaching. How does the inclusion of this phrase affect the meaning of the teaching?
  • In what ways might these teachings about the value of human life and of human diversity inform your interpersonal relationships? your decision making?
  • In what ways can institutions, policies and procedures promote the value of human life and the value of human diversity? What are the challenges to enacting these values at the institutional, communal, and societal levels?

From the Margins to the Center

גמ׳ תנו רבנן בראשונה היו מוליכין בבית האבל עשירים בקלתות של כסף ושל זהב ועניים בסלי נצרים של ערבה קלופה והיו עניים מתביישים

התקינו שיהו הכל מביאין בסלי נצרים של ערבה קלופה מפני כבודן של עניים

תנו רבנן בראשונה היו משקין בבית האבל עשירים בזכוכית לבנה ועניים בזכוכית צבועה והיו עניים מתביישין

התקינו שיהו הכל משקין בזכוכית צבועה מפני כבודן של עניים

בראשונה היו מגלין פני עשירים ומכסין פני עניים מפני שהיו מושחרין פניהן מפני בצורת והיו עניים מתביישין

התקינו שיהו מכסין פני הכל מפני כבודן של עניים

בראשונה היו מוציאין עשירים בדרגש ועניים בכליכה והיו עניים מתביישין התקינו שיהו הכל מוציאין בכליכה מפני כבודן של עניים

בראשונה היו מניחין את המוגמר תחת חולי מעים מתים והיו חולי מעים חיים מתביישין

התקינו שיהו מניחין תחת הכל מפני כבודן של חולי מעים חיים

בראשונה היו מטבילין את הכלים על גבי נדות מתות והיו נדות חיות מתביישות התקינו שיהו מטבילין על גבי כל הנשים מפני כבודן של נדות חיות

בראשונה מטבילין על גבי זבין מתים והיו זבין חיים מתביישין

התקינו שיהו מטבילין על גב הכל מפני כבודן של זבין חיים

בראשונה היתה הוצאת המת קשה לקרוביו יותר ממיתתו עד שהיו קרוביו מניחין אותו ובורחין עד שבא רבן גמליאל ונהג קלות ראש בעצמו ויצא בכלי פשתן ונהגו העם אחריו לצאת בכלי פשתן

אמר רב פפא והאידנא נהוג עלמא אפילו בצרדא בר זוזא:

GEMARA: The Sages taught: At first, when meals were brought to a mourner's house, the wealthy would use baskets of silver and gold and the poor would use baskets of peeled willow branches, and the poor were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that everyone would bring baskets of peeled willow branches for the sake of the the honor of the poor.

The Sages taught: At first, when drinks were served in a mourner's house, the wealthy use white glass and the poor colored glass, and the poor were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that all would serve drinks in colored glass for the sake of the honor of the poor.

At first they would uncover the faces of the wealthy [after death] and cover the faces of the poor--because their faces were blackened by famine--and the poor were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that everyone’s face should be covered for the sake of the honor of the poor.

At first the wealthy would take [the dead] out on a couch and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that everyone should be taken out for burial on a plain bier for the sake of the honor of the poor.

At first they would place incense under those who died with an intestinal disease, and those who were living with an intestinal disease were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that incense should be placed under everyone for the sake of the honor of those living with an intestinal disease.

At first they would ritually immerse all the utensils that had been used by women who died while menstruating, and living menstruating women were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that immersion was required for any woman who died for the sake of the honor of living menstruating women.

At first they would ritually immerse all the utensils that had been used by men with genital discharge who died, and men with genital discharge who were living were embarrassed. The Sages instituted that immersion was required for all for the sake of the honor of living men with genital discharge.

At first [the great expense of] taking the dead out [for burial] was more difficult for the relatives than the death, to the point that relatives would sometimes leave the dead and run away. But then when Rabban Gamliel treated himself in an unassuming way and was buried in linen garments, the people followed him and were buried in linen garments.

Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, it is the general practice to even use hemp that costs only a dinar.

This a long catalog of reforms instituted by early Sages to uphold human dignity is presented in the context of the Babylonian Talmud's discussion of mourning practices.

  • What categories of people do the Sages act to protect? What do these various groups have in common? How are they different from each other?
  • It is striking that the various interventions that the Sages make do not aim to change people's circumstances--ie they don't aim to redistribute wealth, or to suspend laws of impurity that fall disproportionately on menstruating women and on men with genital diseases. Why do you think the Sages don't go to greater lengths to level the playing field? What does this convey about their values?
  • Why do you think practices surrounding death are the context for these lessons about human dignity?
  • If the Sages were intervening to protect human dignity today, what reforms would they make to remove social stigma and stave off embarrassment?
  • What are some ways to uphold the dignity of people who are poor or otherwise marginalized in the context of the current pandemic? What can public policy achieve? What can individuals do? What can Jewish leaders do to bring marginalized people to the center of our concern?

Jewish teachings acknowledge that human beings' life circumstances are far from equal: Some people are poor, and some are rich. Some are healthy and some have chronic illness. Some enjoy privileges while others are beset by obstacles. In the face of all of these inequities, Jewish tradition affirms that dignity is the birthright of every human being.

The crisis of the pandemic has exacerbated inequities in society. Poor people, immigrants and refugees, working people and people of color are disproportionately falling ill, dying, and losing economic security. How can we intervene when policy decisions and social practices conspire to treat some people as more disposable than others? What changes can we make in our personal and communal lives to uphold the dignity of those who are so often consigned to the margins of communal concern?