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
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?
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
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
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?