Torah Knowledge For Non-Jews Vol. 1
1. Introduction to the Noahide Laws
Murder is the most destructive crime one person can commit against another. The effect of this crime is permanent and for the penitent only his or her own death can, in part, remove this stain on the human soul.
From the modern worlds view point it is not always clear what ought to be characterized as murder. Part of the problem is the common mistranslation of thou shalt not "kill", which is more general than "murder." Leading to pacifism, as well as the prohibition of death penalties, which is surely not sound from the Torah viewpoint, this misunderstanding is part of the confusion over what constitutes murder.
Although it is clear that murder is a great evil no matter what perspective you come from, your perspective will determine what is and is not murder. Murder is as relative as style without divine revelation. Anthropologists recognize moral relativity in cannibalistic cultures where eating members of competing tribes is not considered murder, but eating members of one’s own tribe is.
Moral relativism has brought to the surface an issue recognized by the Sages of Israel. Human reason although a powerful tool does not, on its own, reveal absolute moral truths. Only divine revelation can establish absolute moral truth. The exception is with the first two of the ten commandments: That God exists, and His Unity-which the Rambam claims are the only two commandments that human reason, unaided by revelation, are capable of learning on its own.1
Although it may seem as if this is incorrect because it is very naturally understood what murder means, but we must realize that we know what murder is because our culture has been shaped, in many ways, by the Tanach. We begin with generally correct notions. However, because our culture is becoming increasingly secular defining murder outside of the Tanach has become increasingly popular.
The popularity of secular reasoning has lead to an ambiguous definition of murder. The ethical discussion of murder has taken many strange turns. Most notable of the debates on the definition of murder is coming from the Abortion front (we will cover that later in this paper). Essentially “moral truth” is determined through voting.
It must be admitted that absolute moral truths are only truly known through revelation. God alone can tell us what is good and bad. We see that human beings are capable of mixing things up—sometimes intentionally.2 Human reason27 is not up to the task of determining moral truth. We must look to God for guidance. According to Judaism God’s guidance exists in a very practical format-Halachah.
Murder versus killing
There are two primary categories of death caused by humans to other humans. The first is killing and the other is murder. Killing, although not good, is distinct from murder in that it does not have the judgment of evil that murder does. Killing involves issues of self-defense, certain kinds of wars, and executing criminals. Murder is the intention of stealing the life of one human being for reasons not recognized as tolerable by God. Under Murder we find abortion, euthanasia, putting someone in harms way and so forth. There are wars where the killing is considered murder and is not excusable as simply killing as it might be for legitimate wars.
The heinousness of murder compels us to understand it in all of its facets. Controversy in our world over what is and is not murder surrounds us. Allowing the innocent to die because we do not correctly acknowledge acts of murder is reprehensible. It is our duty to understand what murder is.
Killing, although not good, is sometimes necessary. We will examine a variety of categories of types of killing and we will learn where killing is “allowed” and where it is not.
War is perhaps the best example of killing that may not be murder. However, war is also an excuse, often, for murder. Killing in a war is morally wrong when the object of that war is not just. If it is a grab for power or money or some other unjust reason killing in war is murder. A war may be just but individuals can still commit acts of murder. [while this is OK as far as it goes, it is NOT clear; it raises perhaps as many questions as it answers.]
If a person is attacked he has every right to protect himself. However, just because a person is attacked they do not have complete freedom to kill their attacker. Even if the attacker’s intent was to kill their victim this does not open the door to killing the attacker if you can stop the attacker by destroying one of his limbs then that is how he must be stopped. If there is no alternative then you are allowed to kill to protect your life or the life of someone else.
Abortion is the most controversial issue in America today. Supreme Court Nominees are interrogated on this issue. On college campuses across the nation students participate in debates on this subject. Probably the most difficult aspect of the debate is that it is very emotional—on both sides.
Members in the pro-choice camp claim that the issue centers around a woman’s right to choose. They offer several reasons that the woman’s right to choose supercedes the child’s right to live. The question comes down to an ethical one. This is one reason that so much energy has been focused on the question of whether or not a child in the mother’s womb is a human being.
Several suggestions have been made to determine if the child has a right to life or if it is nothing more than a collection of pre-human tissue that can be destroyed-much like the egg yoke of an egg is not yet a chicken.
Without revelation the question of when human life begins is open to debate.3 We can certainly determine when biological life begins-and that’s almost immediately. Whether or not the biological mass of tissue is human or not is probably a question science cannot answer, depending on what is meant by “human.”
Engaging the ethical debate on human life, the fetus, and what murder is is a complex issue. When debating this argument from a human perspective without revelation the answer to the question can go either way ethically. Ethics not based on God is not ethics it is custom and etiquette. Secularized ethics is as unpredictable and changing as popular fads in music and society.
The question that must concern us is what is God’s opinion on this issue? Only by engaging the question from this perspective can we hope to find the true answer to this question.
There are times when abortion is permitted according to Halachah. That time is when it is a matter of life or death. If a woman is about to give birth and it turns out that by having the child the mother will die she is obligated to have an abortion. This brings us to a complex issue. Why is the mother commanded to have an abortion versus allowing the child to be born? How can we decide which life is more valuable? Shmot4 gives a scenario where a pregnant woman finds herself in between two men while they are fighting. In the first scenario she miscarries and the culprit is “fined,” but in the second scenario she is killed. The second scenario is punished like a murder case, while the first scenario is addressed through monetary compensation. Why the difference? A baby before its head exits the birth canal is considered a potential life. To go even further the child is considered to be like the woman’s thigh, i.e., a part of her body!
This is astonishing considering pro-choice proponents have long made the same claim. According to them the baby is like a part of the woman’s body and therefore she may do with it as she sees fit! It is interesting that both Jewish Law and pro-choice begin at the same point (that the baby is like the woman’s body), but they come to two very different conclusions.
One might wonder why the Sages of Israel did not conclude that abortion was okay. Remember, the baby has the status of potential life.
The Sages drew a very different conclusion because the Oral Torah is clear on this issue. If a baby is like a part of the woman’s body (her thigh), then how would most people react to one of their limbs being cut off? In truth, only a life or death situation will cause people to choose to cut off a limb. Although there are some who even risk death rather than part with a limb!
Even more than that, the baby is still a potential life. If someone is going defend the removal of their limb, which they can live without, it would seem even more they would defend the child growing in the mother’s womb.
It is only when the (potential) life of the baby threatens the (actual) life of the mother that an abortion becomes an acceptable solution. However, once the baby’s head exits the birth canal the mother and baby are equally alive. That means that the situation becomes one life versus another. Since neither baby nor mother’s life is more valuable we are not allowed to choose one life over another.
Some would argue that a Noachide is never allowed to perform an abortion whether the mother’s life is in jeopardy or not. To defend this claim they site a certain understanding of “rodef” or pursuer (lit. someone who is trying to kill another person) as support for this position. It seems clear that the Torah’s approach to abortion is not nearly as black and white as it is with Christians. However, we must appreciate on this issue at least Christians (and Muslims) are on the right page.
Abortion under certain circumstances is a heinous crime-it is murder. The abortion issue is a very emotional one, but emotion does not remove our responsibility. What it does do is create a more sympathetic and caring ear to our fellow-or it should.
Suffering is one of the most difficult things for many of us to ignore. The idea that a person must suffer and that is somehow pleasing to God is hard to swallow. There is no other issue that brings this issue to the front more than euthanasia.
Euthanasia is a procedure where we end a person’s life with the "excuse of mercy.” This is one way that it is presented although it is also used to relieve the suffering (often economic but also emotional) of family whose loved ones languish in bed, comatose, never able to wake.
Euthanasia is another very emotional subject. In America it is an issue almost as hotly debated as abortion. However, it is slightly different from abortion in that there is often choice involved in the decision to end a life. Usually it is the decision of the person suffering to end their life. If the argument “my body my choice” works for abortion then it certainly works for euthanasia.
As to those who are unable to make this decision it lay at the feet of their loved ones who now make a very hard decision. The moral defense for their action “the person is better off,” or like the mother considering abortion who feels it unfair that such a responsibility be thrown on them especially when economically it does not seem that they are capable of carrying the burden, the good of the family member is primary to that of the person who is sick. None of these are reasons according to the Torah.
Allowing a Person to remain in peril
According to Hilchot Melachim5 a person who directly places another person in peril is just as guilty of murder as the intentional murderer. If someone puts another in a state of peril as a result of an action, a person bound or trapped before a dangerous animal for example, it is the individual and not the animal that is guilty for murdering the person.
1. Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, p. 222
2. “Woe to those who call evil *good,* and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter…” (Isaiah 5:20).
3. For More information see “Philosophy, Reason and Revelation”—coming soon
4. The Oral tradition is very clear that “A gentile who slays a human being, even a fetus in its mothere’s womb, must be executed [in retribution] for its [death]. Hilchot Melachim 9:4.
5. Exodus 21:22