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.