The Very Idea of a Soul, Confronting the Soul/Body Conundrum: Thinking In Jewish 38
Therefore man was created singly in the world, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, it counts as if he destroyed a full world; and whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved a full world.
On the surface, the Mishnah demands that human life is a precious commodity; each and every life, Jewish and Gentile, is of significant import. From this springs the very idea that every human being is responsible for the life of every other human being, what Levinas described as an ethical imperative. The Jewish idea of the soul, nefesh in Hebrew, is grounded in the centrality of the individual living among others who are simultaneously of central importance. It is a concept grounded in the here and now unlike Christian or Muslim concepts that ground the soul in the eternal afterlife. No, the Jewish idea of the soul may be described as being present rather than being anticipatory. There is a concept that blood is the nefesh, leading to the very idea that the soul is only viable in the living bodily experience of existential being. This very idea is captured in the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh, watching out for the soul. Under Jewish law, nearly every law may be broken on the Sabbath if life or death are involved.
Jews, with some minor exceptions, are not fond of martyrdom. A mere three Mosaic laws are worth dying for: idolatry, illicit sexual intercourse and bloodshed. Better to give up your own life or the life of the other than transgress these three commandments. Each of these prohibitions have their own problematic, specifically in terms of defining exactly what is meant by each term but the thrust of the prohibition is stark and compelling. Jews choose life rather than death. But the strength of the pikuach nefesh is its inherent flexibility when human life is at stake. At its core, the pikuach nefesh refuses to worship martyrdom and ignores the promise of some unknown reward or punishment in the afterlife by clinging to the flesh and blood of life itself.
There is a second meaning in the Mishnah quoted above, that of the responsibility for “saving one soul, it counts as if he saved the full world.” As I indicated earlier, Emmanuel Levinas understood that ethics comprised the first philosophy, more important than all other philosophical questions; that all ethics boils down to a single principle that one is personally responsible for the welfare of the other [person] without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. This fundamental idea is deeply embedded in the textual historicity of Judaism. It is found in Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In Abraham’s argument with God regarding the destruction of Sodom and the finding of righteous men in the city. In Mordechi’s and Esther’s intrigue to save the Jewish people from Haman’s plan to destroy the Jewish people. There are many more examples that a short post will not allow. The underlying principle here is that every soul, every nefesh, is a full and complete world and that every other nefesh is complete and different from all others. As a secular Jew I claim this legacy in the sense that each of us, each and every one of us, is a singular, unrepeatable, irreplaceable piece of mankind, one singular part of a whole. Once gone, that life is gone forever. It, therefore, every one of us is responsible for every other one of us.
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