‘Celui qui sauve une vie, sauve l’humanité entierè” (“Whoever saves a life, saves all of humanity”) is the headline of an interview with the son of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the prototype of the hero of the movie “The Pianist,” in the December 19 issue of the French Jewish weekly Tribune Juive. This noble sentiment, Andrzej Szpilman told his interviewer, “is what Jewish tradition teaches,” and many of you, I am sure, have encountered it in English, most likely in the form of “Whoever saves a life, saves an entire world.” Indeed one often hears these words nowadays as a sterling example of Jewish tradition’s message of human brotherhood.
Alas, would that Jewish tradition were so simple! The Hebrew original of the phrase reads slightly differently. It can be found in the fourth chapter of the mishnaic tractate of Sanhedrin, and it goes, “Therefore, Adam was created singly, in order to teach us that whoever destroys a Jewish life [nefesh mi’yisra’el] is said by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a Jewish life is said by Scripture to have saved an entire world.” The word “Jewish” — mi’yisra’el — rather complicates things. When it’s included, Judaism doesn’t seem quite as much into human brotherhood.
No doubt that’s why the word is so often omitted. And this of course raises an important question. Is it omitting it an acceptable way of refining a nearly 2,000-year-old saying in order to tease out its implicitly universalistic meaning? Or is it, on the contrary, mealy-mouthed and hypocritical, a dishonest denial of Jewish particularism in the name of something for which Judaism historically never stood?
Let’s look at the Sanhedrin passage. It occurs in a rabbinic discussion of the different court procedures used for trying capital and non-capital cases. (I should point out that, in rabbinic law, capital and non-capital, rather than criminal and civil, are the two comprehensive categories, since — there being no such thing in rabbinic jurisprudence as imprisonment — any offense not punishable by death, from breach of contract to physical assault, is punished by a fine or financial restitution.) In a court case that might result in the death penalty, the Mishna tells us, apart from there being more stringent rules of evidence, the witnesses must be warned in advance of the grave consequences their testimony may have. This warning has a prescribed form and begins with the reminder that when someone is put to death, not only does he cease to exist, but all the descendants he might have had in the future are denied existence, too. There follows the sentence quoted above about saving and destroying Jewish lives, after which the passage continues:
It is noteworthy that the Mishna says “every single person is required to say” (kol adam ve’adam h.ayyav lomar), not “every single Jewish person.” Yet this also creates an inconsistency, since whereas at first the witnesses are warned specifically about saving Jewish lives, they are then admonished about the uniqueness of all human beings, whether Jewish or not. Is this inconsistency a real one, indicating an inner tension between the particularistic and universalistic tendencies of Jewish tradition, or is it merely apparent?
The answer is, I think, that while such a tension does exist in Jewish tradition, we do not find it in this passage from the Sanhedrin. There is no real inconsistency here. On the one hand, the reason that the witnesses are exhorted to save specifically Jewish lives is that only Jews could take part in a rabbinic trial, inasmuch as the rabbis of the mishnaic period, i.e., of the early centuries of Roman rule in Palestine, did not have the authority to try non-Jews or to summon non-Jewish witnesses. But on the other hand, God is the Creator of Jews and gentiles alike, and therefore every human being is required to say, “The world was created for me.” When it comes to the uniqueness of each of us, the rabbis make no religious distinction.
And for this reason, too, although generally speaking I am for quoting texts as accurately as possible, I do not think that omitting the word “Jewish” from “Whoever saves a Jewish life, saves an entire world” is dishonest or misleading. On the contrary, it would be misleading to leave it in, since such a rendition would falsely suggest to the casual listener that, in the eyes of the rabbis, non-Jewish lives do not matter. As every translator knows, there are times when being faithful to a text’s real meaning calls for being unfaithful to its literal one.
The fourth chapter of the Mishna of Sanhedrin is talking about human brotherhood. Case against dropping “Jewish” dismissed.