I am a Catholic. I love the "whoever saves a life saves the world" passage. My daughter is a health care professional and saves many lives. Is it disrespectful for me to use [a quote of] that passage on a gift to her?
In addition to the 613 commandments (mitzvot) obligating the Jewish people, there exist seven precepts for non-Jews. Known as "The Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah" (sheva mitzvot bnai Noah), G-d holds all humanity accountable to certain basic forms of ethical behavior. What is the source of responsibility for these seven universal laws? Not the commitment made by the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, but the image of G-d in which all humanity was created. This commonality is sufficient to place moral demands upon all people, regardless of race, creed (or lack thereof), country of origin, geographic location, or economic and political circumstance. Cain was judged guilty and punished for divine disobedience, even though he wasn't present at Sinai to hear the words "Thou shalt not murder." The descendants of Noah are obligated to comply with those laws that define a person not as a Jew, but simply as a human being.
This Universality leads to the undeniable conclusion that from the Torah perspective, G-d loves all His children, be they Jewish or not. As every human being is a world unto himself or herself, the saving of a single life involves the saving of an indescribably valuable and precious world. Therefore it is eminently appropriate and fully respectful to praise your daughter, a health care professional, with the passage "whoever saves a life saves the world." And may you, her parent, rejoice in the knowledge of having raised your daughter to live such a meaningful and important life.
Thank you for your inquiry about the use of Jewish texts.It actually opens a broader issue about shared wisdom:The text you reference is from the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin (4:5).Certainly, in its original historical context (almost two millennia ago), the text was taught with a different intent.It comes amidst a conversation about how careful witnesses must be when testifying in a court case (especially a capital case) – because that testimony could mean the difference between the ruin or success, or even the life or death, of a defendant.In this context – a specifically Jewish court, with authority over only ancient Israel, in an historical era when cultures and judiciaries were much more cloistered – the actual quote is slightly different:“One who saves a single soul in Israel – it is as if s/he has saved the world entire.”(The opposite is also given:“One who destroys a single soul in Israel – it is as if s/he has destroyed the world entire.”
Of course, nowadays, the broader meaning about saving any human life is more frequently applied.This is appropriate – in an era when capital punishment is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Jewish Sanhedrin court, in an era of more global understandings of humanity, ethnicity, and in an era when cultures, nations, and religions are much more porous and interactive than in ancient times.For this reason, as a rabbi, I am PROUD that an excerpt from the long tradition of Jewish wisdom has entered a more mainstream usage.I recognize its historical origins – but the paraphrase that you intend to use is certainly honest to its original intent – that is, that Judaism regards human life as sacred, fragile, and limitless in its value.
Sadly, Jewish history has numerous accounts in which someone uses a Jewish text with the effect and intent of doing damage to the teaching’s underlying intent, or else to cause Jews to be ashamed or alienated from their own tradition, or to project a negative image of Jewish tradition to the world at-large.It is clear to me that this is not the case for your noble, thoughtful intentions.Given that you intend to uphold and project a positive application of this ancient teaching, I think it is lovely for you to use it.Indeed, part of the legacy of Judaism to be “a light unto the nations” (not the exclusive light, but a significant source of wisdom and insight) is that Jewish tradition has wisdom to share in every age and every context.Thank you for your interest in shedding this light in (perhaps) a new context!
First, I see no limitation on you to use a quote such as this one on a gift. It is thoughtful of you to be concerned about any possible disrespect, but I don’t see that as a problem in this instance.
I have railed about those who use Jewish rites and ceremonies for their own purposes, and particularly those who usurp them with the purpose of deceiving the gullible into believing that they are engaged in legitimate Jewish worship when that is not at all true (so-called ‘Jews for Jesus’ and other Messianic organizations).
However, what they do is nothing like what you are doing. You are not trying to deceive anyone with your use of this quote, you are not engaging in a non-Jewish ritual with it, and you are not intending to undermine the teachings of Judaism by your use of it. I see no problem with your desire to place it on a gift as a quote.
Frankly, I am delighted that you would wish to use this text in this fashion. It is in keeping with the idea that Judaism is intended to share whatever wisdom we have been granted with the world (and I would add, to learn from others what wisdom they have to share).
I hope your daughter appreciates the gift (and the quote) as much as you do.
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