Chapter 18, verse 5 of the book of Vayikra states, Ushmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai asher y’aseh otam ha’adam v’chai b’hem. Ani Adonai. You shall keep my laws and my rules, in pursuit of which man shall live. I am The Lord.
This verse became the rule which stipulated the cases in which a Jew should be prepared to be a martyr. According to the Babylonian Talmud [Yoma 85b], a Jew must give up his life rather than be forced to commit murder, incest, adultery or idolatry. In all other cases a Jew may, if necessary, violate the Torah in order to preserve human life. Hence, says the Talmud, in most cases, you should be able to live by following these laws and not have to die by observing them. This concept is defined in the Talmud [Sanhedrin 74a], and became known as Pikuach Nefesh. According to this rule, for example, you can violate Shabbat in order to take someone to hospital (but not to return home afterwards!) Thus, Israeli soldiers have been fighting on Shabbat (where necessary) since the time of Chanukah.
However, the twentieth century commentator Nechama Leibovitz asks, “Does this mean that you can only live if you follow the laws of the Torah”, that is to say, is life the reward for keeping these laws? And, if life is the reward for keeping these laws, what exactly is the “life” that the people who keep these laws enjoy?
Some commentators think that the word “life” means that one who keeps these laws will not die prematurely, citing the verse in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord adds length to life, but the years of the wicked will be cut short.” [Proverbs 10:27]
Rashi and Onkelos both suggest that the word “life” refers to the World to Come, since the Torah does not generally specify earthly rewards for keeping commandments. Other commentators understand the plain meaning of the text that one’s goal in keeping these laws is that one may live.
This is all well and good and defines what laws we can transgress in order to preserve life.
However, some liberal streams of Judaism have commandeered the principle of Chai B’hem to mean that, since we are commanded to live by the commandments, one may choose God’s laws and rules selectively. Hence, observing any of God’s laws that would result in the shortening of one’s life should be avoided. Understanding the verse this way might suggest that personal choice has a part to play in a person’s religious observance. For example, do you install a time switch to operate your lights on Shabbat or do you say, “The laws are for us to live by, so it is unnecessary to circumvent a law which restricts our ability to do so”
Therefore, Chai B’hem can allow us to save a soul. It might prolong our life – either this life or the next. Or it might lead us into a more liberal interpretation of Judaism, but one that we believe does us more good.
Allan Myers is a chartered Accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988, and completed a degree at Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies.