Torah For TodayWith Rabbi Anthony Knopf

What does the Torah say about…the sanctity of life?

The recent manslaughter of Andrew Young, an autistic man, and the dismissal of the seriousness of the crime by the killer’s mother, with the words: “it’s no big deal”, raises the question of Judaism’s approach to the sanctity of human life.

In the Jewish world view, man’s stature is partly a result of his having been created by Hashem. A person who kills another human being has extinguished a life that was brought into being by God. This is something that can never be trivialised.

On another plane, the sanctity of human life is rooted in the fact that the Torah tells us man was not merely created, but was formed “in the image of God”. This means there is something about a human life that is a reflection of the Divine.

The 19th Century thinker, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin, explains this concept in terms of the capacity of human beings for free will.

Man is not a robot, programmed to perform good deeds. This means the good deeds that are performed have so much value.

A human’s choice to opt for good rather than bad is one of the most potent expressions of Hashem’s goodness in this world.

A contemporary of Rav Tzadok, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, relates his thesis on the pure creation of man in the image of God, near the end of his commentary to the Torah. In Rav Meir Simcha’s view, man was created with an inner purified sense of justice and morality. Each time a person dies, their spark of goodness is, at least on some level, lost from the world.

According to 20th Century thinker, Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, man’s distinction lies, not only in his nature, but in his role in this world.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that man was bidden to complete God’s creation, to serve the function of God by perpetuating humanity.

When a human being fulfils his purpose in life, he does not merely resemble Hashem but, rather, steps into God’s shoes and fills His role.

Each human being has a role to play in bringing about God’s vision for the world.

That is why the loss of each human life is a tragedy.

In ancient cultures, the value of human life was measured on the basis of how useful that person was to society. Against that trivialisation of human life, Judaism speaks with a clear voice.

Human life is precious because mankind was created by God to express His goodness in the world and to work towards a vision of the world as one permeated with Divine goodness.

• Anthony Knopf is the rabbi of Camps Bay Shul, Cape Town