Judaism teaches that the value of every human life is infinite. The Mishnaic statement: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed a world. Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved a world,” has become a popular text for activists everywhere, most recently heard in the film depicting the work of Nicholas Winton.
This statement is found in tractate Sanhedrin, in the context of judicial procedures, to remind witnesses that their testimony could cause the death of the defendant. It is an anti-capital punishment device.
Derived from the idea that the first human was the progenitor of all human beings, this shared ancestry is developed immediately afterwards. We are told that the first human was created alone so as to maintain peace among peoples, none of whom could claim a more ancient or noble bloodline. This makes a controversy about our statement all the more interesting.
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The Mishnah was redacted by the second century CE, but the earliest surviving written texts we have are medieval. Some of these have an added word miYisrael implying that the text refers only to Jewish lives. Scholars debate which is the earliest version, but I am convinced that it is the universalist text that is the earliest formulation. Besides extant ancient texts without the qualifier, Rashi’s commentary, and even the Quranic version (which retains a universal meaning), it is the context of maintaining equity and equality among peoples with a single shared root that is so powerful for me. Instead of valuing ‘our own’ more, it teaches that we have a common humanity that overrides any particular identity.
The film One Life rightly gives Nicholas Winton great credit for saving nearly 700 children and their future descendants – entire worlds indeed. But I cannot help feeling that in the glow of this telling we gloss over the many worlds that are lost.
Winton himself keenly felt the loss of the final train carrying 251 children, which was stopped from leaving on the day war was declared. Records of the Council for German Jewry meeting the Prime Minister show Jewish leaders desperately trying to save Jews already endangered in Germany. Keen not to embarrass the British Government, they limited their request to saving children, took all financial responsibility, and assured that most would emigrate. The result was the Kindertransport – separating families whose descendants were physically safe but often psychologically traumatised. It is heartbreaking to read how political and economic imperatives trumped human life then. And nothing has changed.
Saving one human life saves a potential world, but we should never forget that destroying one human life destroys a potential world. And the responsibility for that destruction weighs on us all.