In the Qur’an, after relating the story of one of Adam’s sons (Cain) killing another of his sons (Abel), this verse is given (5:32, Abdel Haleem English Version): On account of [his deed], We decreed to the children of Israel that if anyone kills a person – unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land – it is as if he kills all mankind, while if any saves a life it is as if he saves the lives of all mankind… The revelation given to Muhammad (peace be to him and his family) places all of humanity on a level, with the only distinction being between those who serve God and do good deeds and those who don’t. If any human being kills another human being – with a couple of exceptions being given – it’s the same as killing all of humanity; while any human saving any other human is the same as saving all of humanity. This is clear and straightforward.
However, the verse says that this instruction was given to “the children of Israel”; so the obvious question is where this can be found in Jewish writings. While the Mosaic Law as given in the Bible does indeed forbid murder, nowhere in the Bible can we find this prohibition – and its opposite, a command or encouragement to save life – given in these terms. Where then can it be found – or did the Jewish people actually have no knowledge of such a statement?
In the movie Schindler’s List, toward the end of the movie, the Jewish people whom Schindler had rescued presented him with a ring bearing the inscription: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.” This quotation is said to come from the Jewish Talmud, which Orthodox Judaism considers to be the true foundation of the Jewish Religion – of even greater importance than the Bible itself, because the Bible (supposedly) cannot be properly understood without the Talmud.
Well, it’s true that the Talmud does indeed contain a statement similar to the inscription on the ring; and in fact the full Talmudic quotation resembles very closely the Qur’anic statement quoted above. The only problem is, the Talmud’s statement is a bit more restrictive than the Qur’an: Sanhedrin 37a: “…whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.” That quotation is found in “Mishnah 4.5, The Babylonian Talmud, Soncino English translation, translated by Jacob Shachter, University Press, Oxford, 1935, pg. 234”, as quoted in an article by Michael A. Hoffman II, and Alan R. Critchley. While it does give evidence that the Jewish people had at some point been familiar with the statement as given in the Qur’an, it also shows what the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah wrote (Jer. 8:8, Revised Standard Version): How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the LORD is with us’? But behold the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.
That article by Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Critchley, though, was written as a response and rebuttal to someone named Dene Bebbington, who had written a challenge to their contention that Steven Spielberg had misrepresented the Talmud by giving an inaccurate quotation (making the commendation for saving a life universal, rather than restricted to saving a Jewish life). [My own take on whether or not Steven Spielberg misrepresented the matter is that it depends on whether or not the Jewish people whom Schindler saved actually gave him a ring with that inscription. If they did, then Steven just faithfully presented the story; the Jewish friends of Schindler did the ‘misrepresenting’. If they didn’t give him such a ring, and it was a bit of fiction introduced by Spielberg to make the story more interesting and heart-warming, then yes it was Mr. Spielberg who ‘misrepresented’ things. Since I don’t know whether or not that portion of the story is true, I can’t make a judgment on that matter.]
The article consists of an introduction by Michael Hoffman II giving the background of the controversy; then the challenge by Dene Bebbington, who cites an unnamed source for his information; and finally a lengthy rebuttal of Bebbington and his unnamed source by Alan R. Critchley. Having read the arguments of both sides, I can only say that it seems to me that Mr. Critchley has thoroughly destroyed the challenge by Mr. Bebbington and his source. Please read the article for yourself to get the details of the arguments of both sides, and all of the texts and other sources cited. Mr. Critchley has cited numerous editions of the Talmud, plus quotations from the highly respected Jewish theologian and philosopher Moses Maimonides, to prove the correctness of the restrictive version as the original reading, and the fact that rabbinical tradition does indeed insist on the restrictive meaning of the text. I will only seek to present the main arguments for you (in my own ‘inimitable’ way 😆 ), with a few comments of my own. This article (and one other referred to later) is the source of my information on the Talmud, so all the credit goes to the authors of the article – unless I have misunderstood and misrepresented something they say; in which case the fault is mine.
Dene Bebbington’s source says, first, that there are three different versions of the Talmudic quotation:
1. In the standard edition of the Mishnayot, the wording is: “Whoever destroys the life of a single human being [nefesh a`hat mi-bnei adam] … it is as if he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever preserves the life of a single human being … it is as if he had preserved an entire world”.
To this, Alan Critchley replied that it is rather difficult to determine which edition of the Mishnah is being referred to as “the standard edition”, inasmuch as every modern edition he can find has the restrictive reading of the statement – that is, they all read something like “a soul of Israel” or “a Jewish person” rather than “a single human being”. He then gives the appropriate quotations from the various editions of the Mishnah to prove his point. [The Mishnah (Teaching) is the first part of the Talmud, containing early rabbinic material; the second part of the Talmud is called the Gemara (Completion) and contains later rabbinic discussion of the Mishnah].
2. In the Talmud Bavli, where this mishnah appears on Sanhedrin 37a, the wording is the same, except for the substitution of “life of a single Jew” [nefesh a`hat \mi-yisrael] for “life of a single human being”.
Mr. Critchley responded to this by pointing out that his challenger has in fact completely validated the position of Michael Hoffman and Alan Critchley by making this point. You see, while there are two ‘versions’ of the Talmud – the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud – it is the Babylonian Talmud which is accepted as authoritative. Whenever there is a discrepancy between the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, it is the Babylonian which must be accepted as original and genuine. In fact, so authoritative is the Babylonian Talmud, whenever a reference is made simply to “the Talmud”, it is the “Babylonian Talmud” to which reference is being made. Alan confirmed this by quoting from a couple of Jewish sources. And where the challenger referred to “the Talmud Bavli”, “Bavli” means “Babylonian”!
3. In the Talmud Jerushalmi, Mishnah 5 is divided into subsections (Halakhot). In my edition the saying appears in Halakhot 12-13. Others divide Mishnah 5 differently: e.g. MTR locates it in Halakhah 9. It reads “destroys a single life” [ma’abed nefesh a`hat] and “preserves a single life” [meqayem nefesh a`hat]. There is no specific mention of either “human being” or “Jew”, though the former is clearly implied.
The question is: Which is the original version? Was the limitation to Jewish lives there to begin with, and then taken out as a result of Church censorship? This is suggested in the book of corrigenda, Hesronot Ha-shas.
Alternatively, was the universal formulation the original one, and the limitation to Jewish lives introduced into it at some later date, perhaps in a period when particularly severe persecution of Jews generated a justified feeling of xenophobia?
Mr. Critchley pointed out that while it is true that there are earlier editions of the Jerusalem Talmud in which the phrase “of Israel” is omitted, in the most recent (1996) edition – in which the two Talmuds are compared – the Jerusalem Talmud reads the same as the Babylonian (they both contain the restrictive phrase).
Of course, that’s really irrelevant since the Babylonian Talmud is the official version, and if there is a discrepancy it is the Babylonian which must be considered correct.
How does it happen, though, that there are variant readings of the text in which the phrase “of Israel” is either simply deleted or the phrase “of man” is substituted?
With the invention of the printing press, it obviously became possible to print large numbers of copies of the Talmud. The first public printing occurred around 1520. As a result, though, many more people were able to become familiar with it; and as the Christians of Europe learned what it said, there began to be a great outcry against its ‘blasphemies’ against Jesus Christ, his mother Mary, and its outlook on ‘Gentiles’ in general. Eventually, the Catholic Pope issued a decree to gather up all copies of the Talmud and burn them. This burning took place in 1553.
Subsequently to this burning, though, the Pope decided to permit the printing of the Talmud again, with the qualification that it be censored. Everything offensive to Christianity and Gentiles in general must be omitted or changed. (This information is derived not only from the Hoffman/Critchley article, but also from an article in the ‘Israeli’ newspaper Haaretz. If you wish, ignore the ‘editor’s note’ at the beginning, and just skip to the Haaretz article.)
The Jewish people were able to save some copies of the Talmud from the hands of the book-burning Church; but in addition they sought to get around the censoring of the new printed editions by compiling all of the deleted or changed material into a book and printing it separately. This book was called “Hesronot Ha-Shas” or “That which is removed from the Talmud”. “Shas” is an abbreviation of two Aramaic words – Shitta Sidhre – meaning “six orders” because the Mishnah has six divisions. It was this book of ‘corrections’ (“corrigenda”) to which Dede Bebbington’s source referred above when he said it ‘suggests’ that the phrase “of Israel” was original, and was deleted by the Catholic Church.
To say that this book of corrections merely ‘suggests’ that “of Israel” was the original reading is a bit deceptive, though. It not only ‘suggests’ it; it proves it. The Jewish people themselves, seeking to preserve their beloved Talmud, compiled this book, and they themselves said that “of Israel” in this Mishna is one of the things removed from the Talmud.
But the unnamed source contends that the context of the Mishnah itself strongly suggests that “of Israel” was not the original reading. In the context, reference is made to Adam (just as in the Qur’an the context of the verse is one son of Adam killing another one). He says that if the intent was to limit the statement about murder and saving life to the Jewish people, the context would not have been Adam – since all humanity descended from him – but at the very least it would have been Abraham.
However, as Alan Critchley pointed out, even though that sounds reasonable, it leaves out the fact that the rabbinic discussions in the Talmud frequently maintain dogmatically that the Gentiles are not ‘Adam’ or ‘bnei adam’ (children of Adam). This is done in several contexts, but the rabbis liked to defend that idea by referring to Ezekiel 34:31 – You are my flock, the flock of my pasture; you are men [adam], and I am your God, says the LORD God (New King James Version). See, they triumphantly proclaim, it is said that the Israelites are called ‘adam’ (man/men), NOT the Gentiles. Again, please read the Hoffman/Critchley article for detailed proof of this. So it was no problem at all for the rabbis to jump from talking about Adam to saying that “he who saves a man of Israel…”, because they entertained the perverted assurance that only Jews were human (“adam” or “children of Adam”)!
The same is true of other expressions such as “your neighbor” and “your brother”, of course. It’s all well and good to refer to a passage in the Talmud which says that the whole of the law is summed up in these two things: love God and love your neighbor; everything else is just commentary. That sounds just like Jesus Christ (peace be with him) doesn’t it? However, when you realize that the Talmudic rabbis had quite a different definition of who was their neighbor, you’ll see that the resemblance to Jesus disappears. For the rabbis, the Gentiles were emphatically NOT their neighbors or brothers!
This is why in the story of “the good Samaritan” in Luke 10:25-37, the Jewish lawyer desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” He had just himself referred to the “love God and love your neighbor” concept to explain what the law said was necessary to inherit eternal life; and Jesus had said he was correct. Do this, and you will live. This Jewish lawyer, though, thought he could evade the force of this law because he knew well that the “traditions of the elders” (also known by Jeremiah as “the false pen of the scribes”) had distorted the meaning of “neighbor”, restricting it to the Jews. Jesus’ response, though, showed the genuine meaning of ‘neighbor’ in the parable of a despised Samaritan (considered to be worse than the Gentiles by self-righteous Jewish Pharisees) who proved himself to be a ‘neighbor’ to the man who had been beaten and robbed. Jesus told the lawyer to go and be like the despised Samaritan – or to treat even Samaritans (worse even than Gentles) as his neighbors!
Finally, Mr. Bebbington’s source said that the renowned Moses Maimonides in his writings used both the Babylonian Talmud (restrictive) version and the Jerusalem Talmud (non-restrictive) version. But Mr. Critchley observes that what this person fails to mention is Maimonides’ clear and forceful statements about whom he believed Jews should help. He said that Jews ought not to help Gentiles even if the Gentiles were at the point of death. Jews were not to directly kill Gentiles (except in times of war, of course) but neither should they save them. In fact, it would not be at all wrong to actually remove the possibility of escape from Gentiles, so long as the Jew did not DIRECTLY by his own hands cause the Gentile’s death!
So even if Maimonides did on one occasion quote this Mishnah without the restrictive “of Israel” phrase, there is not a doubt in the world that he actually understood the restrictive sense to be the meaning of the Mishnah. Moses Maimonides is no help to the cause of those who wish to give the universal sense to the evil of taking life and the good of saving life.
Therefore, I believe that the close similarity of the statement of the Talmud to the statement of the Qur’an – the fact that all that’s necessary to make them the same is to remove the phrase “of Israel” from the Talmud – does testify to the correctness of the Qur’anic verse which says that God had given this revelation to the children of Israel. It really was the ‘original’ instruction of God to them.
However, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie (Jeremiah 8:8); the rabbis were making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on (Mark 7:13, RSV). The Talmud, which is just the written version of “the traditions of the elders”, does not contain the true reading of God’s instruction about taking and saving life; but it nevertheless bears testimony to the truth by the very transparency of its distortion.