Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The supreme value of human life in Jewish thought is encapsulated in the oft-repeated phrase: “Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). A slogan for the sanctity of human existence, this well-worn saying is practically manifested in the commandment of pikuach nefesh—saving a soul. Jewish legal consensus holds that religious regulations—including and especially prohibitions associated with restrictive days like Shabbat—are to be abandoned for the sake of preserving the life of someone in peril. The Talmud gives representative scenarios in which Sabbath rules can be broken, such as rescuing an infant from the sea and extinguishing a threatening blaze of fire (BT Yoma 84b). The rabbinic phrase is also regularly invoked in discussions of healthcare, human rights and other ethical concerns.
Though it is not customary to do so, one could evaluate the saying through an existentialist lens. The notion that a person constitutes a unique world is a profound comment on the relativity of human experience. We can be equated to entire worlds because we each fashion and exist within the world as we understand it. How we process information and the amalgamated situations and activities that comprise our biographies cannot be duplicated.
The world is actualized through our perceptions and interpretations; reality is in the mind of the beholder. Each one of us understands the objective universe through a combination of sensory intake, emotional cues, mental associations, personality traits, educational exposure, instinctive proclivities, personal relationships, social conditioning, genetic predispositions and so on. As a result, no two individuals share identical experiences. The world, as processed through our senses and critical faculties, belongs to us and us alone.
This can be illustrated using music. Musical sound was once touted as a universal language understood by everyone in more or less the same way. Whereas language fails to communicate beyond a fluency group, musical dialogue was imagined to be immediately discerned. This view—popular in the nineteenth century and marked by ethnocentrism, false assumptions and genuine naiveté—was eventually discarded. Not only do varying cultures and sub-cultures have distinct sound preferences, stylistic conventions and aesthetic barometers, but they also consist of individuals conditioned to react to musical stimuli in certain ways. For instance, the major and minor of the Western diatonic system induce generalized responses for people in that cultural sphere, which may or may not be present in outside groups. Moreover, even where there is musical homogeneity, like in a church or folkloric society, individual members hear music in individualized ways. An ingroup’s most popular song still passes through many ears and evokes thoughts, sentiments, images and memories specific to each participant.
It is through these shades of apprehension—musical and otherwise—that our existence takes shape. When we expire, a complex network of cognitive, emotional and functional reality perishes with us. It is tantamount to losing an entire world.
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