I teach Ethics at Framingham State University, and every year I place the following rabbinic moral dilemma before my students:
Judaism places a high value on life. On the one hand, the ancient Rabbis teach us that the saving of life must be placed at the top of all the commandments, superseding even the laws of the Sabbath (Yoma 84b). On the other hand, however, Satan in the Bible reminds us that “all that a man has, he will give up for his life.” (Job. 2:4). In other words, it is good to be altruistic but physiological egoism reminds us that ultimately all human beings are motivated by self-interest. So, if your life conflicts with someone else’s life, whose life should come first?
The Rabbis discuss this tension in a remarkable talmudic passage (BM 62a):
Two people, A and B, are on a deserted road, presumably far from civilization. They have only one bottle of water; if both drink, both will die; however, if A drinks, B will die, but A can reach a place where water is available and will survive. What should they do?
One scholar, ben Petura, otherwise unknown in the rabbinic literature, argued that ‘it is better that both should drink and die, rather than one cause the death of the other.’ He based his reasoning on a biblical text that states that “your brother may live with you” (Lev. 25: 35). However, Rabbi Akiba, a 2nd cent. CE scholar, perhaps a contemporary of this ben Petura, going against his colleagues maintained that “your life takes precedence over his.” That is, you should drink and let the other one die. His argument is based on his reading of the biblical text that highlights “with you.” Your life comes first.
Rabbinic scholars “use” biblical verses for their convenience, often quoting them out of context. In our case, the original verse dealt with an Israelite whose kinsman, most likely another Israelite, has financial problems and cannot pay his rent. The law states (in Lev. 25: 35-38) that you must be kind to him, i.e., not evict him, and, on the contrary, allow him to remain at your side (“live with you”) as a member of the community. But the ancient Rabbis quote this text to bolster their respective positions in the ethical dilemma mentioned above, assuming that the text is divine and therefore providing guidance for all occasions.
Even though the Talmud never resolves the ethical problem as to what is the proper behavior in our dilemma, later commentators have overwhelmingly sided with Rabbi Akiba, with three exceptions: your life comes first, yes, except in cases of murder, idolatry and incest. In these cases, you should prefer death rather than commit a heinous crime.
Ben Petura’s view is highly altruistic, but Rabbi Akiba’s position, though more self-centered, is more realistic. Isn’t this the way we have to act today when we are on a plane and the airbag comes down because of a drop in pressure? The stewardess tells us, “please put your seat belt on first, and then, attach it to your child.” The rationale is this: Your life comes first; if you can take care of yourself, you can then help others. Not the other way around.
Two caveats: 1) From the reading of the rabbinic text in the Talmud we can deduce that the position of ben Petura was dominant, “until Rabbi Akiba came and taught.” Often, there is more than one way to resolve an ethical dilemma. In this case, with the Rabbi Akiba, we see a major change in attitude.
2) The Rabbis do not “obligate” A to drink, letting B to die. They only say that your life comes first. And you should not feel guilty about it. But you may decide to sacrifice your life for another, depending on the circumstances. For example, if B is your child, most people would willingly give the bottle to the child, thus allowing the youngster to live. But what if B is your older parent? What if B is a total stranger? (In both cases, I would stay with Akiba). What if A has an acute case of cancer, and B is healthy and has a chance to survive, would B be acting morally if he /she were to take the bottle away by force? (I would say B has the right to do that).
I do not believe in absolute morality but in situational ethics. The German philosopher Kant (d. 1808) talked about “categorical imperatives;” that is, you should act in such a way so that your deed be viewed as praiseworthy and universal. I believe in this basic principle, but still allow for deviations when appropriate.
What do you think?
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University
Books by Rifat Sonsino:
FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner))
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)