Respect for Human Dignity Berakhot 19 and 20a

The Talmud, without much prompting, gets into a discussion today about the principle of Kavod Habriyot, Human Dignity, or more literally, the Dignity of the Creatures.

As a first reflection, we may note that this literal translation tells us something about the source of this dignity, and the meaning of the concept of createdness.  Humans are to be respected because they are created in the Divine Image.  Or, conversely, to be worthy of being created by something Divine, we must live with and exbihit dignity.  There is no such demand upon someone who wishes to see themselves as a mere cosmic or biological accident, that frame of reference gives no higher purpose to one’s life.

Moving on, we first encounter the basic principle as stated very clearly in a baraita:

Come and hear: Human Dignity is so significant that it overrides a negative prohibition of the Torah.

This is the kind of meta-halakhic utterance that we like to hear, it fits in very well with what we said about Hillel and the spirit of the Law on page 11 and also with the sense in which mitzvot are secondary to an awareness of the Divine (page 14).

And yet, challengingly, it’s not quite so simple.

There is a contradictory spirit, presented by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav, based on the verse from Proverbs 21:30 – “There is neither wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Lord”.  He interprets this to mean that negative prohibitions override concerns about honour and dignity.

The first thing to say is that this interpretation is not the simple meaning of the verse, nor does it fit with the spirit of the chapter from which it is taken.  On a simple reading, the verse rounds off a chapter about honourable and noble behaviour, about living with a passion for truth and justice.  The verse thus reads that there no alternative wisdom, understanding or counsel which will triumph over genuine fidelity to God.  But there is no sense in which this Godly imperative is to be perceived as the Torah’s explicit commandments, especially not when their context makes them seem inappropriate.  Indeed, a selection of verses from the chapter show which aspect of the Divine will is under consideration:

v3 To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.

v4 Haughty eyes and a proud heart—  the unploughed field of the wicked—produce sin.

v13 Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.

v21 Whoever pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity and honour.

This does not sound like an injunction to override human dignity, to presume to understand the Divine imperative so well that one may trample one’s fellow underfoot.  Humiliation and shame, which some of the Talmudic discussion here seems to be weighing up, seem to be way off the mark.

“That’s all very well”, I hear you say, “but is it really your business to be re-reading the verses that the Talmud uses and deciding that they are being taken out of context?  Doesn’t this approach make a mockery of the tradition, sanctioning an interpretative anarchy which will undo the foundations of the faith?”

On principle, I reject this objection.  The Talmud is given to us to study, to question, to challenge, to disagree with.  I would say that this is true of every text, but it is especially true here – the open, discursive, non resolutory style particularly demands it.  If a verse is taken out of context, if its simple meaning is perverted, then we need to know this and we need to understand why.  Otherwise we are not studying or engaging with the Torah, we are blindly and thoughtlessly following it.  In this direction lies our peril.

Moving beyond principle, in this particular case the matter is left very much unresolved.  We are left with a baraita which gives Human Dignity a huge role in overriding Torah commandments and an Amoraic teaching – albeit one who almost has Tannaitic status – which seems to run counter to it.  In classical yet frustrating style, the Talmudic flow just seems to drift away from the conflict, seeming to lose patience with resolving it.  It very much leaves it in our hands.  And perhaps this is fitting, perhaps it would go against the spirit of Human Dignity to suggest that its scope could be established once and for all, thereby closing down the discussion for future generations.

I want to be clear that the discussion is left very much open, for others have concluded that Human Dignity in fact only applies to rabbinic prohibitions, not biblical ones.  This is a thought which is raised in the discussion, but it is in no way clear that it is the conclusion of the discussion.

I believe there is space to read it in the following way:  The principle of Human Dignity is established and accepted, as a principle of the Oral Law (not merely Rabbinic Law).  The Talmudic characters engaged in discussing it were not able to support it with further proof, to find a supporting source, but that in itself does not undermine it.

To counterbalance the power of this principle, we are presented with Rav’s teaching, which suggests that we need to be wary before readily overriding the prohibitions of the Torah.  As a scholarly and political leader of the emergent and flourishing Babylonian community, we can understand his need to emphasise this.

However, lest we conclude that Rav was a hardliner who took the word of the Law severely and literally, let us counterbalance it with some of his other teachings:

“The commandments of the Torah were only given to purify men’s morals” (Genesis Raba 44).

“Whosoever hath not pity upon his fellow man is no child of Abraham” (Beitzah 32b).

“It is better to cast oneself into a fiery furnace than publicly to put to shame one’s fellow creature” (Bava Metzia 59a).

On this reading we are justified in taking the principle of Human Dignity very seriously, and in leaving room for it to override, or require re-interpretation, of certain biblical prohibitions.

If people fail to read the ‘sugya’ in this way, they are perhaps unconsciously accepting a premise of contemporary orthodoxy which anxiously prioritises the word of the Law over its spirit.  As a clinician, I view this as a defence mechanism and I respect the need to cling to it.  I will not, however, allow the truths and wisdom of my culture and civilisation to be misrepresented in this manner.

Human Dignity is great indeed, and we should look to enhance it in every way possible.  We should not simply recall it when we want to override a problematic law, but we should be seeking to increase it in ourselves, our families and our communities and to help people throughout the world whose dignity has been compromised.

In Dignity we see another aspect of the Divine, and the more intimately we can connect with that, the better we have done in enhancing Its Presence in this world.

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