The book of Bemidbar/Numbers draws to a close with an account of the cities of refuge – the places set apart as shelter for those found guilty of manslaughter, that is to say, those who caused a human death, but accidentally or inadvertently, without murderous intent. The cities were havens, shelters, places of safety designed to protect manslaughterers from “blood vengeance” by a member of the family of the victim.
One detail in the legislation about the cities of refuge is particularly fascinating. Maimonides, following the Talmud, rules thus:
One who has been exiled does not leave the city of refuge at all, even to perform a mitzvah, or to give evidence in a monetary or capital case, or to save someone by his testimony, or to rescue someone from a non-Jew or a river or a fire or a collapsed building. Even if all Israel needs his help, like Joab ben Zeruyah [King David’s chief of staff], he never leaves the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, and if he leaves, he makes himself vulnerable to death. (Rotzeach 7:8)
There is a principle here that sheds much light on Judaism’s system of values. Outside the city of refuge, the person found guilty of manslaughter could be killed by the blood avenger: “But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled, and the avenger of blood finds him outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder.” (Num. 35: 26-27)
Only within the city of refuge was the manslaughterer safe. To leave the city of refuge was to put his life at risk. No one in Judaism is commanded to put his life at risk to save the life of another – even to save the entire Jewish people (“even if all Israel needs his help”). Despite the fact that Judaism is an intensely communal faith, nonetheless in Jewish law the individual takes priority over the community.
Here is another example, codified by Maimonides:
If idol-worshippers say to a group of women, ‘Give us one of your women for immoral purposes, or we will violate you all’, they must all allow themselves to be violated rather than hand over one Jewish soul. Similarly, if idol-worshippers say, ‘Give us one of you and we shall kill him, or else we will kill you all’, they must all allow themselves to be killed rather than hand over one Jewish soul. (Yesodei haTorah 5: 5)
On the face of it, the law is illogical. The refusal to collaborate with tyranny by handing over a victim, will not save the victim. She will be violated, or he killed, whatever the group chooses to do. Why then must they all allow themselves to be mistreated? The key difference is between active and passive, between what a person does and what is done to him. An entire group must passively allow itself to be assaulted rather than actively sacrifice a single one of their number. Again, the rights of the individual take priority over the welfare of the group.
A third example is exemption from military service (in the case of a milchemet reshut, a non-obligatory war; the exemptions do not apply in the case of a war of self-defence):
The officers shall say to the people: “Has anyone built a new house and not dedicated it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may dedicate it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her . . .” (Deut. 20: 5-7)
Wars are fought for the sake of the nation as a whole. The exempt categories refer to individuals who have not yet had the chance to enjoy something important to them. Again we see that the private good overrides the public good.
At stake in these and many other examples is the supreme importance, in Judaism, of the individual. This is how a famous Mishnah puts it:
Man was created alone to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul is as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single life is as if he had saved a complete world. Also [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among human beings, so that one could not say to the other, ‘My father was greater than yours’ . . . And also to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, for if a person makes many coins from one mould, they are all the same, but the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, made every person in the stamp of the first man, yet not one of them is identical to another. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created from my sake. (M. Sanhedrin 4)
In these words, we feel the full revolutionary significance of the first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous declaration that the human being is in the image and likeness of G-d – the single most radical consequence of monotheism. The concept of G-d, singular and alone, gives rise to the concept of the human person, singular and alone. This is the birth of the individual in Western civilization.
It goes without saying that this was unknown in the pagan world. More worthy of attention is the difference between biblical ethics and those of ancient Greece. In Greece the highest value was the polis, the group. Ethics was a code of devotion to the city (Athens, Sparta). The supreme glory was heroism in the field of battle, or the willingness to die for the city’s sake: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (‘It is pleasant and proper to die for one’s country’). The group takes precedence over the individual. That is the fundamental difference between Greek and Jewish ethics.
One thinker who reflected deeply on this was the late Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1882-1945), Chief Rabbi of Antwerp and later of Tel Aviv. In his Ha-tzedek ha-soziali veha-tzedek ha-mishpati shelanu (translated as Ethics and Legality in Jewish law), he pointed out two consequences of the Jewish emphasis on the individual. On the one hand, it was vital to Jewish survival in exile. Jews were always a minority, and the minority usually conforms to the majority. Had this been the case among Jews, there would be no Judaism today. Jews, however, have had a long history of valuing the individual over the group. Jews did not bend to the majority. The one did not give way to the many.
But the very attribute that was a source of strength in exile could also be a source of weakness at times of Jewish national sovereignty:
In order to enforce order, there must be some denial of the individual’s rights in society, or sacrifice of the private to the public good. No government or political order in the world can always benefit every individual. Every form of government must strive for the public good, and if the individual must occasionally suffer, there is no great harm done. But the Jewish national character cannot bear this, for Jewish ethics preaches the absolute freedom of the individual, which cannot be abrogated on behalf of society.
This gives rise to the fractious nature of Jews as a group:
Everyone considers himself qualified to judge the judges, and sets up his own altar, not accepting any authority. If Jews are more prone to these faults than the rest of mankind, it is also the result of this outlook – that society exists for the sake of the individual. Thus every individual allows himself to separate from society, until there are an endless number of parties and splinter groups. This in turn generates much baseless hatred.
Can a civilization that grants supreme significance to the individual, flourish as a collective entity, a self-governing nation? That is the great question of Jewish history, then and now.