An Ancient Ethical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Moral Implications

Image result for shipwreck holding on to a plank pictures images

 Another one of the most interesting questions found in the Talmud dealing with the matter of human survival in a hostile environment where the possibilities of survival remain limited. [1]

Two are walking on the road. In the hand of one of them is a canteen of water. If they both drink-both will die. If only one drinks—he will reach his destination alive. Ben Petura contends that it is better for both to drink and die, rather than for one to see the death of his fellow. This was the accepted teaching until Rabbi Akiba came and interpreted the verse from “That thy brother may live with thee,” (Leviticus 25:36), i.e., “your life precedes the life of your fellow.” [2]

There is an interesting parallel to the Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba debate that may be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, who cites the Stoic philosopher Hecataeus, regarding two equally wise men who survived a shipwreck and were holding to the same wooden spar that was capable of supporting one of them. The question posed was this: Should one relinquish his hold and save the other, and if so, which one? The Stoic thinkers reasoned that the decision had to be made based on the individual’s utility to society. The person whose objective value is less to the republic has the duty to sacrifice himself for the more “valuable” citizen. [3]

Lest we think this discussion has no relevance for our modern age, think again. When the famous Titanic sunk in 1912, 1,514 people drowned out of a total 2,224 people on board – impacted mostly the lower class passengers it’s now revealed by experts who point to the very rich as being saved first over women and children–according to Don Lynch, the historian of the Titanic Historical Society.

Yes, first class has its benefits.

This Stoic position disagrees with both Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba, for at no point in their deliberations does the utilitarian value of the individual ever come into play in the Talmudic discussion regarding the canteen of water.

Beyond that, it is important to note that Ben Petura does not say that say that the owner of the canteen is obligated to relinquish his portion of the water to save the life of his fellow—only that they must share it.  One could surmise that according to Ben Petura the fact that we have two human beings in need of water for their survival, respecting the image of God demands that one must do his best to preserve the life of his fellow while not endangering his own life in the process for perhaps both individuals will forage their way to civilization in the nick of time.  Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, seems to think that the individual has the responsibility to preserve one’s own life, for who is to say that the life of his neighbor is more important than his own?

Inevitably, the Ben Petura/Rabbi Akiba controversy invites comparison to yet another perspective championed by Jesus in the first century, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man gives up his life for his friends”  (John 15:13). Every act of heroism and self-sacrifice epitomizes the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching. Ben Petura beckons us to rise above self-interest. I for one do not believe Jesus recommended that someone must morally sacrifice himself to save another’s life; rather, in real life, we see people like soldiers falling on hand-grenades to save their platoon; firemen running into blazing buildings to rescue human–and sometimes even animal life! Heroism can never be commanded, but those who unilaterally give themselves to save others–they are truly deserving of our praise because they remind us why the heroes of our society are very special.

Ultimately, nobody in an ethical dilemma is going to say, “Time out! I need to look this up in the Code of Jewish Law!” Rather the problems we examined call for a response from our conscience.

Like philosopher Emmanuel Levinas observes, “the human face commands us to respond ethically toward our neighbor.”  In short, it is my opinion that Ben Petura’s view offers a more enlightened ethical view and in practice, the halacha has almost invariably followed Ben Petura rather than Rabbi Akiba.


Notes:

[1]   BT  Baba Metzia 62a, Sifra, ed. Weiss, Behar VI, p. 109 c.

[2] Ben Petura’s view does definitely not represent the typical  Jewish outlook on life and love that is later expressed in rabbinic literature; in fact, Ben Petura’s opinion reminds us of the Christian interpretation of love which claims to be universal. It, therefore, does not come as a complete surprise that some scholars have expressed the opinion that Ben Petura is, in fact, a corruption of the name Ben Pandora or Ben Pantera. Pandora or Pantera is the name of Joseph, the father of Jesus. (See Targum 11 on the scroll of Esther ) If so, it is quite possible that Ben Petura is none other than Jesus himself (See also Tosefta Chullin 2:22,24)! In that case, the Talmud states both opinions so as to counteract early Christian interpretations of the Torah.

[3] Cited from Ephraim E. Urbach,  The Halakhah: The Sources and Development  (Jerusalem: Masada Lmtd. Yad LaTamid 1986), p. 204.

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