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If killing is wrong, why do we kill murderers?

The Jew's Double Standard

The Jew's Double Standard

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A time to kill, a time to heal
A time for war, a time for peace

Ecclesiastes 3:3,8

Double standards are supposedly unethical. Yet Judaism — the ethos contained in the Bible and expounded by the sages of Israel — abounds with double standards. In fact, these double standards are at the heart of how we live and what we have taught the world — and at the heart of what makes an ethical person.

One example of an ethical double standard is the different ways in which we regard tragedy, depending on who is the victim. When something bad happens to myself, the Torah tells me to trust in G‑d's help, justify His ways, and examine my ways for what I might have done wrong so that I may learn a lesson from what occurred. Which are precisely the things I'm not supposed to do regarding someone else's troubles. (See When Bad Things Happen.)

Another Jewish double standard — also relating to a difference in how we treat ourselves and how we treat others — is the potential/actuality question. Briefly stated, we're supposed to judge ourselves by what we've actually achieved, and judge others by what they're capable of achieving. (For more on this, see this essay.)

But perhaps the most fascinating — and important — double standard in Judaism is in the way we apply the Divine commandment "Do not kill."

Much has been written on the infinite value that the Torah places on every individual life. After the concept of monotheism (from which it derives), this is the most revolutionary idea which the Jew has introduced to mankind — "revolutionary" in the sense that it flies in the face of everything everyone previously believed (as indeed in the face of common sense), and "revolutionary" in the way it has transformed the face of civilized society.

Placing an infinite value on every human life means an utter rejection of any "scale" by which to quantify and qualify its worth. The life of an infant with disabilities has the same value as that of the wisest person on earth. An 80-year-old "vegetable" cannot be sacrificed to save the life of a 20-year-old genius. The Talmud tells the story of a man who was threatened by the hoodlum that ran his city that he'd be killed unless he kills a certain person. The great sage Rava told this man: "What makes you think that your blood is redder than that person's blood?"

Torah law goes so far as to rule that an entire city cannot be saved by giving up a single individual. Because each and every life is of Divine — and therefore infinite — significance. Ten thousand infinities aren't any "more" than one infinity.

(For further discussion of this principle see: The Sacred and the Good, What's So Terrible About Idolatry, The Practical Implications of Infinity, and The First Commandment.)

In light of the above, it is surprising to find the following law in the Torah (derived from Deuteronomy 22:26): Habah l'hargecha hashkem l'hargo — "If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first." (This law applies equally to someone coming to kill someone else — you're obligated to kill the murderer in order to save his intended victim.)

This law seems to contradict the principle of life's infinite value. If no life can be deemed less valuable that any other, what makes the victim's life more valuable than the murderer's life? Furthermore, this rule applies to anyone who is "coming to kill you" — he hasn't even done anything yet! Maybe he won't succeed? Maybe he'll change his mind? Nor does the law say anything about trying to run away. It says: If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first.

The same Torah that tells us that G‑d placed a spark of Himself in every human being, thereby bestowing upon his or her physical existence a G‑dly, infinite worth — that same Torah also tells us that G‑d has granted free choice to every person. Including the choice — and the power — to corrupt his or her G‑d-given vitality and turn it against itself, using it to destroy life. A person can choose to turn himself into a murderer — someone who is prepared to destroy life in order to achieve his aims. In which case he is no longer a life, but an anti-life.

To kill an anti-life is not a life-destroying act, it is a life-preserving act. It is not a violation of the commandment "Do not kill," but its affirmation. Without the law, "If someone is coming to kill you, rise against him and kill him first," the principle of life's infinite value is nothing more than an empty slogan, a mere idea.

Judaism is not an idea. It is a way of life — G‑d's ideas made real.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of Chabad.org
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brett canada December 31, 2015

kill or murder? I thought the command was "do not murder". Is there not a different meaning to "murder" and "kill"? I thought they were two different Hebrew words with two different meanings? I don't think we can blur the clear distinction between murder and kill, or else we do end up double minded. Reply

Eytan Ben Y'sra'el December 8, 2017
in response to brett:

You are correct, the Hebrew translation is "You shall not murder". There is a difference between murder and killing someone. I actually just taught a lesson on this subject 2 weeks ago. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA December 17, 2015

For creation, there is both free will and/or predestination. As we approach predestination, we approach Hashem’s ideal for reality; the answers are easy, the study is pleasant, and the blessings are great. It is all about unity!
Differently, those in rebellion with Gd “flee before us in seven directions,” meaning that they are anything but united. Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com December 17, 2015

Wow! Some of that stuff in Genesis doesn't seem like much mercy to me. Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com December 16, 2015

Well, in fact, I agree that we were not given free will. However, I think we never had it and don't now have it. I believe life is random and that we live in a deterministic world; sort of like Einstein believed only I'm nowhere near as swift as he was. I think there is a "he" and there is a "she" and I have no idea what a root level is. As for gender determination, it seems to me that gender--if I understand its usage--occurs through the living world be it plant life or animal life. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA December 16, 2015

Hashem gave Torah so that each of us does not have to invent the wheel again. It is a Law of mercy! The way it goes is that parents and teachers tell our youth how to behave according to the way we know the world works, and then as young adults they rebel and then hopefully they come back to traditional values. Woe is the teacher or parent who failed to bring back their youth to tradition. Reply

eli feruch malchut December 16, 2015

To Jerry:
We were not given free will. We just obey your environment pressure, wherever we incarnate, and think we have free will. Free will exists but is not given in the birth package. Takes a lot of toil just to discriminate the path to fee will.

There is no "he" or "she" at the root level.Genders are a low differentiation occurring in this world. With respect to spirituality, we are all, males and females, females. A sign of this is the fact that every embryo develops an uterus. Then it regresses with males embryo. Samely, the male hormones metabolic chaining is just the female one, not reaching the end of metabolization.

Genders is a low, earthly differentiation. From there, the reason why He is a "He" and His daughter a "She": this can not be explained in a few lines. Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com December 15, 2015

To Craig Hamilton: Why is acceptance of G-d on His terms? Why should that be if we were given free will? Can we not closely examine the world that was given us and determine for ourselves whether we can or should or will accept G-d on His terms; and by the way, how do we know G-d is a Him, instead of a Her or an It? Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com December 15, 2015

I don't see any slippery slope to atheism; but then, I don't see any slippery slope to a belief in Wicca, or Buddhism, Or Islam, or Catholicism or all other forms of Christianity or Judaism. And although I haven't read a lot of Dawkins' writings (some but not a lot of them), from reading what you wrote, I am not able to spot the error in Dawkins' views. They're his views and he's holds them firmly, which is what I do with my views and what you do with yours. Fair enough. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC via chabadsp.com December 2, 2015

A Jew is a Jew Our Judaism exists on the essential level. It is in our soul. Therefore, regardless of one's level of observance or belief system, a Jew is a Jew. Torah instructs us to align all parts of our faculties and actions with that which exists on the soul level, but even when that is sadly not in sync, the Neshama is always there and the Jew remains a Jew... Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 17, 2015

Re: Jerry - Ubiquitous Cosmological Evidence of G-d Still Not Enough for Some! Atheism is a slippery slope. The atheists of this age, Dawkins for one, reject Gd because they all have an opinion of how Gd should be. That is their first error. Consequently, Dawkins concludes that in atheism he has found is remarkable “grandeur,” but then he deems that nature too horrible for a deity to create!
That should seem like a verifiable contradiction.
Do you see the error of Dawkin’s logic? He teaches that if there is no Gd, and something becomes created, then surely it is worthy of remarkable praise, but if Hashem creates the same thing, then it is backward and morally corrupt, all because there was that first a delusion about the nature of the activities of Gd. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 16, 2015

Re: Jerry – On Parenting Acceptance of Gd, as He is on His terms, and not on your opinion of how G-d should be, is one of most important acts anyone can do.
Slavery in Egypt, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, etc. - IMO these sorts of things have been Gd’s way of raising up the new crops of Jews to be better than just mediocre, but to be the feared as the leaders of the world. We need leaders and Hashem is a leader maker, in turn making us proud parents because great leaders are rare.
When the time comes, the intermarriage plague will somehow bring blessing. I don’t know how though.
I know that is true not only because our parents raise us, but because we have a loving and compassionate Gd raising us as well. Like how Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, but never did, Hashem is on our side to make us great! Reply

Eli feruch Malchut November 6, 2015

Iov When He saw Satan coming at Him, He knew that Satan would ask Him to destroy Israel. he also knew (talking about knowledge) that Satan's fle were solid and that his case against Israel was solid. So Before Satan could speak, He tricked him:
"look at my good servant Iov.." still at the end it was OK for everyone in the real world.

Right after the morning prayer a Jew needs to consider being as an "atheists" Then at night , he says: It is You who did it all.
(rav Yehuda ashlag) Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com November 6, 2015

Eli Feruch wrote that G-d is "totally present everywhere...." So then He must have been present before and during the Holocaust. If so, that leads to the obvious concern" G-d knew about the Shoah but did nothing to prevent it nor to stop it. Fair disclosure: I am an atheist. However, I was born a Jew, lived my life as a Jew, will die as a Jew and be buried as a Jew. Can a Jew be an atheist such as I? Why not? Reply

Dr Th. Albert Giad Gilly October 31, 2015

B'H
The whole of the debate is complicated to the point it turns into a spin:
For which reason of ever we shall listen to those who speak in the ears of our enemies? Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com October 30, 2015

I have no idea if it's true that Christians are posting on this list; but it's kinda neat if they are. Maybe they will finally learn a few things about their own religion since apparently they can't learn it in their churches. Question: But do they have to stand on one foot? Reply

Eli feruch malchut October 30, 2015

He does noThing. He does not need to. He is perfect. invariant. totally present everywhere. He permeates everything, every form. Everything is ready for the bifg feast. There was the thought of creation, and then the act of creation. and this was done all at once, forever. The shop is open and the shop owner s absent. Everyone can take what he needs, for free. Everyday the collector visit us. and his file is solid. And the judgement is true. The rules were set all at once. if we feel that there is suffering, while floating in The utter perfection and the honor of His kingdom, there is only one valid explanation, which is the corruption of our senses, of our vessels. called shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. The only way to correct this situation is the path of Torah and mitzvot. Or the path of sufferings. To restore the correct intentions on the adequate desires.. Called: doing, which is wlaking. Then see, then hear. shabbat shalom l'kulam. may we all be well. Reply

Jerry Colen via chabadsp.com October 21, 2015

Re: Pete's comment that God creates and destroys on His own and doesn't need our hand: God must have forgot that during the Shoah! Or did God remember it but didn't care? Reply

Jerry Colen St. Petersburg, Florida via chabadsp.com October 19, 2015

Jews Double Standard Considering the 6,000,000 Jews murdered during the Shoah, of which about 1,500,000 were children, is it not correct to say that for Jews, G-d's commandant is that"thou shall not kill... but for non-Jews G-d's commandment is that "Thou can go ahead and dehumanize and then slaughter as many as can be done out of their lives, property and humanity? Reply

Rick Abrams Bev Hills October 19, 2015

Pete's Comment Pete's October 12, 2015 comment concerns me.

As we are co-creators of the world, why would we Jews abdicate our duties and leave everything up to G-d? What becomes of the Law if we are to withdraw from the world and let G-d handle men's affairs?

If I offend a fellow man, on Yom Kippur G-d cannot forgive me. My relationship with other men is directly to other men and not to G-d and then from G-d to my fellow man. Likewise, if my actions transgress my duties to G-d, my fellow man cannot pardon me.

Pete's assumptions seem to be quite Christian. Since we Jews have a tradition which goes back about 4,100 years, it bothers me when the world assumptions of other traditions are passed off as Jewish.

Pete quoted Jesus rather than Hillel. Why?

This would not be the first time that Christians have posted on Jewish sites pretending to be Jews. Reply

Eli feruch Malchut October 19, 2015

All one. Pete's comment is intended for terrorist's ears and would be killers, while Giad's comment is intended to Jewish ears. Judaism does not require us to confront, rather to sort each and every desires so that they will finally match their adequate places.

Apart form butcher's concerns, let us remember that the Ari teaches us that anyone who shames his fellows, causes the blood to retire from the face of his fellow, called a shock, and as that this is considered drawing blood, and therefore: an attempted murder.

From all these micro-murder attempts is born the will to kill the flesh.

In this respect, we are all killers, however difficult and evasive the explanation of our great master, blessed is his memory, may appear to our cynical and evil ears.

So lets behave, with our wives and children, friends and enemies, elders and young ones, all as one, and conform to Torah to protect lives, when by the weigh of our sins, we see incarnated the ultimate offense to Hashem Reply

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